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Nov 27th

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Sarah Jane Buckley

By Steve Burbridge

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The two roles could not be any more different – as Mrs Darling in Peter Pan she is kindly and virtuous, but as Kathy Barnes in Hollyoaks she was a mad and meddling mother who caused chaos in her midst.

‘Kathy was a bit crazy, wasn’t she?’ laughs Sarah Jane Buckley, the actress who, in her three-and-a-half year stint on the soap, made Kathy Barnes a cult character. It’s now almost five years since Sarah Jane left the series, yet she is still constantly stopped by fans – even in the unlikeliest of places.

‘I still get recognised as Kathy - including on the top of the Rock of Gibraltar,’ she chuckles.

‘I was with my boyfriend and I asked him to pull over as we drove toward the top as I was suffering with vertigo. This woman began shouting we had to move and couldn’t park where we’d stopped before suddenly announcing that as it was Kathy Barnes we could park where we wanted!

‘I’m gobsmacked when people recognise me, but I’ve never had anyone say they hated me, or that they didn’t like what Kathy got up to,’ says Sarah Jane.

And, boy, did Kathy get up to some dastardly deeds. From seducing her daughter Sarah’s boyfriend and then blackmailing him into breaking up with her, to kidnapping the baby of her other daughter, Amy, and waging war on her neighbours, the Ashworth’s, Kathy was at the centre of a series of sensational and shocking storylines.

The decision to leave Hollyoaks was made by producer Bryan Kirkwood, rather than Sarah Jane herself, and she admits it was a disappointing one.

‘I never wanted to leave, because I loved playing Kathy,’ she explains. ‘I think they could have done more with her.’

However, Sarah Jane picked herself up, dusted herself down and returned to her musical roots, starring in a number of high profile stage roles, including Gina in Pop Star! and Eva Cassidy in Over The Rainbow, a biographical musical-play chronicling the life of the tragic singer.

‘To play Eva Cassidy is quite simply the role of a lifetime,’ says 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 was on stage constantly and the acting element was as important as the singing. It was a mammoth part and incredibly challenging.’

But Sarah Jane’s background stood her in good stead to cope with the demands which accompany the role of leading lady. Indeed, she made her first television appearance, at the age of 17, singing on an ITV talent show, ‘Scramble’, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan.

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, Oliver! and Elvis The Musical.

Sarah Jane then formed 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.

So, Sarah Jane’s acting and singing talents will, undoubtedly, be a welcome addition to this year’s pantomime at the Sunderland Empire, Peter Pan.

‘Panto is such a wonderful experience,” says Sarah Jane. ‘Peter Pan is such a great story and lots of fun. I just love seeing children coming to the theatre. Some people ridicule panto but I see it as a great way to give children a real theatre experience which is massively important.

‘If just one child grows to love theatre as a result of seeing our panto, then I feel we will have done our job.’

And Peter Pan is Sarah Jane’s favourite pantomime, too. She has performed as Mrs Darling in Malvern, Rhyl, Tunbridge Wells and Lowestoft, with Sunderland marking her fifth consecutive season in the role.

As well as playing Mrs Darling, Sarah Jane also performs as a mermaid in the production.

I play Mrs Darling quite straight but then play the Magical Mermaid as a real down-to-earth Liverpool lass, heavy Scouse accent, the works. It’s such fun and a real hoot.

‘It always makes me chuckle, after the show, when someone asks where the Scouse accent has gone? At least I know I must have been convincing when that happens.’

Although Sarah Jane is in constant demand and working regularly on stage, she has her sights set on an alternative television career.

‘I’d love to be a presenter on television programmes like This Morning or Loose Women,” she reveals. “I have actually done a lot of hosting and interviewing on stage for corporate events, so it’s definitely something I’d enjoy doing on television.’ 

And if that particular role does not materialise, she would never rule out a return to Hollyoaks.

‘I’d really love it if Kathy were to return with a toy boy in tow!’ she admits. ‘Everyone always says to me, “Oh, I wish you were still in Hollyoaks”, to which I reply, “Why? Kathy was so terrible”. Maybe we should start a campaign to have her brought back.’

