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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Tour
Jason Manford as Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Photograph: Alastair Muir

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Here’s the idea. Take a children’s story, get the Sherman brothers to write some memorable music and lyrics and then introduce some sophisticated choreography from Stephen Mear and you’ve got yourself a hit that appeals to all ages.  Well, based on the evidence of music and lyrics and the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that’s exactly what happens.   It certainly happened last night as the current touring production started an extended 10-day visit to the New Victoria leaving an audience of all ages with a definite feel-good factor.

For the tour, Simon Higlet has produced a fascinating set combining a multi-scene backcloth that incorporates video projection with real time action and even allows the famous car itself to fly. The story centres round a less than successful widowed inventor, Caractacus Potts, who is persuaded to buy the wreck of an old racing car, which his children play in, for thirty shillings and then sees his luck change as he converts it into a car that can fly.   Word of the availability of the old car has reached the Baron of Vulgaria, a man who is apparently only happy when playing with his toys, indeed his chief assistant is his toymaker.  Vulgaria is a land where children are no longer allowed – and any that do exist are soon trapped by the evil childcatcher while those who have escaped him live out their lives hidden in a cellar beneath the castle.  The baron dispatches two emissaries, Boris and Goran, to buy the old racing car for him as yet another toy, but beaten to it by Caractacus they cover their failure by kidnapping Grandpa Potts believing him to be the inventor.  Caractaus accompanied by his children and Truly Scrumptious, a lady he has helped following problems with her motorcycle, set off to rescue him and the rest of the story is what happens when they reach the baron’s castle.

Jason Manford makes a perfect Caractacus, and is well supported by Charlotte Wakefield as Truly Scrumptious and, last night, Henry Kent and Lucy Sherman as his children. The comedy is safe in the hands of Sam Harrison and Scott Paige as Boris and Goran while Phill Jupitus and Claire Sweeney as the Baron and Baronness add the appropriate touch of evil.  The rest of the 30-plus strong cast contribute their professionalism ensuring that we have a truly scrumptious evening.

[Dermot Hoare 10 November 2016]

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is at Woking’s New Victoria theatre  from Thursday 10 November to Saturday 19 November, including five matinees


Pride and Prejudice

jane-austen-matthew-kelly-and-felicity-montagu-as-mr-and-mrs-bennet-2-photo-johan-persson
Matthew Kelly and Felicity Montagu as Mr and Mrs Bennet. Photograph: Johan Persson

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Yes, as the novel opens, so does the play and therefore so must this review, as an opportunity to quote probably one of the best opening literary lines cannot be missed – and it’s an observation as true now as it was when first published 205 years ago. The question on everyone’s lips is, of course, does this iconic novel translate into a piece of theatre? The answer is a most definitive yes. As it has taken on various incarnations on screen in recent years, its transformation to the stage was perhaps inevitable. For diehard Austen fans, of which the majority of the audience obviously were, this was yet another opportunity to enjoy the reanimation of her much loved characters and cleverly constructed story.

The cast was a strong combination of established and emerging talent. Matthew Kelly tops the bill as the loveable Mr Bennet, but Jessica d’Arcy as Elizabeth took centre stage; exceptional plaudits for her as not only was this her professional debut, but also as the understudy, taking on the lead role at short notice on the opening night in Woking. Kirsty Rider, also making her professional debut, delivered a convincing performance as the elegant yet conniving Miss Caroline Bingley. The inimitable Mrs Bennet was superbly played by Felicity Montagu, a veteran performer of stage, TV and film.

I found the set slightly disappointing however, failing to convey the grandeur and elegance of Austin’s original settings. The revolving stage and metallic structure attempted to add fluidity, dimension and movement to scene changes, yet the effect made me slightly dizzy and concerned that the actors might miss their step. But happily they didn’t. The focus was certainly on the dialogue, which stayed largely faithful to the original text. Austen’s wit, irony and social observations were not ignored, and combined with movement produced a mildly comedic effect throughout.

This stage version pays suitable and deserved homage to Jane Austen’s genius. The audience were delighted by the performance and left with smiles on their faces, truly appreciating the universality and timelessness of the dialogue and themes. A heart-warming experience.

[Amanda Briggs 26 October 2016]

Pride and Prejudice is playing at the New Victoria theatre in Woking from Tuesday 25-Saturday 29 October


Chicago

chicago-hayley-tamaddon-as-roxie-hart-and-john-partridge-as-billy-flynn-photo-by-catherine-ashmore
Hayley Tamaddon as Roxie Hart and John Partridge as Billy Flynn. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Chicago is one of the “big” musicals – we all know a few songs from it, and you probably know more than you think. The book is from 1975 (based on the 1926 play, which was based on contemporary court cases) and while it in many ways feels very modern there are a couple of jokes that are way past retirement. On two occasions the punchline is a man taking a male lover (It’s 2016. It’s the musical theatre. We should have got used to men who are attracted to men by now.) The other is a female presenting character is outed (through ripping off of wig and dress) as male towards the end of act two. It adds nothing but a cheap joke and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s not needed when there are some fantastic jokes, like “screwing around’s like fooling around except you don’t get dinner”.

There is very little set to speak of – the band take up much of the stage. It’s good to see them; as Woking lacks a permanent orchestra pit they are often hidden away backstage. And there are a few ladders. Staging is done with chairs and the steps of the orchestra stand, which succeeds in giving the feel of a vaudeville show. The band get a chance to show off a bit in the Entr’acte of act two, and at the end. That brings them applause that they richly deserve, and I wish other bands had the same opportunity. The brass, wind and banjo band, along with conductor/musical director Leon Charles, aren’t above hamming it up and are an integral part of the action.

Billy Flynn is my favourite lawyer from the world of musical theatre (ok, there’s not that much choice). His opening number may give law graduates an idealised view of the profession -most lawyers don’t get their own dancing girls with fans. He doesn’t care for expensive things, which is handy if you’re a legal aid criminal lawyer; all he cares about is love. Love of justice, love of legal procedure, and physical love ain’t so bad either. He’s a great character in the tradition of slightly sleazy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants lawyers. One day he’ll learn that the Ol’ Razzle Dazzle is no substitute for familiarity with statute and precedents, but today is not that day.

Billy is played by John Partridge, formally of the parish of Walford. His fellow Albert Square alumna Jessie Wallace plays Mama Morton. Both are brilliant – they act well and sing well, with a lot of character. Jessie gets a huge cheer at the end, and it is well deserved. It was a packed theatre on a Monday night and I don’t think it would be that way without the soap stars. But all more than pull their weight and deserved their places in the cast. Hayley Tamaddon (formerly of Emmerdale) plays Roxy, one of the two starring murderesses. She is a shining light. Singing, dancing, acting, comic timing … she’s got it all. Every moment she was on stage was a joy to watch. She made a manipulative murderer adorable and likeable, without seeming to try. Sophie Carmen-Jones plays the other murderess, Velma. More hard-nosed than Roxy, her character is less likeable, but is played and sung to perfection. Tonight I think her microphone let her down as at times she wasn’t quite loud enough. That aside, she sang beautifully and danced like a demon.

The costumes are … skimpy. With the men of the chorus in nothing but tight trousers and leather waistcoats and the women in lingerie, the fabric budget for the production must have run into the tens of pounds. I didn’t know quite where to look, so I hired some opera glasses to make sure. The chorus are tight, and not just in the trouser department. Every move, every line, is spot on. There are no set changes, no costume changes (so Kerry Spark bangs his gavel as the judge in a most unjudicial skintight, see-through mesh T-shirt) – there is nowhere to hide. It’s an energetic performance with a lot of dancing, lifting and singing. No wonder they all have such firm abs.

Other than the jokes that could do with repatriation to the mid-70s, the production is an absolute joy to watch. Perfect stagecraft, immaculate choreography and perfect singing come together to raise up an already brilliant musical. It’s a satire on crime and celebrity that could have been written today. I’m not saying you should kill for a ticket, but if you do… just give ’em the old razzle dazzle!

[Catherine Rogan 18 October 2016]

Chicago is at Woking’s New Victoria theatre  from Tuesday 18 October to Saturday 22 October, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday 


Little Shop of Horrors

little-shop-of-horrors-sam-lupton-seymour-in-little-shop-of-horrors-photo-credit-matt-martin-3
Sam Lupton as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Photograph by Matt Martin

A man, a plan, a carnivorous plant – Little Shop of Horrors is the musical (immortalised in the 1986 film) based on a 1960 B movie that was shot on a borrowed set in two days and featured an unrehearsed young Jack Nicholson. I only dimly remember the 1986 movie, but have never seen the 1960 one. The story is the tale of a Skid Row florists, on the brink of closure until an exotic plant (Audrey II) saves it, propelling geeky, naive Seymour, a role played tonight by Sam Lupton, and the shop into fame. But Seymour has a dark secret; Audrey II hungers for human flesh.

Our narrators are Crystal, played by Sasha Latoya; Chiffon, played by Vanessa Fisher; and Ronnette, played by Cassie Claire. I would happily pay for two hours of nothing but the three of them. They nailed the late 50s/early 60s Motown girl band harmonies, and were sassy and bubbly with it. Seymour is joined by Audrey (after whom the plant is named) played by Stephanie Clift in a wardrobe I’d like to borrow; Mushnik, flower shop owner, played by Paul Kissaun; and of course Audrey II, played by a series of ever increasing foam plant puppets. On the poster, and the front of the programme, however is “The Dentist” or to give him his given name, Orin. Played by Rhydian Roberts (just “Rhydian” in the programme, “Rhydian from the X Factor” to most) he is Audrey (the woman not the plant)’s abusive boyfriend. Little Shop of Horrors is a comedy, and it is very, very funny. It is not a subtle discourse on domestic violence. That said, The Dentist is pleasingly, unequivocally evil. No excuses are made for him and Audrey’s assertion she deserves no better, given her past, rings very sadly true. I last saw Rhydian in Joseph and while I was blown away with his singing, at that point his acting impressed less. He’s grown onto the stage, and gave the role a hint of camp, but a lot of genuine menace. Still, “Be a Dentist” is very funny and very well done, without ever making us empathise with Orin. Orin only gets two songs, but Rhydian comes back in Act Two as a few businessmen (and women) making Seymour offers he really should refuse.

Little Shop of Horrors is extremely well staged. It takes place in a compact location, amply provided by the scenery. The music, costuming and aesthetics perfectly capture the 1980s view of the 1960s (Motown with slap bass, leopardprint pencil skirts and hi top trainers). The music is perfect and of course there’s the real star of the show, Audrey II. From hand-held pot plant to stage-dominating, man-eating land-leviathan, Audrey II is the star of this (excellent) compact cast. Puppeted by Josh Wilmott and voiced by Neil Nicholas, Audrey II is no B movie creature, s/he is sublime.

Little Shop of Horrors is darkly comic, beautifully sung and well-acted. I worried that without fond memories of the film the musical would fall flat – I was wrong. It’s a great show and brilliantly done. It’s well worth spending a Suppertime with Audrey II. Just remember, an exotic plant like that needs more than Baby Bio.

[Catherine Rogan – 7 September 2016]

Little Shop of Horrors is at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Wednesday 7 September to Saturday 10 September at 7.30pm plus Saturday matinee at 2.30pm


The Rocky Horror Show

Rocky Horror Show 1_Credit David Freeman
PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID FREEMAN

Basques and fishnets, transexuality and sexual fluidity, both on stage and off. That’s what you get when you go to The Rocky Horror Show. Never has a show been so inclusive, with cast and audience united through a love of fun and demonstrative dressing. And that’s what makes The Rocky Horror Show unique and timeless. Many of the audience, old and young, were dressed outrageously, some of them queuing to enter the auditorium in just a bra and  slip or basque and fishnets – male and female alike. This show is still as liberating and levelling as it was when it first hit the stage. The classic ‘Time Warp’ really sums it all up.

If you’ve managed to miss the whole phenomenon for the last 40 years, and that includes putting your hands in the air and doing the pelvic thrust to the Time Warp at any party, then don’t worry, you can still catch up. ‘Rocky’ is the unique brainchild of theatrical legend Richard O’Brien, who, oddly, began his career in 1965 riding horses in British-made movies. It’s a show that will force you to stand up and join in, by either dancing or engaging in fine-tuned heckling with the narrator and events on stage.

The story is simple – well, sort of. Young, innocent couple Brad and Janet are stranded in a storm and seek refuge in the castle of Frank N Furter, coincidentally on the night of the revelation of Frank’s experiment – the creation of the human creature ‘Rocky’. Rocky’s appearance causes quite a stir in the castle, and takes the story on a surprising rollercoaster of comedy horror, overt sexuality, rock ‘n’ roll and science fiction.

Singing, dancing and acting performances were gloriously strong throughout. Riff Raff has the best commanding vocals, but Frank N Furter steals all the scenes with his mesmerising stage presence. The Narrator, played by well known TV and theatre face Norman Pace, wittily holds and parries the heckling with quick and current repartees, adding new laughs and jokes, to the delight of the audience. Rocky’s physical presence was perfect, highlighted by an admirable set of press-ups during one of the numbers.

Although the set may have lacked the stunning impact of the costumes and musical numbers, the lighting and live music certainly make up for it. The lighting was not only used to maximise the dramatic moments on stage, but also to engage the audience, frequently swooping across the stalls and sharing the vibrant energy throughout the theatre. I was pleased that there was a live band, rather than a soundtrack, as the music too resounded throughout the theatre, the vibrations adding spine-tingling moments to the performance.

I was surprised to see a lot of empty seats in the auditorium on the opening night, but the die-hard, enthusiastic fans certainly made up for it. This show is a cult classic, and one that is as funny, brilliant and moving as it was when it first hit audiences all those years ago.

[Amanda Briggs  June 2016]

The Rocky Horror Show is playing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, from 27 June – 2 July, with two shows at 5.30pm and 8.30pm on 1-2 July. 


Goodnight Mister Tom

Goodnight Mr Tom
David Troughton, and Elisa de Grey (puppeteer for Sammy the dog) in Goodnight Mister Tom Photograph: Dan Tsantilis

There is a famous quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that begins: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”  Those words should be embossed on the front of the programme of Goodnight Mister Tom, David Wood’s tearjerker play adapted from Michelle Magorian’s novel and currently at Woking’s New Victoria theatre.

It charts the experience of a second world war evacuee, William Beech, who comes from a dysfunctional family in the east end of London.  He is billeted at the Dorset home of an embittered recluse, Tom Oakley, whose only companion since his wife died many years before in childbirth has been his faithful dog.  William is initially bewildered by Tom’s ill ease at having a young boy in his life, teased by the children in the village, and chided for his illiteracy. The play charts the developing relationship between William and Tom and the villagers.

Aided by Zach, who befriends William and helps him emerge from his shell, Tom discovers that the young Londoner has hidden talents in drawing and acting.  But then William is called back to London by his mother, and, as he tries to make sense of her odd behaviour we see the war taking its toll.   Fortunately for William, Tom journeys from the country to seek him out and in conclusion, we see just how far the bond between the two of them has grown. This is a heart-warming production; a clever minimalist staging converts as the story requires, and a mainly young cast give full support to the leading characters. But special plaudits to David Troughton as Tom, and, on the first night, Freddy Hawkins as William and Harrison Noble as Zach.  And, for me, a special biscuit for Sammy, the dog!

[Dermot Hoare 20 April 2016]

Goodnight Mister Tom is showing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Wednesday 20 April to Saturday 23 April at 7pm, with additional matinees on Thursday 21 April (1.30pm) and Saturday 23 April (2.30pm).


The Mousetrap

Mousetrap 1L ouise James (Mrs Boyle) and Oliver Gully (Christopher Wren) in the 60th Anniversary Tour of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. Credit Liza Maria Daws
Louise Jameson and Oliver Gully in The Mousetrap Photograph: Liza Maria Dawson

Running in the West End for 60 years, with over 26,000 performances in London, you have to be curious as to what all the fuss is about, and how it’s endured. It’s not as if you can’t miss a bit of Agatha Christie even if you wanted to, as there is always a Miss Marple or Poirot or some new remake available on some TV channel almost every night. So what is it about this play in particular that has given it enduring appeal, and on its opening night in Woking, played to an almost full house?

A classic whodunnit? A conventional yet entertaining theatrical experience? The secret of its success goes beyond this. Since its beginning, it has always attracted a strong cast of theatrical and TV talent. The current cast, with familiar face Louise Jameson topping the bill, has a strong background in both theatre and TV, and play the roles with confidence and familiarity. The stock characters are brought to life, and the script is delivered with modern freshness. It is sometimes hard to believe the script was written over 60 years ago, as some of the lines feel as though they were written yesterday. Observations such as “English women don’t know how to take compliments” are as true now as they were then. It is a play that gives the audience exactly what it wants; a witty, relevant, timeless script, suspense, humour, a murderer and a twist in the tale ending.

So, what is it about? Think classic Agatha Christie – think English country house, snowbound, a range of characters, beautiful, well-dressed and well spoken men and women – and a wonderfully intriguing murder right from the start. Let’s face it, we love a good murder, don’t we? In this play, we don’t have to wait – murder is delivered to us on a plate, with the anticipation of more throughout. A group of seemingly unrelated people arrive at Monkswell guest house during a terrible storm, and find themselves isolated from the world, with a homicidal maniac in their midst. Tensions rise, infused, surprisingly, with quite a bit of humour, until a satisfying resolution is reached. This is a solid production: a strong, well-knit cast; an effective set, with flawless effects and a plot that engages and amuses. If you love Agatha Christie and want to be part of the secret, this is definitely a must-see. It is Christie royalty.

[Amanda Briggs 15 April 2016]

The Mousetrap is currently playing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, until Saturday 16 April.


