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May 26th

Laila The Musical at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

Laila has everything you want from a musical - and more.

Pravesh Kumar’s sensitive interpretation of the age-old tale of Laila Majnu, together with memorable music and songs, a simple but stylish set and a talented cast, deserves to be in a West End theatre.

But this show has much more to offer than most musicals. Asia’s rich culture and traditions, its haunting sufi music and pulsating Bhangra beat seamlessly blend with modern day British life and its music.

That’s not all. Though the story of star-crossed lovers - 700 years older than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but with many similarities - will bring a lump to your throat, award-winning RIFCO’s production has some hilarious moments which wouldn’t look out of place in pantomime. The scene in which some gloriously camp courtiers cavort around the stage particularly had the audience in stitches, while Laila’s cruel brother fits perfectly into the role of the out and out villain.

I don’t normally empathise with the characters in musicals. I view them very much as giving a performance. Because they are singing their stories they never seem real to me. But with Laila I became totally absorbed. In the title role, Mona Goodwin’s pure, soaring voice really touches the heartstrings, while it is easy to see why she should fall in love with Qays, played by Reece Bahia, with his boy band good looks and passionate performance.

Award-winning Surrinder ‘Shin’ Singh Parwana, one of the most prominent British Asian vocalists in the UK, exudes energy as Qays’s kindly father but later shows he is capable of much more when he transforms into the camp but cruel prince who marries Laila.

Every member of the cast and the crew have pulled together to make this a vibrant, colourful spectacle on one hand and a beautifully presented, intimate love story on the other.

 

Laila The Musical is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until May 28.

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

 

It then ends its tour:

May 31-June 4: The Lowry, Salford

www.rifcoarts.com

May 13th

It Runs in the Family at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

It Runs in the Family has been tickling our funny bones since 1987 - and after the opening night performance of The Mill at Sonning’s latest production I’d say it’s still the perfect prescription for a pick me up.

 I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much. I really did laugh til I cried. We all know Ray Cooney is the master of mirth but even his scripts would be nothing without a director and actors who can deliver the goods, and Ron Aldridge and his cast went straight into their first performance with gusto, galloping along at a cracking pace and with perfect timing. It was an absolute delight and I felt privileged to be in the audience.

Set in the doctors’ common room of a London hospital, the play charts the mishaps of Dr David Mortimore who is about to give a lecture at an international conference. Enter an old flame who tells him he has an 18-year-old son desperate to meet him, but with Mortimore’s wife and the crusty chairman of the board of governors in the mix, the situation quickly descends into the usual Cooney chaos with lots of banging doors, entrances and exits, and oddball characters talking themselves into impossible situations.

At the centre of the plot as Dr Mortimore is Harry Gostelow who delivers an impassioned performance, fielding everything that is thrown at his character. But then every member of the cast gives 110 per cent and makes the most of what they have to play with, especially Nick Wilton who is outstanding as Dr Hubert Bonney - he puts so much in his performance I worry he’ll blow a gasket! Even Brian Hewlett as the wheelchair-bound Bill steals a scene or two with a part which could so easily have just been a cameo role.

It Runs in the Family is just what the doctor ordered. Miss it at your peril!

It Runs in the Family is at The Mill at Sonning until July 2.

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com

May 10th

Jekyll and Hyde at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

When it comes to setting the scene, talkingScarlet’s production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale couldn’t be much more basic.

Geoff Gilder’s set is simple, almost amateurish, but adaptor and director Nicholas Briggs’ original music and David North’s lighting create an atmosphere which sends shivers down your spine.

Not a lot has been spent on costumes, either, and although the cast includes some worthy actors they seem limited in what they can do. Even during the transformation scene where Jekyll turns into Hyde, Gary Turner can do nothing but scream and shout (which he does well enough to chill the blood!) until the lights go out and you see him changing places with Andrew Fettes, who plays a menacing Mr Hyde, his face usually hidden in a muffler or a mask. A second changing of places later in the play is much more fluid.

