2012 was an incredible year for Britain – and for our regional theatres. The biting recession certainly hasn’t slowed the thriving arts scene in our great country and 2012 saw some truly remarkable blockbuster productions visit our beautiful and historic Yorkshire theatres. Happily 2013 promises a lot more of the same! Here are some of the biggest shows coming up in the first quarter of 2013…
Until 13th January 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Cinderella – The Rock ‘N’ Roll Panto
From press release; “Following the sensational audience reaction to our first rock ‘n’ roll panto, Aladdin, the team return with the most popular pantomime of all. Starring a cast of actor-musicians, singalong rock, pop and soul hits and of course the amazing boulder fight all the essential elements of traditional panto are all here.”
I was very disappointed to be unable to attend this production as it looks an absolute blast. The reviews are also very solid and hopefully a third Rock ‘N’ Roll panto will be in the offing for the 2013/14 season.
21st-26th January 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll
From press release; “From the team that brought Big Society! A new musical comedy with a riot of songs, cookery classes, cups of tea and class war, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll is a family comedy about love, change and solidarity set against the backdrop of the 1960 Liverpool dockworkers’ and seafarers’ strike.”
The second City Varieties musical theatre offering in as many years from the quirky Red Ladder Theatre Company. Expect politics aplenty and a fair few laughs.
27th January 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Tikaram is renowned for taking an age between albums – on average seven years – which has only added to the enigma.”
This one certainly one which has me intrigued as I must profess until now ignorance to Ms. Tikaram’s lengthy and – at times – bizarre career. A quick look on YouTube reveals that Ms. Tikaram is certainly not an unknown, in fact this video from a 1988 edition of “The Top of the Pops” has been watched by over 2.2 million people. Even the ticket price is enigmatic, the erroneous 60 pence just screaming intrigue…
29th-31st January 2013 – St. George’s Hall, Bradford
The Moscow State Circus – Babushkin Sekret
Along with Cirque, the Moscow State Circus are one of the most revered names in circus performance. Their latest production, Babushkin Sekret, is inspired by The Legend of the 12 Chairs, and promises the usual astounding collection of aerialists, clowns and acrobats in a setting a million miles away from the big top.
31st January 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Hansard is celebrated as the principal songwriter and vocalist/guitarist for the Irish group The Frames. He has a reputation for grounded, real life songs whether he’s busking the streets of Dublin or at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Another journey back to YouTube reveals another intriguing booking for the City Varieties. Hansard makes a folksified, mature Ed Sheerin, in closest comparison. A promising date in the diary.
Until 3rd February 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
It would be remiss of me to forget Cinderella, starring Billy Pearce, at the Alhambra. The annual pantomime’s mammoth run sees it occupy the theatre until 3rd February. This production is of the highest order, as detailed in my review here and is well worth a visit – even without youngsters in tow! *Must See*
Until 23rd February 2013 – Leeds Grand Theatre
Opera North: Otello/La clemenza di Tito/La voix humaine + Dido and Aeneas
Opera North’s new season sees no fewer than three new productions debut at the Grand.
Verdi’s Otello (16th Jan-16th Feb) “reunites the production team of director Tim Albery and designer Leslie Travers who created Opera North’s recent, widely acclaimed Giulio Cesare; Music Director Richard Farnes conducts.”
Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (31st Jan-22nd Feb) sees “ John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, directs Opera North’s first production of Mozart’s sublime opera seria.”
Finally, from 14th Feb-23rd Feb Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine shares a double bill with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to conclude the season.
2nd February 2013 – St. George’s Hall, Bradford
Brendan Cole: License to Thrill
Brendan Cole, noted ballroom dancer best known for his appearances on “Strictly Come Dancing”, brings his brand new show “License to Thrill” to Bradford’s St. George’s Hall for one night only. The show promises a cast of 20 musicians and dancers in a “spectacular night of theatre entertainment”. Having watched a few press videos, this production looks an excellent dance show and one that looks well worth a visit.
2nd February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
The Guestlist (A charity event in aid of Cancer Research)
From press release; “A two-hour set of MTV unplugged-style songs including those by Adele, Amy Winehouse, U2, Seal, George Michael, Paul Young, The Eagles, Snow Patrol, The Killers, Elton John, Michael Jackson, KT Tunstall, Alison Moyet, Otis Redding, The kinks, Bill Withers and Dolly Parton performed by an array of musicians who have performed with Justin Timberlake, James Blunt, Sting Squeeze, Joe Cocker, Jools Holland, JLS, Alexandra Burke, Ben E King, Ronnie Wood”
8th-21st February 2013 – Restaurant 1914, Bradford Alhambra
Fawlty Towers: The Dinner Show
Yes, I know what you’re thinking and no, I haven’t lost my mind. Situated in the completely redesigned upper circle bar area, the brand new Restaurant 1914 at the Bradford Alhambra looks very nice indeed. Having only peeked up there myself, I noted the privacy blinds segregating the smartly-dressed diners as waiters whizzed past me with plates of delicious-looking food. What better way to showcase this ambitious new investment than recoup some of that expense with a dinner themed show? Fawlty Towers: The Dinner Show sounds rather self explanatory; “A delicious three-course meal and interactive comedy is hosted by Basil Fawlty, his long-suffering wife Sybil and their confused but loyal waiter Manuel – all brought to life by a critically-acclaimed cast of professional actors!”.
As always, these events hinge on the quality of two things – the food, and the cast. If both are as good as they promise to be, this could be a fantastic evening and something a little different for adults young and old alike.
9th February 2013 – The Studio (Bradford Alhambra)
Paul Tonkinson: Fancy Man
From press release; “After storming the comedy circuits for years and much badgering from fellow professionals, Yorkshire man, and former (double award-winning) Time Out Comedian of the Year,Tonkinson takes to the road, with his eagerly anticipated debut tour”
12th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
John Shuttleworth – Out of Our Sheds
John Shuttleworth (created by comic Graham Fellows) is back with a brand new touring production “Out of Our Sheds”. From press release; “Shuttleworth ventures beyond the garden gate to tread the mean streets of Britain. Which is better: city life or country living? Supermarket or village shop? Or is it better to sit in your shed and count the cobwebs?”
12th February 2013 – The Studio (Bradford Alhambra)
Jethro: UK Tour 2013
From press release; “Always slightly on the edge, Jethro’s fruity Cornish humor is the perfect remedy to cheer everyone into cachinnation. Turning everyday events into farcical stories, embellished into hilarity with his trademark west country dialect.”
Jethro is of the “having a funny voice is funny” school of comedy, one which made Joe Pasquale into a star. The difference is, Jethro actually has some amusing material and, waffle aside, you are guaranteed a few laughs at this one!
12th-13th February 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
You can sum up Trocks (as the company are affectionately known the world over) in three words; really, really, funny. Essentially a comedy dance troupe, Trocks are an all-male dragged-up ensemble who believe they are the greatest ballet dancers in the world. Much like the late Tommy Cooper, who himself was a talented conjurer who sent himself up for laughs, Trocks’ act is funny because each member of the ensemble is actually a talented and accomplished dancer. *Must See*
13th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Sadie and the Hotheads
From press release; “Downton Abbey star and Hollywood actress Elizabeth McGovern takes up lead vocal duties with her hotly tipped band Sadie and the Hotheads as they head out on a headlining UK tour.”
Another fascinating booking from the ambitious City Varieties team. Actress Elizabeth McGovern has become one of the most recognisable faces on television thanks to her performance as Cora in Downton Abbey. It seems music is a great passion of hers and, having listened to a few “Hotheads” songs, I must say I am impressed. Definitely worth a look.
15th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Totally offensive and he hates your guts. He once emptied a room with just his warm-up material.”