The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard

The stage adaptation of the 1992 film begins with a bang – quite literally. Without warning a gunshot opens proceedings and things continue on a high octane with lasers, pyrotechnics and lots and lots of sound.

The Bodyguard took a long time to get to the silver screen, with many actresses mooted for the lead part of Rachel Marron. It’s testimony to the power of Whitney Houston’s performance that we couldn’t imagine it played any other way. There are few leading roles for black women in the theatre, and you wonder who would be on stage if the original had been filmed with Barbra Streisand (as nearly happened). As things stand it’s a great showcase of some young black British talent and I hope it leads to a more diverse musical theatre scene. The musical adds some of Whitney’s greatest hits to the original soundtrack, and they are all belters. As you will recall if you have seen the film, The Bodyguard tells the story of singer Rachel Marron and her bodyguard, played in the original by Kevin Costner. Just as in the film, we are spared Costner’s singing. The stage play is dominated by the vocals of former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke and Rachel John, who plays Rachel’s sister, Nicki. Other than a karaoke scene, Burke and John handle all the singing. Both have great voices, and it’s no chore to listen to them. Accompanying them is Stuart Reid, playing Frank Farmer (the eponymous bodyguard) and an able ensemble. Special mention goes to the young man playing Fletcher Marron who was adorable, but also an excellent singer, dancer and actor.

After the shock and awe of the opening number, the first half is a series of musical set pieces with bits of acting in between. The clever set requires a bit of time to change from mansion to stage to seedy club and this means there is a clear delineation between scenes, reminiscent of older times of theatre. The play as a play (rather than as an “Alexandra Burke sings Whitney Houston’s greatest hits” concert) picks up at the karaoke scene, where we see the beginning of Marron and Farmer’s relationship, and we also have some fun with the source material with Stuart Reid singing a tortuous version of I will Always Love You (don’t worry, the full-fat version at the end is well worth the wait). The staging has been brought up to date (with mobiles and selfies, oh my!) but keeps an early 90s sensibility in costume (maybe because the 90s are now retro. I feel old.)

The second half is much better as a theatrical experience. Few musicals have to deal with suspense. Matthew Stathers as “The Stalker” is menacing, and when he trains his laser sight on the audience he elicits nervous giggles. The staging becomes filmic, there are slow-motion strobe moments, the set closes around an important scene, zooming in. Projections on a gauze curtain may be too close to cinema for theatre purists but it works and keeps up the drama. Either you do or you don’t know how the story ends, but it’s giving little away to say it ends with a cover of Dolly Parton’s  I Will Always Love You, a song that is notable for its lack of metaphor, its straightforwardness. The Houston cover with its vocal showiness has become the standard, it was number one for 10 weeks in the UK (14 in the US) and is the bane of karaoke hosts the world over. It’s a sad song, sung beautifully and flashily. The Bodyguard is a sad story, told very beautifully flashily. Musically, The Bodyguard is perfect. As a drama, it gets there. As a spectacle it’s second to none. Go see it, you’ll have fun.

[Catherine Rogan 31 March 2016]

PHOTOGRAPH: PAUL COLTAS

The Bodyguard is at Woking New’s New Victoria theatre on Thursday 31 March at 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Friday 1 April at 7.30pm, Saturday 2 April at 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Monday and Tuesaday, 4-5 April at 7.30pm, Wednesday 6 April at 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday, 7-8 April, 7.30pm, and Saturday 9 April, 2.30pm, 7.30pm.  


Let It Be

Let It Be - Sergeant Pepper - Credit David Munn Photography (2)

There are some people who prefer the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, much as others are cat or dog lovers. I always loved the Beatles. Let It Be, a “jukebox musical” billed as a celebration of the music of the Fab Four, and currently at Woking’s New Victoria theatre, is certainly that – a packed audience is given more than 40 of the greatest hits from John, Paul, George and Ringo lookalikes and playalikes, who are themselves testimony to the huge numbers of Beatles tribute bands across the world.

Given that the Beatles first shot to fame more than 50 years ago, the age profile of the audience had me wondering at first if the sound level had been adjusted so that it did not interfere with hearing aids. I also thought it possible that the group was urging people out of their seats too early in the performance, although many dutifully complied, getting to their feet as quickly as ageing limbs permitted. The actor and musician who played John Lennon, Paul Canning, also looked a bit browned off, for no particular reason, in the opening numbers played in the setting of Liverpool’s Cavern Club, where it all began. But John cheers up as the show progresses, shuffling about the stage with little touches of Goonish humour, as the music itself builds in power and sheer heartstring-tugging quality. The quartet seem to come alive amid the screams delivered behind the backdrop of America’s Shea stadium, with numbers like Help! emphasising the importance of Ringo’s drumming (Luke Roberts) and George’s guitar (Roberto Angelelli) to the overall sound. It wasn’t just Lennon and McCartney out there.

And the beauty of this show, on a national tour fresh from the West End, is that it showcases songs that the Beatles never themselves performed live, to great effect at times. Thus Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds comes with a mesmerising psychedelic light show, and A Day in the Life is portrayed in its full glory, including the surreal poetry of Lennon’s lyrics (“Four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire”). There’s also an effectively contemplative moment, when Paul (Emanuele Angeletti), George and John take turns with acoustic guitars on special songs that we associate with the individual Beatles – Blackbird, Here Comes The Sun, and In My Life. Other highlights are While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Revolution. But it’s great to hear all the songs again, and the musicianship is exemplary, with a George Martin-like figure (Michael Bramwell) supplying extra sounds in the background. The only narrative in the show is supplied from supposed newsreel footage and quotes from the Beatles themselves from the era when they took us on such a magical mystery tour.

The audience on Monday night certainly had a raucous and riotous time, playing their part in shouting for more at the end of Abbey Road’s The End – which wasn’t the end, of course. Still to come was the song Let It Be itself, Get Back, and the singalong Hey Jude. Sure, it’s a jukebox musical, but not just any old jukebox musical. This is the Beatles, for goodness sake. So surrender to the music, surrender to the memories. And yes, the cast of Let It Be certainly passes the audition.

[Greg Freeman 22 March 2016]

Let It Be is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Tuesday 22 March to Saturday 26 March, with extra matinee performances on Wednesday and Saturday.

PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID MUNN PHOTOGRAPHY


Rambert’s The 3 Dancers, Hydrargyrum and Terra Incognita

Rambert, The 3 Dancers

What is Rambert? A contemporary dance company, yes, but more than that, it is an exciting, multi-dimensional, innovative, sensory experience. That the company is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year is hard to believe as the three pieces performed at the New Victoria theatre in Woking this week are fresh, original and very diverse. This national dance company travels around Britain, creating four new productions each year. Their repertoire is incredibly varied, incorporating a wide range of inspirations and styles of choreography, with music the driving force. Pieces such as The 3 Dancers, for example, are described as “story-driven pieces, accompanied by characterful and emotionally charged music”, which translates into an exquisite combination of movement, music, lighting and costume, to delightful and mesmerising effect.

This tour delights and challenges audiences with a selection of pieces from their wide-ranging repertoire, and the Woking opening night impressed the audience with  The 3 Dancers, pictured, Hydrargyrum and Terra Incognita. The first item of the performance was choreographer Didy Veldmand’s The 3 Dancers, based on the Picasso painting of the same name, painted in 1925. Picasso’s energetic painting is deconstructed through dramatic spotlighting, minimal set, Parisien café- style music and fluid movement. Veldman highlights the artist’s use of contrasts by depicting the reflections and distortions of the painting in the use of monochrome colours and shattered mirrors. The painting itself reflects the real-life tragic love story of three of Picasso’s friends of that era, which deeply influenced his emotional and professional life. The dance tells that story too, by contrasting elegance, unity and fluidity with sometimes aggressive and unsynchronized movement. Multiple perspectives, light and shadow and constantly changing and evolving movement brings this classic and dynamic piece of art to life.

Hydrargyrum, by choreographer Patricia Okenwa and Terra Incognita, by Shobana Jeyasingh equally challenge audiences to reflect on different aspects of the human condition and understanding of the human experience. Both are characterised by bold musical scores accompanied by dynamic and explorative dance and movement, such as the incorporation of haka-like primitive dances moves in Terra Incognita.

Both choreographers and dancers come from a broad international background, which could explain the richness of the experience and talent they present on stage. This is a company that has vision and is not afraid to push the limits of contemporary dance innovation and creativity. So, if you are in the mood for something quite different, then you will find Rambert at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking until Saturday 5 March.

[Amanda Briggs, 4 March 2016]

Rambert will be performing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/rambert/new-victoria-theatre/ on Friday 4 March and Saturday 5 March at 7.30pm


Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty

SLEEPING BEAUTY
PHOTOGRAPH: JOHAN PERSSON

Like all fairy stories, the Sleeping Beauty changes at each telling – from the 14th century folk tale to the fairy tale recorded by Brothers Grimm, to the Tchaikovsky ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1890, to Walt Disney in 1959 and many other film and stage versions.

Matthew Bourne says he was looking for inspiration for the 25th year of his company, and he found it on a visit to Tchaikovsky’s country retreat in 2011.  He had done two of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets and perhaps he should complete the trio.  The music was more than good enough but the story, while having some charm, lacked a credible romantic element.  It needed a device to have a romantic hero be there at the finger pricking, and again 100 years later.  Simple: fairies can do anything, especially if they are vampire fairies.  This Sleeping Beauty is a cocktail of symbolism, romance, vampires and fairies.  There is wonderful music and traditional ballet flavoured with just the right amounts of innovation and free dance – and just a tincture of eroticism.  Good conquers evil.

Recognisable MB dance moves from his other works and many new ideas make this show breathtaking.  We have seen ballet lampooned by modern entertainers, cartoonists, dancers … but here, Matthew Bourne is the satirist as his cast laugh at the style of the age, first in 1890, then in 1911 and finally in the present day.

There is no spinning wheel in this tale.  It’s back to the thorn of a rose as in early La belle au Bois Dormant tellings, and Matthew Bourne has added a new character to help sustain the tension for a century.  The gothic theme is brilliantly interpreted in the set, costume designs and cleverly crafted lighting. The action takes place mainly in three time slots: 1890, the year of the debut of Tchaikovsky’s ballet; 1911, at Aurora’s 21st birthday celebrations and around 1990, when the curse has run its course.  The sets and costumes cleverly transport us to each period, especially the 1890 set, inspired by the Marlinski theatre in St Petersburg.

We first saw Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty in Woking three years ago and its return was welcome.  There is so much in this alluring production that, while the entertaining mechanical baby, the effective use of travellators and dry ice, and some of the routines were remembered, it felt like a fresh experience.  I was completely entranced for the couple of hours I spent in this gothic fantasy. The only detraction was having Adam Maskell play both Caradoc and his mother. He executed his parts well but drag in ballet, even in this ballet, is an innovation that really doesn’t work.

Matthew Bourne’s is a wonderful ballet company, replete with talented dancers that support each other, and not just physically.  They salute each other’s virtuosity while relishing their own opportunities; they are wonderful together and the whole cast impresses with their athleticism.  Ashley Shaw is simply delightful as Aurora. She seems to weigh nothing and allow her body to make the most graceful shapes as she is rag-dolled around by good and evil alike; I believe in fairies after all.  As King of the Fairies, Chris Marney is quite the nicest vampire fairy you could hope to encounter and he delights in the accomplished way he executes traditional and innovative dance steps.

It would be difficult to write a review that does justice to the brilliance of this production.  I’m sure most of the audience in the opening night full house would not disagree.  Go and see it if you can; if it’s sold out, look at the tour dates and venues.

[Peter Morley 3 February 2016]

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, from Wednesday 3 February to Saturday 6 February


Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty 2
Ben Faulks as the Prince and Carla Nella as Sleeping Beauty. Photograph: Ian Olsson

The annual pantomime at the New Victoria, Woking, is always a spectacular occasion and this year’s Sleeping Beauty is no exception.  With a talented cast, stunning scenery, special effects and all the essentials associated with pantomime – comedy, songs, dancing, a baddie to spoil the fun but, eventually, a happy ending – who could wish for anything better?  Leading the way for the first half of the run is Katie Price, shaking off her alter ego as the glamour model Jordan, as the evil Fairy Malevolence.  In case there is anyone who doesn’t know the story, she is the forgotten fairy in a comprehensive invitation of fairies to the palace celebrations of the princess’s birth.  Adding acting to her many successful ventures, Katie manages to introduce a frightening air of devilish unpleasantness to what were intended to be happy proceedings by forecasting the baby’s death, much to the chagrin, among others, of Vanessa Clarke as her mother, the Queen Camilla.  How fortunate we were therefore to have Shelley Anne Rivers on hand as the good Lilac Fairy to counteract the threat on the princess’s 18th birthday.

The comedy is in the safe hands of South African comic Alan Committie, as Chester the Jester and Simon Nehan as Nurse Molly Coddle;  how did they get into the story, one might ask? The two of them ensure a constant flow of audience participation and together with Ben Goodridge, as the hard of hearing King Hector, they bring the house down with their adapted version of The Twelve Days of Christmas.  But the centre of attention, of course, is Princess Beauty played by Carla Nella, who has one of the most expressive face I’ve ever seen.  She sings and dances her way delightfully through the story and, as foretold, dutifully pricks her finger leaving her to sleep for a hundred years.  On hand to administer the necessary antidote is Ben Faulks, a highly experienced stage and TV actor and writer, as Prince Basil of Tarragon. Once that’s done, from then on it’s all downhill until the glittering wedding attended by all the villagers, young and old, who add their own dimension of colour and skillful dancing throughout the evening – and we can leave the theatre happily knowing that right will always triumph.

Of course none of this would have happened had it not been for the expertise of the backstage creative team:   Eric Potts, the writer, Ian Talbot, the director, and Kerry Newcomb, the choreographer, to name but three. The saddest moment of my evening, though, was when, traditionally, four young audience members are brought on stage to join Chester the Jester in a song.  He asked the three and seven year-olds what had they asked Father Christmas for?  Each of them replied: “An iPod.”   Where has the magic of childhood gone?

[Dermot Hoare 16 December 2015]

Sleeping Beauty is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Thursday 17 December to Thursday 24 December, matinees and evenings; from Saturday 26 December to Thursday 31 December, matinees and evenings; and from Saturday 2 January to Sunday 10 January. No performance on Wednesday 6 January, or matinee on Thursday 7 January 

Sleeping Beauty 1 Alan Committie, Ben Goodridge & Simon Nehan in Sleeping Beauty Credit Ian Olsson
Alan Committie, Ben Goodridge and Simon Nehan in Sleeping Beauty. Photograph: Ian Olsson


ANNIE - Craig Revel Horwood as 'Miss Hannigan'. Photo credit Paul Coltas (2)

Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan in Annie PHOTOGRAPH: PAUL COLTAS

Annie

Annie started as a children’s poem in 1885 (James Whitcomb Riley), was developed as a comic strip from 1924 (Arnold Gray), evolved into a Broadway musical in 1977 and spawned musicals and films over several decades since.  It contains history, ideas, ideals and entertainment. It’s not a grand musical but a musical with a good story, performed by a competent cast and, judging by the demography of the audience, appealing to all ages.

There was a lot to admire in this production – and a bit to be disappointed about. The choreography was quirky with a modern feel and very well executed.  The children were amazing.  Annie, played by Madeleine Haynes, put all the elements into her dance routines and she acted with assuredness and timing that made her the lead –  not just the child lead but the actor leading the company.  We know it’s dangerous for actors to play against children and animals.  For a while, it looked as though Sandy the dog would confidently be at the top of this hierarchy as he wagged his tail in time with the music and gave us body language that told his story beautifully.  Fortunately for Annie, he was more or less squeezed out of the limelight after his first accomplished appearance.

The set was fairly minimalist – something about Annie’s life being a jigsaw she was trying to put together – but it worked well.  Costumes and hair were excellent and gave what felt like an authentic 1930’s American feel.  After Annie, the strongest performance was by Alex Bourne playing Oliver Warbucks.  His was the only diction that could be discerned in song and spoken voice.  The best line in the production was when he commanded his man, “Find out what Democrats eat,” when hearing President Roosevelt was coming to dinner.

I am told there are memorable tunes in Annie but I was not convinced by this production in which the vocals were rather shouty.  However, the music is a good accompaniment to the story and to the enjoyable dance routines.  And Annie is a good story.  At one level it is Cinderella meets Oliver Twist but it is also a commentary on socio-political history.  This content lifts the script to add further dimensions and interest.  It was therefore a great pity that most was missed due to the inadequacies of the sound system. This was the bit that disappointed.  It just about worked for Warbucks but women’s and children’s voices were so distorted that they may have just as well been speaking and singing in another language and we missed the parallels between the Great Depression and events in our economy in 2008.  Exposure of the chaos caused by unfettered capitalism of Herbert Hoover’s Republican administration and the economic rescue performed by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were lost to the audience and we were prevented from making the poignant connection with J Maynard Keynes economic miracle in postwar Britain.  The little historical titbit of the roles the Hoovers, Herbert and J Edgar, played in American history probably went unnoticed.

There was some very good detail that added to the social commentary.  The radio station scene, especially, in which one of the three harmony singers was pregnant while another was carrying on with the ventriloquist – and they were all just trying to make a buck in hard times.

I suppose we need to mention Craig Revel Horwood, of Strictly Come Dancing fame.  I went to the theatre hoping to be the critic’s critic and put him down, but expecting not to be able to.  In the event, I suppose he gave me what I wanted.  Cami-knickers and woolly socks is not a particularly attractive combination.  And, for a man who judges dancing every week, high kicks with bent knees?  Not that bad for a man in his late middle age, but should he be doing it on stage?  The Pony Club would have been proud of it, as he commented of one hapless contestant on Strictly this week (I watched it to study CRH’s withering put-downs).  As a pantomime dame he would be fine but I can’t understand what he was doing in Annie.  However, I may have been the only one who thought this – the audience absolutely loved it  – and gave CRH a jolly good clap at his curtain call.

