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Jun 22nd

Girls Night

By Steve Burbridge


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Girls Night

Gala Theatre, Durham

I’m becoming accustomed to being only one of a sprinkling of men in the audience now. Having already had the dubious honour of reviewing The Vagina Monologues, Women on the Verge of HRT, Hot Flush!, Menopause the Musical, Mum’s The Word and The Naked Truth, I can now add Girls Night to the ever-increasing list of productions aimed at a predominantly female audience.

Louise Roche’s comedy-musical follows the lives of four friends as they gather to celebrate the engagement of Candi-Rose, the daughter of another friend who died 22 years ago in a motorcycle accident. Little do they realise that their deceased mate, Sharon (Serena Giacomini) is watching over them as a rather unconventional guardian angel!

The plot sees the four friends, Carol (Gillian Taylforth), Liza (Rebecca Wheatley), Anita (Katie Paine) and Kate (Lizzie Frances) meet in a nightclub for an evening of Karaoke, drinking and reminiscing and also provides the perfect opportunity for the cast to belt out a succession of girlie anthems including ‘Young Hearts Run Free’, ‘I’m Every Woman’, ‘I Will Survive’, ‘I Am What I Am’ and ‘We Are Family’.

Kate Unwin’s set design, complemented by Kris Box’s lighting, sets the scene well and effectively recreates the look and feel of a nightclub. However, Colin Ashman’s sound tended to be over-amplified on occasion and drowned out some of the singing.

The cast is comprised of actresses who are also great singers and even Gillian Taylforth, a performer who is not usually associated with singing, delivers a very respectable version of ‘We Don’t Cry Out Loud’, despite a slight lyrical mix-up.

Although Girls Night won’t ever set the theatrical world alight, it is a crowd-pleasing concoction of Karaoke classics that does what it says on the tin.

Steve Burbridge

Runs until Saturday 25 June 2011.

Jun 15th

Communicating Doors

By Steve Burbridge


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COMMUNICATING DOORS

The Gala Theatre, Durham

The concept of time travel has fascinated playwrights, scriptwriters and novelists for decades, and Alan Ayckbourn is no exception. His forty-sixth play – he is now up to 76! – Communicating Doors, is based on the subject and ponders what lies behind the mysterious locked door in the corner of your hotel room.

This cracking comedy-thriller begins with a dying old businessman, Reece Wells (Ben Porter), attempting to ease his guilty conscience. He calls upon Poupée (Laura Doddington), a dominatrix, to witness the signing of a statement in which he confesses to being involved in the murders of his two former wives. But when his ruthless business partner, Julian (Ben Jones), who is also implicated by the statement, finds out Poupée (‘it’s French for doll!’ she insists) escapes her fate by fleeing through the communicating door and finds herself transported back to the same hotel suite twenty years earlier.

The plot sees the ‘specialist sexual consultant’ confronted with Reece’s second wife, Ruella (Liza Goddard), on the eve of her murder. Can she alter the course of events and save Ruella? And can the pair go back a further twenty years and prevent Jessica (Daisy Aitkens), Reece’s first wife, from being killed, too?

Set in three different time zones, 1990, 2010 and 2030, this clever and complex play has you on the edge of your seat throughout. Liza Goddard gives a brilliant performance as Ruella, and she is supported by a consummate cast. The pace of action is frenetic and following the story requires a certain amount of concentration but, ultimately, this pays off and the audience is rewarded with a fantastic evening’s entertainment.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 18 June 2011.

Jun 14th

The Lady in the Van

By Steve Burbridge


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The Lady In The Van

Darlington Civic Theatre

REVIEWED BY IAN CAIN ON BEHALF OF STEVE BURBRIDGE.

Perhaps one of the strangest things about Alan Bennett’s play, ‘The Lady in the Van’, is that it is actually based on factual experiences. In 1974, Miss Mary Shepherd drove into Bennett’s garden in a battered old Bedford van and remained there for fifteen years – until her death in 1989.

The play tells the bittersweet story of the relationship between the eccentric, indomitable bag lady and the meek and mild-mannered writer. It not only chronicles Bennett’s frustrating and hilarious encounters with the eponymous ‘lady in the van’  but also with a series of other characters, including a patronising social worker, snobbish neighbours, a threatening blackmailer and Bennett’s dementia-suffering mother.

Bennett’s unique and introspective humour may not suit all tastes, but it is particularly apt at highlighting the poignancy and pathos in seemingly ordinary situations, and the issues raised in the piece include human isolation, the gap between self-awareness and the capacity to change, and the power of propriety.

Nichola McAuliffe gives a tour-de-force performance as Miss Shepherd. Her characterisation of Bennett’s somewhat unwelcome tenant depicts her, by turn, as tough as old boots one moment and as fragile and vulnerable as a bird with a broken wing the next.