16th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “World-class stand up from the internationally acclaimed star of Live at the Apollo and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow. No gimmicks, just great craic!”
17th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Russell Kane: Posturing Delivery
From press release; ‘What if I’m one of the guys who never has a baby? Why is this not a male subject? I plan to give birth live on stage then raise it – in front of you. Come along!”
18th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Celebrated virtuoso of the Flamenco guitar, Juan Martin has been voted one of the top three guitarists in the world. His latest project explores the roots of flamenco, with music including Moorish and Indian gypsy music, Sephardic song a well as his own inimitable flamenco style.”
19th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Famous for his role as founder member of rock group Del Amitri, Currie’s music is dominated by strong imagery and storytelling.”
21st February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Hailed as the originators of British folk-rock music, Fairport Convention has just celebrated its 45th anniversary. The 2013 Winter Tour features songs from their most recent studio album Festival Bell. There will also be an opening set from John Watterson who will perform revivals of Jake Thackray’s quirky songs.”
21st February 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
Cannon, Campbell, Watchorn & O’Conner formerly of ‘The Dubliners’
From press release; “Sean Cannon, Eamonn Campbell, Patsy Watchorn and banjo virtuoso Gerry O’Connor continue the legacy of Legendary Irish Folk group THE DUBLINERS, celebrating 50 glorious years in the music business.”
22nd February 2013 – The Studio (Bradford Alhambra)
Tom Stade Totally Rocks
From press release; “Following last year’s sell-out debut UK tour, don’t miss Canadian émigré Tom Stade with his brand new live show”
23rd February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “The star of Everyone Quite Likes Justin (R4) goes back on tour with his stand-up romp.”
23rd February 2013 – The Studio (Bradford Alhambra)
WOW, A Celebration of the Music of Kate Bush
My only tribute act inclusion, simply because I am a big fan of Kate Bush and this production is a new one on me. The show promises “Kate’s greatest songs and a state of the art light and video show will ensure a fabulous evening of entertainment”. Worth a look simply because it is a little different.
24th February 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Al Murray – The Only Way is Epic
From press release; “Britain’s most irrepressible innkeeper will be serving up his premier brew of ale-inspired acumen and bar-room buffoonery. Get your orders in now!”
26th Feb-2nd March 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
James and the Giant Peach
Roald Dahl is still a hit with children and this production, from children’s specialists The Birmingham Stage Company promises to pack them in. If your children enjoyed their previous production of George’s Marvellous Medicine, Horrible Histories and The Jungle Book, they will love this.
1st March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Sharon Shannon has music at her fingertips….literally! The accordionist from Ireland has achieved legendary status throughout the world and has made the much-maligned accordion ‘cool’ in her home country. Renowned for her collaborations, not just in Irish traditional music, but through all musical genres, Hip-Hop, Cajun, Country, Classical and Rap. “
2nd March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “World Famous Hypnotist Andrew Newton makes a welcome return to the City Varieties after last year’s sell out tour of Australia and New Zealand. This show marks the 31st year since he first performed at the theatre and promises to be as funny as ever. It’s not just the people on the stage who will find themselves part of Newton’s carefully controlled insanity – someone at home will have an unexpected call!!!”
2nd-9th March 2013 – Leeds Grand Theatre
Northern Ballet: The Great Gatsby
From press release; “Discover the heady, indulgent days of New York’s Long Island during the glamorous 1920′s as Northern Ballet bring F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby to the stage. Nick Carraway comes to know his infamous neighbour Jay Gatsby – a mysterious millionaire with a secret past and a penchant for lavish parties and beautiful women. As the sparkling façade of Gatsby’s world begins to slip, Carraway comes to see the loneliness, obsession and tragedy that lies beneath. The seductive style of the era is recreated through stunning sets and costumes. Music by Academy Award nominated and BAFTA winning composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett CBE (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Murder on the Orient Express), will be played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia. With an unparalleled reputation for telling stories through dance, Northern Ballet are the perfect company to translate this popular American novel into ballet. As The Great Gatsby steps into the spotlight, don’t miss your opportunity to see what promises to be one of the most stylish adaptations of this classic work.”
3rd March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Pete Firman – Hoodwinker
From press release; “Don’t miss Pete Firman, ‘the new poster-boy for British comedy magic’ (The Telegraph), as he returns to the road with an all-new box of tricks. Fresh from BBC1′s ‘The Magicians’, with his own trademark blend of comedy and jaw-dropping magic, this is a show not to be missed!”
4th-9th March 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
The Woman in Black
I am not afraid to say it, The Woman In Black is a genuinely frightening experience. Forget the sub-par movie adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe, the stage play is atmospheric, dark and moody – and bound to have you on edge throughout. Yes, it has been touring and playing the West End for decades – but it keeps on delivering. *Must See*
10th March 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
Richard Herring – Talking Cock
From press release; It’s an object of shame and pride; it inspires laughter and fear; it’s a symbol of power, yet it’s incredibly fragile; it can be a pound of flesh or an ounce of winkles, it can be used to express both love and hate; it creates life, it can condemn us to death… and it can do wees as well. How can one tiny flap of sponge and sinew be all these things? Richard Herring intends to find out in this tenth anniversary update of the critically acclaimed show that exposes the truth about men and their flutes of love. Sell-out at the Edinburgh Fringe 2002 and Melbourne Comedy Festival 2003, translated and performed in over a dozen European countries, published as a book by Ebury press.
Herring is a fine comedian and wordsmith and is at his absolute best when staying on-script.
11th-16th March 2013 – Leeds Grand Theatre
The Mousetrap – Diamond Anniversary Tour
12th-23rd March 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
Hairspray is an absolutely joyous musical and the tour is a triumph. I have seen this tour several times previously – as well as several visits to the now departed West End production and the novelty and sheer delight simply doesn’t wear off with repeat viewings. The current cast stars comedian Mark Benton as Edna, EastEnders’ Lucy Benjamin as Velma Von Tussle, X Factor 2011 competitor Marcus Collins and newcomer Freya Sutton as Tracy. *Must See*
13th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “LipService, Britain’s favourite literary lunatics, are back with ’A Swedish self-assembly crime thriller’. Inspector Norse (orThe Girl With Two Screws Left Over). It is bitter mid-winter. Ex-popstar recluse Freya looks out of her log cabin at a rural winter scene. She smiles and turns back to her meatballs. but who is the stranger Nordic Walking across the frozen wastes? In a fur hat. With a chisel. Days later a man is found dead in a barn nearby with a bizarre message carved on his forehead. Enter Inspector Sandra Larsson in her authentic, rustic knitwear. With her own personal life unravelling before our eyes, it is up to her to follow the pattern of a mystery with many holes. Cast on multi-award winning comedy duo LipService, Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding. Cast off your preconceptions as they weave a web of mystery that will leave your nerves jangling!”
14th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
The Irish House Party!
From press release; “Dublin’s No’1 award winning music and dance show offers the warmest of welcomes to the finest house party in town.”
Also playing at Bradford St. George’s Hall on 16th March.
14th March 2013 – St. George’s Hall
From press release; “One of British comedy’s biggest stars comes to Bradford for one night only! Don’t miss Micky Flanagan at St George’s Hall!”
Limited availability remains on this one, so book early!
14th March 2013 – St. George’s Hall
Justin Moorhouse: Justin Time
From press release; “He won’t have his face painted as a tiger but we can guarantee laughs from Justin!”
16th March 2013 – St. George’s Hall
The Irish House Party!
From press release; “Dublin’s No’1 award winning music and dance show offers the warmest of welcomes to the finest house party in town.”
Also playing at Leeds City Varieties on 14th March.