Woking’s New Vic is an excellent theatre with the most comfortable seats in England and a visit is nearly always a pleasant experience. This is not a not-to-be-missed show, but it is good entertainment and well worth the trip for lovers of live theatre.

[Peter Morley 18 November 2015]

Annie is playing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Tuesday 17 to Saturday 21 November, matinees and evenings (no matinee on Friday) .


Love Me Tender

LOVE ME TENDER the Musical

Love Me Tender is a strange creature, a “jukebox musical” featuring the songs of Elvis Presley. I didn’t know anything about the play beforehand so I was interested to see how they would take songs as ubiquitous and well-known as “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” out of context to fit them in an original story. The short answer is that they didn’t. Love me Tender is set in 1950s small-town America, and follows a distinctly Elvis-ish Chad (Ben Lewis, more on him shortly) as he turns the inhabitant’s humdrum lives upside down with the power of rock ‘n’ roll. This setting, while it might please the Presley-philes in the audience (there were many), means that The King is the ghost at the feast, reminding us we’d heard these songs done better before, and making it very difficult to suspend disbelief.

Part of the plot is a romantic mix-up involving a Shakespeare sonnet, and the story reminded me of some of Shakespeare’s work. But don’t get excited, I mean that in a bad way. I mean people falling in love having met once. Cross-dressing for no apparent reason. Hilarious same-sex-attraction mix-ups. (It is, last time I checked, 2015. A man being attracted to a man stopped being a punchline last century). That said, Love Me Tender doesn’t beg to be taken seriously. It has a knowingness and the characters seem to be aware they are acting strangely.  The plot is silly, but it is comically silly. That there is a gag where a hat is apparently hung on the erect penis of a statue tells you what level of humour they have gone for (I laughed like a drain at that bit, as well as the dancing Klansmen).

LOVE ME TENDER the MusicalMica Paris is brilliant. Whenever she sang I hoped she’d get a song to herself, without interruption (she did, eventually). That’s not to say the rest of the cast weren’t good, in fact the singing and dancing was mostly top-notch. Shaun Williamson, as Jim (better known as Barry from EastEnders) plays it for laughs but has a surprisingly good baritone. Sian Reeves as the autocratic mayor (who has banned necking and tight trousers! Boo! Hiss!) hams it up to scenery-chewing levels. Ben Lewis as Chad can sing but … but if he rode by on his motorbike in his leather jacket and (not that tight, actually) jeans I’d think less Rebel Without a Cause and more Middle Manager Without an Afternoon Meeting. He just doesn’t quite have the chemistry to make me believe women swoon at his feet.

The songs are from throughout Presley’s career, from the 50s to the 70s. There is also a sarcastic medley (featuring the dancing KKK members) of southern American patriotic songs including Glory Glory and Dixie. The arrangements of the Elvis songs were new, without making them unrecognisable. All in all, Love Me Tender is a fun night out if you keep your expectations at that level – fun and nothing else. Very, very silly and more than a bit random, it is energetic and fast-paced. Stop and think about who is in love with whom, and why and how have they not noticed that beard is drawn on, and you’ll be sunk. Enjoy the singing and the dancing and don’t pay too much heed to the plot. Cheesier than a deep-fried cheeseburger, it’s a guilty pleasure at best.

[Catherine Rogan 8 September 2015]

Love Me Tender is showing at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Tuesday 8 September to Saturday 12 September

PHOTOGRAPHS: JOHAN PERSSON


The Producers

Jason Manford as Leo Bloom and Cory English as Max Bialystock in The Producers. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
Jason Manford as Leo Bloom and Cory English as Max Bialystock in The Producers. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

“Leo! I didn’t know he could sing!” says Max, at the glittering finale of Mel Brooks ‘The Producers’, currently playing at the New Victoria in Woking. And neither did I, until I saw Jason Mansford, more renown for his standup comedy and TV appearances, sing, dance and play the part of Leo, one of the lead roles in the show, alongside an equally highly talented, versatile and brilliant cast. I was a little dubious, I must admit, as I waited for the curtains to rise. I was uncertain about how a very Jewish American musical would be translated by a very British cast. I was expecting irritating nasally American accents and dated “in jokes” that would fall flatter than a 1970s Woody Allen Manhattanite movie and get little more a cringingly uncomfortable dry laugh from the suburban Woking audience. How happily wrong I was.

The story is simple: two Broadway producers, Max, played by Cory English, and Leo, Jason Mansford, realise that they will make more money from a show that is a flop than a hit. They then seek out the worst script and the worst director that they can muster, convinced that they have found the winning, or rather losing, formula. Ross Noble delights as the mad ex-Nazi scriptwriter, Franz, but David Bedella truly steals the show as Roger de Bris, the director, and camp, enfant terrible, Hitler.

The synergy of the cast, chorus, music, set, costumes and choreography was apparent from the beginning. The audience started laughing from the first scene, as the humour and energy emitted from the stage was infectious, and continued to grow through the second act and finale. Plaudits should be shared by all involved as all performances kept the show flowing seamlessly and the entertainment value increasing to the end, without pause. ‘Springtime for Hitler’ was a glittering, hilarious triumph that would make Mel Brooks proud. The dancers, both male and female, had some high kicks in them that made your eyes water. Matthew Bourne, eat your heart out. My favourite number however was by Max singing ‘Betrayed’ in the prison scene. Clever, funny, and sung with such energy and dynamism.

The perfect balance of satire, farce, witty script and lyrics, made the show wickedly funny without a hint of saccharine sentimentality, and left the audience standing in their appreciation as curtains went down. It’s one of the few shows I would go and see again. ‘The Producers’ plays from Monday 18 May to Saturday 23 May.

[Amanda Briggs, May 2015]


Jeeves & Wooster

Jeeves and Wooster

PG Wodehouse is never an easy author to bring to the stage – the majority of his stories depend on narrative humour and not dialogue – but the success of ‘Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense’ now at the New Victoria theatre in Woking and until the end of the week brushes aside any previous obstacles, and provides us with an evening of top theatrical delight and constant laughter. No wonder it won the Olivier award for best comedy when it opened in London.  Part of this is due to how the writers, the Goodale brothers, have culled from the third of Wodehouse’s 11 Jeeves & Wooster novels, ‘The Code of the Woosters’,  his original  plotline, which is funny enough. But the rest comes from the breathtaking way in which Jeeves and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) perform a host of other familiar Wooster characters: Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, her father Sir Watkyn Bassett, Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia, Roderick Spode – who grows before us to an unimaginable nine foot height – and Constable Oates, some with split-second timing, and, at one hilarious occasion, one playing two of the characters arguing with each other at the same time. It’s hardly necessary to know the plot, but suffice to say it involves the rival  purchasing of a silver cow creamer and the warding off of an impending break-up of Gussie’s and Madeline Bassett’s engagement, since that would lead to her wanting to marry her second love, Bertie – which is the last thing a happy bachelor wants.

But the humour doesn’t end with the plot; Alice Power’s constantly changing set is an amusing tour de force in its own right.  A changing picture above the fireplace instantly takes us to a new venue; a revolving stage powered by a bicycle takes us from Bertie’s sitting room to Aunt Dahlia’s house to Bertie’s bedroom or elsewhere, as and when required. But it is the skill and timing of the actors that make the evening such a joy.  Ed Hancock is just how one imagines Bertie Wooster; Jason Thorpe as Jeeves et alia and Christopher Ryan as Seppings and many others deserve the highest praise.  This is a show you shouldn’t miss.

[Dermot Hoare 29 April 2015]

Jeeves & Wooster is at the New Victoria theatre in Woking until Saturday 2 May


 

Jesus Christ Superstar

Pamela Raith

Jesus Christ Superstar began life as a concept album, in the style of The Who’s Tommy, in the early 1970s, before it became a huge, worldwide theatrical hit.  The early musical numbers of the current touring show at Woking’s New Victoria theatre recall that era’s “pomp rock”, and Jesus himself in the opening scenes has the air of a superstar bored by all the adulation, yet fearing he is nearing the end of his career.

Here’s where I must make a confession.  Tuesday night’s production at the New Vic was the first time I have seen Jesus Christ Superstar, having instinctively avoided Andrew Lloyd Webber shows down through the years. But JCS is another matter, one of those shows that you ought to see before you die, perhaps. My grounding in the subject matter is based on school, Sunday school, and the gospel according to Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

So how does Jesus Christ Superstar shape up in 2015? Does it amount to more than a 1970s period piece? The first thing to say is that there are some outstanding highlights, with the Devil’s henchmen having nearly all the best tunes. Cavin Cornwall is impressive and authoritative as Caiaphas, his thunderous bass magnificent and awesome in ‘This Jesus Must Die’. Equally, Tom Gilling as Herod is wonderfully camp and decadent in delivering his showstopper song, the chorus matching his moves in Roaring 20s style. Tim Rogers as Judas also gives it his all, as the show turns a figure that perhaps worried that Jesus was not far-left enough in his preachings, into an essentially tragic character.  Quite a few members of the audience may have gone along hoping to see X Factor star Rhydian Roberts playing Pilate. His part was confidently taken by understudy Johnathan Tweedie on Tuesday night, although the substitution came as a surprise.

The problem for me was Jesus, even if it is almost sacrilegious to say so, in more ways than one. For  Glenn Carter has played the part to great acclaim in the West End, on Broadway, and on film, and therefore knows it inside out. But the way he moved with stately grace and pace among his adoring fans in the first act was eerily reminiscent of the late, revered Demis Roussos, even down to the occasional falsetto outbursts. Perhaps that was the image he was going for; after all, Roussos attracted legions of admirers. It is fair to say that Carter does come alive in the Gethsemane scene,  and his agonies at the Crucifixion are properly moving. At the same time, young Rachel Abedeji as Mary Magdalene delivers her ‘Everything’s Alright’ and ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ with a soft, understated charm that possibly only lacks a little passion. Maybe it is a question of the age gap?

The set, designed by Paul Farnsworth, is stark and effective. The Jerusalem and Temple scenes, choreographed by Carole Todd, are staged with verve and colour, the Last Supper tableau arranged with a knowing eye to art history, and the final ‘Superstar’ number carries all before it. Accordingly, the packed audience, whose applause had been respectful throughout, erupted at this point, with many standing to show their appreciation of the show directed by Bob Thomson, and veteran theatre impresario Bill Kenwright.

[Greg Freeman 1 April 2015]

PHOTOGRAPH: PAMELA RAITH

Jesus Christ Superstar is showing at Woking’s New Victoria theatre until Saturday 4 April, including matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and an evening performance only on Good Friday  


Spamalot

Todd Carty as Patsy in Spamalot Photo Credit Manuel HarlanI told a little white lie to my partner to get him to join me to see Spamalot. I said: “It’s a comedy with some singing.” He doesn’t like musicals, you see, and Spamalot is unashamedly a musical. But I knew he’d like it. Spamalot is “lovingly ripped off” from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with a few changes to plot and the crowd-pleasing addition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from The Life of Brian. Forty years on we know all the jokes – the audience could silently mouth along to “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”. But they’re still funny. There is a timelessness to the absurdity of Monty Python, a universality in its silliness.

This production stars Joe Pasquale as King Arthur and Todd Carty, pictured right (Mark off Eastenders or Tucker off Grange Hill, depending on your age) as luggage-carrying, coconut-clopping servant Patsy. Both are excellent. I wasn’t a fan of Pasquale, but he is excellent here. His ad libs and rapport with the rest of the cast frequently leave those on stage laughing as much as the audience. Carty is very good as well – Patsy is a role that looks like not very much but requires a constant stream of just-right facial expressions. Carty takes gormlessness to a new level, and sings and dances pretty well too. Sarah Earnshaw gets to have the most fun as Lady of the Lake – in poking fun at the absurdities of stage musicals Spamalot indulges in many of them and gives Earnshaw chance to give a note-perfect performance that makes Dame Shirley Bassey seem understated. But there is no dead wood (or even wood that is not-yet-dead) in this production. Every player, every song, every dance, every joke is bang on. The knights and the ensemble are tireless in a very energetic production.

Spamalot is, at its heart, a strange combination of a rehash of a film and a satire on West End musicals. The plot-within-a-plot that the protagonists were in a musical all along almost makes too much sense (the film ended in a modern-day police murder investigation, for no apparent reason). But it’s all done knowingly, with a large wink. Some of the Pythons weren’t happy at the idea of Spamalot (until the cheques started coming in at least) – the point of the Pythons was never to tell old jokes. But once the show was up and running the consensus was that it’s tremendous fun – which it is. My partner might not have got all the references to stage musicals (his main exposure to musical theatre is me singing Phantom of the Opera off-key as I wash up) but he enjoyed the show, as I knew he would. It’s a very silly, very funny evening.

[Catherine Rogan 10 March 2015]

Spamalot is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Tuesday 10 March to Saturday 14 March. More details

PHOTOGRAPH: MANUEL HARLAN


Joke in the Box, The Lightbox

Danny BucklerOn Thursday evening, the Lightbox hosted the first of what is planned to be a regular stand-up comedy night on the last Thursday of the month, from February to September. Paul Duncan McGaritty was the compere for the evening.  An amiable, energetic young man who told us he was from Yorkshire.  We didn’t hold this against him.  He came on with gusto and worked hard to engage the audience throughout.  He did this by entreating us to be on his side in making the gig a success.  Not easy to stir a Woking audience and he did well to elicit some response. We then sat through three warm-up acts and a “resident comedy poet” before the main act.  The audience was a good cross-section of Woking folk with an age range from around 30 to 70.  Some of the youngsters were comedy night regulars, I imagine, and they helped by engaging with the acts when opportunity allowed.  Most of the older members of the audience were rather left out in the cold by the teen-speak of our entertainers who failed to notice the demography of their captives, although one mature gent I spoke to derived some pleasure from “getting some of the jokes”.

This comedy night was scheduled to run from 8-10 pm with a half-time break, but, with six stagestruck would-be comedians with egos to satisfy, this was never going to fit.  When top-of-the-bill comedian Danny Buckler, pictured, arrived at the mic at 20 seconds to 10, he advised us that he had as long as he wanted – till 10!  However, his was an act of some quality and most of the audience happily stayed half an hour for his energetic and skilful commentary of The Phantom of the Opera and on losing his virginity, to Brian Blessed’s approval, signalled by a quoted  Blessedian “Splendidddddd …!” The event was “staged” in the Ambassador room on the top floor.  I say “staged” in parentheses because the room was set out lecture-style, with no stage area or stage lighting. As Danny Buckler said: “This is not comedy, it’s a lecture.  This is a weird gig.” This was a brave effort and should be encouraged.  The Lightbox team will have learned a lot from their first comedy night: not a comedy of errors, but of learning opportunities.  If they can sort out some lighting, perhaps a bit of a stage and run with just a compere, one warm-up act and a main act of the quality of Danny Buckler this could be a real success and a welcome addition to Woking’s arts and entertainment scene.  Well done, keep at it please.

[Peter Morley 27 February 2015]


Arcadia

Arcadia 1
Flora Montgomery (Hannah Jarvis) and Robert Cavanah (Bernard Nightingale) in Arcadia. Photograph: Mark Douet

Dense. Intense. Thought-provoking. Perplexing. Stimulating. If you are currently fed up with light entertainment and the intellectual mulch of winter programming, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is the tonic. It is easily understood why the piece has been labelled as his theatrical masterpiece. As many an A-level Literature student will attest, it throws up as many questions as it answers, about life, the universe and everything. Perhaps Douglas Adams came up with a much more comprehensible answer to such questions by succinctly stating it as “42”, but Stoppard demands that his audience truly considers the answers in depth, and in personal terms.

Arcadia is a bold choice to put into production again, after a 20-year break; it takes a brave director to rise to the challenge. It is a high-concept, thematic play, largely overshadowing the traditional literary elements of plot, setting and character, yet the genius of the piece is how these understated elements are skilfully and subtly used to convey the main ideas. The play works on visual and spoken contrasts and opposites; in the beginning the audience is clear about the differences  – the past and the present, science and nature, classical and romantic images, instinct, supposition and fact – yet as the play progresses these boundaries and divisions are broken down and order becomes disorder, and the audience is left grappling with chaos theory and the second law of thermodynamics.

Intrigued? So you should be! This is no theatrical candy bar – it is a hearty meal with a complexity of flavours that complement and contradict yet leave you with plenty of leftovers to take away in a conceptual doggy bag. For me, it did help to have read the play beforehand, and I would imagine that much of the audience this week will be made up of eager A-level students, clutching and scribbling in their much annotated copies on the preponderance of symbols, themes and literary devices. However, watching the play with no previous experience or expectations would also be a worthwhile and challenging experience.

The play opens in 1809 with Thomasina and her tutor working on algebraic theory, but are distracted by gossip about the sexual antics of the household. It could easily be assumed at this point that the play may become an Oscar Wilde romp, but it soon takes a different direction when dialogue tackles theorems and the purpose and pursuit of knowledge. Without a set change, the next scene moves to the present day, where the characters, mostly academics, are investigating the characters and events that took place in the house 200 years earlier.

The cast, a mix of experienced and emerging talent, work cohesively in timing and delivery. Strong performances are delivered in the form of Septimus Hodge, Hannah Jarvis, Bernard Nightingale and Valentine Coverly. Thomasina, the child genius, is difficult to hear clearly at times, which detracts from her impact on stage, as her role is central to the plot. Interestingly, the character of Richard Noakes, the revolutionary landscape architect, is played in a French camp style, which seemed an odd choice.

Arcadia should be seen with a group of friends followed by a good bottle of wine (sorry, not you, A-level students!) and lively conversation.

