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Jun 27th

Dry Rot

By Steve Burbridge



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DRY ROT

DARLINGTON CIVIC THEATRE

When Alfred Tubbe (Derren Nesbitt), a crooked bookie, and his two accomplices, Fred Phipps (Norman Pace) and Flash Harry (Gareth Hale), devise a cunning plan to ‘get-rich-quick’ by kidnapping the odds-on favourite horse and replacing it with their own decrepit nag, thus netting a tidy £10,000 in the process, you instantly know that they will have to jump more hurdles than they expect to get past the final post.

Written by John Chapman, and first performed in 1954, Dry Rot ran for more than three years in the West End and is listed in the National Theatres’ Top 100 plays. This latest production boasts a cast which comprises a line-up of odds-on favourites from the stage and the small screen – all of whom are under starter’s orders and raring to go. So, with such good form, why doesn’t Dry Rot romp to victory? After all, the essential ingredients required for a classic farce are all there: secret-doors; physical comedy; misunderstood situations; stock characters and blossoming love.

Part of the problem, I fear, is because the piece feels slightly dated. Add to that some dodgy directorial decisions from Ron Aldridge, which hinder the required split-second comedy timing and flaw the physical comedy, and the die is almost set.

However, it is the stellar cast who collectively save this production – and they do so with admirable talent, flair and panache. Neil Stacey is perfect as the ex-military man turned hotelier, Colonel Wagstaff, and his pairing with Liza Goddard (as his ‘home counties headmistress-type’ wife) works nicely. Evelyn Adams, as Susan, and Bob Saul, as Danby, make a charming love-struck young couple, whilst the slapstick is provided, of course, by Hale and Pace. Throw into the mix Susan Penhaligon as a delightfully ditzy housekeeper (who easily steals every scene she is in!) and you can hardly go far wrong!

Mention must also be made of Sarah Whitlock (Sergeant Fire) and Michael Keane (Albert Polignac) who both take relatively minor roles and make them altogether more important.

This production may not be a dead-cert winner, nor is it the underdog of the race. If you enjoy an inoffensive light-hearted farce then Dry Rot is probably something of an each-way bet.

Dry Rot runs until Saturday 30 June 2012.

May 24th

Dancing Queen - Darlington Civic Theatre

By Steve Burbridge


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Dancing Queen – Darlington Civic Theatre

Well, the marketing material promised a ‘high octane, musical extravaganza . . . featuring a dynamic cast of singers and dancers, beautiful costumes and dazzling choreography’. On the basis of that hyperbole, Spirit Productions should be reported to the Trading Standards Commission for false advertising.

The far less impressive reality that was Dancing Queen was a tacky camp-fest of ABBA hits, medleys of ‘70s disco classics, and a compilation of highlights from the score of Saturday Night Fever. That, in itself, would have been bearable – and, perhaps, even fun – if the deliverance had not been so disappointing.

The ‘four amazingly talented lead singers’ (Simon Bulley, Jennifer Harding, Aston Dobson and Jessica Parker) merely sang along to pre-recorded back tracks, indicating that none of them possessed the vocal prowess to tackle the songs without such help and calling into question their suitability as ‘leads’ to begin with.

The company of 16 dancers struggled to get through the overly-ambitious and unnecessarily complex choreography in synchronisation and there were a number of occasions when I thought the male members, all of whom were shorter in stature than their statuesque female colleagues, might even drop them during the frequent, clumsily executed lifts.

The ‘Broadway Style’ production pieces may have been perfect for Pontins, brilliant for Butlins (the guys even performed one section in their redcoats!) or catered towards cruise ship audiences, but they fell significantly short of what the average theatre-goer might expect. And as for the glittering costumes, I would suggest that every panto dame and drag queen checks their wardrobes at their earliest convenience!

To me, this shambolic show is nothing more than a cynical attempt, by the production company, to fill a theatre and make a pot of money ‘hot on the heels of the huge success of the Broadway musical Mamma Mia’.

It’s a short-sighted strategy in the long run, as most patrons can only be conned once.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 26 May 2012.