Two Alan Bennett’s appear on stage and, although this may sound confusing, it works rather nicely. Paul Kemp is the younger Bennett who is integrally involved in the events that are played out, whilst James Holmes is the older, objective Bennett who looks back over these events retrospectively – sometimes even offering advice to his younger self. Both actors have nailed every last nuance of Bennett’s physical and vocal mannerisms and they each deliver engaging performances.

Peripheral parts are played with panache by Tina Gambe, Emma Gregory, Fiz Marcus, Benedict Sandiford and Martin Wimbush.

Ben Stone’s stunning but simple set design provides the perfect environment and backdrop for the events to be played out and Sarah Esdaile’s direction is both slick and subtle.

‘The Lady in the Van’ is often referred to as a modern classic, and this new production, from Hull Truck, is completely worthy of being categorised as such.

Ian Cain.

Runs until Saturday 18 June 2011.

Jun 9th

The 39 Steps

By Steve Burbridge


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The 39 Steps

Ion Productions at The Customs House, South Shields

First published in 1915, John Buchan’s classic novel The 39 Steps has been filmed three times for the silver screen. It is also now a stage show that has wowed the West End and Broadway and continues to play in many major cities across the globe, including Berlin, Paris, Rome, Sydney and Tokyo.

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is a slick spoof of the quintessential spy story that is a rocking, roller-coaster ride which has the suave and debonair Richard Hannay (brilliantly played by Jamie Brown) embroiled in a mix of murder and espionage that sees him fleeing his stylish London bachelor pad for the remote Scottish highlands in an effort to clear his name and solve the mystery of the 39 steps.

Only four actors play 139 roles during the performance which lasts just over an hour-and-a-half, and they do so with amazing skill and aplomb. Patricia Whale shines as Annabella Schmidt, the femme-fatale who lands our hero into the sticky situation in the first place, and is also wonderful as Margaret, a Glaswegian girl who has married an overbearing farmer, and Pamela, the aloof society girl who eventually falls for Hannay’s charms and aids him in his attempt to prove his innocence. Craig Richardson and Ian Reay make a hilarious double-act as they portray more characters than I could keep track of – their transformations from character to character, with only the aid of a change of accent and hat or coat, are truly outstanding.

However, it is Jamie Brown’s charismatic and compelling performance as Hannay that steals the show. Every mannerism and movement, every nod and nuance is carefully crafted and perfectly honed. He strikes the right balance between dashing hero and unscrupulous cad and has the audience firmly in the palm of his hand throughout the entire performance.

The use of a limited number of props to denote differing scenes and settings is inventiveness bordering on pure genius. Gareth Hunter’s direction ensures that the pace is never anything short of frenetic and that comedy and parody are skilfully intertwined with suspense and romance. The entire technical team, including James Henshaw for his lighting design and Alison Hickman’s sound operation, are to be commended and congratulated, too.

It is little wonder that this gem of a production has notched up two TONY awards during its Broadway run, an Olivier award in the West End, and thrilled audiences for almost half a decade. You’d be mad to miss it!

Runs until Saturday 11 June 2011.

 

 

 

Jun 7th

Tell Me On A Sunday

By Steve Burbridge


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Tell Me On A Sunday

Darlington Civic Theatre

It seems that popular culture has a peculiar preoccupation with young women going to New York to find a career, a husband and a happy-ever-after. In the theatre, Millie Dillmount upped-sticks from Salina, Kansas, to head for the Big Apple in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Lola Lamar bid farewell to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in favour of NYC in Copacabana. On film, Andy Sachs graduated from Northwestern University and landed a prestigious job with ‘Runway’, a fashion magazine based in New York, and, on television, Carrie Bradshaw arrived in ‘the city that never sleeps’, aged 21, and ended up writing a weekly sex column for The New York Star in Sex and the City.

Similarly, in the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black hit musical, Tell Me On A Sunday, Laura is a Liverpudlian girl (although, originally, the character came from Muswell Hill) who has made New York her home. Brimming with optimism, she seeks success and love. But as she weaves her way through the maze of the city and her own anxieties, frustrations and heartaches, she begins to wonder whether she's been looking for love in all the wrong places.

 

Originally conceived for television, starring Marti Webb, the role has also been performed by some big names from the world of musical theatre, including Sarah Brightman, Lulu, Denise Van Outen, Faye Tozer and Patsy Palmer. This latest version has been tailored to suit the current incumbent, Claire Sweeney and there has even been a new song added, ‘Dreams Never Run On Time’.

