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Feb 16th

All The Fun Of The Fair

By Steve Burbridge

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ALL THE FUN OF THE FAIR 

Darlington Civic Theatre

Since it last toured to Darlington, back in September 2008, All The Fun of the Fair has enjoyed a record-breaking run at the Garrick Theatre, where it was nominated for Best New West End Musical of 2010 by What’s On Stage. It triumphantly returns to the Civic as part of its second major national tour and, yet again, fills the theatre from the stalls to the upper circle.

As the title suggests, the production is set against the backdrop of a travelling funfair that is struggling to survive in the late seventies. Inspired by David Essex’s album (also titled All The Fun of the Fair) the show is underscored by a helter-skelter of his hits but, unlike many other so-called ‘juke-box musicals’, there is a compelling and absorbing story to be told here.

David Essex reprises his role as funfair owner Levi Lee, the recently widowed father of a rebellious teenage son, Jack (Rob Compton), and, in doing so, delights his legions of female fans with each twinkle of the eye and every wry grin.  Older, greyer and more gravelly-voiced, it seems Essex can do no wrong in the hearts and minds of his followers and, it has to be said, he does have a certain stage presence that cannot be disputed. He is, undoubtedly, the main attraction - and he is fully aware of it – but his playing to the gallery and basking in the cat-calls and wolf-whistles can easily be forgiven because of his generosity in giving away some of his best-known hits to other members of the cast.

Louise English, as the sultry gypsy clairvoyant, Rosa, and Essex’s leading lady, rewards the above-mentioned generosity with a spine-tingling performance of ‘A Winter’s Tale’. Indeed, she puts in a show-stopping performance as the feisty fortune-telling femme-fatale and the sexual chemistry between the pair is strong enough to illuminate every flashing bulb in the fairground.

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Other stand-out performances are given by Tim Newman as Jonny, a simple-minded young outcast who ran away from an orphanage and found a sense of belonging amongst the travellers; Susan Hallam-Wright as Mary, Rosa’s daughter who carries a torch for Jack; and Barry Bloxham as Druid, the hapless henchman of the local heavy, Harvey (David Burrows).

A number of changes, to both cast and storyline, have been made since the production last toured and played the West End – all of which are for the better. The production values are second to none, boasting an extremely evocative funfair set (complete with dodgem cars, barrows and stalls), a talented, hard-working cast and some great sound and lighting effects which add a real air of authenticity to the proceedings. The storyline, which never depicted an overly-romanticised view of a travelling funfair, is now darker, grittier and edgier in places and does not attempt to gloss over the violence which often accompanies such a way of life.

All The Fun of the Fair is, undoubtedly, a crowd-puller. However, given that most of the crowd in Darlington on press night were forty or fifty-something female David Essex devotees, it is perhaps inevitable that it would be.

That aside, this is a musical which has much to offer and certainly has the potential to run and run. One hardly needs to gaze into Rosa’s crystal ball to see that it has a long and successful future ahead.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 18 February, then continues to tour nationally until April.

 

Feb 8th

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Maureen Nolan

By Steve Burbridge


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For thirty years Maureen Nolan was always in the mood for dancing. As a member of The Nolans, she travelled the world and enjoyed phenomenal success with her sisters. Now she has traded her place at the top of the charts for a life on “the never-never” to reprise her iconic role in Blood Brothers. She tells STEVE BURBRIDGE about the play, her hugely successful solo career and why sisterhood means more than anything else.

Three decades ago she and her sisters rocked the nation. That wholesome brand of pop, personified by The Nolans, preceded The Saturdays, Girls Aloud and The Spice Girls and earned the Irish sisters a place in British chart history as one of the most successful girl groups ever.

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Now Maureen Nolan, the sibling who stayed in the group longer than any other, has carved out a successful solo career for herself and is, once again, starring in the smash-hit musical, Blood Brothers, which plays in Sunderland until the end of the week.

‘I think for a woman of my age Mrs Johnstone is the absolute best role, really’ says Maureen. It’s got everything – comedy, tragedy and beautiful haunting melodies. I absolutely love playing her.’

It was in 2005 that she became the fourth Nolan sister to don the care-worn smile and cross-over pinny and take on the iconic role in Willy Russell’s legendary musical. In doing so she earned them a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most siblings to have played the same role in the same show at different times.

‘Before I was in it I had seen it 18 times!’ she says. ‘When I joined, I actually apologised to the cast for being such a stalker.’

Maureen admits that, initially, she was daunted by the prospect of taking on such a demanding and emotionally-charged role but was also determined to make the most of the opportunity.

‘I had big shoes to fill, not only from my sisters – Bernie, Linda and Denise - but also from all those other wonderful actresses who’ve played her, too, and I remember thinking: “If I get this role I will never short-change anyone by just walking through it because I’ve been in it for a long time.” And I hope I never have.’