 

May 10th

Yes, Prime Minister - Darlington Civic Theatre

By Steve Burbridge


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YES, PRIME MINISTER – DARLINGTON CIVIC THEATRE

The stage version of the much loved BBC hit TV series, ‘Yes, Prime Minister is now touring in a hilarious, award winning new version written specifically for the theatre by original writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Following a fantastic season in the West End and at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jim Hacker (Graham Seed) and Sir Humphrey Appleby (Michael Simkins) have arrived at Darlington on the last stop of the production’s tour and they face a country in financial meltdown.

Heading the coalition government, the PM is staring disaster in the face. The country is on the brink of economic crisis and there is just one grain of hope – a morally dubious deal with the Foreign Minister of Kumranistan - but great institutions have a way of riding punches and bouncing back unscathed – will it prove so for Jim Hacker and his team of close advisors?

Much like its original television counterpart, this stage version takes a satirical sideswipe at what goes on behind closed doors in the corridors of power at Chequers. A sumptuous set, designed by Simon Higlett, provides the backdrop for an evening of biting wit and topical humour. Yet, although the decision to contemporise the piece is, on one hand, its greatest strength, on the other, it is the biggest flaw of the piece.

Rather than subtly integrating modern inventions and issues, including the BlackBerry and the global warming debate, they are almost introduced with cue-cards. Add to that constant references to politicised pop stars, such as Bob Geldof, Bono and Annie Lennox, phone-hacking fiascos and Bill Clinton’s extra-marital activities with Monica Lewinski, and the production begins to feel that it has been written in much the same way as a housewife writes a shopping list.

This is a real shame as it detracts from the consummate performances given by a cohesive company of actors. Graham Seed’s Jim Hacker is brimming with Blairisms and his characterisation is compelling. Michael Simkins, as Sir Humphrey, is understatedly smug and Laura Murray is suitably abrasive as the Special Adviser (or SPAD if you prefer the Whitehall jargon). Supporting roles are delivered with aplomb by Sam Dastor, Tony Boncza, Simon Holmes, Angus King and Sarah Baxendale.

Jonathan Lynn’s direction sometimes allows the pace to flag and, inevitably, the attention begins to wander. I couldn’t help feeling that if the direction had been slightly sharper and a couple of lengthy monologues had been trimmed, then we might have been bestowed with a production that did something more than just walk in the shadow of its televisual predecessor.

Ian Cain.

Runs until Saturday 12 May, 2012 

 

Mar 28th

Bette and Joan

By Steve Burbridge

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BETTE & JOAN – DARLINGTON CIVIC THEATRE

The long-standing feud between legendary Hollywood screen queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford reached boiling point in 1962 when the pair, who were both experiencing career lows, were thrown together to film a high-risk, low-budget shocker.

The movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, was a surprise hit which propelled both actresses back to superstardom. Davis won her tenth Academy Award for her portrayal of an ageing ex-Vaudeville child star who wages a psychotic reign of terror over her crippled ex-movie star sister (played by Joan Crawford).

Nominated for a further five Academy Awards and an Oscar winner for Best Costume Design, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a mirthful masterpiece of the macabre which is now widely regarded as a cult classic.

Half a century later, the behind the scenes story of the making of the movie forms the basis of a new stage play, Bette and Joan. Written by Anton Burge, it lifts the lid on the highs, the lows, the tantrums and the tiffs between two of Hollywood’s greatest leading ladies.

It takes a pair of actresses of the highest possible calibre to step into the shoes of Crawford and Davis. Anita Dobson (Joan Crawford) and Greta Scacchi (Bette Davis) grab their roles with gusto and deliver performances which are never anything less than magnificent.

Scacchi, with her poached egg eyes and clipped speech, and Dobson, with her steely glamour and elongated vowels, both look and sound remarkably like Davis and Crawford and they have the audience in the palm of their manicured hands right from the word go.

Burge’s script is beautifully bitchy, crammed full of witty one-liners, and it gives both Miss Dobson and Miss Scacchi a field day. Quite how much the feud has been exaggerated, nobody knows. Yet, that said, the games of one-upmanship these divas engage in an attempt to be top dog, the dirty tricks and the sheer spitefulness between them is all played out in such a way that it is utterly convincing.

The drama takes place in the next-door dressing rooms of Crawford and Davis on the back-lot of the studio set and this allows for the atmosphere to be delightfully intimate – we, as an audience, really feel as though we are being taken into the confidence of each of these Hollywood legends.