 

Sweeney has a charm and charisma within her performance, is easy on the eye, and connects well with the audience. She delivers the musical numbers with emotional intelligence and beautiful enunciation and one feels that they are all heartfelt. Her strength lies in her ability as an actress rather than a singer, which enables her to sell a tune despite the fact that she is not a ‘belter’. The five-piece band, under the musical direction of Leigh Thompson, are bang-on and never miss a beat.

 

The set, designed by Janet Bird, effectively depicts Laura’s studio apartment with a lounge area to the fore and a kitchen and bedroom, slightly higher, further back. Girly props and satin sheets also contribute a feminine feel. The updated version now sees Laura armed with a pink laptop and the ‘Writing Home’ songs are now done via e-mail. These touches work nicely enough.

 

It is a rather large undertaking to expect one performer to keep an audience of around 1,000 people entertained, predominantly with song, for approximately 90 minutes. However, Claire Sweeney pulled it out of the bag and neither of the two 45 minute acts ever lost their momentum.

 

Steve Burbridge.

 

Runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until 11th June, then tours to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Woking, Cardiff, Norwich, Malvern, Eastbourne and Aberdeen.

 

 

 

 

Jun 3rd

The Harlem Gospel Choir

By Steve Burbridge


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The Harlem Gospel Choir

Reviewed at Darlington Civic Theatre

You may not instantly recognise their name but the chances are, somewhere along the line, you’ll have seen The Harlem Gospel Choir perform. Whether it was back in 1989, in the iconic video for Madonna’s number one hit Like a Prayer, or more recently at the internationally broadcast memorial concert for Michael Jackson, the world-famous choir group occupy a well-earned position in popular culture.

Since forming in 1986, at Harlem’s Cotton Club, they have become America’s premier gospel choir and have performed with a wide range of contemporary and traditional artists such as Diana Ross, U2, Scissor Sisters, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Gorillaz, Razorlight, Jon Hendricks, Lisa Marie Presley, Josh Groban and Whoopi Goldberg. They have also had the honour of performing in front of royalty, Popes and presidents, including Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.

Inspired by the work of Dr Martin Luther King Junior, Allen Bailey founded the original choir after attending a celebration of King’s life. The theme of every performance is “bringing people and nations together and giving something back”.

The Harlem Gospel Choir shares its message of love and inspiration, through its dynamic performances, with thousands of people around the world and raises funds for many children’s charities in the process. From China to Australia, Russia to Alaska, they have travelled more than 3 million miles with their rich harmonies and songs of hope. Now, as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations, they are back in the United Kingdom after a six year absence.

Staying true to their original form, the choir still draw their core singers and musicians from black churches in the Harlem and New York area and continuously strive to educate and share their African-American culture and the inspirational relationship between Gospel and the black church.

Their uplifting and spiritual concert attempts to emulate the atmosphere and joyousness of a Gospel church service – the audience are even referred to as members of ‘the congregation’. Participation is central to the choir’s objectives and hand-clapping, foot-stomping, arm-waving and hip-shaking are all actively encouraged.

The show is divided into two distinct halves. The first draws heavily upon the Christian beliefs of the choir and, subsequently, the mood is one of meaningful praise and heartfelt worship. After the interval, things become far more mainstream and, dare I say, even commercial. Many of the numbers performed (including Kool & The Gang’s Celebration and USA for Africa’s We Are The World, the US equivalent of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?) had ‘the congregation’ singing along. The charismatic MC and founder of the choir, Allen Bailey, even encouraged audience members onto the stage to join in!

Whatever your religious beliefs may be, it is impossible not to find yourself becoming immersed into this soulful and celebratory concert. The enthusiasm of the choir is positively infectious. Indeed, experiencing the phenomenon that is the Harlem Gospel Choir raises your spirits and touches the depths of your soul!

Steve Burbridge.

For tour dates and venues visit www.theatre-productions.com

 

 

 

May 17th

Calendar Girls

By Steve Burbridge


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Calendar Girls

Darlington Civic Theatre

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. Having enjoyed a run in the West End and numerous national tours, the consensus among my fellow critics and audience members alike is that the current touring cast are by far the best yet.

Darlington’s Civic Theatre was filled to capacity on opening night, and apparently is a sell-out for the remainder of the week – and, when the curtain went up, it was perfectly evident why. 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 cast that comprises some of the best-known performers in the entertainment industry, including sitcom stalwarts and soap stars.

Lesley Joseph (of Birds of a Feather fame) heads the cast as Chris Harper, the ebullient driving force behind the calendar idea. Her performance is engaging and energetic and she demonstrates the depth of her versatility as an actress, mixing pathos and poignancy with great comic timing and proving – as if she ever needed to – why she remains one of Britain’s busiest actresses and that there is so much more to her than only Dorien Green.

