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
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Album Review: The Wind in the Willows (2017 Original London Cast Recording)

“Although we’re armed with many prickles
They’re no match for large vehicles”

The Wind in the Willows took quite the critical battering when it opened at the Palladium last month and whilst it may not be the greatest show in the world, it does feel to have been a rather harsh treatment (I quite liked it for what it was). I’m not entirely sure what critics thought they were going to get from this revival of Kenneth Grahame’s classic story but it was clearly a darn shot edgier than anything Julian Fellowes and composing duo Stiles and Drewe were ever going to create.

Listening to the Original London Cast Recording which has now been released, you very much get a sense of the gently bucolic charm that they were aiming for and which, by and large, they achieve. Their strengths lie in the grand musicality of the ensemble numbers that pepper the score at its key moments. The cumulative choral power of ‘Spring’, the irrepressible energy of ‘We’re Taking Over The Hall’, the thrill of the fun-loving finale – this what they do so well. Continue reading “Album Review: The Wind in the Willows (2017 Original London Cast Recording)”

Review: The Wind in the Willows, Palladium

“Poop, poop”

Arriving at the London Palladium just in time for the summer holidays, new family musical The Wind in the Willows (seen on tour late last year) is a respectfully traditional treatment of the Kenneth Grahame classic with which so many are familiar. And with kings of musical theatre nostalgia Stiles & Drewe on composing duties, Rachel Kavanaugh’s production is clearly the kind of show that wants you to wistfully remember childhoods past.

Julian Fellowes’ book undulates gently rather than creating any particularly dramatic waves – Rat and Mole’s growing friendship is quietly but effectively done, Toad is characterised as a Boris Johnson-like would-be-lovable-rogue, and the biggest ripples of the first half come in the introduction of various creatures of the forest – like an Andrews Sisters-esque trio of sonorous swallows and an enormously cute family of hedgehogs. Continue reading “Review: The Wind in the Willows, Palladium”

Review: Whisper House, The Other Palace

“That doesn’t look good, 

it doesn’t bode well, kid”
The reinvention of the St James Theatre into The Other Palace continues, but with the curious choice of another US musical, this time the European premiere of Whisper House, written by Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow. Curious because it is an oddity of a show that rarely makes the case for its place in this new home for developing musical theatre, heaven knows there’s British musicals aplenty that would have benefited from this slot in the programme.
For Adam Lenson’s production certainly tries its creative best with the material. Andrew Riley’s circular design is an arresting and inventive use of the space, projections are thrown onto the back wall to transport us to Maine in the midst of the Second World War, illusions attempt to conjure the supernatural. But the problem lies in a story that is far too slight and a pop-rock score that is jauntily loud for something trying to be a ghost story.
Young Christopher finds himself shipped off to his unfriendly lighthouse-keeper Aunt Lily when his fighter-pilot father is killed and his distraught mother ends up in the asylum. She’s got a club foot and so has Yasuhiro a friendly Japanese man helping her out about the place but at a time of heightened tensions both with that nation and with his aunt, and having his nascent patriotism nurtured by the local sheriff who’s kicking out all the foreigners, Christopher brashly steps into danger.
Because the lighthouse is haunted of course, by two nameless ghosts. Who don’t do much of anything but narrate through song and produce a fair few magic tricks. Their story does eventually get told, along with the unfolding of the main narrative, but it’s all rather bloodless, being at such a remove from the main action means they’re neither scary nor interesting. They are however well sung by Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry, they’re just deserving of better material.
And there’s strong work from Dianne Pilkington as the irascible Aunt Lily and Simon Lipkin’s solid sheriff, both imbuing character where they can. But the lack of lyrical or musical subtlety means that there’s nothing haunting here apart from the price of the food upstairs. 
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 27th May

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9

“Time will tell, it always does”

Phew, the Doctor Who rewatch comes to an end with the most recent series, another that I hadn’t seen any of since it originally aired. And again it was one of highs and lows, a frustrating sense of pick and mix that never settles. So from the astonishing bravura of the (practically) solo performance in Heaven Sent to kid-friendly quirks of the sonic sunglasses and guitar playing, Capaldi took us from the sublime to the silly. Fortunately there was more of the former than the latter (although it is interesting that my memory had it the other way round).

Part of it comes down to knowing in advance how the hybrid arc plays out (disappointingly) and a little perspective makes Clara’s departure(s) a little less galling. This way, one can just enjoy the episodes for what they are, free from the weight of the attempted mythologising. The Doctor raging against the futility of war, the wisdom (or otherwise) of forgiveness, the repercussions of diving in to help others without thinking through the consequences…it is often excellent stuff. It’s also nice to see Who employ its first openly transgender actor (Bethany Black) and a deaf actor playing a deaf character (Sophie Stone). Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9”

Winners announced for the #AlsoRecognised Awards 2017

 

Several shows in the running for this year’s Olivier Awards, announced next Sunday 9 April, are also recognised this week in the third-annual Also Recognised Awards – in some notably different categories. The full list of winners is announced today in this audience-voted, industry accolade set up by theatre commentators Mark Shenton and Terri Paddock to celebrate lesser-known but equally worthy talent in fields overlooked by other awards bodies.