Throughout the play, only Dobson and Scacchi appear on stage. Such a piece demands the most compelling of performances if the engagement of the audience is to be sustained. Fear not, with such consummate professionals in the roles, it is impossible not to be entirely captivated.

Indeed, Bette and Joan is the story of two iconic actresses who knew how to make the most of a role. How fitting, then, that it should be performed by two equally accomplished and iconic actresses who, most certainly make the most of portraying them.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington until Saturday 31 March and then continues to tour.

 

Mar 20th

Murder On The Nile

By Steve Burbridge

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MURDER ON THE NILE - Darlington Civic Theatre
On board a steamer, under the scorching Egyptian sun, a combustive mix of characters assemble for what will soon turn out to be a voyage of vendettas and a cruise with a killer.

Now in its seventh year – and with eight productions already staged – the Agatha Christie Theatre Company presents this stylish new production of the Queen of Crime’s classic thriller, Murder on the Nile.

With a stellar cast, headed by the ex- Dynasty diva Kate O’Mara, including seasoned stage performers such as Denis Lill and Mark Wynter and familiar faces from our television screens, Chloe Newsome (Coronation Street), Susie Amy (Footballer’s Wives) and Ben Nealon (Soldier, Soldier), it is inevitable that the show will be a crowd-puller.

As personalities clash and tempers fray, tragedy strikes and a body is discovered. All fingers point to Jacqueline de Severac, an old flame of the honeymooning Simon Mostyn (Ben Nealon). But is everything as it first seems?

Well, obviously not. And so begins a fascinating yarn laden with intrigue, suspense, drama and death – and all delivered with Christie’s trademark finesse.

In a production that is crammed full of cracking performances, it is Kate O’Mara as the formidable Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes who steals the show without even trying. Delightfully feline in her physical features, Miss O’Mara is equally cat-like in her manner. She sits and purrs much like a smug Siamese on a hearth rug, only moving occasionally to raise a perfectly manicured claw and scratch anyone who gets in her way.

The production values, too, are second to none. An impressive set recreates the deck of the paddle steamer Lotus, whilst subtle lighting effects illustrate the passage of time from day to evening. Brigid Guy’s costume design is a visual treat, in addition to being extremely authentic.

The pace is somewhat slow to begin with but it soon accelerates as Canon Pennefather (Denis Lill) becomes embroiled in a web of deceit and finds himself on the trail of a ruthless murderer.

A classic Christie thriller brought sumptuously to the stage by a top-notch cast. Highly recommended!

 Runs until Saturday 24 March, then continues to tour.

Mar 7th

Swallows and Amazons

By Steve Burbridge

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SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS - Darlington Civic Theatre

We all know that a child’s imagination is the most vivid, creative and boundless source of magic there can be and this production of the evergreen classic, Swallows and Amazons, certainly takes that as the basis of its staging. Indeed, the key to the success of Tom Morris’s production (which is produced for the Children’s Touring Partnership) is its simplistic ingenuity.

Instead of elaborately impressive sets and stunning special effects, the story is told with the aid of some fairly mundane props. These everyday items, which include feather dusters, pliers, ribbons, sheets and bin bags, are suddenly transformed into parrots, cormorants, boats and the ocean. It’s all very cleverly done and extremely believable, too.

Arthur Ransome wrote the novel in 1930 and, having never read the book, I am unable to comment on how faithful Helen Edmundson’s script remains to his original work. Certainly, though, the characterisation of the children: John (Richard Holt), Susan (Katie Moore), Titty (Akiya Henry) and Roger (Stewart Wright) are typical of middle-class kids from that era. Any surprising events are met with cries of ‘Golly!’, good news is received with jubilant choruses of ‘Hurrah!’ and anyone who behaves badly is ‘simply beastly’. They’re all so upright and conformist that, on occasion, you do find yourself wishing that the slightly more rebellious Nancy and Peggy Blackett (Celia Adams and Sophie Walker, respectively) will actually make them walk the plank!

Performances are of a good standard throughout and there is no denying that the ensemble (listed in the programme as the ‘Players in Blue’) are an extremely versatile bunch, with several of them playing more than one instrument. Neil Hannon’s songs suit the piece well, although some are a little over-used.