17th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Gretchen Peters returns after rave reviews for her eighth album, ‘Hello Cruel World’ – a joke that, like the lovely melodies and deliciously textured arrangements framing these 11 songs, sweetens this captivating music spun from a year of turmoil. Her career kick started with Martina McBride’s 1995 recording of Peters’ ‘Independence Day’ which made her a songwriting sensation.”
18th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Folk rock pioneers, pop stars, an inspiration to generations – Steeleye Span have been many things, and are now a six piece again, This show will see them visit the classics that have made them one of the most successful British Folk Rock bands ever. 2012 finds Maddy Prior – the voice of Steeleye for 37 years – back at the helm of a line-up featuring band stalwart and fiddler extraordinaire , Rick Kemp on bass, Peter Zorn and Julian Littman on Guitars and Liam Genockey on the drum stool.
20th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “Following on from their hugely successful 2012 tour, the girls return in 2013 with hilarious all-new sketches, as well as all the very best bits from last time round. Looking at everything that makes today’s woman tick (or ticked off!) – from the joys of teenagers, to the hell of IKEA, the madness of holiday reps and the insanity of DIY. Is your man more James May than Christian Grey? Then grab your girlfriends and head for a hilariously funny evening with the Hormonal Housewives – what they can’t teach you about modern womanhood isn’t worth knowing!”
21st March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “The Manfreds, with original front-man Paul Jones, will be performing many of the tracks from the highly acclaimed album The Five Faces Of Manfred Mann, re-released as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, along with a mix of their biggest hits and the jazz and blues songs for which they are famous. Paul Jones, with his award winning harmonica sound, will be joined by Mike Hugg on keyboards, Tom McGuinness on lead guitar, Rob Townsend on drums, Marcus Cliffe on bass guitar and Simon Currie on saxophone/flute.”
21st March 2013 – St. George’s Hall
From press release; “Shakatak have enjoyed a level of success and career longevity rarely paralleled in contemporary music but then Shakatak is a particularly unusual group.”
22nd March 2013 – St. George’s Hall
Boogie Nights – The ’70′s Musical in Concert
From press release; “The original and best loved West End hit 70′s musical in an unmissable remixed one night concert event of the year”
It can be very hard to judge which of these tribute productions will be of the highest quality and which might leave a slightly disappointed feeling. This production certainly has some names in the “cast of 14 singers, dancers and live musicians” including The Osmond Brothers (Merrill, Jimmy and Jay), Gareth Gates, Andy Abraham and Butlins regular Chico, which might go a little way to justifying the £35.50 top price. I’ll reserve judgement on this one until I see it.
24th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Jo Caulfield – Better the Devil You Know
From press release; “The minute Jo Caulfield hits the stage you know you’re in for a good time. Nominated as ‘Funniest Woman’ (LAFTA Awards) and ‘Best Female Stand-Up’ (Chortle Awards), Jo Caulfield is one of the most popular and successful female Stand Up comedians in the country. Star of Radio 4’s critically acclaimed It’s That Jo Caulfield Again and recently seen on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, Mock The Week, Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Best of The Comedy Store and The Apprentice: You’re Fired. Expect razor-sharp observations and scandalous one-liners as Jo asks; Why are drunken girlfriends so much fun? Which hotel has the best porn? What constitutes an airtight alibi? Is friendliness overrated? The celebration of anger continues with acerbic stories about dating, relationships, bad service, wrestling with a self-scanner in Tesco Supermarket and humiliating herself in public. Come join Jo’s celebration of anger.”
25th March 2013 – Leeds Grand Theatre
Hairy Bikers – Larger Than Live 2013
From press release; “Last time round we told you our story, but this time, we’re taking you round the world. Starting with our northern roots, we’ll share our rip roaring tales of decadent do’s, big dinners and culinary catastrophes. There will be a bit of dancing, a bit of flirting, a bit of singing, and some downright hilarious stand-up comedy. Filled with plenty of surprises, expect the unexpected… and if you like us on the telly, you will love us ‘Larger than Live’.”
26th-30th March 2013 – Bradford Alhambra
Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty
From press release; “New Adventures’ 25th birthday culminates with the world premiere of Matthew Bourne’s latest re-imagining of a ballet classic. Sleeping Beauty sees Bourne return to the music of Tchaikovsky to complete the trio of ballet masterworks that started with Nutcracker! and the international smash hit, Swan Lake. Our story begins in 1890 at the christening of Princess Aurora, a time when fairies and vampires fed the gothic imagination, before moving forward in time to the modern day. Featuring designs by Olivier Award winners Lez Brotherston (Set and Costumes), Paule Constable (Lighting) with Sound Design by Paul Groothuis, which will take the audience into the heart of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score in specially recorded surround sound.”
Fresh from Sadlers Wells and a deluge of glowing reviews, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty has all the hallmarks of another world class production. Bourne’s new Sleeping Beauty is arguably his most modern ballet re-imagining yet, even going so far as to remove the orchestra and replace them with a pre-recorded score, a move which has caused much controversy in the industry but was deemed essential for the affordability of the show. I really can’t wait for this one. *Must See*
27th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
Ian Hunter + Guests
From press release; “Ian Hunter & Mott The Hoople recorded four crazed but critically-acclaimed and highly influential albums for Island Records and possessed enormous live prowess, but poor record sales led to a temporary split and a move to CBS/Columbia. With David Bowie’s ‘All The Young Dudes’ as the launchpad, Mott The Hoople hit superstar status between 1972 and 1974 – seven hit singles, four chart albums (including ‘Mott’ – still regarded as a seventies’ classic); they were the first rock band to sell out a week of Broadway concerts in New York’s theatreland, and Ian wrote his universally acclaimed book, Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. Mott reunited for five nights at London’s prestigious Hammersmith Apollo in 2009 and were awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards from Mojo and Classic Rock magazines respectively.”
27th-28th March 2013 – Leeds Grand Theatre
Harry Hill: Sausage Time
From press release; “The self-styled floppy-collared loon is back with a live show that promises incontrovertible proof that God exists. Joined by showband ‘The Harry’s’, there’s a section exclusively for Tongans, a chance to catch up on Harry’s Nan’s latest ailments, the legendary Stouffer the Cat and a debut solo stand-up spot by Gary, Harry’s son from his first marriage and recognisable for his role as Alan Sugar in Harry Hill’s TV Burp. There’ll be expert-whistler-of-chart-hits grandson Sam and an all-singing, all-dancing finale. Oh, and a giant sausage.”
29th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
From press release; “The first album from folk-rock legends Strawbs, was recorded with Sandy Denny in 1967, a year before her first album with Fairport Convention. On the strength of this, A&M signed Strawbs as the first British band on the label. The band has a devoted fan base that continues to grow on the strength of both their recent recordings and classic hits. As Strawbs now move gracefully into their fifth decade of music making, the band comprises David Cousins, along with lead guitarist Dave Lambert, and the astonishingly versatile Chas Cronk, who together formed the front-line of the classic 1970s line-up. “
30th March 2013 – Leeds City Varieties
The Animals & Friends
From press release; “The Animals were the second British band to top the American charts after The Beatles with the multi-million selling and legendary anthem, House of the Rising Sun. The band subsequently achieved over twenty global Top Ten hit records, many of which reached No.1 in various parts of the world. Animals & Friends features original Animals’ members John Steel (drums) and Mick Gallagher (keyboards – The Blockheads, The Clash, Paul McCartney) plus Danny Handley and Peter Barton.”
30th March 2013 – Leeds Grand Theatre
The Solid Silver 60′s Show
From press release; “They say that if you remember the 60s you weren’t there! Fill that gap in your memory with The Solid Silver 60s Show and relive the 60s with original artists singing their greatest hits! Now in its 28th year the show features the unforgettable talents of Mike Pender (the original voice of The Searchers), Dave Berry and Wayne Fontana, all backed by New Amen Corner, and with special guests The Merseybeats. Hear the classic hits performed by the original hitmakers!