But it’s not all bad. I like the way RLS’s story of the good doctor who creates a concoction which changes him into his evil alter ego is presented. Mostly it is related by Jekyll’s lawyer, Gabriel Utterson, as he recounts his friend’s story to burly police inspector Newcomen (Ben Crowe) with the help of flashbacks. In the main, the actors seem too young for their characters but Neil Roberts as the lawyer does carry some authority.

As the production is only in the second week of a long tour, I trust it’ll soon settle down and come together. I wish it well.

 

Jekyll and Hyde is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until May 14

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

The tour then continues:

May 23-25: Playhouse Theatre, Weston Super Mare

June 8-11: Haymarket, Basingstoke

June 13-15: Lyceum Theatre, Crewe

June 23-25: Palace Theatre, Newark

July 5-9: Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

August 9-13: Grand Theatre, Swansea

August 16-20: Buxton Opera House

August 23-27: Churchill Theatre, Bromley

September 6-10: Grand Theatre, Blackpool

September 12-13: Wyvern Theatre, Swindon

September 15-17: The Core at Corby Cube

September 18-20: Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

September 21-23: Dundee Repertory Theatre

September 30-October 1: Marina Theatre, Lowestoft

Apr 13th

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel

By Clare Brotherwood

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is a little known play by Tennessee Williams, performed only once since its premiere in 1969.

It’s plain to see why. If it had been written by another, lesser known playwright, it might have been hailed as extraordinary, but from the creator of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof we expect fiery passion and excitement, which it lacks.

The stage is set for all of this. Fireworks should fly between Mark, an alcoholic painter and, Miriam, his promiscuous wife, but while they have their moments, Linda Marlowe as Miriam is cold and calculating and though she shows signs of vulnerability we never warm to her. David Whitworth’s Mark, on the other hand, gets all of our sympathy as he stumbles around lost in his own psychotic world.

Director and Williams’ devotee Robert Chevara is brave to take on this project. Written at a time when the playwright was depressed at the loss of his partner, his dialogue is disjointed and sentences unfinished, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions.

The play does have its redeeming features. Set designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s hotel bar sweeps majestically into the auditorium, though its rake is pretty steep, and Andrew May’s daylight and scudding clouds through a huge window are convincingly realistic. Occasional splashes of paint don’t quite gel, however.

As the barman, Andrew Koji’s discomfort at Miriam’s advances is palpable, while Alan Turkington’s late entrance as Mark’s art dealer, commanded by Miriam to take Mark back to the US, brings a little normality to the stage.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is at Charing Cross Theatre until May 14.

Box Office: 08444 930 650

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Mar 18th

Last of the Red Hot Lovers at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

A red hot lover Barney Cashman isn’t.

It’s the end of the Swingin’ Sixties, when love was free, and Barney feels he is missing out.

Like so many of Neil Simon’s characters, the 47-year-old father of three and owner of a fish restaurant wants ‘to belong’, and so he embarks on a series of romantic trysts in his mother’s New York apartment.

But for red hot read damp squib. What follows is a poignant but hilarious series of botched attempts at love-making as the quietly spoken, fastidious Barney strives for something ‘decent and beautiful’.

As Barney, Stuart Fox is perfect. Looking guilty and out of his depth, his attempts to hide any trace of his visits to his mother’s home are hysterical, and when it comes to communicating with women, well…. you can tell he is married to his childhood sweetheart. His frustration at his ineptitude does, however, bring out his dark side which can be quite disturbing.

As his first paramour, Laura Doddington is magnificent as Elaine, a full-on, in-your-face broad who thinks nothing of cheating on her husband.

In complete contrast, Dido D’Alangurton plays Bobbi, a goofy, neurotic night club singer who has Barney smoking pot and singing pop songs, while Gloria Donna Tudd is Jeanette, his wife’s best friend, dowdy, depressed and depressing.

