Theatre

Sunny Afternoon – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 

Originally published on The Reviews Hub 

‘But will they still play it in 30 years’ time?’ asks The Kinks frontman Ray Davies of his song Sunny Afternoon. Indeed, more than 50 years later, the renowned hit is the titular track of a multi-award winning musical, telling the captivating story of the iconic British rock band in a near faultless production.

Boasting an incredible soundtrack including Lola, You Really Got Me, Dedicated Follower of Fashion and Dead End Street, the show charts the rise, fall and rise again of four working class boys from North London, who took the 1960s pop charts by storm and helped to shape the most influential era of British music.

Told through the eyes of Ray Davies, the musical vividly recreates the sounds, style and spirit of the sixties. The group’s hit records are seamlessly woven into the narrative or recreated in concert scenes, and by casting actors who are also talented musicians, director Edward Hall has created an energetic and authentic-feeling biopic.

Ryan O’Donnell is superb as Ray, showing both intensity and vulnerability in his voice and characterisation as the genius songwriter. Equally good is Mark Newnham as Ray’s younger brother, Dave ‘the Rave’. Dave enjoys all the trappings of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and often clashes with his more serious brother over his lifestyle and position in the band. Although at times slightly Kevin and Perry-esque, Newnham provides a lot of the laughs as the belligerent loose cannon.

Showing himself to be a terrific drummer, Andrew Gallo is well cast as Mick Avory and Garmon Rhys gives a touching portrayal as reserved bassist Pete Quaife. Praise must also go to Lisa Wright as Ray’s spirited wife Rasa – her duets with O’Donnell and solo performance of the romantic ballad I Go To Sleep are beautiful.

There are many highlights – we see how the raucous guitar riff of You Really Got Me came to be, how the group got themselves banned from America, relive England’s 1966 World Cup victory with Sunny Afternoon, there’s a stunning a cappella rendition of Days and a rousing Lola finale which has the audience up on its feet.

A large set constructed of multiple speakers provides a suitable backdrop, multi-tasking as required to represent a bedroom, concert hall or recording studio. Talking of speakers, at times it feels there is a sound conflict between instruments and vocals, with the latter being slightly drowned out. That said, this is dark and dirty rock ‘n’ roll, and if it isn’t loud, it doesn’t count.

More than just a jolly jukebox musical, Sunny Afternoon packs an emotional punch, exploring the pitfalls of success, battles with management and tensions within the band – particularly the difficult relationship between the two Davies brothers. There is a raw, emotive quality to Ray Davies’ lyrics, reflecting not only his reality but the reality of many, which is perhaps why the music and story of The Kinks have transferred so well to theatre and continues to capture the imagination of audiences.

Vibrantly nostalgic, funny and heartfelt, the current UK tour is due to wrap up in May, be sure to catch it.

Clare

Runs until 22 April 2017 and on tour

Image: Kevin Cummins

Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub

Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Goes Wrong started life as a one-act play, performed in a tiny room above a pub. Back in 2012, LAMDA graduates Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields worked in Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a call centre and behind a bar during the day and performed their play at night. Fast forward five years and the hit comedy has received multiple awards and is currently enjoying successful runs in the West End, on Broadway and in theatres around the UK.

In a good-natured parody of amateur theatre, mayhem ensues when The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to stage 1920s murder mystery Murder at Haversham Manor. The hapless players lurch from one disaster to the next, and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong – there are doors that won’t open, cues that are missed, a leading lady with concussion and a set teetering on the brink of collapse.

Right from the off, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and clear to see why this play-within-a- play has been such a hit. Starting before the audience has even taken their seats, the society’s director Chris Bean (Patrick Warner) runs around the theatre foyer in a blind panic, setting the tone for the hysteria that is to follow.

On stage, there is seriously fast-paced comedy, slapstick and farce. A bit like Mr Bean meets Monty Python, it’s utterly silly but really good fun, and technically, spot on. Expertly choreographed by director Mark Bell, parts of the set collapse and various cast members are knocked out cold but the show must go on, and in true British-style, they soldier on, determined to finish what they started.

The small ensemble cast is incredibly tight, executing perfectly timed slapstick and gags at a ferocious pace. There are no weak links, like a neat puzzle of an abstract picture; each member contributes to the hilarity and in turn, the success of the production. Alastair Kirton’s portrayal of the affable Max Bennett, who plays Cecil Haversham in the murder mystery is particularly fun, as is Katie Bernstein, as the stage manager/come unexpected understudy and Graeme Rooney as the lazy lighting and sound operator Trevor.