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Blood Brothers tells the captivating and moving tale of twins who, having been separated at birth, grow up on opposite sides of the tracks, only to meet again with tragic consequences. Such is the dramatic power and cultural impact of the show that the role of Mrs Johnstone is one of the most coveted in musical theatre. However, it demands a portrayal that forces the actress playing her to ride an emotional rollercoaster and the rigours of performing in at least eight shows a week can, sometimes, take their toll.

‘I did the show for two years in the West End and cried at the end every night. Sometimes I look back and think: “How did I do that?” because it just drains you,’ admits Maureen.

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At the beginning of the play, Mrs Johnstone is the twenty-something Liverpudlian single mother ‘with seven hungry mouths to feed and one more nearly due’ but, by the final curtain, she’s a down-trodden, distraught grandmother who is struggling to comprehend the most tragic of situations. So, how does she convincingly descend to the depths of Mrs Johnstone’s despair?

‘There’s no other way, for me anyway, than to think of horrible things,’ she reveals. ‘I have one son and I just think about how I’d feel if I were in the same position. That part of it’s not great, really.’

Maureen admits that, initially, she struggled to leave her character behind in the theatre after each performance.

‘I used to be an emotional wreck for up to an hour or two afterwards because the writing is so amazing,’ she says. ‘But then you have to learn how to snap out of it quickly.’

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Blood Brothers is not the first production in which Maureen has starred as a strong female character. She began her acting career in 2004 by taking the role of Jill in Mum’s The Word, a series of monologues about motherhood. She also played Sadie in Girls Behind, in 2007, then reprised the role of Jill, alongside her sister, Bernie, in another tour of Mum’s The Word the following year. She has also toured extensively as Viv in Footloose and as Barbara in Over The Rainbow: The Eva Cassidy Story.

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However, one of the most challenging parts she accepted was that of Sarah, a woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer, in The Naked Truth. Surely, given the fact that three of Maureen’s sisters, Anne, Linda and Bernie, have battled breast cancer during the last decade, this must have been a difficult role for her to accept?

‘We talked about it first and agreed that it was quite spooky that, at that particular time in my life, I was offered the opportunity to play such a character,’ she admits. ‘But then we all laughed and nobody said they’d rather I didn’t do it or anything like that.’

The sisters sparked a showbiz sensation in 2009 when a family feud erupted as a result of their reunion tour.

‘Universal, the record company, only wanted to use the four of us who had had the big hits together,’ Maureen explains. ‘That meant that Anne and Denise wouldn’t be part of the line-up, which was disappointing. I thought they’d understand but I couldn’t have been more wrong.’

The rift between the sisters almost drove Maureen to the verge of a breakdown but, fortunately, she is once again on speaking terms with them all.

‘I’m very close to all my sisters and nothing is ever worth falling out over,’ she says, adamantly. ‘With what we’ve all been through, you come to realise that life is short and that family is the most important thing.’

And that, you can be sure is a sentiment which is shared by her current stage character, the indomitable Mrs Johnstone!

Blood Brothers is at Sunderland Empire Theatre until Saturday February 11. Tickets cost from £15.50. To book, call 0844 871 3022 (Booking fees apply) or log on to www.sunderlandempire.org.uk

 

 

 

 

Jan 30th

An Interview with Pauline Fleming

By Steve Burbridge


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Her big break came when she was cast as Val Walker, Sinbad’s fiancé, in Brookside, but she’s probably best remembered for playing Mike Baldwin’s long-suffering girlfriend, Penny King, in Coronation Street. Now, though, Pauline Fleming has returned to her stage roots to take on the role of Barbara Cassidy in Over The Rainbow – The Eva Cassidy Story. She took time out from her hectic rehearsal schedule to tell Lucy Hammond about her latest role.

There can’t be many actresses who’d sound as chirpy as Pauline Fleming does at ten o’clock in the evening, having just completed an eleven hour day in rehearsals. With less than twenty-four hours to go before the curtain rises on the first performance of the latest nationwide tour of Over The Rainbow – The Eva Cassidy Story, she conveys no sign of nerves at all.

‘Don’t be fooled by that,’ she laughs. ‘I do have massive butterflies, believe me. But, if I didn’t I wouldn’t trust myself. I never become complacent about my performance and anyone who does shouldn’t be up there on that stage.’

Although Over The Rainbow – The Eva Cassidy Story has toured regularly since 2004, Pauline is brand new to the cast and, in taking over the role of Eva’s mother, she follows in the footsteps of performers including Rose Marie and Maureen Nolan. So, how did she prepare herself to play a character based upon a real person who is still alive?

‘There wasn’t a lot written about Barbara when I googled her and tried to do some internet research,’ she reveals. ‘However, Stephen Leatherland – our producer and director – is extremely passionate about this particular play and he has actually been over to America and met members of Eva’s family, so his insights were really interesting and very useful.’

Pauline is adamant that Stephen’s direction has been hugely instrumental in the way in which her portrayal of Barbara has developed.