But if that call never comes, Sarah Jane has wouldn’t mind trying her hand in another soap.

I love soaps, they are never boring. You can really develop a character, too. I auditioned to play Stella Price in Coronation Street, but it’s understandable why Michelle Collins got the role, as her profile is massive.’

Not easily deterred, though, Sarah Jane would also jump at the chance to become a diva of the dales.

‘I live in the North now, so a part in Emmerdale would be absolutely smashing!’

For the time being, though, Sarah Jane can’t wait to begin performing in Peter Pan.

‘We have a really lovely cast and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be part of the team who are bringing pantomime back to the Sunderland Empire. I can’t wait to get started!’

 

Peter Pan is at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland, from Thursday, December 13, 2012 until Saturday, January 6, 2013. Tickets are on sale now and are priced from £10 to £25, with concessions available. To book call 0844 817 3022 or log on to www.atgtickets.com/sunderland

 

 

Nov 22nd

Encore

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Encore – The Customs House, South Shields

There’s something reassuringly cosy and familiar about Encore. Like a favourite pair of slippers, you know that as soon as they go on you will feel comfortable, soothed and relaxed.

There are those who might say that the group are slightly predictable and a little formulaic, but it would take a brave soul to voice such dissent in the Customs House, where a large band of loyal followers flock to see the group perform their cabaret shows, again and again.

In fact, Encore are masters of their craft and they adhere to the old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I have had the pleasure of watching productions by them on several previous occasions, so it is a rare treat to arrive at a theatre safe in the knowledge that you are guaranteed a great night’s entertainment.

Proceedings got off to a rousing start with a medley of upbeat band-themed numbers including Come Follow The Band, Alexander’s Rag Time Band, 76 Trombones and, a personal favourite of mine, Before The Parade Passes By from Hello, Dolly!

Then, the mood turns to the romantic with a selection of love songs by Burt Bacharach, such as Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, Close To You and I Say A Little Prayer. The songs, as always, are utilised to facilitate the storyline of the sketch that is taking place simultaneously.

The spotlight is also shone on the world of musical theatre, with both Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins receiving the Encore treatment. If I were to nit-pick at all, it would be to suggest that the Mary Poppins segment went on for slightly too long. That said, I wouldn’t have wanted them to omit the brilliant performance of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious which the audience and myself absolutely loved!

The highlight of the second act, for me, was a wonderful foray into pantoland where all the familiar characters (Snow White, Cinderella, Goldilocks, Captain Hook, The Wicked Queen, The Ugly Sisters, Buttons and Peter Pan) were present. However, it was Caroline Wells (as an hilarious Humpty Dumpty) and Gareth Hunter (as a terrific Tinkerbell) who stole the show, with Patricia Haws’ principal boy thigh-slapping pins taking a well-deserved third place.

Once again, Encore has proven that variety is alive and well. We, in the North East, are fortunate to have this calibre of entertainment performed live on stage in such a beautiful venue as the Customs House. If I had my way, Encore would have a prime-time slot on Saturday night television, too!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 24th November 2012.
Tickets (£8-£13): Buy Online

Nov 20th

Soul Sister

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Soul Sister – Darlington Civic Theatre

The popularity of the jukebox musical continues to rise as Soul Sister soars into the Civic, direct from the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End. With so many theatrical productions, nowadays, being built around the back catalogues of pop music’s biggest stars (Queen - We Will Rock You, Madness - Our House, Boney M - Daddy Cool, Barry Manilow - Can’t Smile Without You . . . you get the point, right?), it was inevitable that, at some point, the music of Ike and Tina Turner would form the basis of a stage show.

However, Soul Sister doesn’t just showcase the hits – it also tells the story of the life and times of Ike and Tina, following the highs and lows, passions and heartbreak of the couple as their careers soared and their marriage crumbled. Okay, so the storyline may be slightly superficially slotted into a stunning song set and delivered with corny comic strip projections to substitute sets and scenery but, in all honesty, the vast majority of audience members had come along to hear classic Tina Turner hits such as Private Dancer, Proud Mary, What’s Love Got To Do With It? and Simply The Best. What they really wanted to do was have a party.