With the production running to approximately two and a half hours, and bearing in mind that it is a show aimed at children, there is some room for trimming. That said, though, come curtain call there was a positive response from the small, but enthusiastic, audience.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 10 March and then continues to tour.

Feb 29th

On Golden Pond

By Steve Burbridge


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ON GOLDEN POND - Darlington Civic Theatre


The first thing that strikes you as you enter the auditorium of the Civic Theatre to take your seat is the sound of birdsong. The second is the stunning set, designed by Michael Lunney, which recreates the interior of a summer house with an exterior backdrop that depicts the beauty and tranquillity of Golden Pond, Maine, New England.  This combination certainly helped set the scene and the tone of Middle Ground Theatre Company’s stylish production. Add to that a stellar cast, headed by a bona fide Hollywood legendary leading lady – Stefanie Powers – and you feel pretty sure that you’re going to have a theatrical treat in store.

Ernest Thompson’s best-known play began off-Broadway in 1978, before becoming a hit on Broadway, a much-loved film (starring Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda) and a musical. It now ranks as a modern classic.

The timeless and endearing love story of Ethel (Stefanie Powers) and Norman Thayer (Richard Johnson) is brought to life with great aplomb.  Powers delivers a flawless performance which is compelling to watch – indeed she is every inch the consummate leading lady. She is wonderfully supported by Johnson and the rapport they share as performers makes it very easy for the audience to believe that they are a devoted couple who have been together for almost half a century.

There are some very fine performances from the rest of the cast, too. Elizabeth Carling, as Chelsea, portrays the resentment she harbours against her father (who wanted a son but got a daughter) brilliantly.  Tom Roberts, as Chelsea’s new fiancé, strikes the right balance in his attempts to win over Norman whilst, at the same time, refusing to be belittled by him. Graeme Dalling has the unenviable task of attempting to embody a fourteen year old boy, yet achieves it perfectly. It falls to Kasper Michaels, as the slightly goofy mailman, Charlie, to provide much of the light relief and comedy moments.

The play ambles along at a leisurely pace and the humour is reassuringly gentle. This slick production, which has obviously been staged with a good deal of reverence, dispels any misconceptions that the piece may be dated and highlights the relevance of a narrative which deals with the relationships between differing generations. In fact, On Golden Pond is exactly what good theatre should be – entertaining, escapist, thought-provoking and deeply touching. Bravo!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 3 March, then continues to tour. 

Feb 27th

A Streetcar Named Desire/The Crucible, Nice Swan Theatre Company at The People's Theatre, Newcastle

By Steve Burbridge

Nice Swan Theatre Company is a North East based productions company which focuses on giving local talented under-25-year-olds the chance to be involved in a professional scale production. They have earned themselves a reputation for staging the highest-quality productions and continue to grow and evolve. 2012 sees Nice Swan Theatre Company enter its fifth year and what better a way to start than with a double bill of well-known and much-loved plays – A Streetcar Named Desire and The Crucible. STEVE BURBRIDGE went along to The People’s Theatre to review both for UK Theatre Network.

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A Streetcar Named Desire – 21 & 22 February 2012

Written by Tennessee Williams, in 1947, the issues and themes explored within this captivating and disturbing landmark play are as resonant today as they were during Williams’ lifetime. Human relationships are fragile and so is the mind.

Set in the French quarter of New Orleans, we were introduced to Blanche DuBois (Katie Gibson), a fading, complex and somewhat  manipulative Southern belle, Stella (Jessica Brady) her estranged, downtrodden sister and Stanley Kowalski (Dale Jewitt), Stella’s animalistic husband and a rising member of the industrial, urban working class.

At the centre of the drama lies an epic battle of both identities and will, the outcome of which lies with Stella and, ultimately, she is forced to make a decision which will tip the balance forever.

As always, Nice Swan manages to instil even the most ‘classic’ pieces of theatre with a new and invigorating lease of life, a unique and innovative slant, and they are to be wholeheartedly commended for such creativity, imagination and bravery.

The acting within this piece was of the highest standard imaginable and combined with atmospheric lighting design from Terrence Errington, evocative incidental music, sharp, stylish and slick direction by Lewis Pilton, the production was intensely compelling.