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 29th October 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Beverley Callard, Ray Quinn, Philip Andrew, Jess Robinson, Duggie Brown, Sally Plumb, Cerie Hine, Lisa Howard, John Cockerill
Although I have never seen the warmly received, star-studded 1998 movie adaptation of playwright John Cartwright’s successful 1992 play, I arrived at the Bradford Alhambra for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice with high expectations. After all, the movie – as I was assured by friends and colleagues – was an amusing, yet poignant tale of one painfully shy girl’s reluctant journey to stardom. Her one means of expression comes through the small collection of LP records left to her by her beloved late father – and the (sometimes) uncanny impersonations of the various artists she adores.
Considering the time of the year, it would be apt to say that what could have been a whimsical treat of an evening, turned into a one trick pony. The underlying core of the play has oodles of potential for exploration, but sadly is realised in a disjointed, clunky and, at times, distasteful way. Impressionist Jess Robinson as ‘Little Voice’ stands out, but this potential star-turn is generally underused in the book. Thankfully, she is given a brief opportunity in a second act medley to show her full range of impersonations, ranging from an uncanny Cilla Black, to a passable Julie Andrews.
The play centres around Little Voice’s mother Mari Hoff (Beverley Callard), whose surname seems to have been chosen for one cheap first act joke. Despite delivering a performance almost identical to that seen for the last 21 years as her long-running Coronation Street alter-ego Liz McDonald; Callard failed, at times, to convince in her portrayal, often coming across forced and making numerous mistakes delivering the text. Her strongest moment comes in an Act II monologue, where the character ruefully evaluates her own life choices. Unfortunately, this segment is so alien to the would-be whimsical style of the rest of the play, it feels entirely out of place. A hard-drinking factory worker, who calls her daughter a ‘slit’ throughout and regularly uses the term ‘twat bone’, is suddenly found on the floor crying ‘I beseech you!’, as she begs for redemption. This bizarre turn of events is entirely unconvincing.
Criticisms of some of the acting and direction aside, my biggest problem was with the script, which I found at times distasteful and exploitative – not a word I would use lightly, but I feel is necessary in this case. Next door neighbour Sadie, played by poor Sally Plumb, is the ongoing figure of ‘fun’ and I must admit I felt rather uncomfortable with the jokes made at her expense. She is insulted throughout the play due to her size; the content of such jokes I found wholly unnecessary and actually bordering on malicious. Cartwright takes every cheap laugh on offer – we see the ‘fat girl’ dancing around stupidly, straddling a sofa, being called ‘fat’ names throughout with no retaliation, eating mouldy cornflakes, drinking ‘cups of sugar with bit of tea in it’ and vomiting on herself ‘for laughs’ – the latter humiliation being particularly disgusting and hardly referenced in the script. I fail to see how that particular ‘joke’ was either funny or expositional. Largely, this infantile humour is at odds with any feeling of whimsy or empathy built up with any of the characters.
The show features both a pre-show and interval performance, in the form of cabaret acts, an interactive raffle and bingo which went down quite well with the Alhambra audience. Duggie Brown plays the role of the compere Lou Boo and is convincing in a sparkling gold number. The remaining cast perform admirably. As Ray Say, Philip Andrew acts well throughout, but is perhaps a touch too nice – indeed, he is arguably the most likeable character – in spite of the predictable second act heel turn. The nicest moments in the play come with the interaction between love-struck Billy (Ray Quinn) and Little Voice; one scene involving an on-stage cherry-picker was well-acted and visually impressive. A memorable fire effect also stands out in the memory from designer Morgan Large and lighting designer Jason Taylor.
The plot is interesting, as are some of the characters who certainly have room for development. This could’ve been a charming story with a first-class star turn; but the final product sadly left me cold.
- Harry Zing
When? Wednesday 24th October 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? John Hull, Giuliano Contadini, Mariana Rodrigues, Antoinette Brooks-Daw, Isabella Gasparini, Graham Kotowich, Mark Dennis, Jessica Morgan, Dreda Blow, Hironao Takahashi, Darren Goldsmith, Olivia Holland, Shanti Mouget, Michela Paolacci, Hannah Bateman, Ayana Kanda, Julie Charlet, Luisa Rocco, Sebastian Loe, Matthew Topliss, Matthew Broadbent, Ashley Dixon, Joseph Taylor, Kevin Poeung, Isaac Lee-Baker, Nicola Gervasi, Jessica Cohen, Rachael Gillespie, Thomas Aragones, Jeremy Curnier, Josh Barwick
David Nixon’s Beauty and the Beast, returning to Yorkshire after its successful world premiere in Leeds last December, is modern ballet at its brilliant best. Almost Disney-meets-The Phantom of the Opera, Nixon’s charming and visually appealing production ticks all the boxes for a great night at the theatre; a moving and well-conveyed narrative is superbly brought to life by the terrific company – with the principle dancers particularly shining – set against the diverse and emotive backdrop of Duncan Hayler’s imaginative sets, which are expertly lit by top lighting designer Tim Mitchell (whose work I had most recently admired in Dirty Dancing).
Nixon, who directs and choreographs, is rightly proud of this production, which blends melodrama and a wide variety of contemporary ballet styles to stunning effect. At times, it is rather like watching a classic silent movie; the theme of the piece carries wonderfully with the entrancing score. John Longstaff’s arrangements integrate the music with the drama seamlessly; the profoundly gothic tone in the second act opening and finale (Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 – ‘organ’) surely could not have sounded better than it did on the night, under the baton of John Pryce-Jones and his talented orchestra.
The constantly shifting set pieces keep a real feeling of danger to the piece, in spite of the accessible family-friendly nature of the ballet; the beautiful backdrops are gorgeously lit and largely this is all the dancers need as a frame. Set pieces are flown in and out and – one faux-pas aside involving a to-scale lorry being reversed onto the stage – are very effective and in keeping with the tone of the piece.
Beauty and the Beast is a brilliant family show in the truest sense; there is something for the whole family to enjoy. The theatrics kept the immaculately behaved younger members of the audience rapt, while others sat in awe of the quality of the footwork – needless to say the muso’s were in for a treat too. Hironao Takahashi gives a wonderfully theatrical turn as The Beast; his dancing, whilst not world-beating from a technical viewpoint, was passionate and very physical and as he scales the second rigging of his castle and sneers from his lofty perch, he felt every bit the character I wanted him to be. Michela Paolacci is lovely as Beauty and is reminiscent of the likes of Mary Philbin, such was her tendency to the theatrical. Technically, her dancing was also a joy to watch and Paolacci remains one of the top talents associated with Northern Ballet, as she approaches her tenth year with the company. There are also standout performances from the conceited young Prince Orion, John Hull, and some fine comic relief throughout from the two sisters, amusingly played by Hannah Bateman and Ayana Kanda.
I absolutely adored this production, which I found to be of the highest quality. Nixon stops inches short of musical theatre throughout, making it hard to accept as a pure ballet; I personally enjoyed it as a piece of melodramatic theatre, with some terrific ballet dancing thrown in for good measure. For many who would never have dreamed of seeing a classic ballet, visiting this production will hopefully be the catalyst for a lifelong love affair with dance – and that can only be a good thing for the art and the industry in general.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 25th September 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Jeffery Kissoon, Ann Ogbomo, Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri, Joseph Mydell, Andrew French, Chinna Wodu, Mark Theodore, Segun Akingbola, Ewart James Walters, Ray Fearon, Ivanno Jeremiah, Ricky Fearon, Marcus Griffiths, Theo Ogundipe, Mark Ebulue, Jude Owusu, Samantha Lawson, Simon Manyonda
In the last few years, my patience had worn rather thin with the RSC, if truth be told.* It is therefore a surprise and a delight, in equal measure, to see a production as thrilling and inspired as Yorkshire born Gregory Doran’s Pan-African Julius Caesar, a play given a new lease of life against the backdrop of a civil-warring African republic. Featuring an all-black British cast, pre-show fears were quickly allayed as to any similarity between the 2009 The Tempest, which was incredibly the last RSC Shakespeare production to visit Yorkshire. Doran, directing his last production as Chief Associate Director before replacing outgoing Michael Boyd as Artistic Director, has set the benchmark very high for his tenure as RSC boss.
