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Nov 28th

Christmas Crooners

By Steve Burbridge

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CHRISTMAS CROONERS

WHITLEY BAY PLAYHOUSE

It may not be Christmas just yet but, with the temperatures dropping, winter is definitely upon us, so why not kick off the festive season a little early. With pantomime season nearly upon us, Theatre 1st Ltd is bringing Christmas Crooners to various theatres around the UK and Ireland to provide a bit of seasonal cheer – and, judging by the large audience tonight, it’s something people really want this year.

As the lights went down the curtains opened to reveal a simple but practical set, consisting of a fire place, Christmas tree, rocking chair and a few other items.  Its design succeeded in bringing a homely feel and brought back memories of the video for Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Little Drummer Boy”. The live band “The Jazz All Stars” were also on stage and blended in well with the overall feel and visual.

The four piece band led by the show’s Musical Director (Martin Hughes) on piano, was excellent and played with a perfect laid back swing feel. The show itself pays homage to Christmas favourites from Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, with a few other swing numbers thrown in for good measure.

To perform the music of such legendary vocalists is challenging enough, but to become those singers in look, manner and voice is a huge ask of any performer. The show, therefore, really requires three exceptional performers to achieve what it sets out to do.

Chris Vincent as Bing Crosby is very much the glue that holds the show together and he produced a great performance. Not only does he have a more than passing resemblance to Bing, but the attention to detail in his mannerisms, vocal tone and inflection were superb. A few times, when the lighting was subdued, you could actually be mistaken for thinking you were watching the original. Robert Grose , as Nat King Cole, brought a fantastic level of energy and charisma to the role but, while his songs were all well sung, he never quite got the gentle and subtle Nat King Cole tone.

As I previously mentioned the show requires three exceptional performances and unfortunately this was where the production fell slightly short. While Bing and to a large part Nat were brought to the Playhouse stage, unfortunately Frank didn’t make an appearance. Instead we got Jonny Parker whose suspect vocals and lack lustre characterisation (an American accent and a hat does not make you Sinatra), really pulled the show down. 

That being said, Director Stephen Leatherland, has created a solid show with a great relaxed, almost informal feel about it. The song selection was fantastic featuring all the classic Christmas songs (White Christmas, Jingle Bells, Let It Snow), add to that some cheesy gags and a bit of audience participation, and the audience headed out into the cold, humming a tune and feeling suitably festive.

Reviewed by Gareth Hunter 

Nov 24th

Leading Lady announced for 2012 UK Tour of Blood Brothers

By Steve Burbridge

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MAUREEN NOLAN TO RETURN TO ‘LIVING ON THE NEVER NEVER’ IN ‘BLOOD BROTHERS’

It has been confirmed that singing sensation Maureen Nolan is to return in the coveted lead role of Mrs Johnstone for the 2012 National Tour of Blood Brothers, reprising a role she performed for two years in 2005/2006 and again in 2009.

Blood Brothers tells the captivating and moving story of twin boys separated at birth, only to be re-united by a twist of fate and a mother's haunting secret. The memorable score includes A Bright New Day, Marilyn Monroe and the emotionally charged hit Tell Me It's Not True. The celebrated role of Mrs Johnstone has previously been played by such well-known actresses as Barbara Dickson, Stephanie Lawrence, Clodagh Rodgers, Kiki Dee, Helen Reddy, Lyn Paul, Siobhan McCarthy, Petula Clark, Marti Webb and three of Maureen’s sisters (Linda, Bernie and Denise).

The production has been running in London's West End since July 1988. In the USA, it has had a record-breaking Broadway run, a hugely successful coast-to-coast tour, and was nominated for seven Tony Awards. The current tour of Bill Kenwright’s acclaimed production opened in Sheffield, starring Niki Evans. However, Vivienne Carlyle will perform the role of Mrs Johnstone for the final two venues on the 2011 National Tour, Dundee and Dunfermline, with Maureen Nolan making her first appearance in Bournemouth on 17th January 2012.

She said: “I think for a woman of my age it’s the absolute best role, really. It’s got everything – comedy, tragedy and beautiful haunting melodies. I absolutely love Mrs Johnstone.”