Despite the fact that Act One ran to a mammoth two hours which, in my opinion, is a tad too long, the audience seemed to retain their interest throughout and sat enthralled. Act 2 was slightly shorter, coming in at around the 90 minute mark.

Undoubtedly, one of the major factors in holding the attention of the audience was the superb quality of the performances within the piece. Katie Gibson was phenomenal as Blanche and she delivered a tour-de-force performance to rival any West End leading lady. Such an exquisite talent, breathtaking conviction, and commanding performance is exceedingly rare and she has established herself as a performer to watch out for in the future. No doubt, she has a promising career ahead of her.

A resounding success!

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The Crucible – 23 & 24 February 2012

Having studied Arthur Miller’s 1953 study in hysteria, which was written as a parable for the events of the communist fearing McCarthy era in the USA, I was very much looking forward to Nice Swan’s take on the play.

However, a few dubious directorial decisions marred my complete enjoyment of the production. Firstly, by changing the setting of the piece from Salem during the 1692 witch trials to ‘No Place, during no specific time’, I felt that some of the power of this dark and twisted tale of revenge, unrequited love and the power of fear within a community was diminished. Also, having a female play Reverend Parris jarred with me and prevented me from being totally able to suspend my disbelief – in fact, it actually came over as slightly gimmicky. Although, I must point out that this observation is in no way a negative reflection upon Lauren McNeillie’s sterling performance.

In general, the performance standard was mixed. Some members of the group demonstrate greater promise than others, and it was performances by actors playing comparatively ‘minor’ roles who, in my opinion, stole the show. Dylan Stafford, as Hale, was superbly sinister, whilst Bethany Walker was deeply affecting as Elizabeth Proctor. Both the aforementioned performers were so engaging in their roles that they actually outshone Laura Stoker (Abigail Williams) and John Mitchell (John Proctor).

It is, though, commendable that the entire cast performed in such a thoroughly professional manner, considering the conduct of some in the auditorium. Never before have I had such misfortune as to sit amongst an audience so totally devoid of both theatre etiquette and common consideration of others. The incessant rustling of crisp packets, ring-pulling of cans  - and even fully-blown conversations being conducted at a level that was equally as audible as the voices of the onstage performers – must have been as much of a distraction to the cast as it was to my companion and I. This fault is not only attributable to the ill-mannered members of the audience, but also to the lack of responsibility shown by the stewards on duty.

A real shame!

 

Feb 22nd

Save The Last Dance For Me

By Steve Burbridge


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SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME - Darlington Civic Theatre

For the first time without their parents, siblings Marie (Megan Jones) and Jennifer (Hannah Frederick) embark on a holiday to the seaside. It’s the summer of 1963 and a time when each passing week brings another pop classic.

Full of freedom and high spirits, the sisters meet a handsome young American who invites them to a dance at the local US Air Force base in Lowestoft. As if the heady combination of the power of young love and the thrill of a holiday romance were not enough, matters are made more complicated by the fact that Marie falls for a young man named Curtis (Jason Denton) whom is not only American but black, too.

Save The Last Dance For Me is the new production from the creative team behind the hugely successful Dreamboats and Petticoats. Written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (who also have hit TV sit-coms such as Birds of a Feather and Shine on Harvey Moon to their credit) and directed by Bill Kenwright, it certainly had the potential to be a box office blockbuster. However, the drama and dialogue are very much forced to play second-fiddle to the musical hits of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.

That said, the songs do have the ability to transport the audience back to a nostalgic golden era in the history of pop music – and there are plenty of them, too! Act One boasts no fewer than eighteen hits, such as ‘Rhythm of the Rain’, ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and ‘Sweets for my Sweet’, whilst Act Two contains nineteen more, including ‘Teenager In Love’, ‘Tell Her’ and the title song. They are all performed by a truly talented cast of actor-musicians who had the ‘blue-rinsed brigade’ crooning along for all they were worth.

There are those who will, undoubtedly, say that this kind of show is more suited to the end of a seaside pier than a theatre – and perhaps they may be right. But, at the same time, it’s good old-fashioned harmless fun.

Save The Last Dance For Me may not be the stuff that West End wonders and touring triumphs are made of but, on press night in Darlington, there was no doubt that it is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 25 February at Darlington, then continues to tour nationally.

 

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.