Whilst the African Caesar concept has been visited previously, Doran sets a precedent by not bludgeoning the idea on the audience; his is a production of subtleties and, in many ways, Shakespearean traditionalism which defies the modernised setting. Doran finds the perfect balance between accessibility and artistic credibility, keeping the bus loads of Year 8/9 school children, at times, as rapt as the invited and paying guests in the rows behind. It helps, of course, that the play has oodles of conspiracy, intrigue and treachery which needs little signposting. The plotting senators, initially fronted by Caius Cassius, are a wonderfully clandestine society of hooded figures who meet under the cover of darkness, whispering in the shadows; all literally behind the back of the would-be victim of assassin, Caesar, whose giant stone statue towers over the west of Rome, referencing the fallen monuments to Lenin, Saddam Hussein and other ‘dictators’ from recent history.
Yet the Caesar we meet is not the would-be dictator described by the conspirators – or indeed the turn given frequently as directed on stage. The returning war hero, greeted by a band of supporters who sing his name, is an aging, portly, slightly deaf has-been who looks about as ambitious as a teacake. Jeffery Kissoon finds the insecurities of his ‘Northern Star’; some may question whether he provides the ambition to match that which was touted by the conspirators – but this is almost definitely the point. His speech at the Capitol was less brutal tyrant than minor hissy-fit; all of which sits beautifully with the notion that Brutus himself was the one most deceived.
The action takes place on Michael Vale’s grand set, dominated by the enormous statue positioned and facing upstage. As is the norm now, guns have replaced swords as the weapon of choice for modern stagings (although I have never, ever seen one used instead of the dagger Shakespeare prescribes in the text). The costumes, initially fairly neutral tribal wear, latterly camouflage and military uniforms, are entirely convincing and appropriate throughout. The attention to detail is superb, right down to Calpurnia’s kanga, defining her as one of a higher standing.
With Julius Caesar considered a particularly simple Tragedy, the tiniest nuance in a performance is likely to come under scrutiny – and largely the cast are aware of this, with the acting generally of a good standard. Jeffery Kissoon is perhaps rather too likeable as the bumbling Caesar (a few in the audience audibly reacted to his murder with sympathy) but gives a steady turn; Paterson Joseph is about as ambitious as they come in a Brutus, his ear is visibly turned as Cassius suggests he be a far more worthy leader; he has some lovely moments, particularly in his asides, but there is little doubt that his posthumous status as ‘noblest Roman of them all’ is extremely questionable. It is Ray Fearon as a charismatic Mark Antony who gives the outstanding turn and grew from strength to strength with his character over the course of the evening. There was even a certain swagger to Fearon at the curtain call, which was hard not to find well suited to his dominating, confident frame. Elsewhere, there are some very large-scale performances from several, with Cyril Nri particularly memorable for being the wrong side of ‘legs apart and shout everything’. The entire cast adopt African accents, all of which are spot on and a potential banana skin averted.
A few missteps aside (an awkward pre-show** and later what appeared to be a completely unnecessary and noncontexual ‘black power’ salute from Mark Antony) Gregory Doran’s Julius Caesar is one of the best new productions I have seen from the RSC in many years – and a fantastic reason to get yourself to the Bradford Alhambra for a quality night of straight theatre. May it be the first of many quality RSC productions to visit the region in the coming years.
- Harry Zing
*The last RSC production to visit the region was the dire 2009 The Tempest starring Antony Sher and John Kani, which was an RSC co-production which originated in South Africa, again with a central African setting.
**The production features a live music pre-show and tribal dancing, while audience members – many of whom were visiting the theatre for the first time, awkwardly filed to their seat, unsure if they were allowed to talk/get up, and so forth.
When? Wednesday 12th September 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Ace Bhatti, Don Gilet, William Ilkley, Ian Reddington
When Yorkshire playwright John Godber‘s hit comedy Bouncers debuted some 35 years ago at his beloved Hull Truck Theatre, it proved an instant hit. The production has seen numerous re-writes and updates in the decades which followed its 1977 premiere, including the fantastically-named ’1990′s remix’ – and presently – the 2012 tour from Watershed Productions, for which Godber has again taken the reigns as director. The play is widely regarded as being culturally significant; its legacy reinforced by its status as a GCSE text today – indeed, Bouncers proves just as watchable for a seasoned theatregoer as for a large group of difficult-to-please teenage students.
Bouncers is an observational piece telling the story of four lads and four lasses on a night out as they try to dance, drink, vomit, urinate and fart their way to ‘happiness’. Night after night, weekend after weekend, the Bouncers watch on; they’ve seen it all before. Ralph and Les are passive – normal; Lucky Eric is very strange – Judd is a psychopath. The roles are played by the same four actors, dressed in plain black suits; when playing the girls, a limp wrist, a mince and a glittery handbag are deployed as visual aids; the lads swagger their way into Asylum Nightclub and the Bouncers grimace, banter and otherwise wallow in their self-loathing. There are laughs aplenty throughout; the hilarious ‘sex scene’ was wonderfully executed (though be warned, strobe lights are used for this segment) and, although it might be considered cheap laughs by some, the performances as the girls on their night out were surprisingly genuine. There was something oddly amusing about the characters simply announcing their names when they entered – ala the Teletubbies – and I will never look at a Smurf the same way again.
It is impossible to ignore the similarities of Godber’s writing to that of fellow popular playwright Willy Russell; both men are from working class backgrounds (Godber is the son of a miner from a West Yorkshire mining town) and both write with a belt of much-needed humour, with younger people firmly in mind. They also both clearly have a fondness for rhyming couplets, which are used at the beginning and end of the play as a simple framing device which brought closure to the ‘night out’ in a very apt manner. The play is observational in a very literal way; there is little exposition or plot over the course of the two hours, neither is there too much fleshing out of the characters. The Bouncers are the most developed; Lucky Eric, who breaks into monologue throughout the play, arguably takes on the mantle of creating dramatic impetus. Part amateur philosopher, large part pervert, I was unsure what to make of his rambling speeches about young girls ‘soft, tender thighs’ and his witnessing of what appeared to be a serious sexual assault in a pub, which he claimed ‘ … aroused him more than ever before’. Whilst the content was not shocking by modern standards, it felt strangely out of place in the context of an otherwise amusing comedy and left me squirming in my seat in places; like listening to bad ‘sexual fiction’, read by a fifty year old on audio book.
Godber’s 2012 updates are plentiful and a mixed success; thumping modern club music is pumped out throughout the evening with Rhianna, Jessie J (and the Outhere Brothers (?)) – and the like – setting the scene very much in the modern day. There is a half-hearted stab at social and economic commentary, which I found quite hard to swallow; Godber’s belief that young people are victims of the society they have grown up in was always certain to divide an audience who didn’t pay to see social comment – from either end of the political spectrum. Some changes (or lack thereof) are simply factually incorrect; the opening verse implies patrons need to wear a suit to enter a 2012 nightclub, that young girls go to a salon to get a large beehive perm for a night out (or young men go to smokey, terrifying barber shops to get a ‘Joey Barton’ do) – or, for that matter, that groups of young women dance around their handbags in the middle of the nightclub dance floor and groups of men compare the size of their penises and urinate on each other for laughs in the toilets. I’m not sure I’ll ever know what a ‘large shot’ is either. These may seem small inaccuracies, but for a play which is not narrative driven but based on Godber’s interpretation of young people’s actual lives in 2012, these are errors which need correcting to ensure credibility with the people Godber is attempting to portray.