‘On the first day of rehearsals, before we even got the play on the floor, we discussed all the family relationships and Barbara’s input into the family. We talked about how and why she left Germany to settle in America, her connection with Hugh Cassidy (her husband and Eva’s father), and Barbara’s part in introducing Eva to nature and encouraging her to develop a respect for the world around her and all the gorgeousness in it. That was absolutely fascinating and so invaluable.’

Indeed, Pauline genuinely feels that the show offers a truthful and heartfelt tribute to Eva Cassidy’s life and talents as an artist.

‘It’s extremely heart-rending from the perspective that Eva dies during the play, but it’s also a really lovely insight into the family dynamic and the bonding that went on between them,’ she says. ‘It’s actually a very uplifting piece of theatre, but do be prepared to have a little cry at the end.’

Since its first performance in 2004, the award-winning production has received rapturous receptions, garnered five-star reviews, and inspired cathartic outpourings of emotion. Journeying through Eva’s life from her idyllic childhood, to her studio work with boyfriend and mentor Chris Biondo, and finally to her tragically premature death at the age of only 33 years, the play poignantly captures the qualities of an artist with absolutely no interest in finding fame or fortune.

By the time of her death, in 1996, Eva was unknown outside her native Washington DC but, within four years, Terry Wogan had discovered and promoted her haunting interpretation of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ to the British public. A camcorder recording of her performing the song at the Blues Alley jazz club was shown on the BBC’s Top of The Pops 2 and, subsequently, sales of her album ‘Songbird’ outstripped top stars including Madonna, Craig David and Robbie Williams.

‘During her life, Eva didn’t really promote herself as a performer,’ says Pauline. ‘So, although she was an extremely confident and competent performer, she didn’t really achieve the recognition she so richly deserved until after she died.’

Pauline also has a great deal of respect and admiration for the actress who plays the leading role.

‘Sarah Jane Buckley plays Eva Cassidy absolutely beautifully and with such honesty. Because I am a Mum in real life, sometimes in the rehearsal room, playing out those mother and daughter scenes, I have found myself wondering how I would cope if I found myself in the same situation as Barbara. So, from that point of view, it’s very hard to detach myself from the story. But, anything that’s a challenge means you have to search deep into yourself to portray the situation properly.’

During her stint in Coronation Street, Pauline found herself being emotionally drawn into the storyline in a similar way.

‘I played Mike Baldwin’s last girlfriend and was privileged to be part of that massive storyline on Alzheimer's. I did a lot of research into the condition and worked very closely with the charity during the storyline and for a long time afterwards. It was a very moving experience, especially in the way that it touched the nation.’

A love of work and a burning desire to stretch herself as an actress has meant that Pauline is always on the lookout for the next challenge. Having already trained as an actress at drama school, she went back to university to study English Literature, as a mature student, and has since delivered many workshops based upon Shakespeare’s texts. She has also written her first comedy play, which she hopes will tour the country later this year.

‘Every job brings its own challenge but it also brings its own joy, too. I just love working, to be honest,’ she says.

Over The Rainbow – The Eva Cassidy Story is touring nationally. See www.theatre-productions.com for more information.
 

Jan 22nd

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Sarah Jane Buckley

By Steve Burbridge


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Her posthumous success astonished the feverishly competitive world of pop music. Indeed, Eva Cassidy’s story is so extraordinary that it now forms the basis of a compelling musical play, starring Hollyoaks actress Sarah Jane Buckley as the talented song stylist. She tells UK THEATRE NETWORK all about it.

Eva Cassidy’s success is more than she could ever have dreamed of – and, sadly, it’s a success she never lived to see. The wonderfully talented and spiritual song stylist died of skin cancer when she was in the prime of her life, at just 33 years old.

By the time of her death, in 1996, she was unknown outside her native Washington DC but, within four years, Terry Wogan had discovered and promoted her haunting interpretation of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ to the British public. A camcorder recording of Eva performing the song at the Blues Alley jazz club was shown on the BBC’s ‘Top of The Pops 2’ and, subsequently, sales of her album ‘Songbird’ outstripped top stars including Madonna, Craig David and Robbie Williams.

‘To play Eva Cassidy is quite simply the role of a lifetime,’ says Sarah Jane Buckley, who is starring in the award-winning ‘Over The Rainbow – The Eva Cassidy Story’. Since its first performance, in 2004, the show has wowed audiences all over Europe and received standing ovations from sell-out audiences throughout the UK and Ireland. In taking on the role of Eva, Sarah Jane follows in the footsteps of some other high profile performers including Carmen Cusack, Nicole Faraday, Zoe Tyler and Faye Tozer.

‘It’s now become one of the most fabulous female roles in musical theatre,’ states Sarah Jane. ‘To sing 24 songs a night, in a lead role, is phenomenally rare and I don’t think it happens in many other shows. I’m on stage constantly and the acting element is as important as the singing. It’s incredibly challenging.’

When she discovered she’d won the role of Eva, Sarah Jane spent months studying Eva’s performance and techniques to ensure that she would bring authenticity to the part.