 

 

Nov 23rd

The Holly and the Ivy

By Steve Burbridge


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The Holly and the Ivy

Darlington Civic Theatre

There’s something about Christmas that evokes a sense of nostalgia in even the most hard-hearted of cynics. Perhaps it’s all the ‘peace and goodwill’ sentimentality, which harangues us into believing that it is ‘a time for forgiving and for forgetting’, despite the fact we know that by mid-January people will, once again, have returned to their former selves and be behaving loathsomely. Nevertheless, we fall for it each and every year and, I would venture, plays such as The Holly and the Ivy are, to a certain extent, partly responsible for this.

From the beautifully detailed set, depicting a homely vicarage, complete with a Christmas tree in the corner, holly, ivy and mistletoe draped over picture and door frames, greetings cards standing to attention on the mantelpiece over a roaring log fire, to the view of the snow-dusted church from the living room window, everything about the production is reassuringly twee and quaint.

It’s the Christmas Eve of 1947 in the Norfolk parish of Reverend Martin Gregory (a wonderfully dignified and understated performance from Stuart McGugan). His devoted daughter, Jenny (Julia Mallam), is busy with all those last-minute preparations before the imminent arrival of the rest of the family. However, this Christmas will be different to those of the past, as a number of issues have simmered for so long that they have now reached boiling point. The elderly vicar, who has always been steadfast in the belief that he has acted in the best interests of his flock – both parishioners and family alike – will soon be confronted by the reality that, in actual fact, his piousness and rigid adherence to his own interpretations of the teachings of ‘the good book’ have made him unapproachable and distant.

The facade of familial harmony is slowly stripped away with the arrival of each of the relatives: Mick (Chris Grahamson), the boyish soldier son with an eye for the ladies and a liking for liquor; two elderly aunts, Lydia (Joanna Wake), a widow, and Bridget (Sally Sanders), a spinster, who gossip, criticise and bicker to mask the loneliness of their lives; Margaret (Corrinne Wicks), the eldest daughter and a frosty fashion journalist with a secret sadness, and a stoically ‘stiff-upper-lip’ cousin, Richard (Alan Leith). Even good old, reliable Jenny is wrestling with her own emotional dilemma – should she forego personal happiness to stay and care for her father or marry David (Tom Butcher), the slightly dour Scottish neighbour and accompany him on a five-year posting to South America? As skeletons tumble from closets and stones are turned over, the Reverend Gregory and his family are forced to confront their regrets and secret anxieties.

Wynyard Browne’s script may seem slightly dated, but it is also beautifully written. This, combined with Michael Lunney’s skilfully subtle direction, makes the entire production a charming evening’s entertainment. The eight-strong cast all work hard, each of them delivering performances to be proud of – although, I have to admit that Joanna Wake and Sally Sanders almost stole the show, in my opinion, with their wonderful partnership, pinpoint precision in comedic timing, and facial expressions.

All in all, The Holly and the Ivy is a classic example of uplifting theatre at its best – and the flurry of snowfall at the finale left me feeling fabulously festive. A real treat!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington until 26 November 2011, then tours to Malvern and Southend-on-Sea.

 

 

Nov 18th

Encore - The Customs House South Shields

By Steve Burbridge


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Encore – The Customs House, South Shields

 Once again, the phenomenon that is ‘Encore’ makes a welcome return to The Customs House, bringing with them a large crowd of loyal followers. Indeed, each and every time the group play the venue, they virtually sell-out the theatre for the entire week’s run!

With an entertaining combination of comedy, music and song, ‘Encore’ takes their audience on a whistle-stop tour of the world of musical theatre’s biggest box office record-breakers  – encompassing hits from the stages of both the West End and Broadway. As usual this is done in the format of individual sketches and vignettes.

Unlike less adventurous groups, ‘Encore’ dares to take risks and incorporate material from newer shows into their repertoire. Alongside numbers from well-established musical theatre favourites, including ‘Me and My Girl’, ‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘Calamity Jane’ and ‘West Side Story’, are excerpts from more contemporary offerings such as ‘Miss Saigon’, ‘Sister Act’, ‘Spamalot’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. As is always the case, ‘Encore’ is expertly backed by a brilliant four-piece band which never misses a beat.

