Theatre

Shrek the Musical – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

This review was originally published on Reviews Hub.

It’s a fairytale, but not as we know it. Based on the hugely popular 2001 DreamWorks film, Shrek the Musical is a larger-than-life comedy spectacle which, amidst the fun and flatulence, challenges preconceived ideals of beauty and goodness – while thoroughly entertaining an audience of all ages at Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre.

Shrek is a reclusive, grumpy ogre, living a quiet life in the swamp until it’s inundated with fairytale folk, banished from the city of Duloc by the malicious Lord Farquaad. Desperate to reclaim his land, he strikes a deal with Farquaad – in return for his solitude, Shrek must rescue Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded tower so Farquaad can make her his bride. The gentle green giant embarks on a dangerous adventure which leads him to wonder if his self-imposed isolation really makes him happy.

Following successful runs in the West End and a UK tour in 2015, the show feels as energetic, fresh and funny as ever. If anything, the quality has been amped up a few notches. Under the leadership of returning director Nigel Harman, everything from the costumes and prosthetics to the multiple, elaborate sets and special effects looks and feels slicker and punchier – this is an impressive, big-budget production.

The big production is carried skilfully on the even bigger shoulders of the lead, Steffan Harri as the grouchy, lovable ogre. Despite his cumbersome costume and facial prosthetics, his portrayal of the charming character shines through and vocally he is pitch perfect. Marcus Ayton plays his comedy sidekick Donkey, easily filling Eddie Murphy’s large shoes from the film version. He’s brilliantly sassy and energetic.

Princess Fiona isn’t your average whimsical fairytale princess – she’s feisty, determined and by her own admission, a little bipolar after being locked in a tower for 20 years. Laura Main, best known as Call the Midwife’s Shelagh Turner, is a fabulous actress, showing her comedic versatility and a great voice. It’s a shame her character’s opening number, I Know It’s Today, has been scaled back, from a moving three-part harmony between the princess as a child, teen and adult to a silly puppet skit. As mentioned, overall the production values have increased, so it’s a bit disappointing.

It’s Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad who gets the biggest laughs of the night. Sporting short prosthetic legs, he spends the show scuttling around on his knees as the vertically challenged tyrant. The Ballad of Farquaad is very funny, as are his facial expressions and Carry On-esque cavorting.

The score is witty and upbeat, albeit not particularly memorable. Big Bright Beautiful World, Freak Flag and Shrek and Fiona’s duet I Think I Got You Beat are enjoyable, charismatic numbers.

The show sets a rapid pace and doesn’t let up – one minute Shrek and Princess Fiona are partaking in a gloriously gross farting competition and the next,the merry band of fairytale misfits is staging a revolt and the Pied Piper’s rats are doing a jazzy tap dance.

There are many highlights in this polished production and great performances across the board. It’s a real family show, laugh-out-loud funny on many levels, while at its heart carrying an important message – that it’s ok to be different. The epitome of a musical comedy, Shrek is clever, funny and heart-warming.

4.5 stars

Runs until 25 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Helen Maybanks

Theatre

Mamma Mia! – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

This review was originally published on Reviews Hub.

There can be nothing more guaranteed to warm up a bleak February night in Wolverhampton than an injection of Greek sunshine by way of Mamma Mia!, the ultimate feel-good musical. Based on the music of Swedish super-group ABBA, the award-winning show has been seen by over 60 million people all over the world since its West End premiere in 1999.

Set on an idyllic Greek island, young bride-to-be Sophie is desperate for her father to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, however his identity is a mystery. After finding her mother Donna’s diary from 20 years ago, Sophie discovers her father could be one of three men, and skimming over the fact her Mum was clearly a little promiscuous, she secretly invites all three to her wedding, believing that when she sees them, she’ll know straight away who’s the daddy, as it were. What could go wrong? Meanwhile, Donna, former wild child and lead singer of girl group The Dynamos, is exhausted and beaten down by life, trying to organise her daughter’s wedding while running the island’s dilapidated B&B, until her two best friends and former band members arrive for the wedding and help their friend get her sparkle back.