‘When she sang, Eva breathed in a different place from a normal singer so when she took a breath it kind of coincided with where she took a chord. That’s why her songs are so different, with that breathiness and very individual style of singing, which was amazing to have to copy. She had an incredible gift.’

Many will associate Sarah Jane with her role as crazy Kathy Barnes in ‘Hollyoaks’, but she actually began her career as a singer.

‘Singing has been my bread and butter for a long time,’ she says.

Indeed, she made her first television appearance, at the age of 17, singing on an ITV talent show, ‘Scramble’, hosted by Richard and Judy. She went on to train at The Guildford School of Acting and, upon graduating, entered the world of musical theatre to play roles in ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and ‘Elvis The Musical’.

Sarah Jane went on to form a cabaret duo called The Polka Dots, alongside fellow actress Jo Michaels, and for six years they travelled the world with comedians and artistes including The Chuckle Brothers and Joe Pasquale.

‘In the past, I’ve always sang as myself,’ says Sarah Jane. ‘This is the first time I’ve had to perform as someone as vocally iconic as Eva Cassidy, The thing is, because there’s very little footage of her on the internet, you don’t really see her visually.’

This sad, but uplifting musical play journeys her life – from her idyllic childhood growing up in a musical family, to her studio work with boyfriend and mentor Chris Biondo, to the exuberant live recordings of Blues Alley and, finally, to her tragically premature death.

‘Stephen Leatherland, the producer and director, has done a lot of research into her life and he went over to America to meet some of her family members. He has been very instrumental in directing me in how to behave like Eva. She was incredibly shy and actually preferred recording to performing in front of an audience.’

Sarah Jane admits that she was already a fan of Eva Cassidy’s music before she was even offered the role in ‘Over The Rainbow – The Eva Cassidy Story’, and she explains that accepting the role was not a difficult choice at all.

‘There was no contest, really. To be offered the chance to play her was amazing and I was absolutely thrilled. It’s such a tough role and I finish each show absolutely exhausted because it’s such a heartbreaking story. It takes you on a very emotional journey, but there’s also lots of happiness to the show. I guess it’s a celebration of her music as well as a tribute to her life.’

FACTFILE

·         Eva is the only female artist to have 3 consecutive posthumous number one albums

·         As a performer, she probably did no more than 80-100 gigs – many of which had audiences of around only 30 people

·         She had an all-consuming love of nature, valuing all forms of life – be it animal or plant – as sacrosanct

·         Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK with over 70,000 new cases registered every year

·         In 2002, after the release of a television documentary, she had 5 albums in the Norwegian charts and at the same time enjoyed similar success in neighbouring Sweden. Her popularity continues to spread across Europe, Australia, Iceland and Canada.

 

·       Tour Details

 

·        January 2012

·         26th                        Camberley Theatre

·         27th&28th           Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre

·         30th                        Milton Keynes Theatre

·         31st                          Swansea Grand Theatre

·        February 2012

·         1st&2nd                   Worcester Swan Theatre

·         3rd&4th                   Darlington Civic Theatre

·         6th-8th                    Motherwell Theatre

·         10th                        Derby Assembly Rooms

·         11th                        Wellingborough, The Castle Theatre

·         12th                        Richmond Theatre

·         13th                        Leamington Spa Centre

·         14th                        York Grand Opera House

·         17th                        Worthing Pavilion Theatre

·         18th                        Crawley Hawth Theatre

·         22nd&23rd           Winchester Theatre Royal

·         24th                        Exmouth Pavilion Theatre

·         25th                        Chatham Central Theatre

·         28th                        Edmonton Millfield Theatre

·         29th                        Bradford St George’s Hall

·        March 2012

·         1st                          Yeovil Octagon Theatre

·         2nd&3rd                   Mansfield Palace Theatre

·         4th                         Glasgow Theatre Royal

·         5th-7th                    Shrewsbury Theatre Severn

·         8th                         Rotherham Civic Theatre

·         11th                        Manchester Opera House

·         13th                        Chesham Elgiva Theatre

·         14th-16th                 Colchester Mercury Theatre

·         17th                        Lowestoft Marina Theatre

·         18th                        Scarborough Spa Theatre

 

Dec 22nd

Aladdin

By Steve Burbridge


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Aladdin

Whitley Bay Playhouse

Reviewing two different productions of the same pantomime in the same season inevitably leads to the drawing of comparisons. With Aladdin at the Customs House in South Shields being such a showstopper, the pressure couldn’t have been greater for the co-production from Whitley Bay Playhouse and Blue Genie Entertainment to deliver the goods.

Having had some considerable experience in marketing, myself, I am somewhat sceptical of subjective claims which are made unattributably. So, when I noticed that the publicity material announces that this production of Aladdin is the ‘North East’s Best Value Panto!’, I mentally threw down the gauntlet and challenged them to convince me of as much.

Certainly, with tickets for parties of schoolchildren priced at only £7 per head, they can claim to be the cheapest (a quick check on the internet confirmed that). But, more importantly, does the production offer high standards all-round? Does it tick every box on the panto check-list? The answer, in this reviewer’s opinion, is an emphatic ‘YES’.