Under Robin Herford’s expert direction, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a complete entertainment, but this production has a secret ingredient which I will not divulge but which only makes it even more special.

As usual, the set is exemplary, and congratulations must go to Edward Lipscomb who is making his debut at the Mill as set designer.

 

Last of the Red Hot Lovers is at The Mill at Sonning until

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com

Jan 22nd

The Perfect Murder at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

 

The murder in question may or may not be perfect, but this production certainly is.

It has all the ingredients of great entertainment in spades - side-splitting comedy, tragic pathos and spine-chilling horror.

Adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna from the first of crime writer Peter James’ series of novels featuring detective Roy Grace, it tells the story of Victor and Joanie, for whom marriage really is murder. After 20 years, all they do is bicker and Victor wants to make a new life with his mistress Kamila while Joanie’s unrequited passion drives her into an affair with cabbie Don.

James, whose books have sold 16 million and, after last night, will have at least one more avid reader, certainly doesn’t spare his audience with niceties. Victor - and to some extent Don - is a sexist chauvinist for whom I had no sympathy, and Andrew Paul, last seen as the evil Dan Jones in Coronation Street, is perfectly cast. He gave me the shivers whether alive or dead! In the hands of Aneta Piotrowska and Sonia Saville, however, prostitute Kamila and unloved wife Joanie get all my sympathy.

As with every tragedy laughter isn’t far from the surface and there are some real belly laughs to be had, not least Don’s propensity to using rhyming slang, even though he comes from Tunbridge Wells! Adam Morris is full of himself  as the uncouth Don but he does win me over in parts.

Aneta Piotrowska is perfect as Kamila, a hooker with a heart, while Nick Lawson is suitably understated as DC Roy Grace, working on his first case.

Set in the sixties and accompanied by some well thought out songs from that era, The Perfect Murder also has chilling sound effects from Matt Smee.

Director Keith Myers and his cast have this exciting play really well balanced and, although another version of The Perfect Murder is currently touring the country, starring EastEnders favourites Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace, it is coming nowhere near Berkshire/Oxfordshire. Besides, it sits so much better in the intimate, atmospheric, and some say, haunted, Mill!

 

The Perfect Murder is at The Mill at Sonning until March 12.

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com

Jan 21st

The Small Hours at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

January is not the best time for theatre. Post-Christmas, people may have to budget. Then, of course, it’s either too wet or too cold to contemplate going out in the evening.

So it was good to discover that Rehearsal for Murder, last week’s production at the Theatre Royal Windsor, not only sold out but is being brought back at the end of the month for those who missed it - or, indeed, want to see it again.

Such was the popularity of this murder mystery that, late in the day, the powers that be fitted in another play of the same genre, The Small Hours, by that most prolific of writers, Francis Durbridge.

Best known for his Paul Temple series, which began in 1938 and which I still listen to on BBC Radio 4Extra with the same fondness people have for Brief Encounter, Durbridge’s whodunnits are chock-full of red herrings - and surprises - and The Small Hours doesn’t disappoint.

Some members of the cast are well-used to coppers and criminals. Graham Cole, who plays Chief Inspector George Westwood, and Mark Wingett (millionaire Oliver Radford) are both easily recognisable from the TV series The Bill, and they each play their roles with gravitas.

Since his days as Robbie Jackson in EastEnders, Dean Gaffney has also played his fair share of murder mysteries, as well as appearing in The Bill, and in this production he plays a character so edgy that you are bound to think he is up to something. Is this one of Durbridge’s red herrings? You can only find out be going to see it! The writer is sure to keep you guessing throughout the play, though just before the interval an intruder at the hotel belonging to Carl Houston - played diligently by Simon Dutton - is identified. I think it would have created even more suspense if the audience had been kept waiting until the after the break before being named.

Despite having only fairly small parts, some actors of note add their expertise to the production. Deborah Grant, still memorable for her role in A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, which brought fame for Windsor regular Susan Penhaligon, is efficient as Houston’s PA, and we warm to Georgina Leonidas, Katie Bell in several of the Harry Potter films, as the long-suffering as the wife of philandering chef (Mark Curry). That only leaves Carol Royle as Vanessa Houston, still beautiful as the trophy wife.