Continue reading “Winners announced for the #AlsoRecognised Awards 2017”

Review: Honeymoon in Vegas, London Palladium

“I am not making friki-friki”

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s arrival on the scene has not gone unnoticed by me but their previous concerts have always fallen on days when I couldn’t make it. So finally putting a show on on a Sunday night meant I was able to put it in the diary and to mark the occasion, they only went and invited their first guest conductor along, Mr Jason Robert Brown himself to helm the UK premiere of his show Honeymoon in Vegas.
And in the swish surroundings of the London Palladium, it was hard not to be entirely seduced by the lush sound of a 30-strong orchestra (under the musical direction of Freddie Tapner), a chorus of 16 up-and-coming performers and a main cast of bona fide West End stars directed by Shaun Kerrison. The concert staging allows for an amusingly slapdash approach which really suited the joie de vivre exuding from pretty much everyone involved here, a real passion project.
Honeymoon in Vegas wasn’t the hugest success on Broadway, closing after just a few months and in all honesty, it does have an old-fashionedness to it that never really perks up to speak to a contemporary audience. Andrew Bergman’s book is based on the 1992 film of the same name, about a man struggling to keep the promise he made to his dying mother to never get married. But on deciding to elope to Las Vegas with his girlfriend, Jack finds many many obstacles in his way. 
But if the story doesn’t quite hold up, never mind its feminist credentials, the show explodes in technicolor glory due to an expertly cast set of actors. Arthur Darvill (I reckon he did it in Broadchurch!) was hugely charismatic as the hapless Jack, Samantha Barks continuing a rich vein of form (so good in The Last Five Years) as fiancée Betsy, Maisey Bawden’s flirty Mahi, Simon Lipkin’s pair of striking cameos, and Rosie Ashe pretty much stealing the show as the ghost of Jack’s mother, determined to get her way (and enriching a character that barely deserves it).
Musically it is an interesting score that doesn’t always necessarily sound like the composer’s typical oeuvre, which has its good and its less good points. But it is never less than sprightly as it weaves in elements of Vegas and Elvis, and later Hawaii (where we end up), into its 20-some songs, which all carry the hallmark of Brown’s lyrical prowess. Above all, it was just great fun, which feels entirely the point with these kind of endeavours, no-one wants to be po-faced on a Sunday night and with this calibre of cast and creatives to hand, we weren’t disappointed.
Photo: Nick Rutter

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

Manchester’s Royal Exchange have announced the details for their production of Twelfth Night which arrives this spring. It is directed by the award-winning Jo Davies who makes her Royal Exchange debut with Shakespeare’s whirlwind comedy. Faith Omole, Kevin Harvey and Mina Anwar return to the Exchange as Viola, Orsino and Maria, Kate Kennedy takes on the role of Olivia and Anthony Calf is Malvolio. 
 
And in its own spin on the gender, identity and love issues at the heart of the play, award-winning Manchester-based transgender artist and activist Kate O’Donnell makes her Royal Exchange debut in the role of Feste, the wise observer in this foolish, lovesick kingdom. Live music from the critically acclaimed folk musician Kate Young and lap-tap guitarist Joe Gravil adds to the complexity of this intricate comedy which probes gender-politics and ideas of belonging. The play runs from 13 April – 20 May.
 
The cast is completed by Aaron Anthony, Simon Armstrong, Harry Attwell, Daniel Francis-Swaby, Tarek Merchant and Jill Myers. The creative team includes Designer Leslie Travers, Lighting Designer Jack Knowles, Sound Designer Pete Malkin and Composer Alex Baranowski.

Continue reading “Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things”

News: #AlsoRecognised Awards shortlists announced

Shortlists for the third annual Also Recognised Awards have been announced by MyTheatreMates, founded by Mark Shenton and Terri Paddock. These audience-voted industry accolades celebrate talent in fields often overlooked by other award bodies. Voting is now open for all categories and closes on Sunday 26th March 2017. Cast your vote at: www.mytheatremates.com/AlsoRecognisedAwards-2017/
 
The aim of the awards is to recognise some of those categories that are sometimes overlooked in other awards – for example, Best Musical Direction is one that is sadly unique to the Also Recognised roster. There’s also a nod to the behind-the-scenes folk with awards for Best Twitter Engagement, Show Trailer and Show Poster recognising the invaluable part that marketing, especially digitally, has to play in the industry.
 
So find the shortlists below and head over to My Theatre Mates to cast your vote. I helped to draw up these lists along with Mark and Terri, Andrew Keates and Mike Dixon, and the rest of the My Theatre Mates collective, and I think the blend of West End, Off-West End, fringe and regional nominees reflects that, so I’ll be most interested to see how the results pan out.

Continue reading “News: #AlsoRecognised Awards shortlists announced”

The 17th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards winners in full

Here’s the full list of the 17th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards winners. No real surprises here, there rarely is with these awards voted for by the public but it is nice to see a real spread across the musicals categories rather than one show dominating as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child does with the plays. And we’ll just ignore the leniency with the deadlines that meant Dreamgirls was able to sneak in despite having only played a handful of previews by the time nominations closed…congrats to all the winners and nominees.

Best Actor in a Play, sponsored by Radisson Blu Edwardian
Ian Hallard for The Boys in the Band
Ian McKellen for No Man’s Land
Jamie Parker for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child WINNER
Kenneth Branagh for The Entertainer
Ralph Fiennes for Richard III

Best Actress in a Play, sponsored by Live at Zédel 
Billie Piper for Yerma WINNER 
Helen McCrory for The Deep Blue Sea
Lily James for Romeo and Juliet
Michelle Terry for Henry V
Pixie Lott for Breakfast at Tiffany’s Continue reading “The 17th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards winners in full”