Indeed, this production boasts a cast in which there really isn’t a weak link. Jassa Ahluwalia (from Disney’s Art Attack) plays the title role and his Aladdin is all fresh-faced boyish good looks and cheeky charm. Kirsty Swain (from BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance?) compliments Ahluwalia nicely, as Princess Jasmine, and they particularly shine in the musical numbers.

For the second year in succession, local lad Steve Walls returns to the Playhouse panto in the role of principal comic. Having excelled as Muddles in last year’s production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this year he takes the role of Wishee Washee and ups his game yet again. It is with total expertise that he establishes a rapport with the children in the audience, who are all thrilled to be part of his ‘gang’, yet his near-the-knuckle gags (which go straight over the kids’ heads) make him a firm favourite with the adults, too. Only a comic of the highest calibre is capable of achieving such a feat.

Paul Harris proves there really is ‘nothing like a dame’ with his perfect portrayal of Widow Twankey. Clearly a bloke in a dress caricaturing a female – which is the precise point of the Dame! – he is also believable enough as a woman to allow the audience to suspend their disbelief and accept him/her as mother of Aladdin and Wishee Washee. Personally, I don’t go in for this new breed of drag queen style dame - give me a proper, good old fashioned dame every time, in terms of sheer comedy and entertainment, and I’m in panto heaven.

Of course, every good panto also needs a good villain and Simon Barnard provides plenty of opportunities to hiss and boo in the role of Abanazar. Jimmy Burton-Iles also puts in an energetic performance as a Genie with plenty of personality, whilst supporting roles are played by Christina Kerridge (Slave of the Ring), Darren Sawdon (PC Ping Pong) and Leigh Steedman (The Emperor), some of whom also double-up as professional dancers.

The production is structured well and adheres faithfully to the story. Simon Barnard and Guy Pascall’s script, as it should be, is peppered with those well-worn jokes that are resurrected from retirement each festive season but never fail to make us laugh – no matter how many times we hear them. There’s also a slosh scene, a ‘take off’ scene (in which the characters are scared off, individually, by a ghost), sight-gags and a real flying carpet. The musical numbers are all re-workings or re-wordings of current or recent pop songs, giving a contemporary feel, and Alison Hefferon’s choreography suits them well. The sets and scenery are well-designed, too, and help bring a touch of the Far East to the North East.

It is difficult to retain the attention of some youngsters for the entire duration of a pantomime, yet this production of Aladdin seemed, for the most part, to do just that. Undoubtedly, this is because it is a fast-paced, gag-filled show which is full of family fun.

In the current economic climate money is scarce and families may only be able to see one pantomime all season, therefore they need to know that their hard-earned money is going to be well spent and the price of the tickets will be worth it. This panto most certainly is!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Monday 2nd January 2012.

 

 

Dec 15th

Jack and the Beanstalk

By Steve Burbridge


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Jack and the Beanstalk

The Gala Theatre, Durham

In an age where the genre of pantomime is a big bucks business dominated by huge companies including Qdos and First Family Entertainment it is commendable that some theatres still choose to produce their Christmas show in-house. It is even more of an achievement when relatively small theatres, such as The Customs House, South Shields (which seats 441) and The Gala Theatre, Durham (which seats 500), stage productions which not only hold their own against the corporate big boys but, in many ways, better them.

Once again, Simon Stallworthy takes charge of the pantomime at Durham’s Gala and he sticks to the tried and tested winning formula that has proven so popular for the past four years. His script is crammed so full of corny comedy gags, thigh-slapping adventure, romance and marvellous magic that you’re eating your interval ice cream before you even know it!

Taking heed of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the cast is led by the usual linchpins. Paul Hartley and Jane Deane, as Jack and Jill, are the daftest double-act in pantoland and the kids love them for it. Year after year, this dynamic duo amaze and entertain the audiences with an array of physical comedy and circus skills – and, year after year, their popularity increases. Donald McBride dons the flamboyant frocks, once again, this time to play Dame Shrivell, complete with trademark ‘posh Geordie’ dialect. And Neil Armstrong makes a welcome return as Fleshcreep, Giant Blunderboar’s horrible henchman.

Alongside the familiar faces are some new ones. Jane Holman is a delight as frazzled Fairy Hazbean, Mark Stratton plays it straight as Baron D’Oolally, and Hayley Emma Otway is his feisty daughter, Lucy. The inclusion of Brian Blessed’s booming voice as Giant Blunderboar is a clever way of getting a star name on the poster without busting the budget, too.

The essence of true panto is woven throughout the entire show, which sticks closely to the original concept: plenty of audience interaction encouraging the kids to get involved, references to local places and current events, the obligatory slosh scene, a frantic foray into the auditorium, a side-splitting ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ routine (complete with preposterous props!) and of course the mandatory sing song towards the end and prior to the inevitable wedding. All tried and tested stuff – it’s what the audience demand and is certainly what is delivered.