The cast do well across the board, but William Ilkley gives the stand-out turn as wind-up merchant Judd, making the most of his one-liners and truly looking the part to boot. Ian Reddington is fine as Lucky Eric, but for reasons of keeping my dinner down I can’t dwell on the speeches he is given to recite. Ace Bhatti is hilarious in a brief cameo as a Club DJ and is wonderful as Suzie, particularly in the nightclub scenes. Finally Don Gilet as Les isn’t given a lot to do, but earns plenty of laughs when given the opportunity.
Bouncers is an amusing few hours which zip along nicely; it doesn’t work as a piece of social commentary but as a light-hearted comedy, accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, it proves a successful revival. John Godber, who was in attendance himself, will be delighted with the ovation his ‘baby’ received – and I’m sure this isn’t the last incarnation we will see of Bouncers in the years to come.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 7th August 2012
Where? Southwark Playhouse (Vault)
Who? Norman Bowman, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Jessica Martin, Stuart Matthew Price, Steven Serlin, Richard J Hunt, Jody Ellen Robinson, Anthony Wise, Peter Kenworthy, Jessica Buckby, Ryan Gover, Paul Hutton, Natalie Kent, Jonathan Norman, Nikki Schofield
Dismiss the fringe at your peril; missing Thom Southerland’s majestic Mack & Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse will be any discerning theatregoer’s biggest regret of 2012. Our capital’s fringe venues continue to set the benchmark for innovative, inspired new productions and revivals and – based on recent experiences – frankly embarrass the West End in terms of standard, artistic merit and, crucially, value. Thanks to the Playhouse’s positive and progressive ticket pricing policy, it is possible to see this truly outstanding revival for as little as £10 if booked sufficiently in advance – and I doubt there is any show running anywhere in the world which can match that kind of quality/value ratio. Even paying the ‘top price’ of £22.50 each for last minute tickets (the venue rewards advance booking with the cheapest rates, the polar opposite to the West End norm of last minute discounting) the Playhouse and similar venues such as The Union Theatre and Upstairs at The Gatehouse invariably offer a much friendlier and less cynical experience.
Mack & Mabel is, rightly or wrongly, known as Jerry Herman’s über-flop, the original 1974 production failed to win any Tony awards and struggled through a difficult eight-week run at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre. Subsequent revivals have been plentiful, to varying degrees of critical and commercial success, and the release in the 1990′s of the amateur staging rights have ensured that the show is still well-known today. Based on a true story, Mack & Mabel is part early bio-musical and part classic Herman book-musical campfest; it is 1911 and Mack Sennett is the imperious movie studio kingpin, who takes bushy-tailed Mabel Normand under his wing, turning her into a star of the early two-reelers.
The intimate surroundings of the Vault studio of the Playhouse are the perfect setting for the production; Jason Denvir adorns the murky, cavernous stage area in the classic movie studio paraphernalia of the day; with the audience seated just inches away from the action, it is nigh-on impossible not to feel part of the process. A leak in the ceiling drips steadily onto the crude concrete floor; a Super 8mm film projector clinks and whirrs into action and the Vault is thrown into implausibly dramatic lighting (Howard Hudson) from the authentic-looking floor lamps; within moments I was rapt.
Mack & Mabel is said to be Herman’s own proudest achievement – and it does indeed boast a terrific and memorable score. I knew every song – which surprised me as I’ve not seen the show before, neither can I recall sitting and listening to a recording. Herman’s work is often dismissed by modern audiences as having perhaps not stood the test of time particularly well, but in the context of a production as fine as this one, the songs slot in beautifully to the narrative framework and never feel tacked on or inappropriate. Some of the weaker numbers are given a new lease of life, delivered in a perhaps rather more tongue-in-cheek manner by director Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud than may have been the case in 1974. The camp rendition of ‘Hundreds of Girls’ sees the classic Bathing Beauties perform an interesting take on the ‘quick change’ routine, shortly followed by a line of tap-dancing boys in matching striped beachwear – Herman at it’s campest without including men in drag.
It is testament to the draw of the fringe (and, frequently, the subsequent West End transfers which follow) that it can attract an ensemble cast of the calibre seen here. Norman Bowman makes a terrifically invested Mack Sennett and absolutely gives his all; the opening number ‘Movies Were Movies’, sung with a mix of anger and pride, set the tone for what would be a starring turn to remember. Whilst ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ may have just been a touch too low for his singing voice, he acts with commitment throughout and his singing, when in his comfort zone, was excellent. Laura Pitt-Pulford cements her place as one of British musical theatre’s top young talents following on from her promising turn as Betty in the Watermill/West End’s Sunset Boulevard. Pitt-Pulford too invests heavily in her acting performance to great success, but it is her powerful and memorable vocal performances of showstopping numbers ‘Wherever He Ain’t’ (performed atop a lighting crane) and the second act’s ‘Time Heals Everything’ which leave a lasting impression. Undoubtedly, both leads provide Olivier Award-worthy performances and are stars in their own right. The quality and work-rate across the ensemble is remarkable; fellow Sunset alumnus Jessica Martin is wonderful as a vulnerable, interesting Lottie – a character I found particularly fascinating and would liked to have known more about. One of the big names of the future Stuart Matthew Price is a formidably talented musician and a wonderful tenor, but feels curiously underused as supporting character Frank Capra. He acts well with a straight bat but only gets one opportunity to sing briefly, at the beginning of the second act, which is disappointing considering the beauty of his singing voice. The entire ensemble perform magnificently with undiluted passion and energy; Steven Serlin offers fine support as the bankrolling Mr. Kessell and Richard J Hunt makes an uncanny Fatty Arbuckle. The second act ‘Keystone Cops’ segment is absolutely hilarious and the company do a sterling job of replicating the humour of the chase scene fabulously; the action is so up close and personal that one performer was within millimetres of colliding with yours truly in the front row of the unreserved seating!
Mack & Mabel, however, is far from perfect as a piece. In 1974, the critics simply could not see past the ‘likeability issue’ and undoubtedly this factor was key in expediting the closure of the show. Heavily re-written productions have popped up left, right and centre in the last thirty-eight years, all trying to address the issues with Michael Stewart’s original book – and Francine Pascal’s new revisions certainly help soften some of the edges. But the issue remains in Mack & Mabel that there is simply nobody to root for, with Sennett, for example, still coming off as rather insular and self-important, rather than the flawed, troubled anti-hero which is surely intended. At times it can still seem a touch confused; everybody, arguably with the exception of the doting Frank Capra, is grey in their motives; is this ambiguity intentional? I’m not sure it matters, the audience aren’t sure whether to want Mabel to succeed or not. As a bio-musical, a partly fictionalised re-telling of history that is fine – in a book musical, the lines can’t afford to be quite so blurred.
Once again, the fringe shows the West End how it is done and the Southwark Playhouse has earned a new fan. As long as the fringe produces productions as tight, fresh and exciting as Thom Southerland’s 2012 Mack & Mabel, the West End will continue to depend on tourism – not theatre lovers – to put bums on seats.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 3rd July 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Faye Brookes, Iwan Lewis, Les Dennis, Ray Quinn, Tracey Penn, Hannah Grover, Sinead Long, Sophie Isaacs, Micha Richardson, Lewis Griffiths, Katie-Marie Hicks, Zak Nemorin, Jon Reynolds, Lori Barker, Gemma Baird, Graham Lappin, Mark Anderson, Rhona McGregor, Chris Milford, Nia Jermin, Antony Hewitt, Niamh Bracken, Michael Steedon, Barnaby Thompson, Amy Ross, Hannah Woolley, Andy Rees, Tara Young
Legally Blonde: The Musical is the campiest, fluffiest musical you could ever wish to see. The show has earned a cultish status since its 2007 Broadway debut, with no small help from the popular 2001 movie which inspired it, indeed many even arrived in costumes; long blonde wigs and bright pink sparklies were the order of the evening – and not just from the women! With the West End and Broadway sister productions now sadly gone, this 2011/2012 national touring production certainly hits the mark with laughs aplenty, some catchy tunes – and as much kitsch as anyone could possibly want.