Notices hastily posted around the theatre informed patrons that the leading lady, acclaimed newcomer Emi Wokoma, was unwell and her part would be played by understudy Rochelle Neil. It was an opportunity Miss Neil grabbed with both hands and nailed with precision. Her stunning vocals were utilised brilliantly as she belted out the big anthems including R-E-S-P-E-C-T and River Deep, Mountain High, whilst also seducing the audience with beautifully delivered ballads such as Help and I Don’t Wanna Fight Anymore.

Miss Neil’s acting was also convincing as she portrayed Tina Turner through her transition from gawky teenager to abused wife to global icon. Chris Tummings, as Ike, had a far more difficult job in playing an ostensibly unlikeable, controlling, abusive and neurotic man but he did so with great aplomb – even managing to elicit a degree of sympathy from the audience, at times.

Supporting roles were well played – even if the indisposition of Miss Wokoma caused something of a domino effect throughout the cast, with performers having to move up a role to cover her absence – and the choreography was well-executed and suitably evoked the style of the period.

Although, in principle, I am not a great fan of productions (other than pantomime) which encourage audience participation, dancing in the aisles, and other such distracting behaviour, I have to admit that Soul Sister did have even me tapping my feet to the beat of those epic Turner hits.

Steve Burbridge.

Soul Sister runs until Saturday 24 November 2012.

Nov 7th

Blood Brothers

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Blood Brothers – Darlington Civic Theatre

It would be no exaggeration, on my part, to claim that I have now lost count of how many times I have seen Blood Brothers. Since first being introduced to the production at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End (which, incidentally, closes this weekend) in the mid-nineties, starring Siobhan McCarthy, I have seen the role of Mrs Johnstone performed by three of the Nolan sisters (Bernie, Linda and Maureen), Lyn Paul, Helen Hobson, Marti Webb and Niki Evans.

Such is the emotional impact of this fantastic piece of theatre that it has now established itself as a part of the cultural fabric of Britain, uniting theatre-goers from all walks of life in their enjoyment and admiration of this moving and compelling tale of twin brothers who, having been separated at birth, grow up on opposite sides of the social spectrum, only to meet again with tragic consequences.

The play centres around Mrs Johnstone, the single mother who struggles to cope with her seven unruly kids and the news that she is expecting twins. With ‘the welfare’ already looking over her shoulder, she desperately tries to hold things together but learns that ‘living on the never-never’ only makes things worse. Through a heady mix of religion, superstition and desperation, Mrs Johnstone is persuaded into giving one of her new-born sons to her infertile middle-class employer, Mrs Lyons and, in doing so, a chain of events is set in motion that will, inevitably, culminate in the heart-rending denouement, played out to the hauntingly beautiful and emotionally-charged Tell Me It’s Not True.

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Having starred in the West End and several touring productions of Blood Brothers, Niki Evans reprises the lead role of Mrs Johnstone. She looks perfect for the part and is vocally impressive, too. Her clear, strong voice is powerful without being harsh and travels throughout the auditorium, raising hairs on the backs of necks as it goes. She can convey any emotion with a look or a gesture and her Liverpudlian accent is faultless.

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The skilful and understated performance delivered by Evans is in stark contrast to that of her ‘leading man’.  Marti Pellow is billed as the ‘star’ of the show, which is something I disagree with, in principle, anyway. To me, Blood Brothers is the story of Mrs Johnstone – something which is supported by the lyric ‘and did you never hear of the mother so cruel, there’s a stone in place of her heart? Then bring her on and come judge for yourselves how she came to play this part’ – and the actress who plays her should be credited as the ‘star’.

 That said, Blood Brothers has often utilised ‘stunt casting’ as a way of appealing to audiences who may not ordinarily consider going to the theatre. Indeed, it is claimed that Willy Russell had specifically written the part of Mrs Johnstone for “a pop star who could sing wonderfully” and history demonstrates that this theory has been tried and tested many times, with successful, high-profile recording artistes such as Barbara Dickson, Kiki Dee, Petula Clark, Helen Reddy, Carole King, Lyn Paul, the Nolan’s, Mel C and Natasha Hamilton donning the crossover pinny and care-worn smile to play her.