A cynic might dismiss it as cheesy, implausible jukebox fluff – but that same cynic would undoubtedly be toe-tapping all the way through. It’s impossible not to succumb to the charms of this joyful musical, brimming with arguably some of the best pop songs ever written, courtesy of ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Featuring Winner Takes It All, Dancing Queen, Super Trooper, Dancing Queen, Voulez-Vous – their back catalogue of hits is used to good effect and feel naturally woven in to the narrative. Phyllida Lloyd’s polished production is energetic and fun, while at the same time making space for some lovely poignant moments. ABBA’s music lends itself so well to this, with Gimme Gimme Gimme giving dynamic disco vibes at Sophie’s hen party, and then Slipping through My Fingers slowing the pace for a touching, reflective moment between Donna and Sophie on the morning of the wedding.

The multi-functional sets are simple and effective, creating the ambience of a Greek island in the sun. Anthony Van Laast’s vibrant choreography is a real highlight, and the large ensemble really ignite in energetic set pieces for Money Money Money and Under Attack.

Lucy May Barker is really likeable as Sophie and has a pure, sweet voice. She has good chemistry with Helen Hobson, who plays Donna. Hobson herself is a fine actress, but at times struggles vocally to give the songs the attack they require. Similarly, Phillip Ryan is suitably charismatic as Sophie’s chiselled fiancé, by vocally doesn’t quite hit the mark. It is always going to be difficult to replicate the resonance of these songs, written originally for the unique harmonies of ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. While the cast makes a successful go of it overall, a spark is lacking in some of the solos.

While the story is all about strong women, the three ‘fathers’ Bill (Christopher Hollis), Harry (Jamie Hogarth) and Sam (Jon Boydon) are good fun and play their somewhat limited parts well. And thankfully, Boydon erases the painful memory of Pierce Brosnan’s ‘singing’ in the same role in 2008’s film adaptation.

While on the subject of the film, (which starred Meryl Streep and is a bit like Marmite), the stage version works so much better on many levels, most noticeably on its comedic value. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments, often thanks to Emma Clifford and understudy Rebecca Seale as Donna’s partners in crime Tanya and Rosie. The duo’s timing and physicality is spot on, leading to hilarious set pieces, such as when three-times married cougar Tanya runs rings around young admirer Pepper, played by the impressively athletic Louis Stockil, in Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out.

At its heart, this is a cross-generational story about family, friendship and love, showing the experiences of Sophie and her friends – the young, naïve free-spirits who don’t worry about consequence, versus the more mature generation; Donna, Tanya, Rosie and Sophie’s ‘dads’, who have all been bruised by love but deep down still want their happy ever after. A charming tale, coupled with a superb soundtrack of familiar hits results in an ultimate crowd-pleaser. The audience needed little encouragement to get to its feet and release inner Dancing Queens for a glittering encore. Mamma Mia is uplifting, energetic, heart-warming fun.

Runs until 24 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Theatre

Jersey Boys – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Oh, what a night, late December back in, well, 2017 – award-winning musical Jersey Boys premières its second national tour at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. Since opening on Broadway in 2002, the acclaimed musical has been seen and loved by over 25 million people all around the world.

Starting in New Jersey in 1962, Jersey Boys tells the whirlwind story of four ordinary boys who joined together to become an extraordinary pop band. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons set the sound of a generation with hits like Big Girls Don’t Cry and Bye Bye Baby, and in a relatively short space of time, became one of the most successful acts in music history.

This is no sickly-sweet jukebox musical – it’s a gripping biography packed with energy, grit and truth. The group’s rise to stardom was punctuated with conflict and drama, and writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice do not shy away from it, producing, as Frankie Valli himself puts it, ‘a story told with as much truth as possible’. It is a fascinating journey. The extensive back catalogue of hits is used to great effect as the members navigate prison, debt, bust-ups and run-ins with gangsters. Individually, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Frankie Valli were flawed, but together, they created magic.