The story sees Elle Woods (Faye Brookes) embark on a gloriously implausible journey of self-discovery, as she decides to enrol at Harvard Law School in order to impress her would-be boyfriend Warner Huntington (Ray Quinn); supported by her doting friend Emmett (Iwan Lewis), Elle discovers there is more to life than boys and designer handbags. Briefly. Heather Hach’s book is so delightfully passive so as not to interfere with the crux of the matter in Legally Blonde: The Musical, which is just good old fashioned Broadway style showbiz. In actuality, Legally Blonde: The Musical is a classic musical along the lines of 42nd Street – cleverly and attractively packaged for a younger theatregoer.
Despite being somewhat smaller in scale than the West End and Broadway predecessors, Legally Blonde: The Musical is a fantastically well-produced show in every sense. The production values remain exceptionally high, the bright, shimmering costumes (Gregg Barnes) are wonderful, as is the ever-reliable Richard Mawbey’s wig work, proving Legally Blonde doesn’t always translate to Literally Blonde. Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell gives the piece as much double entendré as the masses can accept and never crosses the bad taste barrier. His choreography work is exemplary as ever and, naturally in line with both the theme of the piece and this particular choreographer’s oeuvre, is absolutely screaming; hilarious, yet just as focused and appropriate as is necessary. The production numbers are the most memorable moments of the show without any question; the subtext laden second act opener “Whipped into Shape”, for example, sees the young company savouring some potentially tricky unison dancing with skipping ropes. Later on, we witness a hilarious ‘outing’ of a ‘gay European’ – under cross examination in court! With the kitchen sink all but thrown, I should mention the dogs – yes, dogs – which make several appearances throughout the evening to much adoration from the audience.
The cast fizz more than they pop; young Faye Brookes heads up the cast in just her second professional show. Brookes can sing and dance with the best of them, but at times struggles to find the humour in potentially hilarious scenes. Brookes is however quite likeable and believable in the role, thanks to her age and committment to her acting. As Professor Callaghan, Les Dennis – outstanding in 2009′s Eurobeat – has a similar opportunity to camp things up nicely. Whilst not in the least bit scary or as formidable as the book would have us believe, he is at least visibly enjoying himself and proved a surprisingly good singer, particularly in his first act ‘bad guy’ song “Blood in the Water”. Rhona McGregor performs admirably covering for Niki Evans as salon owner Paulette; McGregor has some impressive chops and rinsed every second of her act one number “Ireland”, an expositionary ditty which pays off in the Finale. The Greek Chorus of ‘Delta Nu’ ensemble ladies are nothing if not vocal throughout, whereas Lewis Griffiths gives something more of a visual performance as the comically virile UPS Man. Undoubtedly the standout performance comes from Iwan Lewis as the stolid Emmett Forrest, a performer I saw most recently in the Donmar Warehouse’s trite 2010 production of Passion. His characterisation and commitment to the moment belies his young age; if Lewis can truly bring life to a character as plain-Jane as Emmett, I would be fascinated to see him in bigger and better acting challenges in the future.
Legally Blonde: The Musical offers a fabulous few hours of pure escapism; musical theatre in its purest, campiest form – and I love it.
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 18th June 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Matthew Kelly, Claire Sweeney
It would be simple enough to critique Willy Russell’s Educating Rita as a distinctly 1980′s re-telling of Pygmalion; but that perhaps may be a disservice to a piece which continues to perform consistently on its own merits – in the box office, at the very least – proving that if a play is warm, funny and the public can relate on some level, they will keep coming back. The play has been approved as a featured text on the GCSE national syllabus for almost a decade and, much like Blood Brothers – another GCSE text – Educating Rita, like Pygmalion, has more to give than a simple fictional tale. The story is centred around circumstance, specifically (and, almost universally in Russell’s eighties heyday) about the struggles of the working class in his native Liverpool. But it is nigh-on impossible to examine Educating Rita without sounding like a Year 10 student’s coursework; the ‘subtext’, using the term loosely, is not so much obvious as intrusive at times and doesn’t merit further comment. Only the most generous theatregoer could consider Russell’s sociopolitical work as serious comment; at best Educating Rita is an amusingly written anecdotal reference to his working class roots and own journey of self-development – at worst it is a dated, mildly patronising exaggeration of what he perceived to be the quintessential working class Liverpudlian. Either way, what Educating Rita does deliver is an amusing and entertaining few hours of well-acted fluff.
The joint production between the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Bath incorporates one static but detailed set (Tim Shortall) which fills the central space of the Alhambra’s vast stage; time passing is represented effectively enough by a projected tree outside of the large bay window of Frank’s bar-cum-office. It was a little strange as the lights dropped to watch Kelly scrambling centre stage to change cardigans each time the lights dropped, but in a two-hander needs must! The evening is coated in a thick blanket of whimsy through which no gravitas dare escape; and I say this very much as a compliment. Director Tamara Harvey understands the strengths of the piece – the humour, the accessibility – and thankfully plays to these rather than attempting to make the play any more serious than absolutely required. The acting throughout is of a good standard; Claire Sweeney stands out of the pair as Rita, although it is very hard not to compare her performance with that of Julie Walters in the 1983 movie adaptation, with Walters’ characterisation somehow a mite fleshier. Sweeney possesses excellent comic timing and, particularly in the first act, gets this side of her performance down to a tee. Matthew Kelly gives a fair turn as Frank and wins plenty of laughs; however, a few of these were a touch inappropriate and at the expense of pathos; no more so than in the final scene where I can’t help but feel Russell intended for the actor to play it straight, in a final dramatic realisation that they have reached the end of their respective journeys.
I can’t help but feel that in keeping the action firmly locked to its original setting, director Harvey has missed an opportunity with this new production to bring the piece into the modern day. Unlike Blood Brothers, which is very specifically written for the political and socio-economic climate of the day, the message in Educating Rita is timeless and could resonate more harmoniously with a younger generation if brought into the present. In short, nothing has really changed or likely ever will in what Russell is trying to say in Educating Rita, so there is no reason to intentionally keep the context out of date and lessen the relevance for the audience.
Educating Rita remains one of Russell’s better works and this production is well-acted and worth a visit. It plays at the Bradford Alhambra until 23rd of June 2012
- Harry Zing
My recent experiences in the West End taught me one thing; our historic West End theatres© offer the kind of customer service that would make a budget airline blush. Hands up if you remember the fly on the wall documentary (or, as I like to call it, ‘self inflicted exposé) television series, ‘Airline’, a behind-the-scenes look at the incredibly unfair and sometimes downright outrageous policies of Easyjet? How we cringed as the gormless young ‘customer service managers’ would humiliate themselves on national television with their ‘customer is always wrong’ ethos. How we raged at their ‘make it up as you go along’ policies.
When you consider that a return flight to, say, Paris with Easyjet can cost as little as 10% of the price of a West End ticket for a major musical, all of a sudden Easyjet don’t seem so bad.