Technically, this is an impressive production, too. Initially, I was concerned about the sparsity of the sets but these fears proved to be unfounded when it became apparent how much the performers actually use the stage space. In fact, any additional scenery would not only have been superfluous, but a potential hazard. Deborah Shaw (keyboards) and Carl Thomson (percussion) competently boosted the recorded backing tracks and conveyed the impression of a full orchestra, while Jane Moran’s choreography was executed with precision by five dancers and a troupe of babes from the Gala Theatre Stage School.

Pantomimes don’t come much bigger than this ‘giant’ production (pun intended!) of Jack and the Beanstalk, which is highly recommended. However, it is advisable that tickets should be pre-booked, rather than turning up ‘on spec’. With demand so high and tickets selling so fast, a number of performances are already sold out – and that is probably the most resounding endorsement of all.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 7th January, 2012

 

Dec 11th

Dick Whittington

By Steve Burbridge


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Dick Whittington

The Tyne Theatre & Opera House

‘Three things are required at Christmas time; Plum Pudding, Beef and Pantomime; Folks could resist the former two; Without the latter none could do.’

Times may have changed since the above rhyme appeared on an old pantomime handbill, but sentiments haven’t and pantomime remains an integral and essential part of Christmas for many families and theatres across the country. Indeed, for many theatres, the panto is their lifeblood – it is what keeps them afloat financially for the rest of the year. For me, personally, a trip to see ‘the Geordie pantomime’ at the resplendent Tyne Theatre & Opera House, a Grade 1 listed theatre, situated in the heart of Newcastle, is as much a part of Christmas as turkey and all the trimmings.

The Newcastle Panto Company have brought their traditional brand of pantomime to the venue, annually, for a number of years now and audiences return in their droves, each festive season, to see stalwarts including ‘Maxie & Mitch’, Kevin O’Keefe, Charlie Richmond and Catherine McCabe do what they do best – make people laugh.

This year’s production of Dick Whittington brings together the familiar faces and introduces a couple of new ones. As usual, writer and director Brendan Healy has ensured that the show ticks all the right boxes: beautifully detailed sets and scenery; colourful costumes; comedy capers; Geordie dialects and references; boy meets girl; romance and adventure; good triumphing over evil, etc, etc. However, the winning formula has been somewhat changed and, as a result, the show suffers slightly because of it.

As usual, Billy Mitchell (Long John Slavver) and Max Peters (Captain Scuttle) are the comedy double-act that audiences know and love. Yet, without Kevin O’Keefe’s Dame to bounce off, they seem slightly disconcerted. Instead, we have Terry Joyce (making his pantomime debut as Bessie the Cook) serving up more irksome impressions than culinary cuisine and demonstrating a total unsuitability for the part, whilst Kevin O’Keefe is relegated to the dual role of Alderman Fitzwarren and The Sultan of Morocco – both of which are thankless parts, limiting him considerably.

Charlie Richmond retains the role of the simple sidekick, this year playing Idle Jack to Catherine McCabe’s principal boy, and he displays a great rapport with the children who are brought on stage towards the end of the show. Samantha Phyllis Morris, as Alice Fitzwarren, plays principal girl for a second consecutive year and does exactly what the role requires of her – looks attractive, sings sweetly and swoons over Dick Whittington.

Jayne Mackenzie (who was last with the company in Aladdin, two years ago) returns as a campy-vampy Queen Rat and, despite being the strongest singer in the cast, tends to deliver her dialogue with such volume that one might think she intended it to be heard in the auditorium of the Theatre Royal. Resident choreographer Emily Swan also plays possibly the most rewarding of all ‘skin’ parts, Moggie the Cat.

There’s no doubt that this particular version of Dick Whittington has all the hallmarks of a great pantomime, provided that some attention is given to certain scenes. With a bit of tightening here and a spot of trimming there, I’m sure that the Newcastle Panto Company will be back on top form faster than you can say ‘Ship Ahoy!’

Steve Burbridge.

Dick Whittington runs until 2 January 2012.

 

Dec 10th

Cinderella

By Steve Burbridge


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Cinderella

Darlington Civic Theatre

It isn’t often that the titular character in Cinderella – or any other pantomime, for that matter - is one of the performers who stands out the most. Usually, the role of principal girl (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks) requires the actress ‘to do no more than look beautiful and sing well’, as a well-respected theatre critic and pantomime aficionado succinctly puts it. Indeed, principal girl may often be one of the most limiting and thankless roles in pantomime. However, it seems that Emma Stephens may have broken the traditional mould: her Cinderella is young, pretty and innocent – as she should be – but Miss Stephens skilfully ensures that she is also the central character. After all, the show is named after her and the plot revolves around her – why shouldn’t she occupy centre stage. Graciously and skilfully, Miss Stephens accomplishes this feat in a way in which she does not pull focus or upstage her fellow performers, nor indeed the headliners!