Comedy is central to any show staged by the group and the current production is no exception. There’s a hilarious sketch set in a church, complete with camp clergymen and nymphomaniac nuns, which is both original and clever. There’s also a marvellous rendition of Victoria Wood’s comedy number, ‘Things Would Never Have Worked’. However, I felt that the Irish ‘50p Flights’ routine missed the mark somewhat. The accents were not consistently good enough to carry off the word-play on ‘feckin’ and, a number of times, it did sound rather more like the expletive they were trying to circumnavigate. I also sensed some unease from certain sections of the audience, which was predominantly made up of senior citizens.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in the latest production from ‘Encore’ and they are to be commended for their talents, enthusiasm, exuberance, energy and sheer entertainment value.

Reviewed by Ian Cain on behalf of Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 19 November 2011.

 

Nov 17th

The Glee Club

By Steve Burbridge


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The Glee Club

Darlington Civic Theatre

Hot on the heels of the success of The Pitmen Painters, earlier in the autumn season, Darlington Civic Theatre are this week hosting The Hull Truck Theatre Company’s revival of Richard Cameron’s The Glee Club. Obviously, plays which deal with coalmining sit well with the North East’s industrial heritage but two in the same season is positively inviting comparison.

Unfortunately, The Glee Club does not fare well as a result – and the egotistical claim by Hull Truck’s marketing department, that “if you liked Brassed Off, The Full Monty and The Pitmen Painters, you’ll love this” only adds to the overwhelming disappointment which I felt throughout the piece.

The year is 1962, and Edlington Colliery’s six-strong Glee Club is preparing for their annual Gala performance. Each of the men have problems of their own to contend with, which threaten the overall success of the Gala: union man Jack (Paul Clarkson) is involved in a romantic liaison far beyond his social stratification; Bant (Anthony Clegg) is coming to terms with the fact that his wife has ran off with the tea delivery man; Walt (John Burton) mourns the death of his wife and the fact that his children are being brought up in care; Scobie (Sean McKenzie) juggles the demands of a nagging, heavily pregnant, wife and a rebellious teenage daughter; Colin (Marc Pickering) dreams of pop stardom but is soon forced to grow up fast, and Philip (Michael Chance), a mining engineer and the group’s musical director, is the victim of a blackmail plot which threatens to reveal his homosexuality and irreparably damage his reputation.

The pace drags and the tone of the play feels extremely dated. Yet the male cast deliver fairly solid performances, despite the odds stacked against them in the form of a bleak, sparse set, lack-lustre direction and superfluous bad language and nudity. As previously described, the marketing department’s hyperbolic rhetoric has gone into overdrive, warning audiences to “prepare to have your heartstrings tugged!” In actual fact, all I could feel being tugged was my hair from my head (by the handful!) as I prayed for the final curtain to fall.

We’ve had the perceived pretentions of painting miners (The Pitmen Painters), we’ve had a miner’s son declare his ambition to be a ballet dancer (Billy Elliott) and now we’ve had singing miners – what are we to expect next, flower-arranging coalmen? What theatre really needs is originality – not variations on a theme.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 19 November 2011.

 

Nov 10th

Keep Calm and Carry On

By Steve Burbridge


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Keep Calm and Carry On

The Customs House, South Shields

In Keep Calm and Carry On, Helen Russell has drawn upon her experience as an actress, comedienne, singer and playwright to create a poignant, funny and heartwarming play. Although it is not strictly autobiographical, it is certainly influenced by Russell’s own time as an ENSA performer during World War Two and, as she says in the programme notes, “it tells of what could and did happen in those days and people’s reaction to what was considered scandalous.”

The piece is set in London at the height of the Blitz, where nineteen-year-old Mary Robson (Rachel Teate) dreams of an escape – entertaining the troops on stage. However, her parents Ellie (Bidi Iredale) and Joe (Stewart Howson) don’t hold the same aspirations for her. The clash between the impetuousness of youth and the cautious protectiveness of age is deftly explored in the writing and brought to life with equal panache by the cast.

Of course, it isn’t giving anything away to reveal that the headstrong Mary gets her own way in the end. In fact it is the journey that young Mary takes from girl to woman and her subsequent ‘coming of age’ which forms the bedrock of the piece.

The play is authentically evocative, with no detail being overlooked, and the entire technical crew are worthy of special praise. The high-pitched wail of the air raid siren, the Bakelite radio on a table in the front room, the costumes, hairstyles, music and lighting all contribute to the overall tone to great effect. However, the battles and casualties of World War Two are merely a backdrop to the battles that are faced by Mary and her family as they struggle to maintain a sense of normality in abnormal times.