Similarly, the Narrator has been played by big ‘names’ including Carl Wayne, David Soul, John Conteh and even Willy Russell himself. So, perhaps, it is entirely understandable why former Wet Wet Wet frontman Marti Pellow would be cast in the role. After all, he has proven himself to be a competent musical theatre performer (having played leading roles in Chicago, The Witches of Eastwick and Jekyll & Hyde) who, by his own admission, prefers the darker roles. However, it appears that he has totally misinterpreted the part.
 
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Whereas other Narrators I have seen (including Craig Price, Robbie Scotcher, Keith Burns, Scott Anson and Mike Dyer) opt to perform the role as a sinister, spectral figure who skulks around the shadows of the stage, pondering the consequences of each and every decision Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons make, reminding them both that ‘the Devil’s got your number’, Pellow is far less subtle. He thrusts himself into the foreground, pulling focus relentlessly, and adopts the persona of some kind of psychotic, stalking menace, adding a number of profanities in places where there have previously been none. Instead of personifying the moral consciences of Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, he attempts to be the Devil made manifest. And his Liverpudlian accent was, at best, variable.

The absence of Sean Jones, as Mickey, left a void that fell to James Templeton to fill. Jones (who is currently part of the ‘dream-team’ ultimate cast, assembled to ensure the West End production ends in a blaze of glory) has, over a number of years, honed and developed his performance to a degree that he is now the quintessential Mickey to many of the shows aficionados. James Templeton is to be commended for his valiant effort and the odd fluffed line can easily be overlooked, yet his characterisation never quite exuded the emotional gravitas which Jones consistently delivers by the bucket load.

Still, the return of Daniel Taylor (who has recently been indisposed due to illness) was a very welcome one. Much like Sean Jones as Mickey, Taylor has made the role of bad-boy Sammy very much his own. Tracy Spencer, as Mrs Lyons, also perfectly depicts the manipulative, barren and selfish woman who puts her own wants and desires above everybody else’s – whatever the cost. The solid supporting cast includes Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons, Olivia Sloyan as Linda and Tori Hargreaves as Donna Marie.

Such is the sheer strength and popularity of Blood Brothers as a piece of theatre that it can withstand a minor distraction or two. It is a production that goes from strength to strength, its appeal growing over the years rather than diminishing; a powerful play that it can be watched time and time again without ever losing any of its emotional impact or social relevance.

Wherever it is performed, Blood Brothers receives a standing ovation from an approving audience and press night was no exception. This production is heart-warming, tear-jerking, uplifting, devastating and, above all else, brilliant!

Steve Burbridge.

Blood Brothers runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 10 November, 2012, before continuing to tour.

 

Oct 25th

Darlington Civic is set to Break Records!

By Cameron Lowe
Blood Brothers looks set to break all records for a musical at Darlington Civic Theatre.

Darlington Civic Theatre is delighted to welcome Willy Russell’s iconic British musical, Blood Brothers, from Monday 5 - Saturday 10 November. With nearly 6000 tickets already sold, Blood Brothers is set to break all records for a musical at the theatre. There are a few seats remaining.

 

West End star and multi-platinum selling artist Marti Pellow joins the cast of Blood Brothers for a limited time including one week only in Darlington.

 

Marti Pellow

The Wet Wet Wet front-man and music legend will take on the role of Narrator alongside Niki Evans as Mrs Johnstone in the critically acclaimed smash hit musical.


Written by Willy Russell, the legendary Blood Brothers tells the captivating and moving tale of twins who, separated at birth, grow up on opposite sides of the tracks, only to meet again with fateful consequences. The superb score includes Bright New Day, Marilyn Monroe and the emotionally charged hit Tell Me It’s Not True.


Few musicals have received quite such acclaim as the multi-award winning Blood Brothers, and Bill Kenwright’s production, having recently celebrated its 23rd phenomenal year in London, continues to enjoy standing ovations at every devastating performance.