[Amanda Briggs February 24, 2015]

Arcadia is currently playing at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, from 23-28 February.

This review first appeared on the Essential Surrey website


Full Monty 1

The Full Monty

Premiered in Sheffield in 2013, this is the touring version of Simon Beaufoy’s play, which is his adaptation of his excellent 1997 screenplay of the same title.  A West End production ran for five weeks in early 2014 but closed due to disappointing ticket sales.

This is a good story – unemployed men in a steel town desperate to find some way of earning some money rather than just drawing the dole or washing dishes in the Conservative club – and could have been a poignant reminder of the unacceptable face of Thatcherite capitalism smashing trades unions and dismantling British industry, to throw decent, skilled men on the scrapheap.  It might even have been a moving human story in the hands of a more skilled playwright; that this is Simon Beaufoy’s first play is unfortunately only too apparent.

The opening scene in a derelict steelworks looked quite promising but shoehorning subsequent jobcentre and police station scenes into the same backdrop really didn’t work, even allowing for some imagination by the audience. The accents – sort of a southern idea of something vaguely northern, and certainly not Yorkshire – just made much of the dialogue inaudible.  Poor attention to detail left us with some grating errors: a steel beam used as a central device had rivets (which would put it 50 years earlier), and a comment about too much acetylene referring to a backdrop visual of electric arc welding (which doesn’t use acetylene, of course) were just wrong.  However, most of the audience didn’t bother their heads about this; they were happy to clap and caterwaul at any suggestion of male flesh while they anticipated the full Monty of the final scene.  It turned out that that was all they came for.  The socio-political commentary was watered down in this stage version, apart from a brief appearance of Margaret the crane, and a bronze of the lady in the Con club (actually, still the steelworks poorly adapted).

As the evening rolled painfully on, the audience became more raucous and more hostile towards the few unfortunate men (about two in each row of 50 or so seats, and none in the first half dozen rows) until the final scene when the New Victoria theatre of Woking became a Sheffield workingmen’s club on a women- (not ladies, I have to add) only night.  I have to say this scene was cleverly done, and was the one piece of theatre that worked better than the film, by being able to promote audience participation.  The girls got their Full Montys, after a fashion.

The jokes lacked humourous content and timing, the dialogue was rather flat and was delivered for the most part without energy.   Bobby Scholfield occasionally injected a bit of fun, but only Andrew Dunn, as Gerald, put in a solid performance.

“I hope you’re good,” the stage manager said to the chaps.  “Have you ever seen a pack of she-lions take down a zebra?”  This was the best line in the play.  The audience of she-lions (of all ages, from young mums to grannies) closed ranks and made me feel pretty unwelcome as I tried to hide in my seat.  The New Vic really should put a health warning on this show and make it women- only.  This was not a place for a man. If you just want to watch some chaps allude to getting their gear off, then this play could be for you – if you are that sort of girl, get along to the New Vic this week.  If you are a man of any disposition, stay home and watch the telly.

[Peter Morley 3 February 2015]

The Full Monty is showing at the New Victoria theatre in Woking until Saturday 7 February 


Barnum

BARNUM - Linzi Hateley as 'Chairy', Brian Conley as 'PT Barnum' and company. Photo by Johan PerssonBARNUM - Brian Conley as 'PT Barnum'. Photo by Johan PerssonYou’d have to go a long way to find something as vibrant and visually exciting as Barnum, the current production at the New Victoria theatre, Woking.   This entertaining show charts the early career of Phineas T Barnum, that irrepressible showman who lived in the early part of the 19th century and was eventually to team up with James A Bailey to create the world-famous Barnum and Bailey Circus – billed as the Greatest Show on Earth.   The show begins as Barnum, as something of a con artist, entices people, who he views as suckers, with his hype to come and see attractions – most of them fake – such as the smallest man, the oldest woman and the largest elephant.   Aided and encouraged by his wife, Chairy, who manages to temper some of his wilder schemes, his next venture is a museum of relics and curiosities to which he adds variety acts and tours America.  Then, learning about a singing sensation, Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera singer, he contracts to manage her and leaves his wife to accompany her but it is a venture not destined to last.  She tires of his insatiable “humbug” and goes off with another admirer leaving Barnum to return to Chairy realising how much he needs her.   His next scheme is to go into politics and be elected as a senator but lack of support and the untimely death of his wife prompts him to return to the circus attractions with which he is so familiar, leading to his subsequent meeting with Bailey – and the rest is history.

One has to congratulate Mark Bramble for writing such an enjoyable book but the whole production staff deserve praise:  Cy Coleman for the music, Michael Stewart for the lyrics and Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy for directing the show among others.  That said, it is the impeccable and whole-hearted performance by Brian Conley as Barnum that brings the show to life, ably supported by Linzi Hateley as Chairy and Kimberley Blake as Jenny Lind as well as the whole of the ensemble who combine acting with dancing, gymnastics and circus performances to keep the sell-out audience constantly on the edge of their seats.

[Dermot Hoare 23 January 2015]

Barnum is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking until Saturday 24 January


The Horse at War, 1914-1918, The Lightbox

WAR HORSELondon Cast 2014
Photograph of Joey from the National Theatre production of War Horse by Brinkoff Mögenburg

The Lightbox gallery in Woking has achieved a huge coup in securing the loan of ‘Joey’, the original  horse puppet from the National Theatre’s acclaimed stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel ‘War Horse’, for its exhibition, The Horse at War: 1914-1918’,  at the Lightbox from 25 November 2014 – 1 March 2015. This particular Joey performed in over 1,600 shows before being retired in March 2013. It was worked on stage by three puppeteers, known as Head, Heart and Hind, and after its sterling work went to the V&A museum, from where it has gone out on loan to the Lightbox – the first time that Joey has been shown outside London. Drawings by illustrator and theatre designer Rae Smith, who won Tony and Olivier Awards for her scenic designs for the performance of ‘War Horse’, also feature in the exhibition.

At the outbreak of war the army increased its number of horses from 25,000 to 165,000 by impounding horses from the civilian population. ‘War Horse’ tells the story of a young boy Albert, and his beloved horse Joey, who has been requisitioned by the army. Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides during the war, while Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home. Joey, designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company, stands on a plinth – it took seven people an entire day to reassemble him for display at the Lightbox –  as the centrepiece of an exhibition that will undoubtedly pull in a succession of school parties and families. But it’s not all about Joey. There is some remarkable art on display in this exhibition, revealing among other things that cavalry was still charging into gunfire as late as 1918, and also emphasising that depiction of the first world war should not be the sole territory of the war poets.

Forward the Guns! 1917 (Lucy Kemp-Welch, Tate) portrays a charge of horses pulling artillery. According to her obituary in the Times, Kemp-Welch had sat with her easel on Salisbury Plain while eight batteries of horse artillery were driven towards her so that she could sketch the general outline of their movement. Alfred Munnings’ painting of a Canadian cavalry charge at German artillery and infantry in 1918 reveals that at this late stage in the war the Allies were still using horses to attack enemy lines. More than half the squadron was killed in what is often described as the last great cavalry charge of the first world war. However, the Battle of Moreuil Wood is also credited helping to end the German spring offensive, and marking the beginning of their retreat. Munnings was assigned as a war artist to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, and many of his works were painted a short distance from the German front lines. Canadians Cutting and Carting Wood, Farnham, 1919 (Alfred Thomas Porter, Imperial War Museum)   shows the amount of resources that were involved in fighting a war, a Canadian regiment cutting huge amounts of wood for the war effort in Farnham. Information beside the painting reveals that more than 300 Canadian Forestry Corps servicemen are buried in a churchyard at Bramshott, near Liphook, victims of the devastating Asian flu pandemic at the end of the war. Other striking pictures include A Horse Ambulance Pulling a Sick Horse out of a Field and A Horse Dipping Bath, both by Edwin Noble, and Pack Mules, by William Roberts. Apparently mules were more likely make noises and give their position away to the enemy, so their tongues were removed. There are also works by John Singer Sergeant and CRW Nevinson, who was appointed an official war artist in 1917.

The exhibition’s curator, Michael Regan, told us that planning started more than three years ago. Originally it was intended to focus on the Canadian artist Alfred Munnings, but it became clear many of his pictures remained in Canada, and it would be too expensive to bring them over. “We found out we could have Joey about a year ago. I was told it was impossible, but I don’t like to take No for an answer, and said I was going to try.” He added: “I wanted something that was contemporary – that could link the past with the present.”

On the landing outside the main exhibition are a number of other exhibits, including an animation of drawings produced by the Lightbox’s Young Curators Project, in which a number of youngsters developed their drawings of war horses and then transferred them to a short animated film, working with animation artists Veselina Dashinova and Nicholas McArthur. Make sure you see that, too. This exhibition also marks the introduction of the Lightbox’s £5 annual pass to see its biggest shows, although under-18s remain free. Who knows? It could result in an increase in visitors, as people return over the course of the year, to make sure they get their full £5’s-worth.

[Greg Freeman and Sarah Stewart-White 26 November 2014]

‘The Horse at War: 1914 – 1918’ will be at The Lightbox in Woking until 1 March 2015. The West End Production of ‘War Horse’ continues at the New London theatre, currently booking until 14 February 2015. It is also currently on a tour of the UK and Ireland

War Horse 2
Long Red Poppies © Rae Smith

Dangerous Corner

Dangerous Corner
Michael Praed and Kim Thomson. Photograph: Robert Day

As the curtain rises on the New Victoria theatre’s latest production, Dangerous Corner, a group of friends and business colleagues are enjoying an after-dinner conversation.  Set in the host’s drawing room, the original topic is “let sleeping dogs lie”, but the talk moves swiftly on to the subject of lying and truth-telling, until the hostess offers round a musical cigarette box.  “I’ve seen that before,” says one guest.  “No, you couldn’t have done,” responds the hostess, and that slender exchange lights the fuse for an evening of revelation and admission.   Repressed love, an adulterous affair, stolen money and a homosexual relationship all come to light as the host demands that the truth be told.  JB Priestley once said: “My plays are meant to be acted, not read,” and one can understand what he meant as you have to listen and watch carefully to the interplay between the characters in this highly entertaining but tense drama.

Full marks to the cast then for keeping a disappointingly small audience at the edge of their seats.  Honours go to Colin Buchanan, from the popular television detective series Dalziel and Pascoe, who plays Robert Caplan, the host.  Finty Williams – how she must be fed up with people saying ‘She’s Judi Dench’s daughter, you know’ – plays his wife, Freda Caplan.  Michael Praed, who has come a long way since I saw him in The Pirates of Penzance at the Drury Lane theatre many years ago, takes the part of Charles Stanton – the man who pours symbolic petrol on the raging fire of recriminations – and Kim Thomson, with a wealth of theatre, film and television experience behind her, is the one who lights the original fuse.  Praise, too, to Gary McCann for a fantastic art deco set which, unusually for the theatre, provides a ceiling.

Perhaps, because the play has been on tour to several Surrey theatres, it has already been seen by the majority of local playgoers.   Perhaps JB Priestley is not associated with good entertainment, although he wrote almost 50 plays and a host of novels, and An Inspector Calls has been a theatrical favourite ever since it was written in the 1940s. But, as winter evenings draw in, if you’re needing a lift, you’ll find Dangerous Corner is well worth your money.

[Dermot Hoare 25 November 2014]

Dangerous Corner  is running at the New Victoria theatre in Woking until Saturday 29 November


English Youth Ballet, Swan Lake

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Name a ballet? Swan Lake is probably the first one on your lips. Yes, Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous, traditional ballet is still as adored today as it was when it was first performed in 1895. Perhaps like me, having never seen it before, you are nevertheless familiar with the score and some of the famous pas de deux scenes. But seeing a full production of a host of dancers, exquisitely costumed, choreographed against an atmospheric set and dramatic storyline, is a visual feast, and a “bucket list” must.

This production, by the English Youth Ballet, is particularly significant for Woking audiences, as the cast of dancers is largely made up of local youth ballet companies. The English Youth Ballet was set up in 1998 and presents eight productions per year visiting different counties in the UK, rehearsing and performing with a local cast of 8-18 year olds in each town. These talented young dancers dance alongside professional dancers in the principal roles, and a high production standard is maintained through the costumes, scenery and props made by well-known professionals and artists hailing from the West End, Covent Garden and the London Coliseum.

This adaptation of the ballet is set against the backdrop of the Russian tsar’s court and the Mariinsky Theatre and Ballet. The story tells the tale of two women, Odile and Odette, vying for the affections of the prince (Oliver Speers), who falls in love with the beautiful and delicate Odile (Adele Robinson), but is not allowed to marry her as she is not of noble birth. The arrogant princess Odette (Amy Drew) and her sinister father Baron Von Rothbart (Steven Wheeler) scheme to make the prince take her hand in marriage during the rehearsals of Swan Lake and in the tsar’s court.

The principal dancers dance with poised perfection, conveying the passions and emotions of the story with grace, power and style. The prince’s powerful movements, his solos and pas de deux with Odile and Odette make light of the artistic and technical challenges clearly involved in a production with such a large cast almost constantly on stage. Yet it is the youngsters that often steal the scenes, by the joy, charm and synchronicity of their dancing. The beauty of their costumes adds an extra dimension to the flow and feeling of the piece as they constantly weave across the stage, through and around the principals, particularly in the final tragic scenes, causing the demise of the evil baron.

Swan Lake is a delightful ballet, deserving of its longstanding success and popularity and is currently playing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, from Friday 14-15 November.

[Amanda Briggs 15 November 2014]


The Giant Electronic Art Show, The Lightbox

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Summer may be over – but The Giant Electronic Art Show is still on for a few more weeks, including October half-term, at the Lightbox in Woking. By all accounts, the hands-on exhibits have had a fair hammering from enthusiastic youngsters over the summer, yet all but one has survived the experience. The show may be aimed at kids, but there’s plenty for a 62-year-old to enjoy as well, I discovered. With the help of one of the Lightbox’s friendly guides, I managed to play a bit of interactive table tennis with disorientating light effects – Will Nash’s ‘Noisy Table’ – and have a go at an electronic fairground mallet thingy. There’s an ingenious bottle organ, and examples of some of the weird and wonderful things that can be produced with 3-D printing as well. The show is a modern take on the Victorian fairground tradition, featuring the work of seven multimedia artists. The creative types associated with Surrey and Hampshire Hackspace  have been involved, too. Unusually for exhibitions, visitors are told: Please Touch the Exhibits. Nice to see the Lightbox cafe so packed when I had a spot of lunch there afterwards, too. There’s plenty coming up to see at the Lightbox  – what a wonderful asset it is for Woking – so watch this space for more reviews in the next few weeks.

[Greg Freeman 17 October 2014]

The Giant Electronic Art Show is in the Lightbox’s Main Gallery until 2 November


To Kill a Mockingbird

Mocking Bird 1 lker (Stephanie Crawford), Leo Heller (Dill), Jemima Bennett (Scout) and Natalie Grady (Miss Maudie). Photo Johan Persson

Mocking Bird 2 Harry Bennett (Jem), Leo Heller (Dill), Jemima Bennett (Scout). Photo Johan PerssonI imagine there must be few people under the age of 50, and many older than that, who have not been exposed to Harper Lee’s story of life in an Alabama town in the early 1930s, either for pleasure, but more probably for some exam or other.  If not, then they will almost certainly have seen the film with Oscar-winning Gregory Peck in the lead role of the widower, Atticus Finch, a prominent and wealthy lawyer in an otherwise depressed community.  Now this account of raw life in a mixed Southern town has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by the late Christopher Sergel and is currently being performed by the Regent’s Park Theatre company.  On tour after a successful London run, it is the current production at the New Victoria theatre. While the original book has the story narrated by a adult woman, Scout Finch (Atticus’s daughter), both the play and the film have her still as a young child and thus the action of the play unfolds in real time.  So, against the central tour-de-force of the play, the trial of a black man accused of raping a white girl, we see Scout with her older brother Jem and their visiting friend Dill acting out their youthful stories as well as unkindly taunting a recluse, Boo Radley, who has never been seen outside his house – that is, until Atticus points out to them that one must not make ill-formed judgments about people.  In agreeing to defend the black man, Atticus has to defeat an early attempt by the townspeople to lynch the accused man.

So here is a play about intolerance and prejudice, but it is also about a young girl growing up and facing up to life, and how she comes to embrace sympathy and understanding despite hatred and ignorance all around her. Congratulations to Jon Bauser for his imaginative set design, the initial chalk outlining of the town plan on the stage vividly bringing one in to the action. Full marks to the whole cast, because this is not an easy play to perform. But Daniel Betts as Atticus, Susan Lawson-Reynolds as Calburnia, his housekeeper, and Christopher Akrill as Boo Radley deserve special mention for making it look easy.  If you know the book or the film I urge you to go, and see what you will find to be an iconic production.

[Dermot Hoare 8 October 2014]

PHOTOGRAPHS: JOHAN PERSSON

To Kill a Mockingbird is running from Wednesday 8 October until Saturday 11 October at the New Victoria theatre, Woking


Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby

The Great gatsby, NORTHERN BALLET:Jay Gatsby; TOBIAS BATLEY,Daisy Buchanan; MARTHA LEEBOLT, Myrtle Wilson; VICTORIA SIBSON, Tom Buchanan; KENNETH TINDALL,Nick Carraway; GIULIANO CONTADINI, Jodan Baker; HANNAH BATEMAN, George Wilson; BENJAMIN MITCHELL, You

After having been utterly captivated by the Northern Ballet’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, the return of the company with its highly successful production of The Great Gatsby has been the most anticipated show of the year for me at the New Victoria. David Nixon, choreographer and director, has triumphed once more by boldly taking a classic piece of literature and transforming it into another art form, capturing the emotional intensity of this passionate, tragic, love story. It does help to know the original story however, as some of the audience who hadn’t read the book or seen the films were a little confused in the first act, partly because of the similarity in looks between two lead characters, Daisy and Myrtle. But, nevertheless, the mesmerising and exquisite combination of movement, music, set and costumes carried the audience along to the stunning end.

Set in the lavish and decadent 1920s, the age of the American Dream, the story starts with the arrival of Nick Carroway, moving into a prestigious New York neighbourhood, next to the mysterious Gatsby and across the bay from his cousin Daisy, who is married to the brutish but very wealthy Tom Buchanan. On visiting his cousin, Nick soon discovers that Tom is having an affair with the vivacious but poor Myrtle, wife of dull, struggling garage owner, Wilson. Nick also discovers that he is the link between Daisy and his enigmatic neighbour, Gatsby, who throws lavish parties in which he doesn’t participate, instead staring longingly at the green light across the bay, the light from Daisy’s dock. Nick learns that Gatsby and Daisy were young lovers before Gatsby was torn away to serve in the war in Europe, and she was led into a society marriage to Tom. On his return from the war, heartbroken, Gatsby rebuilt his life through dubious and corrupt means, culminating in the accumulation of massive wealth.  A meeting between Gatsby and Daisy is orchestrated at Nick’s house, and the couple rediscover their love. This complex love story builds to a dramatic climax in which underlying themes of requited and unrequited love, class, corruption and money are exposed.

The premier dancers deliver the story with glorious passion and charisma; the male leads of Gatsby, Nick and Tom portray their complex relationships superbly, with memorable dances between Nick and Gatsby. Daisy’s delicacy and beauty and Myrtle’s unrefined passion is seen through the vibrancy of their dance. The contrast between the two is highlighted in two love scenes; Tom and Myrtle’s highly sexual dance contrasts with the beauty and sensuousness of Gatsby and Daisy. The costumes and set are as much a part of the story as the characters, embedded as it is in the glamorous Twenties. The costumes do not disappoint; the men dressed in suit and tails, the women in gorgeous, floating, glittering dresses capture the flamboyance and splendour of the time. The party scenes are visually spectacular alongside the surprisingly varied musical score. The late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett takes credit for composing the music, bringing together a collection of film music, jazz, symphonies, choral and ensemble works as well as songs of the age. The set was cleverly and elegantly constructed, moving constantly and seamlessly between scenes, adding fluidity and sophistication to the story. The famous dock and the distant green light beautifully reflect the symbolism of Gatsby’s love.

At the finale it was hard to remember that the story wasn’t actually written as a ballet. It seemed like the perfect medium for it, embedded in the visual splendour and music of the age. Whether you have read the story or not, whether you like ballet or not, I highly recommend it – it is quite out of the ordinary.

[Amanda Briggs 24 September 2014]

PHOTOGRAPHS: BILL COOPER

The Great Gatsby runs from Tuesday 23 September to Saturday 27 September at the New Victoria theatre, Woking.


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - full company (2) - credit Darren Bell

Growing up, Joseph was my sister’s favourite musical. Mine was Phantom of the Opera. My mum had to take my sister to see Joseph in Blackpool, and on a separate occasion me to see Phantom in Manchester. I went to the home of Joy Division and Morrissey to see the tragic tale of a misfit outsider, and my sister went to the Vegas of the North to see the story of an over-confident favourite child made good. Amateur psychologists might guess we had very different personalities, which we did (and do). I never sold her into slavery (only because few Ishmaelite caravans passed through West Yorkshire) and in between bickering we would sing along to my tape of Phantom, and her tape of Joseph. So, although I’d never seen Joseph before, I knew all the songs. They are witty, fun songs: Tim Rice’s lyrics matched with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music pastiching calypso, Elvis and French torch songs. Joseph doesn’t tease – the big number ‘Any Dream Will Do’ is out there in act one scene one. Judging by the number of people singing along, I wasn’t the only one to know all the words

I really expected Lloyd Daniels, X Factor finallist of 2009, to be terrible as Joseph. I imagined that without the technical jiggery pokery I suspect The X Factor use he wouldn’t be able to carry a tune in a bucket, never mind keep up with the demands of a stage musical. I was wrong. He can sing – very well. He brought subtlety to ‘Close Every Door’ and energy to the more upbeat numbers. Can he act? Did I mention he can sing? It’s his first venture into musical theatre and he’s more a performer, rather than an actor. Luckily there is very little spoken dialogue for him to worry about. When he speaks you can hear he’s from the Valleys, but not the Jordan river valley. If you quibble at that you’ll hate the pharaoh who’s channelling Memphis (not the Egyptian one) – former EastEnder Matt Lapinskas plays the Pharaoh as Elvis Impersonator: Albert Square, and does it with hip-swivelling aplomb.

The ensemble are solid. The Brothers (there’s far too many to remember names) en masse sound like a male voice choir, and their individual songs zing. The cast are ably backed up by a choir of children – at the start of the second act they get to sing alone. Rightly, they get a big round of applause at the end.

The set is economical, and some of the devices used – cardboard cutout camels, for example – might seem out of place in a professional touring production (a sheep malfunction in the first scene was an object lesson in “The show must go on!”) but they work. Because here’s the thing. The audience tonight was about a third of the age of the average audience at the New Victoria. The lure of “Lloyd off of X Factor” (who incidentally spends much of the first act shirtless yet unthreatening, like a Ken doll made flesh) brought in the teens and pre-teens with their parents. And I think they had a good time. I hope they left feeling that the theatre can be fun, and that some of them thought: “Hey, we could do that. Let’s put on a show at school.”  It’s done slickly, but in a traditional, theatrical way. It’s a fun, family-friendly show with entertaining songs and a message of brotherly love that might stop warring siblings fighting for five minutes, and have them singing for days.

[Catherine Rogan – 3 September 2014]

PHOTOGRAPH: DARREN BELL

Joseph and the Amazing Techncolor Dreamcoat is showing at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Wednesday 3 September to Saturday 6 September. 


Black Coffee

Jason Durr as PoirotBlack Coffee, now running at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, until Saturday 23 August, was Agatha Christie’s first play, written in 1929.  It was, incidentally, the only one to feature her signature detective, Hercule Poirot.  Apparently she was dissatisfied with how he was portrayed by the various actors given the part and, although she wrote others featuring Jane Marple, Poirot never appeared again, except in later adaptations of her stories on stage and in films.

The play is set in the library of Sir Claud Amory’s house – a magnificent art deco room and a tribute to Simon Scullion’s design skills.  Sir Claud, a notable scientist, discovers that a new formula, clearly worth a lot of money if sold, has been stolen and sensing that it has been taken by a member of his immediate circle, all currently enjoying an after-dinner coffee in the library, proposes to switch the lights off to give the perpetrator time to return the document with no questions asked.   Needless to state, when the lights go up again he is found dead – but whodunnit?  As you can imagine in an Agatha Christie story, there is no shortage of suspects: what about his son, perhaps after the money; the Italian daughter-in-law doing strange things with the coffee cups; a doctor who seems to be a touch too friendly; perhaps Sir Claud’s secretary, his niece or even his wife? On this occasion the only certain thing appears to be that the butler didn’t do It!  And so, enter Hercule Poirot with his faithful Dr Watson, Arthur Hastings.

We watch as, with customary use of his little grey cells, Poirot, assisted by Hastings – never one to let a pretty face go unappreciated – and the police, unmasks the culprit. Once more we end up realising that we failed to pick the killer! Full marks then to Jason Durr, perhaps better known for his role in television’s Heartbeat, as Poirot for stepping into the shoes of so many worthy predecessors although, sadly, I had to strain to hear his words through his Belgian accent – and I was sitting near the front. Fortunately, he was well supported by a professional cast who once again proved that the Agatha Christie Theatre Company never fails to entertain.

[Dermot Hoare 20 August 2014]

Black Coffee is showing at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Wednesday 20 August to Saturday 23 August. 


Murder On Air

Murder ON Air

‘Murder on Air’, currently at the New Victoria, Woking, until 9 August, presents on stage three Agatha Christie plays written for radio and as they would have been originally transmitted from a studio in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s – and thereby is their strength and weakness. Strength, because a strong cast, led by Tom Conti and Jenny Seagrove and ably supported, among others, by Alexander S Bermange as the sound effects man cum pianist, composer and lyricist, all immaculately dressed in formal evening wear as was the habit at the time, bring the stories to life through the spoken word and their actions. Thus within the confines of their small studio they recreate a cocktail party, a railway station, many telephone calls and a dinner at a smart nightclub. The weakness, for me, was that the beauty of radio, compared to say television or the cinema, is that, as one listens to the voices and sounds coming from one’s wireless, one can fashion the scene and the people in the exact manner one wants. Seeing actors reading scripts, however, takes away the ability to imagine a slinky femme fatale as a 20-year-old girl with an hour-glass figure whereas the reality may be a 40 something matronly actress.

But I likened the experience to that of watching a Michelin-starred chef preparing his signature dish.  One cannot help but be impressed by how he selects his ingredients; expertly  chops, slices, par-boils, fries or otherwise prepares them for the final presentation before consigning his pièce-de-résistance to the oven – yet I would much prefer to be eating the food!  So, in Murder on Air I would have much preferred to see the highly talented cast act the three stories. ‘Personal Call’ tells the story of a husband planning a continental trip with his second wife, only to receive an eerie telephone call from his first wife to meet him at the railway station where she met her death several years before from falling under a train.  ‘The Yellow Iris’, perhaps Agatha Christie’s only musical play, sees us in a nightclub where the host of a dinner party is recreating a repeat dinner party with the identical guests from an earlier dinner he hosted abroad in a restaurant of the same name, during which his wife apparently committed suicide.  But, this time, his sister-in-law, sensing danger, has invited Hercule Poirot to join them.  The final story, ‘Butter in a Lordly Dish’, has a philandering barrister leaving for a romantic assignation with his latest conquest.  But, as you might expect, things never work out as you suspect, so my advice to you is to go and see the show, sit back in your seat, close your eyes and enjoy three rattling good yarns from the undisputed First Lady of Crime.

Dermot Hoare [6 August 2014]

‘Murder on Air’  is on at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, until Saturday 9 August


April in Paris

April in Paris 1 Photo credit Robert Day)April in Paris 2 (Photo credit Robert Day)A romantic comedy about two Britons abroad that was first staged in the early 1990s has been freshened up for these Ukip times. Writer-director John Godber took a new look at his ‘April in Paris’ “with the recent European parliament elections in the back of my mind, and the swell of interest in pulling out of the European project”. That is the understated backdrop to this often hilarious, sometimes moving and ultimately heartwarming two-hander about a northern couple trapped in a joyless marriage who win a trip to Paris that opens their eyes and reawakens their affection for each other. At the start of the play Bet and Al, played by well-known faces Shobna Gulati and Joe McGann, exchange bitter jibes in the manner of two Beckett down-at-heels; she obsessed by magazine competitions, he driven to painting a series of grey landscapes of industrial dereliction to fill his jobless days. Al, in singlet and shorts, has the air of a stiff cartoon character, baffled and nonplussed by Bet’s dreams. Then their number comes up in the competition, and Al is persuaded to join Bet on a ferry trip from Hull across the North Sea to France. Previously they had only holidayed at Grange-over-Sands, and at Benidorm, which, in Al’s eyes, “doesn’t count” as abroad. The set is first converted from a minimalist, boxy house with verandah into the stomach-churning deck of the ferry, and then transformed into the sights of Paris. There is a moving moment in the Louvre when Al is first transfixed by the Mona Lisa, and then overwhelmed by what it says about his own artistic talent, and the limitations of their lives. He talks wildly about throwing everything up, and travelling further into Europe, like a couple of tramps. Back home it is Al who is obsessed with winning another competition trip – to Mexico – and Bet who tries to remind him of their home country’s attractions: “There’s York, Chester … the Humber bridge.” Then after a few false starts Al finally comes up with a belter of a competition slogan – and this time husband and wife know they’re on to a winner. Joe McGann’s Al is an excellent foil to Bet, loosening up as the plot develops as he lowers his drawbridge and feels able to display his real feelings for the first time. The effervescent and exuberant Shobna Gulati, remembered for her talented performances in Coronation Street and Dinnerladies, also reveals her skill at physical comedy here, drunkenly dancing at the ship’s disco, before chucking up and subsequently mopping up on deck afterwards. Mention must also be made of understudies Emma Keel and Robert Ashcroft, who fill in as stage hands and enliven the scene changes. John Godber has a fondness for his working-class characters that enhances the enjoyment of ‘April in Paris’. And it’s refreshing to see this kind of show on the bill in Woking – entertaining, intelligent, and thought-provoking. [Greg Freeman 30 July 2014] Photographs: Robert Day April in Paris’  is showing at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Tuesday 29 July to Saturday 2 August  


Tonight’s the Night

Tonight's The NightI suppose Mamma Mia started it, the idea of turning an artist’s hits into a spectacular stage show. But they’re not all like that.  Success comes only to those few whose originals are in a class of their own.   In the case of ‘Tonight’s the Night’, now running at the New Victoria, Woking, till July 26, there are no worries, since it is based on Rod Stewart’s songs. With over 30 albums and more than 100 singles to Stewart’s name, Ben Elton’s script picks out 26 of the best songs and weaves a story – albeit a fairly traditional boy meets girl, boy loses girl but boy gets girl back again tearjerker – yet with its fair share of humour (amply provided by Ricky Rojas as Stoner), sex and rock and roll. Stuart, played by the talented and irrepressible Ben Heathcote, works in a Detroit motor repair shop and has his eye on Mary – here Jenna Lee-James giving a class performance – but he is too shy to make advances.  Enter the devil, accompanied by her cohorts, who grants him his wish to have the personality and skill of his hero, Rod Stewart.  But as we have all been taught, be careful what you wish for because although he now can tell Mary of his feelings, his skill plunges him into the frenzied world of successful a pop star.   Girls fall at his feet at every gig and poor Mary is sidelined.  Side-lined perhaps but nevertheless still in love with him, which is not such good news for Rocky (Andy Rees) who also loves her while he, to add to the complication, is loved by another girl Dee Dee (Rosie Heath). As Stuart’s successful tour proceeds, it enables us to savour a host of Rod Stewart favourites and we are also saddened as we witness poor Mary’s efforts to keep her spirits up.   Fortunately, this is a comedy and so we know it will all end happily, but how?  Well, that’s why it’s worth you seeing the show.  If I had to find a fault with the production, it would be that in some of the ensemble numbers volume drives out diction, something of which Rod Stuart himself is never guilty. But it is a minor fault and all praise to the excellent cast for their singing and dancing; praise too to the band, hidden away but faultless.  This is a fun evening and the fact that the first-night audience, most of whom looked to be well over their half-century, joined in their favourites with gusto suggested that Rod Stewart’s songs have a place in everyone’s heart, whatever their age. [Dermot Hoare 22 July 2014] Tonight’s The Night is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, from Tuesday 22 July to Saturday 26 July.


The Buddy Holly Story

Buddy the Musical Production shots 2011Buddy the Musical Production shots 2011“Is it another tribute show?” I was asked as we entered the New Victoria to see ‘The Buddy Holly Story’, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. With all the tribute musicals around at the moment I was mildly surprised to see that this was the 25th anniversary tour, so it must have stood the test of time. However, with no big names on the bill, I did wonder if it might have worn itself out a little. The curtain rises to a country and western band playing on a local radio station – trite, saccharine and flat. This is followed by a new arrival on the local music scene, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who are clearly trying to break away from the traditional and God-ordained C&W scene with their unique and newfangled rock and roll style. The plot in act 1 develops to show Buddy’s determination and persistence to bring his music into the mainstream, through his battles with the local conventional radio station, his first signing with the record company Decca and then his production manager, Norman Petty.  Buddy, by writing his own songs, and having ceaseless commitment, energy and enthusiasm in his music, triumphs at the end of act 1 with an audience-rousing performance at the Apollo, in Harlem, New York, by breaking through the racial barrier and proving that his music was for everybody, regardless of colour or background. In act 2 we see Buddy’s brief and sparkling career in the limelight. Having achieved the recognition for his talent and music that he so deserved, it was obvious that his star was still rising, which made its sudden end so heartbreaking. But the show doesn’t dwell on that. In fact, the second half of act 2 builds up to a stunning musical crescendo, with the addition of musical numbers by crowd-pleasing characters Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, who also died with Buddy in the plane crash – “the day the music died” – and a full stage of musicians and backing singers. For the last three numbers and the encore, the entire audience, who were mostly of a certain genteel age, were on their feet, clapping, singing and rock ‘n’ rolling, along with the performers. Performances by all the cast were impeccable and hugely entertaining, and not one can be singled out. My initial reservations were completely unfounded, as they all demonstrated outstanding musical talent and compelling stage presence.  Roger Rowley, playing Buddy, was convincing in looks and his portrayal of the young Texan lad who grew in confidence to become such a musical phenomenon. His command of the guitar, the moves and voice made him the epitome of Buddy. Costumes definitely deserve a mention, as they added to the spectacle, particularly in the finale. Also, the music: the songs and musical numbers covered Buddy’s extensive songbook as well as some brilliantly performed songs from the era. Of course, I knew about Buddy Holly previously – some of his songs, and that he was such a legend and inspiration to other musical greats – but that had no resonance until I saw the show. It was certainly not just another tribute show; it brought the man, the music and his spirit back to life. [Amanda Briggs 15 July 2014] ‘Buddy’  is playing at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, from Tuesday 15 July – Saturday 19 July


The Immortal Chi

Immortal Chi‘The Immortal Chi’ plays at huge arenas in China and is undoubtedly a great work of art.  Using a small army of dancing, drumming youngsters, there are many impressive aspects to this production. The entire cast excelled, the cinematic imagery and musical score were slick. With exquisite cinematography on transparent draping, the opening sequence shows a man of age, ill-balanced on a perch. What follows thereafter is a threaded sequence of events to unpick the man’s quest to overcome himself and reach a state of peaceful reflection. ‘The Immortal Chi’ has been conceived and directed by Cirque du Soleil director Erick Villneneuve, along with the Cirque du Soleil creative team. It’s a fusion of Chinese martial arts, multi-media images, fabulous costumes and original musical score, the story of a Tai Chi master and his quest to regain his secret inner energy. The production incorporates traditional Chinese techniques with acrobatics, traditional weaponry, authentic Chinese musical instruments and the Chinese drum girls. Perhaps I have a cultural symbolism block, but the constant, warlike dancing and comedy slivers just weren’t enough to carry me through. It didn’t quite spark my senses. [Richard Penny 15 July 2014]


Evita

Evita 2Evita 1 - credit Keith PattisonThis was a very good theatre night out.  I never tire of hearing “that song” and, fortunately, we were treated to three versions of it.  The one given by the dying Evita in the last scene drew a few tears from both from Magdalena Alberto and from members of the audience. The touring version of the show certainly had its moments.  And the New Victoria in Woking  must be one of the best provincial theatres in the land; it is very comfortable and the experience is helped along during the interval by the atmosphere of the piano bar. It’s a good story.  A character rises from humble beginnings, works for the poor and oppressed, has a “ministry” of about three years before dying and receiving saint-like status.  The moment passes but the people have been inspired and they will never forget.   It has been played out a few times in the last 2000 years and has always had a good impact. Evita is ambitious – we are prompted by Che to consider whether for herself or her people – works her way to the centre of power in Argentinian politics, and, as Peron’s faithful consort and adviser, does a good deal for “her people”, helping many, improving working conditions and getting the vote for women. Che represented Evita’s doubters with comments like “they fell over themselves to get the misery right” as she lay in her coffin in the opening scene. But he was eventually won over and was respectful at her end. When Evita, at the peak of her and Peron’s success, addressed us from a balcony looking magnificent and singing a beautiful, powerful version of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina we felt inspired and marvelled at how far this working class girl had come.  This was an ambitious but sincere Evita well played by Magdalena Alberto; a believable and sensitive first lady of Argentina. There were powerful vocals from the first lady and a nice bit of footwork in the dance scenes.  Also excellent was Andrew C Wadsworth as Juan Peron, a capable politician in the dangerous business of South American politics.  Perhaps he was made great by Evita’s vision and personal appeal.  He certainly gave her credit for his success, and gently showed us that he loved her.  To use a football analogy, he was good on the ball (when singing his parts) but also, off the ball (when standing back to admire his wife addressing the people). The scenery was functional rather than spectacular, and this show demanded and received little in the costume department. But Evita’s dress was impressive and the fashions of the 40s seemed nicely authentic . A bit of history for us Brits is thrown into the tale.  Evita tours Europe and is top visitor in Spain but is shunned by the British establishment who could not bring themselves to give a proper welcome to  “an actress”.  When Evita gets home British interests are nationalised and the seeds of the Falklands war are sown – maybe.  Of course, some might say that is when the Argentinian economy went to pot but that’s enough politics in this review. A small but welcome contribution was made by Sarah McNicholas whose sweet voice lamented her departing as Peron’s mistress when she was usurped by the rising Evita. Marti Pellow was popular with some members of the audience – those who would have been 14- year-old girls in 1987.  For me he was rather too full of himself, ever present as Che, the commentator, stage hand, executioner’s assistant and on-stage director.  It is a bit of a mistake to have a pop star, albeit one who has diversified a bit, in this role; better to have it played less intrusively by a subordinate character.  I couldn’t understand why the programme cover featured Evita with Che, rather than with Peron; this somewhat misses the point of the story and, certainly, of the history. This musical has Tim Rice’s brilliant lyrics and some great tunes.  Unfortunately it also has a bit of Lloyd-Webber’s usual shouting to music.  There were a couple of excellent dance routines and the army officers’ drill routine could teach them a thing or two at Sandhurst.  The large, talented cast was under-utilised and we could have done with more dance. This was the first night and there were technical deficiencies.  The music in the opening scenes was much too loud – more pop concert than musical theatre – and vocals were often difficult to discern.  This did improve as the show progressed.  Clearly the technical team were busy, well done lads.  Luckily, we knew the story, or had read the excellent programme that gave us a good, digestible version of the history. The audience enthusiastically showed their appreciation.  The Wet Wet Wet fans stood up for Marti, the others for Madalena.  The mistress received recognition, but Peron didn’t quite get the approbation he deserved.  A few husbands will know that feeling. [Peter Morley 24 June 2014] PHOTOGRAPHS: KEITH PATTISON  Evita is on at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Tuesday 24 June until Saturday 28 June.  


One Man, Two Guvnors

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS by BeanONE MAN TWO GUVNORS by BeanIf you think British humour has changed over the years, go and see ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ at Woking’s New Victoria theatre, running until Saturday 21 June.   This is a version of one of prolific playwright Carlo Goldoni’s comedies written in 1746, and is as funny today as I assume it was over 250 years ago.  Richard Bean’s play is set in the underworld of Brighton in the 1960s and opens at the engagement party of Pauline Clench, played here by Jasmyn Banks, and, in place of the murdered gangland Roscoe Crabbe, Alan Dangle – her new suitor.  The action quickly moves to the Cricketers Arms where Francis Henshall, the ‘Man’, having lost his job in a skiffle band, is engaged by two guvnors; Rachel Crabbe (Alicia Davies), dressed not exactly convincingly in her twin brother’s clothes but passing herself off as Roscoe, and Stanley Stubbers, a Bertie Wooster-type character played by Patrick Warner. Since Stanley is Roscoe’s murderer, Henshall has to keep his two bosses apart while meeting their joint needs. In one scene he has to simultaneously serve them dinner in separate rooms while fighting off his own desperate hunger – slapstick comedy at its slickest.  And from there on the mayhem continues. Demonstrating brilliant timing, various members of the cast survive what appears to be a realistic clout on the chin with a cricket bat, a head butt, kicks in the groin and several bangs in the face from slammed doors.  Most of this is suffered bravely by Michael Dylan who gives a wonderful performance as Alfie, an ancient, trembling waiter. There is a generous helping of sex, too, mainly provided by Emma Barton as the busty Dolly, and other strong contributions come from Edward Hancock (Alan Dangle), Derek Elroy, Shaun Williamson (Pauline’s father) and David Verrey (Alan’s father). While the accent is on fun, there is some excellent music from The Craze (Philip Murray Warson, Oliver Seymour-Marsh, Richie Hart and Billy Stookes) who also warm up the audience before the show starts, play during the scene changes and during the interval.   Special mention has to be made of Adam Penfold, the tour director, and Cal McCrystal, the physical comedy director. But the honours of the evening go to Gavin Spokes who, rarely off the stage, gives a first-rate performance, and, with ad libs much in the style of Frankie Howerd and his handling of the audience participation, demonstrates that he is a worthy successor to James Corden and Owain Arthur, who both played the role originally in London. [Dermot Hoare 17 June 2014] Pictures: Johan Persson One Man, Two Guvnors is on at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Tuesday 17 June until Saturday 21 June. 


20th Century Boy

T Rex 1T Rex 2The opening scene of 20th Century Boy is a mystery; a bank of televisions set into a huge grey wall that appears to house an industrial factory or tenement building. 1984 springs to mind. Hmmm. A lone young man sits despondently at an armchair and listens to loud music. A woman enters, switching off the TVs to set upon him, in a downpour of maternal anguish. She wants her boy to do something with his life. The boy retaliates. He’s confused. He doesn’t know who he is. Soon, we realise that this is Marc Bolan’s son, Rolan (played by Luke Bailey), flanked by his mother, Gloria Jones (Donna Hines), lover of the star and driver of the car that killed him in 1977. The show suggests that having never come to terms with her part in Bolan’s fate, Rolan’s mother has always been dismissive of the past – but Rolan wants answers. An argument ensues, so she urges him to go to London, “to where it all started”. Rolan jets off to London and knocks on his grandmother’s door, a council flat in Putney. From here, he meets his gran, Phyllis, and his uncle Harry, a cabbie, who introduces him to a variety of characters that piece together the jigsaw of his father’s life. The young man’s journey of discovery interact well with quick-shot sets of Marc Bolan growing up, but these shine very little light on the personality of the man as boy, which was disappointing for a huge fan like me. I wanted to know all there was to know about the kid from Hackney. Bolan’s early career as an acoustic guitarist/wizard poet was championed by John Peel. But that would never be enough for Bolan, who from the age of nine always promised he’d be bigger than Elvis.  It was the moment that Tony Visconti, impresario supremo, plugged him into an electric guitar that changed everything. This is one of the best scenes, a warlike eruption of bass bins over heavily induced, grunge-riddled guitar drools as Bolan is ecstatically initiated into the heartland of rock. From being folksy darling of the underground, Visconti fuses Bolanto a band of stealthy players, there to capture and process his moody melody, unique presence and whimsical verse for Top of The Pops and beyond. Overnight, T Rex is a smash hit. This is the baptism of fire Bolan had waited for. As the devilish pact melds and reshapes, Bolan’s ego hardens, causing the firing of Visconti, which proves to be the kiss of death. With Bolan’s one-track mind ripping chunks out of him, drink and drugs stockpiled to ease the pressure of finding new sounds and rhythms, Bolan melts down into a ratty, confused 20th Century Boy. The band disintegrates in tandem with Bolan’s marriage break-up to June Child (Lucy Sinclair). Gloria offers love and kindness and a baby is born. As Bolan searches for new meaning to his life (he had never found time to know himself; only his music), he finds peace in Rolan, and decides that his life must change. And change he did, a father getting fit and staying off drugs, but it just wasn’t meant to be. 20th Century Boy is a supersonic voyage through the soundscape of Marc Bolan’s rise and fall as rock god and glam king. The theme of family reconciliation slots in, a little too conveniently, with Rolan as both guide and guided. To configure an entire play around a megastar’s son is difficult to reconcile. I found it initially tricky to shrug off the feeling that I was actually watching a slick, elaborate tribute band engineered to fit inside an acceptable but mediocre story engine, and if it wasn’t for some truly outstanding sections and a seamless rendition of Bolan’s music, the near three-hour running time would have seemed endless. All the performances, especially that of the main man (I mean Bolan senior), played by Warren Sollars, were spot on. Apart from the irrelevant Grease-like commemorative singalongs after the crash, the cinematic effects, lighting and sound quality were perfect. The end had the crowd singing and dancing in the aisles as a medley of songs were celebrated once again, but I was too busy spitting feathers from the boas that were given out. Perhaps I’m just getting old. Yes, it’s me. I’m an analytical bore, so please forget everything I’ve said and go along for a laugh and a sing-song. If I were 10 years younger, I’d have loved it. [Richard Penny 11 June 2014] Photographs: Robert Day  20th Century Boy  is at Woking’s New Victoria theatre until Saturday 14 June.  


Things We Do For Love

AyckbournAs an Alan Ayckbourn novice, I didn’t know what to expect of Things We Do For Love. The set was flawless, somehow managing to squeeze in the three flats of a Fulham house. The ground floor flat, that of Barbara, a sexually dormant 30-something businesswoman, took centre-stage while the first floor and basement flats were top and tail, allowing the viewer voyeuristic peeks into the shenanigans of their dwellers. Barbara’s school friend, Nikki, a dippy, pretty, ordinary sort newly freed from an abusive marriage, is invited to stay in the flat above with her fiancé, Hamish, a dapper, emotionally indifferent hunk with good prospects, while they wait for the builders to complete work on their house. Meanwhile, lovelorn widower, Gilbert, a postman/plumber/cross-dresser, occupies the basement flat, nursing a longstanding and supremely unhealthy crush on Barbara. A love quadrangle emerges, setting the scene for a bungling escapade of catastrophic proportions. The play starts slowly as the girls reminisce their time together at St Gertrude’s, but then Barbara meets Hamish (Barbara’s flat is a feminine shrine with nowhere for Hamish to settle). With Gilbert trying – and failing miserably – to edge himself closer into Barbara’s affections, he and Nikki are wide-eyed bystanders in the Hamish & Barbara Show of cantankerous, quip-filled antagonism. When Barbs has a dinner party, she gets unusually drunk to reveal the reality of her unhappy, lonely life. Gilbert arrives late and inebriated to give an excellent rendition of piteous, unrequited love. This is when darkness falls upon the lively, if not unlikely, love seekers. Natalie Imbruglia gives a sterling performance as Nikki, although I believe that the play might well benefit from her swapping roles with Barbara, played by the more theatrically assured Claire Price. As Nikki, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that Imbruglia lacks imagination, but that would be misguided as Nikki’s personality is just that; nice but dim.  Edward Bennett’s Hamish and Simon Gregor’s Gilbert are superbly cast and much enjoyed. You have to be there to appreciate the set’s cunning, subtle usefulness. Sexual frustration and humankind’s wilful misalignment of Cupid’s arrows are the main themes of Things We Do For Love, and Ayckbourn goes to extreme lengths to lay bare the warlike fallout that ensues. What struck me most was how an easily pleased, sexually comfortable woman like Nikki could be so whimsically cast aside by Hamish for an argumentative, competitive woman like Barbara. Perhaps that is life’s most unfathomable mystery; that there may be more to love than kisses and tickles and goodwill. There’ll always be winners and losers in love, but, in this particular play, all four seem destined to a life of disappointment, repeatedly bewildered by and slowly resigned to how deftly love fails them. Perhaps this scenario is closer to the truth than we may choose to accept. Compromise couldn’t be more inviting. [Richard Penny 28 May 2014] Things We Do For Love is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Wednesday 28 May to Saturday 31 May.


Fame

Fame 2 credit Hugo Glendinning

PHOTOGRAPH: HUGO GLENDINNING

I was a little dubious when I read that the current touring production of Fame had been updated and labelled as the “new 2014 dance mix”, and concerned that the original format, now 20 years old (more than 30 years on from the original movie), had become outdated and fallen in the gutter of eighties kitsch. Fame, in my mind, was one of the greatest icons of pop culture of that decade. The original 1980 movie, series and subsequent stage production dominated eighties pop culture and influenced teenagers like myself with its aspirational plot, music, engaging characters, not to mention the puffy perms, legwarmers and sweatbands. My reservations continued as Miley Cyrus – queen of the dance obscene – played in the background as the multigenerational audience seated themselves for the opening night of Fame, currently playing at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking.

It didn’t take longer than the opening number before my doubts were assuaged and I was hooked. The New York skyline and grungy urban school set held faith to the eighties original, but the costumes, music and dance routines cleverly melded the traditional and iconic with the new, without the feeling of a complete re-work. Yes, there was some grinding and booty shaking and not a legwarmer in sight, but there was also an incredible array of talent and variety of dance numbers and styles that made the show just as appealing now as it was then.

The plot tells the story of a group of talented, adolescent hopefuls as they journey through ‘PA’ (a performing arts college in New York), learning not just the arts, but more importantly, learning who they really are and what they really want. The first act introduces us to the characters, their stories and their aspirations, the teachers drilling through their enthusiasm and egos to teach them that talent is not enough; hard work, dedication and patience is necessary to succeed. Act 2 however is where the show really starts to pack its punches. Perhaps lulled into a comfortable sense of security from the inspirational songs and rhythms from act 1, it starts with a powerful Spanish song and dance, with hints of spine-tingling flamenco, from which the tempo and passion continue to build to the finale. The second act is dominated by some powerful and surprisingly emotional performances; notably the incredible ‘Tyrone’, played by Alex Thomas, whose body is a perfect construct of controlled energy, power and grace – the epitome of dance – and ‘Carmen’ played impeccably by Jodi Steele, whose character, voice and passion brings you to your knees (and your feet at the end). The fellow leads and cast add solid support, bringing their own individuality and strengths to a harmonious and tight-knit production. Music, sound and lights, as you would expect, play a significant role in illuminating and heightening the emotional journeys of the characters, and in particular, the use of a subwoofer in a couple of key moments makes the story more potent and tangible.

We left the theatre with the ‘Fame’ reprise still playing on stage by the band, and echoes of  “That was really good,” all around us from the exiting satisfied crowds. I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the relevance of this new 2014 Fame. In fact, its underlying theme of the dangers of the pursuit of fame and celebrity without the necessary hard work and grounding are more pertinent and relevant now than they ever were.

Fame is playing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Tuesday-Saturday, 20-24 May.

[Amanda Briggs 20 May 2014]


Dance ‘Til Dawn

Dance 'Til Dawn - Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace - credit Manuel Harlan (6)

 Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace Photograph: Manuel Harlan 

Strictly Come Dancing fans will need no introduction to Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace, nor my inducement to go and see their latest show ‘Dance ’til Dawn’ currently running at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, until Saturday 17 May.   For those of you for whom Strictly is just a word in a dictionary I can tell you that for an evening of sheer unadulterated fun and escapism this is in a class of its own.   Both Flavia and Vincent are professional dancers – the words liquid movement spring to mind – who in the early years of this century walked off with almost every dance trophy going.   Since 2006 they have been associated with Strictly Come Dancing both on the TV and in its subsequent live shows.   In 2012 they appeared on the West End stage in their own show, Midnight Tango, a tribute to the tango and a showcase for their special talent.  After a sell-out tour, this year they staged their second show, ‘Dance ’til Dawn’.  But Karen Bruce, the director, has contributed her considerable theatrical experience by introducing an added of dimension of humour and a background thriller story to a much wider spectrum of song and dance. Mark you, with all respect to Ed Curtis who is responsible for the book, one doesn’t look for deep meaning in a musical show.  Boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated but, finally, boy and girl are reunited. For example, there aren’t too many prisons where the inmate can leave his cell to perform a dance routine with his girlfriend.  Nevertheless, in Dance ‘til Dawn there is a set of naughty photos of the gangster’s girlfriend that she and everyone else would like to get their hands on, a baddy who is shot – for which our hero is arrested and imprisoned, followed by general mayhem – but right eventually triumphs just in time for our hero and heroine to dance an Argentine tango.  The humour stems from Teddy Kempner as Tommy, a Philip Marlowe type of wisecracking private eye, and the two leads are brilliantly supported by an excellent troupe of dancers, most of whom have solid West End experience.   Two professional singers, Oliver Darley and Abbie Osmon give the two dozen old and new songs real voice.  But that said, this is the Flavia and Vincent Show and, boy, can they dance! Dermot Hoare [13 May 2014] Dance ‘Til Dawn is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Tuesday 12 May to Saturday 17 May, including matinees on Wednesday and Saturday


The Perfect Murder

The Perfect Murder TourThe Perfect Murder TourLes Dennis, well known for his many theatre and TV appearances including Celebrity Master Chef, stars as the diabetic Victor Smiley in ‘The Perfect Murder’, the current whodunnit at the New Victoria, Woking and running till Saturday 12 April. Except that this is not so much a whodunnit, but who dun it first?  Dennis and Claire Goose, a well-established TV and stage actress playing his wife Joan, give perfectly pitched and amusing performances – and there is much humour in Peter James’ writing – as a married couple for whom mutual attraction has run its course and only living in the same house appears to keep them together.  Indeed, we first see Victor in the arms of an attractive local prostitute, Kamila Walcak, played by Romanian-born Simona Armstrong. She has a neat sideline in psychic powers, and Victor regularly visits her, promising a blissful life together when he collects on his wife’s life assurance. Joan, for her part, is intent on living happily ever after with her lover, Don Kirk, a part Gray O’Brian, probably best known as the murderous factory boss Tony Gordon in Coronation Street, clearly enjoys, after he has helped her dispatch her husband. All praise to Michael Holt for one of the cleverest sets I’ve seen, with its ground floor kitchen and sitting room of the Smileys’ house on one level and an upstairs bedroom and Kamila’s room in the brothel on a higher level. The action moves from one to another as the plot unfurls.  But who is going to win the murder race – Victor ridding his wife with carefully stored cyanide or Joan planning to dispose of him with an overdose of insulin?  And what part will Detective Constable Roy Grace play – Steven Miller playing the young detective’s first case – and how much will Kamila’s psychic powers help him solve some rather puzzling phone calls?   One might also add, “and will he foil the perfect murder?”   Well, go and see for yourself. [Dermot Hoare, 9 April 2014] ‘The Perfect Murder’ http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-perfect-murder/new-victoria-theatre/ is on at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, until Saturday 12 April


Happy Days

HappyDays 3 (2mb) Photo Paul Coltas
PHOTOGRAPHS: PAUL COLTAS

HappyDays 1 (2mb) Photo Paul ColtasIf the Brits owned the 1960s in terms of music, fashion, culture and nostalgia, then the 50s were definitely owned by the Americans. James Dean, Elvis, motorbikes and cars, poodle skirts, and God forbid, the original sitcoms, evoke a nostalgia in us all; not just for those who experienced it, but for those like me, born later, who are attracted to it because we feel like we missed out on something really cool. If that’s what you fancy, a bit of 50s nostalgia or post-nostalgia even, then go and see Happy Days, currently playing at the New Victoria theatre in Woking. Yes, it’s a tiny bit saccharine (an unapologetic tribute to “sweeter and simpler times”; Paul Williams, Happy Days composer and lyricist), but it certainly delivers the caricatures, the fashion, the diner set, and the fabulous diversity of the music of the era. It’s a really happy, energetic show. Fast-paced musical numbers come in quick succession, fused by tight choreography and smooth, frequent set changes. Costumes are 50s cool; every woman in the audience could see herself twirling in one of the colourful poodle skirts or just looking ultra-feminine in sexy ‘Pinky’ hotpants, and the guys – well, what is cooler than a white T-shirt, jeans and iconic leather jacket? You don’t have to have seen the original TV show to enjoy the stage show. It has all the elements of other successful period musicals such as Grease, Hairspray and Jersey Boys; namely, the music, the look and the feel of the 50s. The show originated in America but has been adapted for a British audience. The cast is all-British, but convincingly convey the sense of 1950s Americana. On the opening night understudy Henry Davis played the lead role of the Fonz admirably, and Cheryl Baker, playing Mrs Cunningham, was notable for her vocal strength and character engagement. Heidi Range, playing the character of Pinky, Fonz’s true love, delivers the role with smoldering passion and style. The characters of Richie Cunningham and his friends are definitely worth a mention for their delightful vocal harmonies and playful dance synchronisation. West Side Story, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and On the Waterfront may have depth and passion, but Happy Days has simple innocence and fun. Pharrell Williams?  Happy Days. [Amanda Briggs, 2 April 2014] Happy Days  is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, until Saturday 5 April

Boris Karloff

On The Set of Giant C Getty Images

Getty Images Archive: Hollywood Photographs, The Lightbox

Where might you expect to see photographs of the MGM lion, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Marlon Brando, Bogart and Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and many other icons from the golden years of Hollywood? Not necessarily in Woking, perhaps. But climb the stairs of The Lightbox gallery, all the way to the top floor, and for the next three months there they are in all their glory, provided by the Getty Images Archive, which now administers the extensive collection of US film historian John Kobal. Here you can see Laurel and Hardy on a film set in towelling robes, Ingrid Bergman fishing, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift on a very stagey Red River western set, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean goofing around at the end of a day’s filming of Giant, Katherine Hepburn looking breathtakingly beautiful even with a towel on her head, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor studiously applying makeup and lipstick, and the Marx Brothers outside the gates of MGM studios. For good measure, there are shots of King Kong, and Boris Karloff taking a break from his stint as The Monster in Bride of Frankenstein. The exhibition, a mix of publicity shots and more candid, informal pictures, makes the point that  Hollywood spent lavishly on publicity, and on controlling the images of its screen gods and goddesses. Careful thought went into the kind of shots, off the sets and behind the scenes, that were released to fan magazines. Maybe the stars of the heyday of the movies, from the late 1920s to the end of the 1950s, were never really off-camera. At this exhibition you may marvel at the beauty of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, observe the obvious chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, enjoy an off-beat shot of Harpo, Chico and Groucho.  There is added poignancy to the shot of Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean horsing around, with the knowledge that Dean was killed in a car accident before Giant was released. But there is one shot in the exhibition that has stayed with me more than any other, even though it is easy to pass by at first glance. It is a very downbeat image of Marilyn Monroe between takes on the set of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, a wonderful, feel-good movie. The photograph is very dark. And Marilyn looks utterly alone. Unbelievably, heartbreakingly so. [Greg Freeman 27 March 2014] The Getty Images Archive: Hollywood Photographs exhibition is at The Lightbox upper gallery until 29 June.  Entry is free, donations welcome.


Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels - credit Darren Bell (6)
Photograph: Darren Bell

Noël Coward, or to give him his correct address, Sir Noël, was one of our most prolific playwrights with more than 50 plays to his name, written over five decades. Although his first was written during the first world war it wasn’t until the 1920s that he won critical acclaim and financial success with ‘The Vortex’.   This was quickly followed by ‘Fallen Angels’, the current offering at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, and running until 29 March.   Subsequent successes among his other work have become firm favourites: Hay Fever, Blythe Spirit, Private Lives, Design for Living and Present Laughter. Indeed, such is Coward’s popularity that there is often at least one of these seven plays to be seen in the West End, and at one time there were no less than four. In a breathtakingly lavish set, this latest, must-see production of ‘Fallen Angels’ stars Jenny Seagrove, no stranger to theatre, film and TV audiences alike, and Sara Crowe, similarly talented but possibly best remembered for her Philadelphia Cheese adverts.  In star performances they play two golf widows and lifelong friends who, while their husbands are away, and under the watchful eye of an omniscient maid – neatly played in an understated manner by Gillian McCafferty – indulge in a little champagne-fuelled reminiscing. Why? Because both have received notice of an impending visit from a one-time, mutually enjoyed, French lover.

If ever there was a case of “in vino veritas” what follows in a drunken melee as the champagne flows – which must have shocked audiences in the 1920s – is harmony giving way to bitter recriminations.   The two women reveal home truths that shatter their relationship and threaten to break up the friendship.   Fortunately it doesn’t last, for there’s too much explaining to do when the husbands, played by Tim Wallers and Robin Sebastian, return unexpectedly early and, together with their wives, face the arrival of Philip Battley as the French lover.  The result is comedy at Coward’s best.

[Dermot Hoare 25 March]

‘Fallen Angels’ is showing at Woking’s New Victoria theatre until Saturday 29 March.


Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

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Photographs: Helen Maybanks

The origins of the traditional Swan Lake story are somewhat disputed. Despite this, Matthew Bourne’s modern version initially received criticism when it opened at Sadler’s Wells in 1995. Now it is viewed as a classic in its own right, and deservedly so. The central themes of desire, love and conflict between good and evil are clear, but portrayed in a modern setting with a modern story. The use of male swans is inspirational and offers opportunities to dance to this beautiful score, and to  demonstrate power in a way impossible for the female swans. The conflict and frustration generated by the unattainable is all the more meaningful because the two principal characters are danced by men. From the opening bars, you are drawn into a world of tortuous love and court intrigue, the battle between duty and desire. The complex relationships between mother and son, lovers and enemies are clearly demonstrated. The simple yet effective sets enable the dancers to be the central focus; the iconography adds depth and meaning, reinforcing the story expressed through dance. The choice of modern costumes and movement interspersed with strong balletic form is perfectly choreographed to the timeless music of Tchaikovsky; the dancers are stretched by the changes of style and pace which they deliver with elegance. The male corp de ballet use powerful shapes, lines and classic leaps, to transform into real swans before your eyes. The tension between The Swan danced by Chris Trenfield, and The Prince danced by Simon Williams, sent shivers down my spine; a visual telepathy between two soulmates. When Trenfield became the stranger, he and Williams were able to maintain the tension while expressing confusion, conflict and a shift in power. The Queen danced by Saranne Curtain, expressed the friction between a mother and son  very expressively throughout, but this was particularly evident when she danced with the prince in a private moment in scene four. Her dance with the stranger added another layer to the dynamics between mother and son. The use of tiny hand gestures that were mirrored by the nurses in act four was subtle yet effective. The unsuitable girlfriend was danced by Anjali Mehra, who portrayed a hapless socialite reminiscent of Paris Hilton. The telephone ringing during the opera house scene was priceless. These moments of humour heightened the intensity of the dramatic interchanges between the principal characters. The first sighting of “the swan” through the prince’s window is symbolic of opportunities, dreams. The ballet closed on the same window, but unfortunately the image was unclear; this detracted a little from the intended force of the moment.  The choreography, expression and calibre of performances were outstanding; the modernisation increases the accessibility, whilst remaining true to the themes of the original story and music. The audience were captivated from first to last and showed their appreciation with a standing ovation for the principal dancers and the whole cast. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking,  from Thursday 20 March to Saturday 22 March, with matinees on Thursday and Saturday [Patricia McNamee, 20 March 2014]


See How They Run 

SeeHowTheyRun 3SeeHowTheyRun 2See How They Run, Philip King’s wartime farce, is the current production at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and running until 15 March – but it is a production with a difference.  The difference being that the cast are all short actors, to use Warren Davis’s own terminology.  Davis, who stars in the show as the Reverend Toop, has been in the acting business for over 30 years, and is  perhaps best known for his characters in Star Wars and the Harry Potter films.  Concerned that there were few opportunities for the host of talented short actors he knew, apart from the odd film and annual productions of Snow White, and wanting to perform in plays for which he might never be considered, he has formed The Reduced Height Theatre Company to produce and act in the plays he enjoys. The result, judging by this initial offering, is a resounding success;   a cast that can all act, whose timing is immaculate and whose diction is pitch-perfect. How often does one come away from a theatre having literally heard every word? The action takes place in the vicarage home of the Reverend and Mrs Toop, an ex-actress and a Bishop’s niece. Enter Francesca Papagno as the village busybody, Miss Skillon, complaining bitterly that Mrs Toop (Rachel Denning) appears wearing trousers (a nod to the norms of the forties) and has taken over from her the task of decorating the pulpit for the harvest festival. Clearly she has no intention of leaving until she gets her due satisfaction and an apology but the Rev Toop, however, has more pressing engagements as he has to leave for the evening to play the piano at a local concert.  In his absence, one of Mrs Toop’s past acting colleagues (Phil Holden), and now a lance-corporal in the army, arrives to see her.  When she suggests they go to a local town for dinner and a show he regrets that the town is off-limits for soldiers. Her solution is to dress him up in one of her husband’s spare clerical suits. So now there are two vicars. Add in the arrival of Uncle Dudley, the Bishop (Jon Key), plus the vicar due to take the following day’s service (Jamie John) and an escaped German prisoner-of-war (Raymond Griffiths) who, anxious not to be recaptured, is also in vicar’s clothes, having at gunpoint made the Rev Toop give him his, and you have a surfeit of clerics plus, while all the time Miss Skillon is to her continual disgust, misinterpreting what is going on, a man in his underclothes.  Add in a liberal amount of brandy and cooking sherry consumed when anyone feels there is a need, a cupboard into which people can conveniently be placed when occasion demands, a sergeant (Peter Bonner) sent to apprehend the escaped prisoner, a hapless maid (Francesca Mills) rushing hither and thither trying to keep the situation under control, and you have the stuff of which farce is made. [Dermot Hoare, 11 March 2014]   See How They Run is at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking until Saturday 15 March


West Side Story

West Side Story 1

West Side Story. The Tour

West Side Story. The Tour

 

Photographs: Alastair Muir

The New Victoria theatre got into the spirit of West Side Story, with one bar decked out with inflatable sharks and the other with toy aeroplanes (jets, get it?). When I picked up the ticket I was offered a choice of badges, either Sharks or Jets. I’ll tell you what I chose at the end. West Side Story, with its book by Arthur Laurents, score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was initially written as a love story backdropped by the conflict between an Irish Catholic and a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is testament to humanity’s ability to cleave itself into two tribes that the switch to Polish Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants on the West Side worked just as well, as it would with any two ethnicities or social groups, in any big city. The story is broadly based on Romeo and Juliet, the tale that stands monument to humanity’s other great truth, that teenagers will feel too much and think too little. West Side Story is both operatic and balletic, and the young cast shirked neither singing nor dancing duties. Katie Hall was magnificent as Maria, believable as a teenager in love for the first time while making the singing look easy. Louis Maskell as Tony seemed a little too self-assured for someone head over heels in love, his confident singing making him appear somewhat older than the other street kids. But Djalenga Scott as Anita stole the show. Sassy Anita gets a lot of the best lines, and ‘America’ – with the Puerto Rican girls – was the standout number, although it was almost matched by the show’s other comic song, ‘Gee, Office Krupke’ – a masterpiece of choreography played for laughs by the Polish American Jets boys. The production is directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, using the full, original Jerome Robbins choreography. The big numbers – ‘America’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘I Feel Pretty’ – were rapturously received and brilliantly played. Attention sometimes flagged between these highlights, in particular the scenes with Lieutenant Schrank. Much of the dialogue was shouted, which was in keeping with the two gangs of teenaged hotheads. If you complain that the acting isn’t hugely naturalistic, then musical theatre’s probably not for you. Right from the start the stylised fight scenes displayed the athleticism of the cast, the energy maintained throughout. The costumes were inspired by the 50s, but wouldn’t have looked hugely out of place on Woking’s Chertsey Road. The set – a combination of moving fire escapes and projected backdrops – was understated but gave a sense of place. If you don’t know the story, I won’t spoil it for you. I’ll only say that the badge I chose at the start was a Jets one – my grandfather was Polish, so I felt a familial obligation. By the final curtain I realised how silly it was to choose based on where my granddad was from – and the futility of picking a side at all. [Catherine Rogan, 20 February 2014] West Side Story is on at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Thursday 20 February to Saturday 1 March 


Renoir in Britain, The Lightbox

Renoir 1I have driven past the Lightbox hundreds of times since it was opened in 2007, but until now had never ventured inside. Then a friend uttered the words “Renoir exhibition” and “The Lightbox” in the same sentence – and I jumped at the chance to attend the official opening.  Like most people, I’m not an art expert; I simply enjoy looking at art, often visiting London to see art at various places such as the National, Courtauld and Tate. At the opening I asked Pru Chambers, marketing manager, if there had been any changes in foot traffic and she confirmed that in the few days since the exhibition had opened, visitor numbers had doubled. The exhibition was opened by Dr Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, who said the gallery was delighted to provide two key works for the exhibition. He said he had heard a great deal about the achievements of the Lightbox and had been keen to visit. He had even learned a little more about Renoir. He said that “at a time when many local authorities are withdrawing or reducing funding for the arts, it is a credit to Woking that the local government appreciates the value of institutions such as the Lightbox to the local community”. The director of the Lightbox, Marilyn Scott, said: “The Renoir exhibition has been a challenge as well as an exciting opportunity and we had a lot to live up to after the success of the Elisabeth Frink retrospective last year. The exhibition is, quite remarkably free, thanks to the Idlewild Trust who support fine art exhibitions in the country and Woking borough council with whom we have a service contract which contributes to the running costs of the charity and allows us to put on these quality exhibitions and share them with the community for free – their support is greatly appreciated.” Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) first came to the attention of British art collectors in 1874 when two of his paintings were shown at an exhibition in London – the same year six of his works featured in the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris. The Lightbox is the first regional gallery to bring together a cohesive representation of the work of Renoir held in British collections. The exhibition delivers a wide scope of work including, still life, portrait, drawing, colour etching, landscape and sculpture. This gives a unique and detailed insight into Renoir’s versatility and talent through his lifetime. Displayed together on one wall is a collection of pleasing still life paintings featuring fruit and flowers. I overheard a guest saying she did not like still life as much. For Renoir still life was marketable and inexpensive to produce; it also provided an opportunity to experiment. The brush stokes convey a lightness and joy. Renoir felt free to experiment with this genre since it did not have the pressure of having to paint a model; he could explore colour and values without worrying about wasting a canvas. The experience he gained was applied to other pictures. Renoir 2Throughout his life Renoir painted nudes in natural landscapes and the exhibition provides examples of this theme, notably A Bather (c1885-90) with a dream-like quality featuring a nude bather in the open air. Towards the final years of his life Renoir suffered poor health. He had a stroke in 1912 and for many years suffered debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, yet he carried on working. Woman Tying her Shoe (c1918) depicts a calm natural scene with rich colour and swirls. It was also interesting to see Renoir’s little sketches, the initial seeds for ideas, intimate and personal, like a handwritten letter. The exhibition includes loans from the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, Manchester City Art Gallery, the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Southampton City Art Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Museums Sheffield, Falmouth City Art Gallery and the New Art Gallery, Walsall. [Sarah Bell, 19 February 2014] ‘Renoir in Britain’ is at The Lightbox until 20 April. Entry to the exhibition is free.  Renoir, A Bather © The National Gallery, London. Presented by Sir Anthony and Lady Hornby, 1961. Renoir, Lakeside Landscape © The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Helena and Kenneth Levy, 1990


Thriller Live

Thriller 1Long before teenagers started filming themselves on their phones slutdropping, twerking and flash mobbing, there were thousands of them copying moves and dancing in synch to Michael Jackson videos on TV, in their living rooms, usually during Top of the Pops on a Thursday night. Recording since 1967, it’s hard to deny Michael Jackson’s global influence on the entertainment industry, the media and several generations of music fans and admirers. This phenomenon was reflected by the audience at the opening night of the Thriller Live tour, currently performing at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking. The theatre was packed and multi-generational; there were large family groups, groups of jolly, middle-aged ladies, old couples, young couples and everyone else in between. The atmosphere in the theatre was lively and cheerful, as people merrily shuffled into their seats pre-performance, anticipating a good, entertaining night. This was certainly delivered: a strong combination of four lead vocalists and an enthusiastic and energetic dance crew kept the music flowing and the audience singing, clapping and moving throughout the evening. The performance is essentially a songbook of the Jackson Five and Michael’s most popular hits, interspersed at the beginning with some documentary-style narrative and backdrop images of his rise to fame and career highlights. The vocalists and dancers actively include the audience in their celebration and delivery of the songs, involving them in the spirit of a genuine tribute performance. And a tribute act is definitely what it is; it’s clear that the director and choreographers are using Jackson’s genius as an inspiration rather than an all-out attempt at replication or mimicry, that would not be possible. Cleopatra Higgins, the only female lead vocalist, stands out with her professionalism and vocals, but her fellow leads do not disappoint. The dancers were young, a little mismatched and possibly in need of some maturing (at times reminiscent of a school production), yet their enthusiasm and energy was vibrant. The male dancers were particularly tight and synchronized; with some high energy routines towards the end of act two. An on-stage band provided the music and strengthened the performances of the singer/dancers with some outstanding quality guitar work. Throughout the performance I became more and more aware of the brilliant showmanship that made Jackson such a legend and such an influence on modern pop culture; it wasn’t just his musical talents, it was also his idiosyncratic style and spectacle. That is where Thriller Live disappoints somewhat. The lead vocalists are appropriately costumed in Jackson style, but I struggled to appreciate the concepts and even the quality of the costumes of the dancers. The combination of styles and fabrics didn’t impress and at times even seemed a little ill-fitting. I had been anticipating Thriller as the highlight of the performance all evening, but when it came to it I was rather distracted by the lead dancer/singer’s disappointing replica of Jackson’s iconic red leather suit; a bright, shiny PVC jacket and mismatched dull red chinos. A bit pedantic perhaps, but I was expecting the whole Jackson experience. That said, Thriller Live is a thoroughly entertaining evening, enjoyable to young and old alike, and one that will take you home humming, singing and even jerking your shoulders and sliding your feet. [Amanda Briggs, 11 February 2014] Performances run from Monday 10 – Saturday 15 February at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking


Cinderella

panto 1 If you enjoy audience participation – ‘Oh no we don’t’, ‘Oh yes you do’ – then this Christmas you’ll certainly enjoy ‘Cinderella’ at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, running till 5 January.  Don’t worry if you’re a few minutes late. I think we could have done without some adverts, cinema-style, which rather dampened the initial atmosphere. When the curtain eventually went up, it took all of Zöe Curlett’s skill, as the Fairy Godmother, to rekindle the excitement and get us into the story. However, in the very capable hands of chidlren’s TV star Justin Fletcher, as Buttons, the mainly young audience soon entered wholeheartedly into all they were asked to do, from yelling “Hello Buttons” whenever he appeared, to booing the Ugly Sisters and making appropriate animal noises in a local version of ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’.   Ably assisted by the star of the show, Zöe Salmon, fresh from Blue Peter, and a beautiful Cinderella even in her rags, the story zips along with songs that have you tapping your feet and a cast that gives full measure.   Incidentally, it included a team of locally recruited children supporting the professional ensemble. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I tell you that Cinderella does meet her prince and, indeed, is then transported to the ball in a splendid coach drawn by two white Shetland ponies. The comedy moments are provided by Buttons, ably assisted by Hal Cruttenden as Dandini, with particular highlights when Dandini is endeavouring to deliver invitations to all the girls in the land, and later, when  the Ugly Sisters attempt to squeeze into the glass slipper.  But, fear not, it all ends as it should, with the Prince and Cinderella together and living happily ever after. [Dermot Hoare, 10 December 2013]


Alien Invasion, The Lightbox

Lightbox 1“No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s …” These chilling opening words from HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ (particularly read in the inimitable voice of Richard Burton) have been the inspiration behind the mass invasion into popular culture of science fiction. Spurring actual scientific discovery and invention and fuelling a multimillion-dollar entertainment industry across the globe, Wells could have had no idea while cycling through Woking and passing by the sandpits on Horsell Common of the impact this would have on the global imagination. This phenomenon is captured in the current exhibition, ‘Alien Invasion’, at The Lightbox in Woking, where in the same room, an original version of Wells’s bicycle hangs opposite a lifesize Dalek and a tentacled, illuminated alien in its tripod. Launched by Peter Davison, the fifth incarnation of the ever-popular Dr Who and alumnus of Winston Churchill school in Woking, the exhibition’s opening night back in October was a hugely successful and well-attended event. Davison spoke informally to the crowd, explaining how reading The War of the Worlds as a boy opened the gateway to sci-fi for him, which would eventually lead him to play the lead role in Britain’s biggest TV sci-fi series. He happily mingled, chatted and posed for photos with guests for the rest of the evening. The exhibition has so far proved to be popular with both the young and the old. There are interactive stations for children, including the classic Atari Space Invaders game, as well as a rich diversity of artwork, models, toys, books, comics, album covers, film posters and historical exhibits charting the development of science fiction from its 19the century origins to the present for adults. The digital prints by Chris McEwan encapsulate the transformation of sci-fi from old to modern with his 1950’s retro-futuristic style and various information points explain such terms as “steampunk” and the origination and merging of “alien” and “invasion” in its historical context. And what would this imaginative, interactive, multi-sensory exploration into alien invasion be without music?  The background soundtrack to the exhibition is a mixture of old and the new: from the Automatics, ‘What’s that coming over the hill?’, Holtz’s ‘Mars the Bringer of War’ to Jeff Wayne’s famous musical version of War of the Worlds, the musical and radio broadcast compilation bring added excitement and atmosphere to the experience. Special events so far have included family and children workshops, talks and interviews with renown authors, artists and academics, concluding on the 16 January with a lecture by Professor Peter Beck, entitled, “HG Wells: Bringing Woking to the World”. I came away from the exhibition feeling happily nostalgic, newly informed and my appreciation of the genre piqued. It brought back some old childhood memories (including the memory of being continually terrified that there was a Dalek waiting for me around the corner of a particularly scary alley at the end of my street) and the desire to watch some good old cheesy sci-fi movies (I never did see ‘The Blob’). Hats off to guest curator Hamish MacGillivray and historical advisor Andy Sawyer for an original and evocative exhibition, which if you have an hour to spare will take your mind off Christmas preparations, or perhaps even inspire a few gift ideas. [Amanda Briggs, December 2013] Alien Invasion, the Lightbox, Main Gallery, Woking, 15 October 2013 -19 January 2014. Entrance: free. IMAGE COURTESY OF JOE DOVE  © THE LIGHTBOX


Ghost the Musical

Ghost the Musical If you’re a fan of musicals then you’ll have an evening to savour seeing Ghost the Musical currently at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, and running there until 23 November before continuing its UK tour.   If you were brought up on musicals then you’re probably used to gentle performances where, to a backcloth of prairie cornfields, Pacific islands or circus big tops, boy meets girl, boy loses girl but, in the end, boy gets girl. Be prepared for a rude awakening. Ghost the Musical follows the trend set perhaps by Phantom of the Opera by taking staging into a new dimension.   With vivid back projections, constant set changes and clever stage illusions it creates a vibrant and exciting platform for the cast. The storyline nevertheless remains virtually the same – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl – but there is a subtle difference.   Sam Wheat, a New York banker, outstandingly performed by relative newcomer Stewart Clarke, is in love with Molly Jensen, played by Rebecca Trehearn, an attractive actress who, thank goodness, actually looks as if she is in love with him. The opening scene is of them moving into a new apartment together – but they are innocent parties to dirty dealings at the bank.  In consequence they become a danger to the baddies and Sam is murdered.  Left as a ghost halfway between this world and the next, he desperately tries to protect Molly from the same fate but his efforts are hampered by his inability to communicate with her.  Frustrated he turns to a phoney psychic, in the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the film but here played brilliantly by Wendy Mae Brown (pictured) who combined a superb voice with a nice turn of comedy and to whom must go the honours of the evening.  She can not only hear him but is persuaded to work with him in bringing events to a happy conclusion. Directed by Matthew Warchus, book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin and music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard the show benefits from having four powerful singers in the lead roles.  Praise must also be given to the ensemble whose dancing does them and the choreographer, Ashley Wallen, great credit.  My only criticism is that there were no, what I call, hummable tunes to take away with one.  But that, perhaps, sadly belongs to the world of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and their like. Dermot Hoare [14 November 2013]


Fiddler On the Roof

Fiddler, woking 1 Having been around for as long as I have, I grew up knowing ‘Fiddler’ without ever having seen either the film or stage show. It was one of my dad’s favourites, and every boxing day family party during the 1970s, his party piece was a rendition of If I Were a Rich Man, in which, when lyrics failed him beyond  “Yubi  dibby dibby dibby dibby dum”, he would try and get Nan out of her chair,  away from the sherry trifle and encourage her to try a bit of yiddish dancing. It was therefore with fond memories and anticipation that I went to see the latest touring production of Fiddler On the Roof, at Woking’s New Victoria Theatre. Although staying close to the original, director and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood and musical director Sarah Travis have still managed to bring fresh life to the production by bringing the music out of the orchestra pit and incorporating the instruments into the roles of the actors on stage. The cast are all, impressively, actors, singers, dancers and fully accomplished musicians, and all roles are played with equal dexterity. Paul Michael Glazer brings the lead role of Tevye to life with natural mannerisms, movement and speech, particularly with his bantering monologue with God and the witty, marital sparring with his wife, Golde. He plays the part with the humbleness and modesty of a great man that the character deserves. Set, lighting and costume combine to create the traditional but impoverished Russian Jewish village Anatevka, set on the eve of the Russian revolutionary period, where some of the characters are, “so happy they don’t even notice they are miserable”. The play opens with the powerful and evocative song, Tradition, which sets the tone and theme for the rest of the play. I was a little disturbed to discover the first three songs were the most well known ones, and feared that the rest of the songs would be bland or uninspiring rather like the majority of my CD albums that never get played beyond track three for this reason. This, happily, was not the case. Although the first act runs at one hour 40 minutes, this wasn’t noticeable, as the story, music and a couple of surprising and entertaining dance sequences kept me engrossed. Act two lacks the lighthearted vibrancy generated so readily in Act one, but that’s understandable as the plot thickens towards its conclusion.  Neither did it end with a rousing upbeat finale that, probably desensitised by Hollywood and Disney endings, I had come to expect. The underlying themes of conflict between fatherly love and religious values, racial displacement and persecution develop throughout the play in an understated way, yet it is heartwarming, humorous and beautiful, reaffirming beliefs in humanity and love.  I was sad to see it end, and joined the audience in a well-deserved standing ovation, leaving the theatre with a smile on my face and happy memories of my own long gone family traditions and a greater appreciation of my own father’s love, if not his singing ability. Amanda Briggs [24 October  2013] Fiddler on the Roof runs until Saturday 26 October at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking.


The Imperial Ice Stars, Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty on Ice   Woking theatregoers have grown used to both variety and quality from the New Victoria Theatre.  In recent times we’ve seen Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty ballet and Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Northern Ballet.  The Imperial Ice Stars show is an ice dance production, but I couldn’t help comparing it with the ballets.  It is performed in the same space to similar music and is a dance form based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet. The version on ice is faster and smoother than the ballet but this production is more pantomime than art. The quality of the skating was generally very high and these skaters could have delivered something better had the choreography allowed. The audience frequently showed their appreciation for the skill displayed as impressive lifts jumps and spins were executed, powered by the strong themes of Tchaikovsky’s timeless music. The scenery was imaginative and made the ice rink appear a natural fit in the theatre.  It was a small space for ice skating but a positive for the choreography was that it fitted in with, impressively, up to six couples dancing, lifting and spinning at the same time. The wardrobe team deserve praise for the excellent costumes with frequent changes that made the cast of 20 seem much bigger. We could have done without the crude pyrotechnics, and the lingering smell of paraffin that persisted after the fire scene.  It added more odour than drama.  And, while some of the aerial work was well executed the swinging about on sheets in one incongruous scene didn’t help to tell the story or add interest.  But perhaps I’m being too hard; the audience seemed to be drawn from a wide age group and the children may well have appreciated these moments. The skaters performed their routines with great skill but there were two or three stumbles, not many in a whole ice show, and may have gone unnoticed in a slower art form but were unsettling for the audience and seemed to explain why the first three rows of the stalls were kept empty. In this tale of conflict between good and evil it seemed surprising that the good Lilac Fairy won, as the bad guys seemed to have the best moves.  Art or panto, Carabosse, the evil fairy can cast a spell on me any time she likes.  She skated impressively and used her partner, billed as her Shadow, to great effect.  How did she spin on his head with no hands? Variety was provided by Calabutte’s Assistant who combined skill and humour to brighten the atmosphere.  Other skaters played their parts skilfully to work through a somewhat dull choreography.  Perhaps this is due to the challenge of fitting ice skating, which prefers a larger space to show off its full power and grace, into a theatre setting. This is a very good way to see an ice show in your local theatre and this opportunity to see top skaters in a good production should not be missed.  It should appeal to theatregoers of all ages. Peter Morley [16 October 2013]


Northern Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Northern Ballet 2 As I sat at the semi-permanent roadworks at Maybury after a full-on, non-stop day of work, my only thought of the ballet I was to see that night was, “I’m going to be late”. My mind was full of the day’s trivialities, annoyances and grievances against the world, and in particular, ill-timed traffic lights. Less than half an hour later, I was transported from the day’s nightmares to a night of glorious and enchanting dreams. Entering the theatre with 10 minutes to spare, I was surprised to see the curtain already up and the dancers lazily warming up on a fully lit set. It didn’t take long to understand that this is part of artistic director David Nixon’s design to draw the audience in to his imaginative and delightful adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As Shakespeare’s play was a play within a play, Nixon chose to do a ballet within a ballet. Set in the 1940s, Nixon and  set designer Duncan Hayler capitalise on artistic style by creating a stunning set and gorgeously appropriate costumes to support the plot. The set is artfully crafted to produce seamless and spectacular scene changes by using optical illusions, playful perspectives and colour contrasts. The two worlds are created by contrasting black and white for the everyday, real world with bright, luxurious colours for the dream world. The effect is mesmerising and delightful. Knowing the original play very well, I was a little concerned how this complex and humorous tale would translate into music and dance. After a slightly overwhelming opening scene all became clear very quickly through the intricate balance of constantly changing dance, music, costume, set and lighting. No one component overshadowed another, the story flowed easily and gracefully; each transformation brought gasps from the audience as the dancers and music, conducted by John Price Jones, brought Shakespeare’s most humorous play to life. I broke into a smile at the beginning of Act 2, and the smile remained for the rest of the performance, interrupted only by frequent laugh out loud moments. Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, the prima ballerina, take centre stage with regal elegance and grace. The lovers’ energetic rompings and hilarious frolics keep you smiling throughout, along with the scene-stealing Wardrobe Master. However, it is Puck, danced by Kevin Poeung, who dominates. Playing the role of Ballet Master, he is just that: dancing with a force and poise that enchants, delights and captivates. He brings the performance to its conclusion by reciting Shakespeare’s epilogue: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended …”, aptly reminding me that indeed the performance had done just that; it had transported me from the everyday black and white, uplifted me and restored my joy in life. Amanda Briggs [26 September 2013] Northern Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the New Victoria Theatre until Saturday 28 September, but the company will tour again next year with a different production; the exciting possibilities of The Great Gatsby or Dracula were mentioned. Either way, not to be missed. 

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