At times there is so much physical comedy happening on stage and the laughter from the audience justifiably loud, it’s difficult to catch all of the dialogue and some jokes are missed. However, it takes a lot of skill to make chaos look like chaos, without it actually just looking like a mess, and that is successfully achieved here. Yes, situations overplayed and roles are hammed up to the max, but with tongue firmly in cheek, it is a hilarious and inspired caricature of amateur dramatics.

Some of the jokes are a bit dragged out, and if you are after some sophisticated comedy, this might not be for you. However, it is funny, clever and thoroughly enjoyable and goes down a storm with the audience. The Play That Goes Wrong undoubtedly gets it right.

Clare

Runs until 8 April 2017

Image: Helen Murray

Theatre

Sister Act – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub.

There is much to rejoice about in Sister Act. The musical stage adaptation of the popular 90s film starring Whoopi Goldberg is full of energy and fun – featuring an original score by Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, starring vocal powerhouse Alexandra Burke and including trombone-playing nuns. There’s little not to like.

Burke plays Deloris Van Cartier, a feisty lounge singer who is placed in witness protection for her own safety after witnessing a gangland killing by her mobster-boyfriend. Forced to hide out in a convent under the guise of Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris is horrified by the strict rules she must now abide by. She regularly clashes with Mother Superior over her rebellious attitude, until tasked with leading the abbey’s tone-deaf choir, where she discovers the power of sisterhood, both in the spiritual and friendship-sense.

Directed and choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood, in a departure from the film version, the action takes place in the 1970s, which gives the production its own musical identity, capitalized on by composer Menken, fusing gospel and soul with some good old 70s disco funk.Revel Horwood knows how to fill a stage with interest and movement, cleverly casting actors who are also musicians and making them part of the orchestral ensemble live on stage. Gangsters strum guitars, a prostitute plays the violin and a nun squeezes away on an accordion. It’s an unusual move which at first feels a bit unnatural and clunky but is actually a really clever way of elevating characters and making music the core of this production.

Matthew Wright’s set is a spatial structure with dramatic archways, lending itself to appearing as a nightclub or a church, dressed up or down with disco lights and simple props as required.

Having previously filled the shoes of Whitney Houston in the stage version of The Bodyguard to critical acclaim, Burke takes on the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg with equal success – she’s clearly very good at ‘big’ characters. A class act as wise-cracking diva Deloris, Burke’s portrayal is more playful, sassy and ambitious. At times her dialogue is a little rushed, but she has excellent comic timing, energy and her vocals are, excuse the pun, heaven-sent – emotive, strong and soulful. Her performances of Raise Your Voice and Sister Act are particularly goosebump-inducing.

Deloris’s ex Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) and his inept gang, complete with plaid flares and suede jackets, are suitably roguish, but appear more comedic caricature-criminals than menacing mobsters, which makes their portrayal of Class A drug use during one number feel particularly uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Nice guy cop ‘sweaty’ Eddie, played by Joe Vetch is kept light for the laughs, and his disco-inspired solo I Could Be That Guy is a highlight.

The austere role of Mother Superior is brilliantly portrayed by Karen Mann. She has many of the best lines, gives a rousing rendition of Here Within These Walls and has hilariously fierce clashes with Deloris. There is also great characterisation within the core group of nuns – Sisters Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus and Mary Robert, (Susannah Van Den Berg, Liz Kitchen and Sarah Goggin respectively) as the loud one, the rebel and the shy one who Deloris helps to find her voice.

Sister Act is a vibrant and uplifting production, boasting excellent vocal performances and bursting with good spirited fun. Hallelujah!

4.5 stars ✨ 

Runs until 4 March 2017

Image: Tristram Kenton 

Theatre

Review: Anita and Me – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub

Writer: Tanika Gupta from the book by Meera Syal
Director: Roxana Silbert

Following a sell-out run at Birmingham REP in 2015, Anita and Me returns for a 2017 spring tour, premiering at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.

The popular semi-autobiographical novel by Wolverhampton-born writer and actress Meera Syal was made into a film in 2002 and is now a GSCE English text. An endearing coming-of-age tale, it follows the story of Meena, a young British Punjabi girl growing up in the fictional Midlands mining village of Tollington in the 1970s. While her proud Punjabi family is determined to preserve their culture and give their children the best opportunities, strong-willed Meena is eager to embrace western lifestyles and desperate to fit in with her cool and confident new friend Anita. Meena finds herself caught between two cultures while struggling to make sense of her place in the world.

Described as a ‘play with music’ rather than a musical, Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation features original compositions by Ringham Brothers, which at times feel a bit out of place, but overall add to the atmosphere and narrative. Save The Heathen Souls sung by the local shopkeeper Mrs Ormerod (Rebekah Hinds) is particularly funny.