 

‘Gritty, gripping, superb...it’s a must!’  Mail on Sunday

 

‘A Triumphant evening...Unmissable and unbeatable’  The Spectator

 

Mon 5 – Sat 10 November

Evenings 7.30pm, Matinees Thurs 2pm, Sat 2.30pm

Tickets £18 - £31

Thurs matinee all seats £18

Discounts available including 20% off first night and Sat matinee

 

 

To book contact the Box Office on 01325 486 555 or visit www.darlingtonarts.co.uk

Oct 18th

Great Expectations

By Steve Burbridge


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Great Expectations – Darlington Civic Theatre

The publicity material for Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations promised a ‘lavish, spectacular and unashamedly theatrical show (which) brings some of the most memorable characters ever created to life’.

Most theatre critics are accustomed to such hyperbole and we disregard it with the proverbial pinch of salt. However, it is only in the rarest of cases that such tag-lines can genuinely be considered as understatements. This production of Great Expectations is a case in point.

From the moment the curtain rose to reveal Robin Peoples’ magnificent set, I was certain we were in for something special. Indeed, the production values throughout the show were never anything less than utterly outstanding and the creative team are to be congratulated and commended for such perfection. The stunning combination of costume, jewellery, make-up, millinery, wigs and masks all resulted in an exquisite show that was altogether more ambitious than any other adaptation of a period piece that I can think of.

Gloriously gothic, deliciously dark and, at times, marvellously macabre, there was a tone and style to the piece that would not have been out of place in one of Tim Burton’s movies.

The stellar cast performed their roles with undisputed conviction and believability. Paula Wilcox presented the most sympathetic portrayal of Miss Havisham I have ever been fortunate enough to witness, whilst Jack Ellis was an imposing and impressive Jaggers. Chris Ellison’s performance as Magwitch was superbly understated, and Taylor Jay-Davies was perfect as Pip, skilfully and completely believably, developing from boy to man before our very eyes.

Staged as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of Charles Dickens, this adaptation visits Darlington prior to its West End transfer. It is a production that I would urge people to see because, quite frankly, in all likelihood it may be another two hundred years before an adaptation of such quality as this is produced.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 20th October 2012.

 

 

 

Sep 26th

The Nolan's Bid A Fond Farewell On Final Tour

By Steve Burbridge

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The announcement that The Nolan’s are going out on the road one last time marks the end of a showbiz era. Their 19-date farewell tour, which kicks off in February next year and includes a gig at Newcastle City Hall, is entitled In The Mood For Dancing . . . One Last Time and it promises to be a nostalgic and reminiscent affair. The sensational sister act decided to bow out in style after being overwhelmed by the reaction to their 2009 reunion tour, I’m In The Mood . . . Again! So, it seems timely to take a fond look back at the frenzied reaction to their reunion tour and a poignant look forward to their final farewell.

They put an entire generation in the mood for dancing back in the ’70s and ’80s with their wholesome brand of pop, which preceded The Spice Girls, Bananarama and Girls Aloud, and earned themselves a place in British chart history as one of the most successful girl groups ever.

Thirty years later, in 2009, The Nolan’s reunited for what would turn out to be the most talked-about tour of the year. When Bernie, Linda, Maureen and Coleen revealed that they were getting back together to tour the UK, the announcement even made the headlines on News at Ten.

Box offices around the country were inundated with calls and venues sold out in a matter of hours, as fans snapped up tickets like hot cakes, prompting a number of additional dates to be added onto the tour.

Packed with a combination of classic diva anthems - such as I Will Survive, It’s Raining Men and Holding Out For A Hero - and the biggest hits from their own back catalogue, including Attention To Me, Chemistry and everyone’s favourite, I’m In The Mood For Dancing, The Nolan’s took Newcastle by storm when they performed at the Metro Radio Arena that October.

But the Newcastle gig almost never happened.

“On the last tour, Newcastle wasn’t in there to begin with,” Bernie remembered. “But we went to Newcastle to do an interview for something else and there was murder – we had emails and letters asking: ‘Why aren’t you coming?’. So, we put a date in for Newcastle and it was absolutely fantastic.”