In fact, in this production, the stage time is shared out pretty evenly with no single personality dominating the proceedings. The cast, comprising Ray Quinn (X Factor, Dancing on Ice) as Prince Charming, Deena Payne (Emmerdale) as the Fairy Godmother, and Jimmy Cricket as Baron Hardup, all have an opportunity to shine as individuals, as well as in the ensemble scenes. For the most part, it is a strong, cohesive cast with each of the performers suiting their characters well and bringing something different to the proceedings. Ray Quinn does nothing to conceal his Liverpudlian accent, instead choosing to emphasise it and play the Prince as cheeky rather than charming, thus maximising upon the comic potential. Deena Payne’s Fairy Godmother is feistier than one might expect and the role, which is built up considerably to reflect her billing, has her performing a musical number of her own and a couple of duets with Cinders. And Jimmy Cricket is . . . well . . . just Jimmy Cricket – much to the delight of the audience.

Adam C. Booth, as Buttons, strikes up a great rapport with the kids and capably demonstrates that he possesses the versatility required to do the role full justice, with his singing, dancing, acting and comedy all being first class. Brian Godfrey, as Trinny, displayed his vast and indisputable experience of playing the Dame/Ugly with great aplomb and, in doing so, totally overshadowed the less experienced Darren Southworth’s portrayal of Susannah, though quite unintentionally, I’m sure. The only piece of casting which had me absolutely puzzled was that of ventriloquist Dawson Chance, and his puppet Willy the turtle, as the Broker’s Men. It should be clearly understood that I make no criticism of Mr Chance, nor Willy, when I say that the roles were completely inconsequential and totally superfluous, in that they did nothing to assist the narrative progression. On the plus side, though, the kids loved them both.

Overall, this production of Cinderella is a good one. Michael Vivian’s script provides a faithful re-telling of the classic fairy tale; it is beautifully designed and costumed; there is a nice balance of pop hits and original songs, and the choreography is tight and slick. Qdos may not bestow as big a budget on the Darlington production as they do on the panto in neighbouring Newcastle – for instance we do not have any 3-D special effects, nor does an animatronic flying Pegasus swoop over the audience to take Cinders to the ball – yet that is not to the detriment of the show. The pair of Shetland ponies, used to draw the pumpkin coach, delighted both young and old alike and served as an apt reminder that, in this particular panto, it isn’t just the Prince who is charming.

Steve Burbridge.

Cinderella
runs until 15th January 2012.

 

 

 

Dec 6th

The Glass Slipper

By Steve Burbridge


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The Glass Slipper

Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne

It was with optimistic anticipation that I took my seat at Northern Stage to watch their Christmas production, The Glass Slipper. The venue has a reputation for taking well-known folk/fairy tales and giving them a strong local twist through the use of North East settings, dialect and music, which worked to especially great effect in their 2008/09 production of Hansel and Gretel.

This season Stephen Sharkey (writer) and Erica Whyman (director) once again collaborate to re-tell the tale of Cinderella. Again they demonstrate inventive creativity by placing the story in 18th century Newcastle. Set in the 1780’s, when Newcastle was the largest glass-producing centre in the world, Ella Humbleton (Laura Riseborough) lives in fashionable Summerhill Square, tucked away behind Westgate Road. Her widowed father, Sir Henry (Ian McLaughlin), a glass-maker, is often abroad on business trips and Ella occupies herself as a music teacher to the precocious children of wealthy families to pass the time. However, Ella’s life is to change significantly, for the worse, when Sir Henry corresponds to inform her that he has re-married and she now has a step-mother and two step-sisters, who will arrive from Richmond, Surrey, imminently.

The promising opening scene, which takes place in 1860, is beautifully staged. Ella’s mother, Isabella (Ann Marcuson), has just given birth and, in doing so, has lost a lot of blood. She realises that death approaches and spends her last moments comforting her newly-born daughter, reassuring her that, in times of trouble, she will never be far away. Such a poignant scene raised my expectations, only for them to be dashed as the narrative progressed.

The problem with The Glass Slipper is easily identifiable – it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It is neither a play nor a pantomime and this lack of a distinct identity relegates it to what can only be described as a theatrical ‘no man’s land’. There are scenes in which the production takes itself far too seriously, rendering them contrived and conceited, and others in which references to modern popular culture (including the ‘macarena’ dance) undermine the painstaking attention to historical accuracy that is abundantly evident in everything from Angela Simpson’s sumptuous costume design to Sam Kenyon’s musical compositions, which perfectly reflect the period. The result is something of a messy mish-mash of past and present.

Sharkey’s script gives the performers little to work with and I was uncertain as to why so much was made of Prince Hubert’s (Will Featherstone) obsession with hot air ballooning. It did nothing to facilitate the narrative progression and could easily have been omitted entirely. The only positive consequence of this superfluous sub-plot was Ella’s arrival at the Alnwick Castle ball in an impressive hot air balloon, rather than the traditional pumpkin coach. Whyman’s direction, too, is cumbersome and there are a number of longueurs, during which my attention began to wander.