The play is difficult to define – a mishmash of tones and genres exploring issues of culture, adolescence and racism while touching on themes of domestic violence, postnatal depression and immigration, but also being offering a brilliantly comic observation of those tricky teenage years and of life in the Black Country in the 1970s. One minute Meena is trying to impress Anita by stealing sweets and weeing on a tyre and the next Mr Bhatra, an Asian counsellor, is brutally beaten in a racially motivated attack. The audience is taken on rollercoaster of emotions, and while occasionally confusing, it’s certainly never dull.

There are strong performances from the young leads Aasiya Shah and Laura Aramayo as Meena and Anita respectively. Shah captures the spirit of energetic Meena, while Aramayo’s portrayal of Anita is spot on – feisty and arrogant with an underlying vulnerability of a troubled teen. Ex-Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford are equally as good as Meena’s exasperated parents.

Culturally, the two girls are poles apart, but it’s their experience of family that highlights the differences between them. Meena comes from a loving, educated and flourishing extended family, while Anita is a neglected child living in poverty and yet, for the most part, Meena is desperate to be like her. Anita is abandoned by her selfish mother, while Meena is nurtured by strong female influences around her – her mother Daljit, played by the fabulous Gulati, her Aunty Shaila (Sejal Keshwala), caring neighbour Mrs Worrell (Therese Collins) and her formidable grandmother Nanima, hilariously portrayed by Rina Fatania.

The story is as relevant now as it was when the novel was published in 1996, a colourful portrayal of teenage troubles, fish fingers, friendship, with important messages about cultural diversity and identity and the added novelty of familiar Black Country humour. While at times confusing and chaotic, the production offers plenty of light and shade and at its heart is a poignant, honest and funny story. Bostin’.

Clare

⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Runs until 18 February 2017

Theatre

Review: Aladdin, Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub.

Pantomime wishes have been granted in Wolverhampton this festive session, as the Grand Theatre delivers a magical production. With more glitter, sparkle and silliness than ever before, Aladdin is a fun family spectacle.

The story is a jam-packed mash-up of the traditional Arabian adventure, set in both China and Egypt, complete with magic lamp, a genie, a giant spaceship and a Cockney policeman. Some of the elements, like the random spaceship and the Cockney bobby, are a bit bizarre, but this is panto and we wouldn’t want it any other way. With magic, romance and adventure at the heart of story, and with comedy and sing-a-long songs thrown in, it is enjoyable on many levels and the perfect show for all the family.

Joe McElderry really impresses as Aladdin. The 2009 X-Factor winner has a superb voice and makes a lovable leading man. Soprano Lucy Kay, a former Britain’s Got Talent finalist, is a beautiful Princess Jasmine, with a stunning voice to match. Their duet of Listen from the film Dreamgirls is a highlight, so it’s a shame that the two talented singers aren’t used a bit more throughout.

Actress Lisa Riley sparkles as the Slave of the Ring, and Stefan Pejic strikes a perfect balance between wit and wickedness as the evil Abanazar. Adam C Booth and Ian Adams as Wishee Washee and Widow Twankey respectively are masters of entertainment and firm favourites with the younger members of the audience. Their physical comedy, wordplay and general silliness is spot on.

Yes, many of the gags have been done before, but frankly, toilet humour and local ribbing (Bilston, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton Wanderers take the brunt) never get old. An energetic slapstick routine featuring Wishee Washee, Widow Twankey, The Slave of the Ring and PC Ping Pong (CBeebies Mr Bloom, aka Ben Faulks) gets the biggest laugh of the night.

However, it is The Lazy Empress, Doreen Tipton, aka actress Gill Jordan, who steals the show for the grown-ups. Doreen, the Black Country’s internet sensation and self-confessed ‘lazy cow’ is a genius addition to the production, hilariously riding around on a mobility scooter, complaining about her Jobseekers Allowance being stopped and missing the Jeremy Kyle Show.  

No expense has been spared on the sets, special effects and costumes. From Widow Twankey’s launderette to Princess Jasmine’s gowns, everything is bold and bright. The flying carpet scene at the end of Act 1 is particularly impressive and adds to the magic.

Aladdin is a real success for the Grand, with laugh-out-loud comedy, plenty of opportunity for some enthusiastic booing and heckling, clever special effects and a strong cast – there is never a dull moment and it is thoroughly enjoyable.

Clare

Runs until 22 January 2017
Image: Contributed

Theatre

Review: The Nutcracker, Birmingham Hippodrome

Opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome coincided with its creator Sir Peter Wright’s 90th birthday.

The production was created by Sir Peter 26 years ago to mark the dance company’s relocation to Birmingham, and the legendary choreographer was present to enjoy the launch of this year’s run of the much-loved festive perennial.