Having slung the spandex, banished the boob-tubes and parted with the platforms, the costumes were sophisticated, stylish and yet equally as sexy. And for those who still appreciated a bit of glitzy glamour, there were sequins, stiletto heels and curve-enhancing cocktail dresses galore.

The show was a spectacular mix of incredible vocals, beautiful harmonies, hunky male dancers and sensational choreographed routines and it quickly developed into an enormous party, with women of all ages taking to the aisles and dancing around their handbags.

The success of the tour wasn’t only due to the high production values associated with it, but also to the fact that the likelihood of it happening, in the first place, seemed slim. Each of the sisters was busy with their own highly successful solo careers.

Bernie had established herself as a serious actress, playing leading roles in series’ such as Brookside and The Bill. Linda and Maureen were scoring success in the world of musical theatre, most notably for their portrayals of Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, and Coleen was a popular presenter on daytime television programmes such as Loose Women and This Morning.

So, the reaction to the tour far surpassed the expectations of the Irish sister act and they were genuinely overwhelmed by the loyalty and support of their fans.

“It was the most fun I think we’ve ever had,” said Maureen. “It was just amazing - pure unadulterated cheese and such camp fun! And the reaction we got from the public was just fantastic, we were so grateful.”

Bernie added: “We have high hopes for Newcastle on this farewell tour. We insisted that the city was put in this time, so I hope they don’t let us down.”

As if we Geordies would!

Steve Burbridge.

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 19th

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

By Steve Burbridge

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Darlington Civic Theatre

Having to write a review of a show that you have already reviewed on two previous occasions can be something of a daunting task. Will you find something new to say about the performance? Will you merely repeat and rehash what you have already written?

Thankfully, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat presents no such problems! Like your favourite perennial garden plant, it is a show which seems to come round every year. And, every year it looks stronger and seems to bloom and flourish with more vibrancy than ever before.

Former Any Dream Will Do contestant Keith Jack is still occupying the title role. Despite having settled into it very well, his performance shows no signs of complacency at all. At the risk of repetition, “his portrayal of Joseph struck exactly the right balance of vulnerability and heroism and he made the part entirely his own. From his first appearance, right through to curtain call, Keith captivated the audience with his stage presence and vocal talents. He handled all his musical numbers with aplomb and hit each note with precision and perfection. Keith suited the role visually, too.”

To add to my previous comments, though, Keith’s time in the role has strengthened his own confidence, which tangibly comes across to the audience in his consummate performance, and makes him a quintessential Joseph, in my opinion.

As with all long-running touring productions, there have been a number of cast changes since the show was last in Darlington, in 2010.

Recently-graduated Lauren Ingram makes a fantastic impression in the role of Narrator and shows great promise for the years ahead, whilst Luke Jasztal relishes his role as the pelvis-thrusting Elvis-style Pharaoh.

The actors playing Joseph’s brothers all performed with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and there were some quirky interpretations of some of the songs. One More Angel In Heaven was performed in a country and western style, complete with Stetsons; Those Canaan Days was given a Parisian flavour and there was even a Caribbean Calypso number thrown in to extol the virtues of Benjamin, the youngest brother. I am still not certain why the style and setting of these musical numbers was shifted away from Ancient Egypt but, you know what, it didn’t really matter anyway!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a show that has its tongue very firmly placed in its cheek for the most part and in no way takes itself too seriously. However, there is a moral of forgiveness and reconciliation at the heart of the story as well as all the fun and froth. It’s still a biblical box-office hit and a guaranteed theatre-filler!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 22 September 2012.

 

 

Sep 13th

Calendar Girls

By Steve Burbridge

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CALENDAR GIRLS

ION Productions at the Customs House, South Shields

There’s not a lot you can say about Calendar Girls that hasn’t already been said. The show, which tells the true story of twelve extraordinary members of the Women’s Institute who give their annual calendar a very untraditional twist to raise money for an extremely worthy cause, is now a global phenomenon. In 2003, it was made into a feature film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters and, having enjoyed a run in the West End and numerous national tours, the rights have been released to amateur and semi-professional groups for a limited period of eighteen months.

Not only does this inspirational stage production have the power to make audiences both laugh and cry, but it is also performed by a consummate ensemble cast.