And that magic is exactly what is recreated on stage. All four of the leading men have appeared in previous productions of Jersey Boys, and form a class act. Each Season tells a part of the story from his own point of view – we meet founder member Tommy DeVito first, full of charming arrogance but with a destructive edge, played by the brilliant Simon Bailey. Equally good is Lewis Griffiths, who makes a welcome return as bassist Nick Massi – his straight-faced one-liners get the biggest laughs.

DeVito recruits Massi and a 16-year-old Frankie to form a group, but the trio struggles to find its sound. It’s not until they are introduced to fourth and final member Bob Gaudio that things really click into place and the hits come thick and fast – Sherry, Walk Like A Man, Beggin’ and Working My Way Back to You catapulted the group to super stardom, and ultimately resulted in 175 million record sales.

Declan Egan plays songwriter supremo Gaudio, clearly the brains behind the band. His portrayal is earnest and endearing, and his performance of December 1963 (Oh What a Night) is particularly good. Completing the picture is Michael Watson as Frankie Valli. His falsetto is outstanding and he brings out both the warmth and inner strength of the diminutive star. His solo, My Angel, when Frankie learns of the death of his daughter, is extremely poignant. As good as the leading men are, its together that the foursome shine. Their chemistry, harmonies and synced moves are electric and the result is captivating.

A two-level split stage works well to allow the movement and energy to flow, and a talented supporting company, many of whom take on multiple roles, lends a hand with the seamless stage transitions. The look and feel of the show is slick and powerful, although the pop-art cartoon images, projected onto a large central screen throughout do jar slightly, as they seem out of place and in the wrong decade. It’s a minor quibble in what is an outstanding production.

The story of the Four Seasons is engaging, their music is uplifting and the resulting musical production is sensational. This latest production is fresh, energetic and exhilarating. Oh, what a night indeed.

Runs until 6 January 2018 | Image: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Live Music · Theatre

Classic Carols – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Raymond Gubbay’s Christmas season kicks off in spectacular style at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham with its annual classic carol concert. Traditional festive favourites mixed with rarer Yuletide treasures and sing-a-long standards are performed by the sublime City of Birmingham Choir, accompanied by the London Concert Orchestra and led by conductor Adrian Lucas.

One of the country’s leading choral conductors, Adrian Lucas has been at the helm of the City of Birmingham Choir since 2002. The enigmatic and jovial musical director is the driving force behind the joyful, warm and evocative atmosphere, which is just as well as on this occasion the temperature of the venue was a little on the chilly side.

From hauntingly beautiful classics such as Masters In This Hall and Ava Maria, to rousing renditions of O Come, All Ye Faithful and Good King Wenceslas sung by all, the eclectic programme of jubilant and moving compositions and carols results in a magical seasonal treat.

Special guest reader Tony Robinson gives passionate and expressive readings of A Visit from St Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore and A Christmas Carol, which is particularly good. The award-winning actor and author is accompanied by the orchestra as he delivers Charles Dicken’s dynamic prose – his brilliant Tiny Tim portrayal showing just a hint of beloved Baldrick.

The festive cheer continues with Handel’s glorious Worthy Is The Lamb and Amen from Messiah and a stunning choral section featuring a Spanish Carol and The Lamb by Sir John Tavener. An enthusiastic audience joins in for O Little Town of Bethlehem and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and trumpet soloist Crispian Steele-Perkins accompanies the 39-piece orchestra for a stirring delivery of Handel’s Trumpet Suite in D Major.

A highlight of the evening is a spine-tingling performance of John Rutter’s arrangement of O Holy Night by tenor Nicky Spence. In a hall which acoustically lends itself so well to concerts such as this, the richness and depth of the orchestral and choral sound are stunning.