During my recent London theatre trip I noted aggressive bouncers, willfully obnoxious box office staff and a dizzying list of other shameful examples of the West End delivering an extremely poor customer experience. Some problems remain unacceptable, but are slightly more understandable due to each theatre’s limitations, and the enormous costs involved in renovation; only in the theatre could a person be charged in excess of £65 for a top-price ticket, yet spend the majority of the interval queuing to use the lavatory. I am incredulous still that we theatregoers still accept these low standards as ‘a quirk’ of our historic West End theatres©. When you do finally reach the front of the queue, what awaits you can be troubling; three urinals (often one has a bucket underneath – never a good sign), one cubicle, no soap, no hot water (or water so hot it leaves first degree burns) and one hand dryer is the norm for the gents; the ladies make do with three cubicles – God knows what happens at shows like Mamma Mia! or Ghost: The Musical where I imagine the ladies go in pairs, I suspect half the audience miss the second act! Mind you, in Mamma Mia!‘s case it is actually a blessing in disguise.
The bar prices are frankly disgusting; I noted a large white wine was a shade under £10 – for a glass. And not even a glass, a cheap plastic container. Make your evening at a ‘glamorous’ West End show that bit more special by using the ever-decreasing twelve minute interval to drink warm, cheap £9.80 chardonnay from a plastic beaker, stood up of course as there are only four small tables to sit at, which are immediately occupied by the frail and infirm.
If you work front of house and you are reading this, please understand; when you are wearing that little red uniform and are selling ice-creams and programmes you are not, I repeat not an actor. You are not part of the production. You are a customer service assistant and the theatregoer pays your wages, you are there to assist them. Not to look haughty and put on an affected ‘RP’ accent – frankly, I couldn’t care where you’re from as long as you have correct change, a good attitude and resolve any theatregoer’s issues as they inevitably crop up. That is what you are being paid to do, whether you like it or not. This is solely a West End affliction; I have encountered nothing but politeness and courtesy from front of house staff at regional venues. Perhaps theatres should focus on employing those from a customer service background rather than wannabe actors who simply don’t care about their work.
Tickets are a nightmare. All of the Really ‘Useful’ Group theatres use Seetickets – the ticketing arm of the business – to handle all of their sales and ticketing issues. The online arm is run separately to the telephone arm, and the telephone arm is run separately to the theatre box office (even though the box office uses the Seetickets system and prints out tickets with Seetickets written all over them). If you book online and have an issue, you need to call the online help team. The theatre will deny all knowledge and insist they cannot help you if you have an issue if you booked either online or by telephone – even if you have been queuing for the ‘online help team’ for over an hour and the show is due to start in twenty minutes. If you book on the telephone, the same applies. So, really, the only way to avoid paying the various booking fees, administration charges and levies – as well as guaranteeing to have someone in place to assist you if things go wrong – is to book in person. Ah, yes, booking tickets in person. At theatre box offices. What a ghastly, painful experience that always proves to be.
Front of House ushers, for all their posing, have nothing on some of these guys. Always rushed and harried – even when there is not another soul in sight – buying the seats you want from a box office assistant is very near impossible. I am reminded of a visit to see the (then brand new) production of Wicked some years ago. With the production completely sold out, I decided to slum it and queue for day seats outside the theatre, with the front row being sold at a discount. I don’t know if it’s the same now, but back then the queues started forming early – like, 5am early, ready for the 10am box office opening. After a drive down the M1 from Yorkshire, parking up and walking to the theatre we were the third in the queue and guaranteed seats. Five long hours later, arriving at the box office booth we were offered seats A1 and A24 – one on either end of the row. Asking how this was possible, having waited five hours outside the theatre to get central seats and being just third in line, we were told that it was ‘first come first served’ and that those were the only seats available. There was a maximum of two seats per person. Fortunately, we were able to swap tickets with a similarly bemused Asian couple and managed to sit together. A simple case of a box office employee making life as difficult and awkward as possible out of spite and bitterness for their (chosen) vocation, souring my experience before it had even started. The superb TKTS booth offers some respite, but for new shows the box office assistant remains an unfortunate reality.
The West End is no longer a glamorous, special night out at the theatre. It is a commercial moneyspinning honeypot for certain producers, with the rest simply trying to aspire to be just like them. Customer service is dreadful, the theatres under-furnished and, with theatres packed out by foreign tourists, we have let standards slip on the assumption that nobody cares any more. The theatre experience used to be part of the ticket price; now you are shoehorned in, shaken upside down until all your money drops out and then rushed out the back exit moments after the final curtain drops.
Why do we accept all this? Because it is never going to change. If you have a truly outstanding customer service experience in the West End then please let me know about it – and help me restore my faith in our historic West End theatres©.
- Harry Zing
Hello and welcome to Zing’s Record Collection – join me as I run my eye over the latest cast recordings and musical theatre album releases. Today I’ll be giving a listen to the full debut album from one of British musical theatre’s top talents, John Owen-Jones, titled ‘Unmasked’ released April 2012 by Sain.
John Owen-Jones has been one of the top names in the West End for a decade. He has donned the mask as The Phantom of the Opera over 2,000 times in several different stints in the West End and, currently, the new touring production – and has donned Marius a similar number of times, carrying the felled student from the barricades as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, a role he has played to much critical acclaim on Broadway and beyond. In ‘Unmasked’, ignoring the punny title, Owen-Jones chooses songs from a wide spectrum of musical theatre which includes all of his greatest hits, such as ‘The Music of the Night’, ‘Bring Him Home’ and ‘Hallelujah’ – the latter being a remix his 2006 debut EP’s title track. With his strong fanbase duly appeased, Owen-Jones can focus on showing off his fabulous voice in a number of songs new to his repertoire.
The vocal bravado of Frank Wildhorn’s ‘This is the Moment’ is perfect for Owen-Jones’ powerhouse style and he duly delivers, with the number proving the stand-out track of the album. ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ is beautifully realised and Owen-Jones really tries to make the number his own. ‘All I Ask of You’, with pop-opera soprano Natasha Marsh, is as well sung as any rendition I have heard over the years.
‘Down to the Sea’ from Kristina is a moment of understated clarity and beauty and a superb, if unexpected, choice. Kander/Ebb songs seem to be like buses; you wait an eternity for a quality singer to record one, then two come along in as many months; The beautiful ‘I Don’t Remember You/Sometimes a Day Goes By’ medley from the duo’s underrated musical revue And the World Goes ‘Round was also featured on Martin Dickinson’s debut EP, drawing a rave review from yours truly. Owen-Jones boasts a big name joining him the shape of opera singer Bryn Terfel, the result is a very well sung medley, which, whilst different in style from ‘storytelling’ approach of Dickinson/Abigail Jaye’s rendition, is equally as enjoyable in its own way and is supremely well sung.
It is not all plain sailing, however. The album gets off to an underwhelming start with two curious choices, the drab ‘Nature Boy’ from Moulin Rouge and a slightly bizarre resurrection of Tom Jones’ 1786 hit ‘Thunderball’. Owen-Jones has publicly stated his admiration for countryman Jones and I just hope he doesn’t try and audition for ‘The Voice’.* Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ – possibly my favourite song from musical theatre – is nicely sung, but perhaps lacking in the required emotive qualities required for the part and by definition the song. I must also confess to being a little bit disappointed that Owen-Jones opted not to record his singing live with the orchestra, which leads to some albeit minor errors with rhythm and slightly elongated notes to match the music. This is particularly noticeable in ‘The Music of the Night’ but is present throughout.
‘Unmasked’ is a hugely successful and enjoyable album and shows what Owen-Jones is capable of, outside of the two roles for which he is almost exclusively known. Hopefully, now ‘unmasked’, we will see Owen-Jones expand his horizons and explore other stage opportunities to no doubt further critical success.
- Harry Zing
*It would be very uncomfortable to see another top British musical theatre star get rebuked by the likes of William “Bill”.i.am.