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Jan 22nd

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Sarah Jane Buckley

By Steve Burbridge


SARAH JANE headshot.JPG

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.

 

 

 

 

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 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


Encore 1.jpg

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.