Patricia Whale is Chris Harper, the ebullient driving force behind the calendar idea and her performance is engaging and energetic.

Audreyann Lee Myers provides the perfect contrast as Chris’s best friend, Annie Clarke, the bereaved woman whose husband’s death is the catalyst for the creation of the ‘alternative’ calendar and her portrayal is skilfully subtle. There is also an intensity to the scene where Chris and Annie have a confrontation and, subsequently fall-out, which was somewhat lacking in the film starring Mirren and Walters.

Angela Hannon relishes the role of the snooty chairman of the Knapley WI group and never misses an opportunity to steal a scene with a bitchy comment. She takes Marie’s pretentions to the verge of caricature but always retains the believability of the character.

Jo Smart also provides much hilarity with her portrayal of Jessie, the retired schoolteacher. Her ‘no front-bottoms’ line had the audiences in stitches and her delivery was punchy and spot-on throughout. Kay Miller is the unorthodox vicar’s daughter, Cora, and displays a rather impressive singing voice. Ashley Lamb plays Ruth, the most timid of all the women, whose philandering husband is playing away with a bimbo beautician (Carly Nelder). Laura Dollimore provides much of the glamour with the hair-tossing, golf-playing character of Celia.

In a cast that is dominated by such towering female talents, it would be easy – but extremely unfair – to overlook the contribution of the actors who perform less high-profile roles. Paul Dunn gives a heartfelt portrayal of John Clarke, who dies of leukaemia, Graeme Smith is effective in his doubling-up as photographer, Lawrence, and television director, Liam and Mark Lamb is a suitably downtrodden Rod Harper.

Finally, Carol Cooke plays both Brenda Hulse and Lady Cravenshire.

The entire production and technical team are to be commended too, particularly director Gareth Hunter and designer Chris Allen. Calendar Girls is a triumphant piece of theatre that should occupy a date in everyone’s diary.

 Runs until Saturday 15th September, 2012

Sep 5th

HAIR - Nice Swan Theatre Company

By Steve Burbridge

HAIR - Nice Swan Theatre Company at The People's Theatre, Newcastle

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Any production staged by Nice Swan Theatre Company is always worth a trip. The sheer talent, commitment, exuberance and chutzpah involved makes for a thoroughly engaging and inspiring evening.

Following their successful productions of Spring Awakening, in 2010, and West Side Story, in 2011, they returned to the stage of The People’s Theatre last night with a stunning revival of Hair, the rock musical which tells the story of a group of politically-active hippies of the age of Aquarius, living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War.

Hair puts rock music and the culture that went with it on stage in a show which has a strong effect on everyone, and acts as a bridge between generations and viewpoints. What looks like incredible chaos is actually incredibly organised chaos! The show has a vitality, a timelessness and a meaning that outlives the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in America.

When the West End production was first staged in September 1968, the original London ‘tribe’ launched the careers of Paul Nicholas, Elaine Paige, Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry, to name a few. Without a doubt, this current North East production has some future stars among its ‘tribe’.

The entire cast deliver solid performances and it always seems so unfair to single out individuals. However, I must make mention of Thomas Whalley (Berger), Dale Jewitt (Claude) and Dylan Stafford (Woof), each of whom delivered compelling characterisations which were entirely convincing.

From a musical point of view, Beth Macari (Dionne) stole the show with her soulful vocals, with Quentin Whitaker (Walter) coming a close second. The musical numbers, which include the phenomenal Aquarius, I Got Life, Let The Sunshine In and, of course, the title song were delivered with enthusiastic relish.

Indeed, the entire production values are of the highest possible standard, with not even the most minor detail being overlooked. The simple but effective set was dominated by a fabulous psychedelic camper van (with a P3 ACE registration plate!) and a huge dream-catcher, and Kirsty Emery is to be commended for her innovative design.

Producer Jamie Gray, Director Jane Hutchinson, and Choreographer Stephanie Smith have collaborated to create a production which is never anything less than astounding on every level and is guaranteed to send you home higher than any of the illicit substances featured in the show.

Not to be missed!

 

 Runs until Saturday 8th September, 2012.