Russell’s script is a gem. Having spent most of the first act convincing the audience that the piece is a gently humorous nostalgic wartime romp, she then proceeds to drop a bombshell with as much precision as the Luftwaffe. Indeed, this play is, by no means, a sugar-coated depiction of wartime life but more of a hard-boiled examination of love, loss and the power of the human spirit against unbelievable odds. Her characters are instantly recognisable, three-dimensional and easy to relate with.

Director Jackie Fielding has assembled a first-rate cast, each of them seeming to understand their characters inside out. Although much of the action surrounds the tensions between Mary and her parents, the relationships between Mary and the two men who will have a significant impact on her life, Colin (James Hedley) and Len (Lawrence Stubbings), are also explored with sensitivity and skill. Finally, add to the mix a show-stopping, scene-stealing performance by Rosalind Bailey (as Mary’s Gran) and this war-time comedy drama is nothing less than victorious!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 12 November 2011.

 

Sep 28th

Verdict

By Steve Burbridge


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Verdict

Darlington Civic Theatre

Bill Kenwright’s ‘Agatha Christie Theatre Company’ may have earned itself a highly acclaimed reputation for staging first-class productions of work by the so-called ‘Queen of Crime’. But, a word of warning: don’t go to one of their shows expecting to see Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, nor even Tommy or Tuppence Beresford – you’ll be disappointed!

However, if you do go expecting to see a classy adaptation of one of Ms Christie’s ‘overlooked’ or ‘forgotten’ gems you’ll be in for a pleasant couple of hours. Having already given their stylish treatment to Witness for the Prosecution, Spider’s Web, And Then There Were None, The Unexpected Guest and The Hollow, they are now presenting Verdict, their sixth major production in as many years.

In essence, Verdict is a piece which examines the psychology of relationships between men and women rather than being a traditional ‘whodunit’ of the style usually associated with Christie. It is a play which has many levels and, although the murder takes place onstage, in full view of the audience, thus depriving them of the opportunity of guessing the murderers identity, it is strangely engrossing. Instead, the audience is kept in suspense to see if the culprit gets away with their crime at the expense of framing an innocent. And will the verdict, when it is given, be the right one?

As usual, Kenwright has assembled a stellar cast, led by Robert Duncan and Susan Penhaligon in the central roles. Elizabeth Power provides the moments of light relief in the role of the gossiping char, whilst Mark Wynter, Peter Byrne, Cassie Raine, Holly Goss and Mark Martin (understudying for Lyndon Ogbourne) make up the supporting principals.

Overall, the performances are good (although the Eastern European accents were a little wayward at times) and the production values are high. Verdict may not appeal to Christie purists but, nevertheless, it makes for a compelling and absorbing trip to the theatre.

Steve Burbridge.

 Runs until Saturday 1st October 2011.

Sep 19th

To Wit, To Woo: Lessons in Love from William Shakespeare - The Jazz Cafe, Newcastle upon Tyne

By Steve Burbridge


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To Wit, To Woo: Lessons in Love from William Shakespeare – The Jazz Cafe, Pink Lane, Newcastle upon Tyne

Nobody writes about love with more eloquence and understanding than William Shakespeare and nobody performs Shakespeare with more reverence and respect than KG Productions. With Peter Lathan at the helm, a man who is as renowned as an academic as much as he is as for being a theatrical producer/director, success is practically guaranteed.

To Wit to Woo is a selection of Shakespeare’s greatest love scenes that feature some of his most passionate and popular characters: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Ophelia, Orlando and Rosalinde, Petruchio and Katharina. The roles are performed with aplomb by a talented cast of ten, which includes Lathan and his co-producer Jessica Johnson.

Staged in the intimate setting of Newcastle’s Jazz Cafe, a venue which I’d never attended before, this was an evening to savour and treasure. This charming venue is an overlooked jewel in Newcastle’s theatrical crown and, with its exposed beams and centrally-staged gazebo it is the perfect place to host Shakespearean productions.

Split into three perfectly constructed sections, the production (which lasted for an hour and a half) combined forbidden love, unrequited love, lost love – well, just about everything that ever has or ever will happen in love!