Proceedings are brought to a triumphant conclusion by Hark The Herald Angels and 12 Days of Christmas – enough to melt the heart of the most hardened Scrooge. A fabulously festive Christmas cracker.

Reviewed on 18 December 2017 | Image: Contributed

Theatre

The Addams Family – Birmingham Hippodrome 

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub

Like the Windsors and the Kardashians, The Addams Family is arguably one of history’s most infamous extended families. Created by cartoonist Charles Addams in 1938, the fictional kooky clan was brought to life in a cult television show in the 1970s, followed by two hit films in the 1990s. Their most recent incarnation sees the family take to the stage in a musical comedy based on a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, which premiered on Broadway in 2010 and is currently enjoying a UK theatre tour.

The Addams Family musical tells the story of Wednesday Addams, the original princess of darkness, who is now all grown up and has fallen in love with a ‘normal’ all-American boy. When she brings her preppy beau Lucas and his conservative parents home to meet her family, she begs them to act normal for just one night. “Define normal?” says her mother Morticia, “What’s normal for the spider is calamity for the fly.”

Wednesday confides in her father Gomez her plans to marry Lucas but begs him to keep it a secret from Morticia. Mr and Mrs Addams’ marriage is based on total honesty, and so Gomez finds himself torn between his wife and his daughter as he struggles to keep Wednesday’s secret.

The storyline does feel a bit on the thin side – the relationships between family members are what drive it, but the tension never quite ignites like it could. That said, this is a musical comedy not The Exorcist. With a fresh and funny score by Andrew Lippa and a wickedly good cast, it’s still hugely entertaining. Despite the Addams’ penchant for all things macabre – the torture, ghosts, darkness and disaster, it’s really quite upbeat.

Carrie Hope Fletcher further secures her position as one of the country’s most prolific musical theatre stars. She is superb as Wednesday, giving a more animated version than we’ve seen before, but as a young goth full of rage and love, her portrayal is pitch-perfect. So too is her powerful voice, which could frankly raise the dead – her solo Pulled is a real triumph.

Equally good are her stage parents, Cameron Blakely as the enigmatic señor Gomez and Samantha Womack as chilling matriarch Morticia. Blakely’s Gomez is charismatic, dramatic and just a little bit camp, and his comedic delivery is a highlight. His characterisation is a great contrast with Womack’s Morticia, who is like a deadly black widow spider but less friendly. She is sexy and simmering and has a surprisingly good voice. Her duet with Lucas’ mother Alice (Charlotte Page) is particularly good.

Praise must also go to Les Dennis, who is unrecognisable as Uncle Fester and makes the eccentric oddball instantly loveable. We don’t get to discover much about Lucas’ character, but Oliver Ormson gives an energetic performance and is more than a match for Fletcher’s vocal talents in their duet Crazier Than You.

A talented ensemble forms the deceased ancestors of the family Addams, adding to the dark and enigmatic atmosphere thanks to bewitching choreography by Alistair David and a clever multi-functional set, which transforms the stage from gothic rooms of the family mansion to dark, eerie corners within its grounds.

Strip back the spooky kookiness and the witty score, and at its heart, this is a story about two families coming together, and the message is quite simple – different is good, honesty is key and love conquers all.

The Addams Family is ghoulishly good fun. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and guaranteed to lift the spirits. All together now, buh-buh-duh-duh… click click….

Clare 

Runs until 10 June 2017 at Birmingham Hippodrome and on tour 

Image: Contributed

Books

The Last Piece of My Heart by Paige Toon

The Last Piece of My Heart Paige ToonThe Last Piece of my Heart is the latest novel by Paige Toon, bestselling author of The One We Fell in Love With and Baby Be Mine.

It tells the story of Bridget, a travel journalist who dreams of being an author. To up her profile and get a foot in the publishing door, she starts a relationship blog about reclaiming the missing pieces of her heart, in the hope that with a fully restored heart, she can fully commit to her long-distance boyfriend and secure that elusive book deal at the same time.