With chilling music from James Wickens, The Small Hours is a fun night out for those of us who like to be kept guessing.

The Small Hours continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until January 30

Box Office: 01753 853 888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Jan 17th

The Long Road South at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington

By Clare Brotherwood

 

The King’s Head may be London’s oldest surviving pub theatre but its reputation for fostering new talent is legend.

So much so that it attracts the great and the good such as the latest actors to tread its boards, Imogen Stubbs and Michael Brandon.

Being in the company of such stellar performers is a treat in itself, but to be one of just 110 audience members confined in a tiny space is a real coup for any theatregoer. The close proximity of the actors and the quality of their performances draw us in as if we are actually part of the plot. We see every muscle twitch, we feel every emotion, we laugh when it’s funny and draw back in horror when it’s not.

The Long Road South was originally part of the Hopefull Theatre Festival, produced by the So-and-So Arts Club in 2014, when it was nominated for an Off West End Best Play Award, with Michael Brandon being nominated for Best Actor.

Directed by Sarah Berger, founder of the club, writer Paul Minx has based his play on the African-American who helped raised him, and shows the way the lives of both black and white were set to change during the American Civil Rights movement of 1965.

It takes place in the Indiana home of the Price family. Their domestic workers, Andre and Grace, prepare to head South to join the civil rights marches but each family member is determined they should stay.

Central to the plot is Andre, on the surface a gentle, God-fearing man who helps his employers’ teenage daughter with her Bible studies. But like every one of the characters he has a dark side, and Cornelius Macarthy plays all facets of this man’s personality in a beautifully executed performance. In complete contrast, Grace is out-spoken and angry, and Krissi Bohn brings great passion to the role.

From the start Lydea Perkins shines brightly as the Price’s teenage daughter, Ivy. This is someone to watch! With a fresh, all-American girl-next-door naivety, she gives a spirited performance, from her plain-speaking to her loyalty to her friend Andre, and her childlike insecurities shown in her subsequent reaction to rejection.

This strong cast is headed by Imogen Stubbs who, as Ivy’s alcoholic mother, is a sad  specimen of life, and at such close quarters made me embarrassed and wanting to look away as I would on seeing a drunk in the street - so realistic is her performance.

Michael Brandon doesn’t make an entrance until well into the play but his volatile presence as husband, father and employer more than makes up for his lack of time on stage.

Such excellent performances are, though vital to the play, only secondary to the story itself. At the beginning we find ourselves laughing easily and wholeheartedly at what would now be regarded as racism, but as the play progresses we see just how racism affects the

lives of communities. It is a lesson we are still learning.

The Long Road South is certainly a journey worth taking and like every journey is a satisfying experience.

 The Long Road South is at the King’s Head Theatre until January 30.  Image courtesy of King's Kead Theatre.

Box office: 0207 226 8561

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Jan 13th

Rehearsal for Murder at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 

When I discovered that Agatha Christie had been sidelined for ‘classic thrillers’, I was disappointed.

The Queen of Crime is a difficult act to follow and producer Bill Kenwright’s Agatha Christie Theatre Company has sold over two million tickets during its 10-year tenure.

But Kenwright’s new Classic Thriller Theatre Company, which made its debut at Windsor’s Theatre Royal this week, couldn’t have got off to a better start.

Rehearsal for Murder, written by Richard Levinson and William Link, the men behind Columbo and Murder She Wrote, is a tremendously satisfying mystery chock full of my favourite things: It is set in a theatre - tick; it features a wonderful assortment of characters - tick; it has a good balance of humorous and hair-raising moments - tick. But most of all it is a cracking good yarn full of surprises, a complex plot through which director Roy Marsden skillfully guides his cast.

The action takes place in 1989 and opens in a West End theatre where, a year to the day, Alex Dennison’s latest play had opened to mixed reviews. A few hours later the leading lady and Dennison’s bride-to-be, movie star Monica Welles, had fallen to her death - but was it suicide or murder?

As Dennison and Welles, Rehearsal for Murder brings together again Robert Daws and Amy Robbins, who both starred in eight series of The Royal on ITV. Daws is almost frightening in his character’s passion to get to the truth. His emotion is palpable, especially in the closing scene, but, sadly, Robbins lacks the bearing of a movie star.

Susan Penhaligon undoubtedly steals the show as the affected producer Bella Lamb, closely followed by Robert Duncan as leading luvvie David Mathews. Lucy Dixon does a good job of reinventing herself from northern mouse to acerbic vamp in her role as young actress Karen Daniels, and Holly Ellis adds freshness in her almost comic performance as Dennison’s new and inexperienced assistant Sally.

This play within a play is fascinating stuff. On opening night it did drag a little in the first act but, nevertheless, it continued to sweep me along to I knew not where until the very end. But as they say on Through the Keyhole, the clues are there!

Well worth seeing.

 

Rehearsal for Murder is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until January 16.

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Box office: 01753 853888

 

It then tours:

Jan 25-30: Malvern Theatre

Feb 2-6: Cardiff New Theatre

Feb 8-13: Richmond Theatre

Feb 15-20: Regent Theatre Stoke

Feb 22-27: Aylesbury Waterside Theatre

Mar 21-26: Kings Theatre, Edinburgh

Dec 6th

Dick Whittington and His Cat at Wilton’s Music Hall

By Clare Brotherwood

What better place for music hall and panto aficionado Roy Hudd to stage his latest feast of festive fun than in an original Victorian music hall.

Situated down an alley 15 minutes walk from Tower Hill tube station, Wilton’s began life around 1690 as four houses and an ale house for wealthy sea captains and merchants. During the 1800s a concert room and auditorium were added, and in September this year a three-year £4 million project to repair the original buildings was completed.

It’s a unique space, with a cavernous, galleried auditorium surrounded by a labyrinth of rooms bursting with character and atmosphere. It’s like stepping back in time. Nothing fancy; the whole place hasn’t been refurbished, just restored.

But that’s enough of that. Though the venue is a star in itself, Roy Hudd’s self penned version of the classic London tale is everything you’d expect from this multi-talented showbusiness veteran - and more.

It’s bursting with music hall songs, Cockney rhyming slang and nursery rhymes pertinent to old London - there’s even a musical number featuring the spoons! And, of course, the comedy is second to none, from topical jokes to downright, side-splitting silliness, especially from lovable Idle Jack, played with great innocence by Simon Burbage. I love the campness of Ian Parkin as shopkeeper William Widl (not, it’s not a misprint!) and the acrobatic prowess of Steven Hardcastle as Tommy the Cat. But Gareth Davies takes some beating as the rockin’ Ronaldo Ratface - a man of so many voices. His talent for mimicry knows no bounds.

After 57 years of treading the boards, tackling everything from Shakespeare to farce, West End musicals to Coronation Street, performing solo shows about his beloved music hall to presenting Radio’s longest running comedy show, The News Huddlines, at the age of 79 Roy makes his debut as Dame, and he takes to it like a duck to water. He’s a cheeky chappie - sorry, chappess! - flirting with the good looking boys on stage, eyes wide and a devilish grin, and joining in complicated routines, song and dance with all the enthusiasm and energy of someone half his age, though in the finale I caught him gazing as if in awe at his young cast. And deservedly so. Every member of the cast does a sterling job, under the experienced eye of director Debbie Flitcroft, otherwise known as Mrs Roy Hudd. The whole production gallops along at a cracking pace and certainly does justice to the hallowed walls of Wilton’s Music Hall.

Dick Whittington and His Cat is at Wilton’s Music Hall until 31 December.

Box office: 02077022789

www.wiltons.org.uk