It would be unfair to single out any one performer over another – they were all first-rate – therefore credit should be given to them all: Neil Armstrong; Christina Dawson; Jill Dellow; Grace Ellen; Robbie Lee Hurst; Jessica Johnson; Alex Kinsey; Peter Lathan; Steven Stobbs, and Rachel Teate.

Of course, any excellent piece of theatre requires good writing, good acting and good direction – this one is blessed with all three. Furthermore, it would be unforgivable not to pay compliment to the staging of the production, which really did create the most pleasant of ambiences. With red roses and scented candles on each table, flower petals on the floor and Shakespeare’s sonnets pinned to pillars around the room, how could anyone not be in the mood for love? Sublime.

Steve Burbridge.

Performed on Friday 16th and Saturday 17th September 2011.

 

Sep 16th

The Lady Boys of Bangkok: Fur Coats & French Knickers Tour

By Steve Burbridge


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The Lady Boys of Bangkok: Fur Coats and French Knickers Tour – The Sabai Pavilion, Newcastle

Amongst a myriad of marketing and a plethora of publicity, The Lady Boys of Bangkok are back on Tyneside for the eighth year in a row. So, get set for a fantastic fun-filled evening of frivolity, right? Wrong!

The diamante still dazzles and the sequins still sparkle but all that glistens is not gold and the performances and material are distinctly lack-lustre in the dubiously entitled Fur Coats and French Knickers. Having been an annual fixture on the revue circuit for thirteen years now, it seems that the lack of luck associated with the superstitious number has rubbed off on this poorly-conceived and disastrously-executed production.

Billed as ‘an irresistible mixture of comedy, cabaret and raunchy capers’, it couldn’t be further from the mark. The ‘comedy’ is more akin to the sort of smuttiness that would usually be associated with the seaside postcards of Donald McGill or the ‘Carry On’ films and sexual innuendo is laboriously employed in the hope of getting a cheap laugh from the sparse crowd.

As usual, well-known figures are lampooned by the Lady Boys in an effort to keep the show topical, contemporary and fresh. This year saw Peter Andre and Katie Price get the treatment but, rather than being satirical, it was contrived and banal. And, I have to say, I have never seen a worse ‘homage’ to Marilyn Monroe – complete with five o’clock shadow and underarm hair!

For those who don’t know, most of the entertainment comes in the form of the cast miming to well-known girlie anthems from some of pops biggest divas. However, the lip-synching was embarrassingly adrift and many of the group didn’t seem to even know the lyrics of the tracks they were performing to! What’s more, the ‘performers’ – and I use the term in the loosest sense of the word – lethargically walked-through the choreography with barely an ounce of effort or enthusiasm.

In comparison to the slick and stylish blend of burlesque and Broadway that is being delivered by Betty ‘Legs’ Diamond, just across the road at Boulevard, The Lady Boys of Bangkok look nothing more than a troupe of tacky Thai transvestites in a tent. Not so much Lady Boys as Lady Bores!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 8th October 2011.

 

Sep 13th

To Wit: To Woo, Lessons in Love from William Shakespeare

By Steve Burbridge


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To Wit: To Woo, Lessons in Love from William Shakespeare                         at The Jazz Cafe, Newcastle upon Tyne

With the Royal Shakespeare Company not returning to Newcastle this autumn and the August Customs House Bard in the Park production in South Shields unable to find funding, Pink Lane Poetry and Performance, based in the Jazz Café in Newcastle’s Pink Lane, decided there is a gap that needs to be filled.  Tyne and Wear needs a Shakespeare performance!

So Pink Lane, in association with KG Productions, has created the Loyal Shakespeare Company which will present To Wit: To Woo, Lessons in Love from William Shakespeare, at the Jazz Café on 16th and 17th September.

This series of extacts from Shakespeare plays, devised and directed by KG Productions’ artistic director and director of the Bard in the Park productions Peter Lathan, features some of the region’s leading actors performing a variety of love scenes from As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, of course, Romeo and Juliet, along with some of the sonnets.

The cast is Neil Armstrong, Iain Cunningham, Christina Dawson, Jill Dellow, Jessica Johnson, Alex Kinsey, Steven Stobbs and Rachel Teate, who between them play 18 parts, along with jazz singer Grace Ellen. 

 

Listing Information

Dates:  Friday 16th and Saturday 17th September, 2011

Time:   7.30 (doors open 7.00)

Venue: The Jazz Café, Pink Lane, Newcastle

Price:   £5 at the door