As might be expected, the pretentions of the writer and director had an unfortunate effect upon performances. Bev Fox (as wicked step-mother, Augusta Snifflewick) and Ian McLaughlin (doubling-up as Sir Henry Humbleton and King George III) are the only locally-known ‘names’ and they appeared distinctly ill-at-ease away from their comfort zone of The Suggestibles, the improvisation-based comedy group of which they are both members. I was disappointed, too, by Laura Riseborough’s portrayal of Ella. The characterisation, which was haughty and aloof, had her mocking the students under her tutelage, feigning illness to avoid teaching them and displaying an unwarranted and unappealing, objectionable attitude towards the Prince. Nor did I feel she was visually-suited to the role. Only Ann Marcuson, in her portrayal of the guardian spirit of Isabella, Ella’s mother (who entered, at times of turmoil, through a gilt portrait frame) demonstrated herself worthy of singular praise.

Whether it was due to uninspired writing or technical laziness, the transformation scene was totally devoid of any magic whatsoever. No waving of a magic wand, no flashes of light or puffs of smoke – in fact no real ‘transformation’ as such. Simply, a case of Isabella’s spirit asking Ella if she liked the ball-gown, Ella replying that she did and Isabella telling her to go and put it on then! The children in the audience must have felt robbed and cheated – I know I did! The fact that they remained so impeccably quiet throughout the show can, perhaps, be attributed to the probability that they’d fallen asleep from boredom rather than the possibility that they were enthralled by the production.

Often, during the Christmas season, I am tempted to make a return visit and see certain productions or pantomimes for a second time. Would I consider watching The Glass Slipper again? Suffice to say that the thought of gouging my own eyes out with a soup spoon seems infinitely more appealing!

Steve Burbridge.

The Glass Slipper runs until Saturday 7 January 2012

 

 

 

Dec 3rd

Aladdin

By Steve Burbridge


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Aladdin

The Customs House, South Shields

For me, the festive season officially begins when I review my first pantomime or Christmas show – and I cannot think of a more magical or wondrous way to kick things off than this year’s production of Aladdin at The Customs House, South Shields.

As tradition dictates, the cast is led by Ray Spencer MBE and Bob Stott as Tommy Wishy-Washy and Widow Dotty Twanky, respectively. The linchpins of ‘the little panto with the big heart’ are joined by fellow stalwarts Peter Darrant (The Evil Abanazar) and Graham Overton (Sultan Sanddancer), whilst Afnan Ifthikar (Genie) returns for a third consecutive season and Alice Brown (Princess Amira) performs in her second. Steven Lee Hamilton (Aladdin), Iain Cunningham (PC Hacker) and Ryan Lynch (PC Blaggitt) all make a welcome return to the South Tyneside venue, having previously appeared in pantomime at The Customs House, whilst Christina Berriman-Dawson (Slave of the Ring) joins the team for the first time.

Of course, everyone knows the rags-to-riches tale of the poor, but honourable, laundry boy who defeats an evil sorcerer and wins the heart of a beautiful princess. However, I doubt that you’ll have ever seen the story told with as much zip, charm and attack. Indeed, the sheer energy, enthusiasm and effort, evident on stage, enchanted and mesmerised the audience in equal measure and had spirits soaring higher than Aladdin’s marvellous magic carpet.

The production values associated with this technically ambitious production are second to none. Paul Shriek is to be commended for his riotously colourful comic-book sets and the vast array of costumes which vary from being bold and bright to outrageous and outlandish to gloriously garish, depending upon which character is wearing them. The script, co-written by Graeme Thompson and Ray Spencer, contains more slapstick, comedy capers, crafty cons, sing-along songs, silly jokes and festive frolics than you can shake a seasonal stick at and it sparkles as brightly as the legendary jewel of Jarrow.

Solid performances are delivered from each and every member of the cast. Ray Spencer and Bob Stott lead in the comedy stakes, with their inimitable brand of madcap mayhem being delivered in the style of true vaudevillians. They are ably supported by Graham Overton as the bumbling Sultan and Iain Cunningham and Ryan Lynch as the inept policemen. Steven Lee Hamilton, who is carving himself an impressive career in the world of musical theatre, shines brightest during his musical numbers, whilst Afnan Iftikhar has been perfectly cast as the Genie of the Lamp and puts in the best performance I have ever seen him deliver. Alice Brown and Christina Berriman-Dawson take two roles which could easily be overlooked, that of Principal Girl and Slave of The Ring, respectively, and make them absolutely integral. And only Peter Darrant could play Abanazar with more mince than a Dickson’s pie and still keep the character sinister and menacing.

This production of Aladdin is packed with magic and mystique and contains more Eastern promise than a certain well-known brand of Turkish Delight. So, climb aboard your magic carpet or take a rickshaw ride to The Customs House and experience some real treasure of the Orient.

Steve Burbridge.

Aladdin runs until Saturday 7 January 2012.