Bridget plans to visit each ex love and ask for a piece of her heart back. Consequently, I thought that was going to be the story – Bridget pieces her heart back together as she reconciles each past relationship. However, her journey takes a slightly different path, by way of Cornwall.

When she is offered the chance to ghost-write the sequel to a best-selling novel by Nicole Dupré, Bridget reluctantly accepts. Nicole died suddenly after the release of her first novel, leaving her literary fans wanting more, and a heart-broken husband and baby daughter behind. Bridget relocates to Padstow for the summer, so she can research Nicole’s ideas for the unfinished second novel, while working under the watchful eye of Nicole’s grieving husband Charlie.

Paige Toon is a master of wise and witty literature and The Last Piece of My Heart might just be her best yet. It’s both humorous and honest, exploring meaningful themes of broken relationships, grief, maternity and morality. Life is a puzzle, and an incomplete one at that. Bridget’s journey is very relatable – often what we think we want isn’t actually the thing completes us.

Bridget is immediately likeable – strong, spirited and fun. Initially, I did question why anyone in their right mind would want to meet up with all of their exs, but as mentioned, this wasn’t the heart of the story and only touched on intermittently. It’s clear that once in Cornwall, Bridget’s priorities change.

Her developing friendship with Charlie and baby April is heart-warming, and while we’re on the subject of Charlie – WHERE CAN I FIND ONE LIKE HIM PLEASE?! (minus the sad widower thing, perhaps). Bridget brings fun and light back into Charlie and April’s life and its pure joy to read.

An additional joy was the great sense of location given, capturing the beauty of both Cornwall and Thailand.

Beautifully written, heart-felt and witty, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and couldn’t put the book down. In fact, I pretty much cried from page 313 onwards and had to recover with a strong cup of tea and several biscuits. A must read!

Clare

Published on 18 May 2017

Massive thanks to Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Books

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time Matt HaigHow to Stop Time is the latest novel from Matt Haig, bestselling author of Humans and The Boy Who Saved Christmas.

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

It tells the story of Tom Hazard, whose life is the very opposite of the saying, ‘we’re here for a good time, not a long time’. Tom has been around for a long time, centuries in fact, and mostly, he hasn’t had a very good time. A rare condition means Tom ages dramatically slower than most humans, which isn’t as great as it initially sounds. For him, time is not a gift, it’s a dangerous burden.

From playing the lute for Shakespeare to setting sail on the high seas with Captain Cook, Tom has lived a million lives in his lifetime. Controlled by a secret, sinister society which claims to protect those with the condition, Tom is given a new identity and made to start a new life every eight years in order avoid suspicion.

Falling in love can be a risky business, but in Tom’s case, it can be fatal. Warned by the society not to disclose his secret and still heartbroken from death of the love of his life 400 years ago, Tom is unable to get close to anyone, and is lonely and deeply unhappy. It is only his determination to find his daughter, who he was separated from centuries ago, which keeps him going.

In his latest guise, Tom has become history teacher in a London secondary school, where he meets Camille, a free spirit who slowly encourages him not to fear the future.

A real masterpiece from Haig, How to Stop Time is funny and thought-provoking. It is a captivating cocktail of history, science and the supernatural, exploring the complex nature of humans. Haig’s characters and settings are beautifully defined and his insight into human emotion is heart-rending.

It explores themes of loss, love and pain, highlighting how, as humans, we torture ourselves with the past, letting it define our future. Haig’s message is clear – letting go can set you free.

So good is the premise that the film rights have been snapped up by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company, with the Sherlock actor set to star in the film adaptation.

How to Save Time is one of those stories that stays with you long after you have finished reading. Deeply moving, witty and utterly compelling – a must-read.

Clare

Review copy supplied by Netgalley

Published on: 6 July 2017

Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd