Review: Nativity! The Musical, Birmingham Rep

“A cheeky drink, a naughty wink,
we’ll loosen up alright”

Just like a wise man, I came late to Nativity, only getting round to watching Debbie Isitt’s film a couple of years ago but oh, how it won me over, feeling like an instant Christmas classic. (The less said about the sequel and the shocking third film, the better). So it was little surprise to hear that Isitt was adapting her film for the stage, in the form of Nativity! The Musical. And though I have once again embraced my inner Scrooge and won’t be reviewing much, if any, festive fare this year, I couldn’t resist the chance to sparkle and shine.
And I’m glad I did, even if it is a full month too early to be even thinking of anything Christmassy. Nativity remains a beautifully heart-warming story and if anything, has even more of a feel-good factor about it through all the liveness of this production. The story centres on Coventry primary school St Bernadette’s, trying to escape Ofsted-imposed special measures by beating a rival school to putting on the best Christmas show which, through the most tenuous of links, might just attract Hollywood interest and get turned into a film.
It’s a bit of stuff and nonsense really but done with as much charm as it is here, it’s like sinking into a nice mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows melted on the top. The cheeky chirpiness of the child performers, one of three teams of nine local schoolchildren, is irresistible as they badger their teacher (Daniel Boys’ rather reserved Mr Maddens) into directing them and respond to the inimitable Mr Poppy’s enthusiasm (Simon Lipkin perfectly cast as the most unlikely of teaching assistants) to find their (sometimes deeply) hidden talents.
Isitt serves as director and this has its strengths and its weaknesses. Little has been done to amend the plot which is fine, but does mean that Maddens’ LA-headed girlfriend Jennifer remains under-utilised and a firmer hand at the tiller might usefully have trimmed 20 minutes or so from the slightly indulgent running time. But she also marshals her resources to the beautifully judged telling of her story. Andrew Wright’s joyous choreography is an explosion of homespun fun and David Woodhead’s imaginative design looks a treat for a touring show.
Musically, Isitt and co-composer Nicky Ager err on the cute and poppy side, which works just fine in this context. It’s the songs from the film that remain the strongest though – the twinkling energy of ‘Sparkle and Shine’, the shimmering loveliness of ‘One Night, One Moment’. It’s all enough to even make you forgive the surely unfair caricature of a harsh theatre reviewer who turns up late on 😉. Great fun.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: The Other Richard
Booking until 12 November then touring to
SOUTHEND CLIFFS 15 November 2017 – 19 November 2017
SHEFFIELD LYCEUM THEATRE 22 November 2017 – 26 November 2017
MANCHESTER PALACE THEATRE 29 November 2017 – 3 December 2017
PLYMOUTH THEATRE ROYAL 6 December 2017 – 10 December 2017
EVENTIM APOLLO LONDON 13 December 2017 – 17 December 2017
LEEDS GRAND OPERA 20 December 2017 – 6 January 2018

Album Review: Shona White – I’ll Bring You A Song (2011)

“It is nothing to do with the wine

Or the music that’s flooding my mind”

Shona White is a rather under-rated (for my money at least) Scottish actress and singer perhaps most famous for stints in Mamma Mia which were 12 years apart, but whose musical theatre credits stretch far and wide. Her 2011 album I’ll Bring You A Song, produced by Richard Beadle reflects the breadth of her career and it is this variety which is both its strength and its slight weakness.
I have to admit to finding it hard to get too excited about tracks like ‘To Sir With Love’ and Tell Me On A Sunday’s ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’. They’re sung perfectly competently but familiarity breeds a certain measure of contempt. Where this type of song choice succeeds is where the interpretation dares to be different, the sharp emotion of Chess‘ ‘Nobody’s Side’ a case in point here, so too the slowed down take on ‘As Long As You’re Mine’ from Wicked with the ever-melodious Daniel Boys.

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Album Review: Songs From The Musical Wolfboy (2010)

“So tell me what are you in for?
Russell Labey and Leon Parris’s musical adaptation of Brad Fraser’s play Wolfboy played at a short run at Trafalgar Studios 2 in 2010 after an Edinburgh run the year before and afterwards, for reasons best known to themselves, an EP was released with just four songs from the show on the tracklisting. It’s an odd decision but on listening to the album, perhaps it is something of a blessing in disguise.
I returned to Wolfboy mainly to listen to Daniel Boys’ performance but the main takeaway is how dull and wannabe-goth the songs end up sounding. The overall aesthetic is teenage boys who have just heard Placebo do a slow song for the first time and trying to replicate the sound does precisely nobody any favours at all. And presenting excerpts like this does even allow you to grasp the story that is unfolding. making it hard to see the logic behind this release.

Review: A Spoonful of Sherman, Live at Zédel

“Theyre bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun”

A Spoonful of Sherman was previously seen at the St James Theatre (as was) in April 2014 but such is the warmly nostalgic hold of the Sherman Brothers’ songwriting, it is little surprise to see it re-emerge – this time in the plush surroundings of Brasserie Zédel’s cabaret space. The show has slimmed down its personnel from 4 to 2, Helena Blackman and Daniel Boys taking up the singing duties, with third generation songwriter Robert J. Sherman stepping in once again as narrator.
And I have to say I felt largely the same about A Spoonful of Sherman – it is a stronger show when Sherman Jnr is on the sidelines. One can understand the justifiably enormous pride he has in his family’s heritage, and in bringing this show to life, but the frequent interjections to sketch biographical insight don’t quite work in this format – its the stuff of programme essays to be honest and you can’t help wonder if his role might be more usefully reduced to a choice few bon mots.
For the unalloyed joy comes in the music, led superbly by Christopher Hamilton from the piano, taking in any number of hits from one of the most celebrated songwriting partnerships ever. From Mary Poppins to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book to Winnie the Pooh, this is the sound of so many childhoods from so many generations brought once again to blissful musical life in the captivating vocal blend of Blackman and Boys, whose musical chemistry radiates from the stage. 
There’s variety too in the programme selection, dipping into some of the not-quite-as-famous songs from those soundtracks, which adds interest and also switches up the mood from being too saccharine sweet – it’s only one spoonful we need after all and at 85 minutes, you can forgive most of the indulgences here.
Running time: 85 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 20th August

Album Review: Helena Blackman – The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein (2010)

“We’re going to look for the treasure”
Since finishing as runner up on Lloyd Webber’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?“, Helena Blackman has casually shaken off any of the negative connotations that might be associated with reality TV by establishing a career that has seen her work consistently in musicals and cabaret for more than a decade. From leading tours of South Pacific and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, to intimate shows at the Finborough and Landor, to full-on leading lady territory in two Kilworth House productions (My Fair Lady and yes, The Sound of Music), Blackman’s undoubted talent has taken the time to develop and really shine.
London audiences will have the pleasure of seeing her soon in A Spoonful of Sherman at The Other Palace, so I’m turning my attention to her 2010 album The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Again, it is indicative of a performer determined to tread her own path in rejecting the usual opening gambit of safe standards and pop songs that peppers many a debut album in this genre, and moving to a different but no less crowded field of anthologies celebrating a single composing team. 

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Review: Ordinary Days, London Theatre Workshop

“If everyone’s got a big picture

How come my picture’s something that I still have yet to see?”
I saw Adam Gwon’s 2008 musical Ordinary Days downstairs at the Trafalgar Studios back in 2011 with a grand cast that included Julie Atherton, Alexia Khadime and Daniel Boys and enjoyed it a fair bit, so news of a new production by Streetlights, People! at the transplanted London Theatre Workshop (now in the City) was glad tidings indeed. Directed by Jen Coles on the simplest of sets, decorated with a Manhattan skyline by Samantha Cates, the show’s relatable charms shine through once again.
The four-hander is a deceptively simple show – a quartet of 20-something New Yorkers are spiritually lost, swept up in what should be the romance of the city but finding that adulting isn’t quite as easy as all that. Jason is sacrificing everything for the woman he loves but Claire’s previously broken heart just won’t heal properly; grad student Deb has lost months of valuable thesis research but when struggling artist Warren finds it, she stubbornly resists any attempt at connection that he makes.
So far so rom-com but Gwon’s trick is to spike his narratives with a quirkily idiosyncratic dose of real life. So the meet-cute at the Met is ruined by Deb’s dislike for art galleries and her generally caustic manner, vividly encapsulated in Nora Perone’s delightfully scornful performance. And something more moving thus comes out of the slow-burning friendship that emerges with Neil Cameron’s appealingly nerdish Warren, acknowledging that it can be that much harder to make friends in a city and that it can be worthwhile.
Set against them, Claire and Jason’s relationship drama is a little more bittersweet as doubt creeps into their happiness, Kirby Hughes (so good that she gave me goosebumps within 10 seconds of starting to sing) and Alistair Frederick both sparkling as they each figure out exactly what it is they’re fighting for. Director Coles keeps the action moving pacily around the space, evoking something of the claustrophobic unfriendliness of metropolitan hustle and bustle and musical director Rowland Braché leads intelligently from the piano. 
If proof were needed that Gwon is a composer you should reckon with, that legendary supporter of musical theatre old and new Audra McDonald included one of his songs on her album Go Back Home. That song ‘I’ll Be Here’ is an epic story in miniature and Hughes smashes it out of the park here with a beautifully restrained show of real emotion. And if a touch of sentimentality creeps into the final moments, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t been earned by this depiction of the extraordinary that can be found in the ordinary.
Running time: 75 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Natalie Lomako
Booking until 17th June

Festive news #3 – West End Sings for Childline

And because things come in threes, here’s the news about West End Sings’ Christmas single ‘If We Only Have Love’ by Jacques Brel. Released to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Childline and all proceeds will go to the charity. The track can be pre-ordered from Friday 2nd December and will be released on Friday 9th December.

The song features stars from several West End Musicals plus the Sylvia Young Choir, with music by the producers of two out of the last three Christmas number 1s. Just some of the people singing are Dean John-Wilson, Cassidy Janson, Lucy St Louis, Davina Perera, Dylan Turner, Daniel Boys, Ben Forster, Rachelle Ann Go, Caroline Sheen, and Claire Sweeney – more details can be found on their website.

Review: The Boys in the Band, Park

“You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse”

It’s been almost 20 years since the last major revival of Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band, a piece of writing that pre-dated the Stonewall riots and gay rights movement and indeed helped to inspire them, so there’s no doubting the importance of the play in the theatrical canon, gay or otherwise. As a piece of drama though, it’s hard not to feel that time has caught up with it somewhat, even in Adam Penfold’s expertly cast production for the Park Theatre.
In his Manhattan apartment, Michael has gathered several of his friends to help celebrate the birthday of their mutual acquaintance Harold. His best laid plans are set awry by the arrival of an uninvited guest, Michael’s former college roommate Alan to whom he has never come out. Trying to hide this amount of gayness proves an impossibility, especially given the amount of alcohol being poured, paving the way for an evening of increasing bitterness and bitchiness with the commencement of the party games.
Writing at a time when homosexuality was barely seen never mind explored, Crowley thus does a remarkable job in presenting a set of gay characters who deal with identity issues and confidence crises that resonate even today. The one leaving his wife and kids for another man; the one who wants to be in a relationship but still be able to sleep with others too; the one resigned to his role as the queen of the group; etc etc. And in the revelations that are forced out of them by Michael’s manipulations, there are some moments of real aching truth.
There’s also a huge clunking problem in the second half device that brings about all this truth-telling, no earthly reason given why this group would be complicit in the continuing malice of the game that is played for so long. Self-loathing emerges as a major theme of the play – as devastatingly essayed by Ian Hallard’s vicious Michael and Mark Gatiss’ magnificently arch Harold, a real-life couple playing out a quite different striking dynamic here – but it ends up too contrived to be as affecting as it could be. Strong work from Ben Mansfield and Nathan Nolan as a combative couple and James Holmes’ fey Emory also stands out, in what feels like a dated but nonetheless significant landmark in gay theatre. 
Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Photos: Darren Bell
Booking until 30th October

Review: Miss Atomic Bomb, St James

“That’s just the fallout people”
Atomic bombs derive their destructive power from nuclear fission, when atoms split after being bombarded with other particles, and there’s a certain sense of random elements being thrown together in Miss Atomic Bomb, in the hope of reaching some kind of critical mass. Comedy gangsters, tap-dancing routines, comedy bank managers, dead sheep, comedy zucchini, pigs in clothes, comedy transvestites, hoedowns, comedy rabbi costumes, a Strallen and a character with a ridiculous surname because you can get a song out of it. Put them altogether and what do you get? A show that’s either a bomb or a blast.

Full disclosure, I saw a preview and I’m given to believe that a lot of work has happened to the show in the last couple of days, which is only natural for a new musical. For me though, the show feels fundamentally flawed in really not knowing what it wants to be. Writers Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long throw together satire and slapstick uneasily as a desperate Las Vegas hotel manager arranges the Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageant to drum up tourist trade as the US military test their atomic arsenal in the Nevada desert.

But it’s serious because the nuclear fallout is killing the livestock in the area. But it’s funny because farmgirl Candy can just win the pageant to get enough money to head over to California instead. But it’s serious because the hotel manager’s brother has deserted the army in protest at what they’re doing. But it’s funny because he’s got a courgette and a kippah to get away with it. Long co-directs with Bill Deamer, who also choreographs far too many inessential routines, but rarely does any sense of dramatic or musical purpose really emerge. The point at which Les Mis pastiches appear scrapes the barrel hard – you gotta get a gimmick but you gotta get your own.

Frustratingly, the music actually improves in the second act but that only serves to heighten the dichotomy between score and book. Simon Lipkin and forthcoming Aladdin Dean John-Wilson share a gorgeously tender duet of brotherly love in ‘I’ll Stand With You’ but it bears no resemblance to the fraternal relationship as played out throughout the entire play. And for all the prettiness of the country and western-tinged songs that Candy gets to sing, Florence Andrews really shining here, they have no organic place in the story as it tears around the Vegas strip. 

The less said about Catherine Tate’s wavering accent and mugging tendencies as Candy’s friend Myrna Ranapapadophilou the better. So too the indignities that Daniel Boys has to suffer as an inexplicably crazed bank manager. That said, the audience seemed to love it, me and my sometime companion aside, and a couple of Twitter pals have declared they’re fans so who knows what the critical and commercial fallout will be on this one. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Booking until 9th April

CD Review: The In-Between

“There are worlds that you’ve never dreamed of…“

Laura Tisdall’s self-penned musical The In-Between received the concept album treatment back in 2012 but has remained unproduced since then. An original story about 19 year old orphan Flick Wimple and the dilemma she faces when an unexpected move places her in the space between parallel worlds – The In-Between – and she’s given the choice to leave all her problems behind but at no small cost to the older sister who has raised her. Helping her on her way is Calicus, someone who has guided many along a similar path but sees something different in Flick.

Musically, it cleaves a little too close to the pop-rock genre for my personal taste. It’s also hard to replicate that sound effectively on disc and so the production can sometimes sound a little cheap, especially in the opening couple of tracks. That said, Dianne Pilkington and Cassie Compton bring a real sense of character to the feisty ‘She’s My Sister’. The more keyboard-based songs feel stronger – Lauren Samuels’ gorgeously evocative voice is an ideal fit for the stirring ‘Someone You’d Be Proud Of’ and as the song expands to an epic reach, it’s hard not to think she’d be a great Flick. 

And midway through the collection, we get perfect examples of how this kind of concept album format can really catch fire – Julie Atherton’s ‘When I Was Nineteen’ and Hadley Fraser’s ‘Beyond The Door’ are both extraordinary tracks, real atmosphere building out of the interpretative skills of both performers and enhancing Tisdall’s writing perfectly. That both characters singing here have already appeared on the album already by this point, albeit less effectively for me, exemplifies the Revels-bag nature of this approach – sometimes it works, sometimes not so much, but it’s always interesting. Worth a listen I’d say.