Set in the late 19th century, during a Christmas Eve party hosted by Dr Stahlbaum and his wife, magician Drosselmeyer produces gifts for all the children present, including a nutcracker doll for the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara. After the guests have left the family retire to bed, but Clara sneaks back downstairs to play with her new doll. As the clock strikes midnight, Drosselmeyer reappears and Clara is transported to a magical winter wonderland of dancing snowflakes, a malevolent rat king and a handsome nutcracker prince.

The Nutcracker Birmingham

Right from curtain up, this production has the wow-factor. There was an audible gasp from the audience when the first of many extraordinary sets was revealed. The scenery, special effects and costumes, devised by designer John Macfarlane. are spectacular. From the giant Christmas tree transformation to a magical snowstorm at the end of Act I – it’s one of the most visually stunning shows I’ve ever seen.

Tchaikovsky’s evocative score, faithfully executed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, gives the production an additional layer of magic.

Any less of a company might have been overshadowed by such elaborate staging, but The Nutcracker is the perfect vehicle for Birmingham Royal Ballet to show what it is made of. Despite a few minor timing issues during some of the group dances in Act I, this renowned troupe is world class.

There are many standout performances – Karla Doorbar is delightful as Clara, and Jonathan Payn is a commanding presence as the enigmatic Drosselmeyer. Tzu-Chao Chou’s performance as the Jack-in-the-Box is jaw-droppingly energetic and young Max Blackwell is charming as Clara’s mischievous little brother.

The Nutcracker BirminghamWhile most of the action takes place in Act I, the second act is a series of divertissements in various fantasy realms, which in the most part have little to do with the story. Clara is somewhat sidelined to observe the Waltz of the Flowers and dynamic Russian and Spanish-style dances. It is these continental-themed sections of the ballet which perhaps haven’t aged so well. The Chinese tea dance, for example, is an awkwardly stereotypical caricature complete with pointing fingers and bobbing heads.

That said, the best is indeed saved until last. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is exquisitely executed by Momoko Hirata. The grand pas de deux featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and The Prince is equally flawless. Hirata is partnered by Joseph Caley, and together they give a beautiful performance that is both sensitive and exhilarating.

Sir Peter Wright’s masterpiece continues to delight. After 26 years and over 500 performances, this classic ballet has lost none of its sparkle. Enchanting and poignant, the Birmingham Royal Ballet has yet again delivered a sensational festive showpiece.

Clare White

The Nutcracker is on at Birmingham Hippodrome until Tuesday 13 December.
This review was originally published on www.countywoman.co.uk

Theatre

Review: Pride and Prejudice – Birmingham REP

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub.

It might be over 200 years old but Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular novels in English literature, selling over 20 million copies and spawning numerous adaptations, including the popular 1995 BBC series starring Colin Firth. Following sell-out performances in London, Regent’s Park Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of Austen’s romantic comedy gets a well-deserved UK tour.

Simon Reade’s adaptation of the 19th Century classic is vibrant, funny and captivating, breathing fresh air into Austen’s narrative. Right from the off, the animated relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet is captured perfectly by Matthew Kelly and Felicity Montagu. With five unmarried daughters, Mrs Bennet is eager they all make ‘good’ (wealthy) marriages to improve the fortunes and social standing of the family.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” says Mrs Bennet, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Mrs Bennet gets a bad rep for her melodramatics and unbecoming behaviour, but frankly, she has every right to worry – with a husband keen to bury his head in the sand and the possibility of five daughters left on the shelf, financial and social disaster would have been inevitable. Bringing just the right balance of hysteria, humour and vigour to the role, Montagu is superb as Mrs Bennet. It is a character which could easy become a bit ‘panto’, but she is pitch perfect as the family’s matriarch.

Matthew Kelly is perhaps better known for his television presenting, but he is, in fact, an Olivier award-winning actor, and makes an excellent Mr Bennet. His comic timing is particularly good.

Tafline Steen shines as the quick-witted Elizabeth Bennet, showing grace and fierceness in equal measure, and Benjamin Dilloway’s portrayal of Mr Darcy is suitably brooding and brusque. While the emotional chemistry seems lacking slightly, their characters’ dislike for each other is palpable, so much so that despite the fact that the audience knows full well where things are heading, there is an almighty gasp when Darcy finally declares his love for Elizabeth.

The production sees many of the younger cast members making fine professional debuts, including Hollie Edwin as Jane Bennet and Kirsty Rider as Caroline Bingley. Praise must also go to Steven Meo, whose physicality and delivery of pompous and creepy Mr Collins gives many laugh-out-loud moments.

A simple yet ingenious two-tiered revolving set, complete with wrought iron gates, gently adapts to the story’s changes in setting and original music composed for the production by Lillian Henley is a charming addition.

It is a classy adaptation, fresh, funny and faithful to Austen’s drama and wit. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Runs until 12 November 2016

Image: Johan Persson