Sue Holderness (Marlene, Only Fools and Horses) 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. Her portrayal is skilfully subtle and there is a real rapport between Holderness and Joseph. 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 2003 film starring Helen Mirren as Chris and Julie Walters as Annie.

Ruth Madoc (Gladys, Hi-de-Hi) 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 never goes too far and always retains the believability of the character.

Helen Fraser (Sylvia ‘bodybag’ Hollamby, Bad Girls) 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. Deena Payne (Viv, Emmerdale) is the unorthodox vicar’s daughter, Cora, and displays a rather impressive singing voice. Kacey Ainsworth (Little Mo, EastEnders) plays Ruth, the most timid of all the women, whose philandering husband is playing away with a blonde bimbo beautician (Camilla Dallerup). Kathryn Rooney provides much of the glamour with the hair-tossing, golf-playing character of Celia.

In a cast that is dominated by such towering talents, it would be easy – but extremely unfair – to overlook the contribution of the actors who perform less high-profile roles. Colin Tarrant (Insp. Monroe, The Bill) gives a heartfelt portrayal of John Clarke, who dies of leukaemia, Kevin Sacre is effective in his doubling-up as photographer, Lawrence, and television director, Liam, Robert Gill is Rod Harper and Susan Bovell plays both Brenda Hulse and Lady Cravenshire.

The entire production and technical team are to be commended too, particularly author Tim Firth, director Jack Ryder and designer Robert Jones. Calendar Girls is a triumphant piece of theatre that should occupy a date in everyone’s diary.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 21 May 2011.

 

May 3rd

Corrie!

By Steve Burbridge

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Corrie!

Darlington Civic Theatre

In 1960, the genius and passion of Tony Warren gave birth to a national treasure. Fifty years later, Jonathan Harvey should be tried for attempted murder.

As the familiar Coronation Street theme tune, composed by the late Eric Spear, filled the auditorium I was looking forward to Corrie! being an affectionate pastiche of Britain’s longest-running and, arguably, best-loved soap. Instead, what followed was a preposterous parody.

A mish-mash of montages were ‘cobbled’ together to give a cringe-worthy potted history of many of the most significant events to have taken place in Weatherfield during the past half a century. Although I never expected this ‘brand new play’, which has been ‘specially commissioned by ITV’ to feed the culture-vulture within me, even Jack Duckworth’s pigeons would have been hard-pushed to find a tasty morsel in this contrived concoction of crass caricatures and sensational scene send-ups.

If, as the programme notes claim, ‘Coronation Street was also part of the great wave of ‘kitchen sink drama’ of the 1950s’ then Corrie! has slid down the drain and come to rest in the gutter where it belongs.

Although I do not dispute the fact that the six actors on stage, Leanne Best, Simon Chadwick, Daniel Crowder, Jo Mousley, Peter Temple and Lucy Thackeray, work extremely hard playing a total of 55 characters between them – often in very quick succession – my gripe is that the mannerisms of each character were so exaggerated that they became less recognisable as a result. Thus, the performances contained enough ham to keep Alf’s Mini Market stocked for the next fifty years!

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I also took umbrage with iconic characters such as Bet, Blanche, Audrey, Emily, Martha and Minnie being played by blokes. Despite the fact that there was an element of drag queen/panto dame to Bet, Julie Goodyear’s television performance, combined with some brilliant scripts, always ensured that behind the beehive, leopard-skin and dangly earrings we knew there was a real woman. This did not come across on stage.

Furthermore, Corrie! is described as ‘a new play’ but, in essence, it is not. Most of the scenes are performed as they were originally written, using the same dialogue that the original scriptwriters penned. Only the words of the narrator, who is played by a genuine Coronation Street actor at each performance (in this case it was Ken Morley, aka Reg Holdsworth), are original – and my guess is that even they were scribbled down on the back of a Newton & Ridley beer mat during a ten-minute tea break from Baldwin’s Casuals.

I am not sure who Jonathan Harvey has pitched Corrie! at, to be honest. After all, those who hate the soap wouldn’t pay to go to the theatre to see a stage play based upon it and those who love it will surely consider this offering as sacrilege. Indeed, I suspect the show would make their hair curl faster than a last-minute cancellation at Audrey’s salon.

Whereas Coronation Street could be best described as a quality soap that is able to produce a frothy lather, Corrie! is a cheap imitation that leaves a scummy residue ingrained in your mind.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington until Saturday 7 May 2011, then tours to Ipswich, Northampton, Bradford, Southampton, Stoke, Brighton, Hull and Malvern.

 

Apr 29th

The Shaolin Warriors

By Steve Burbridge


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The Shaolin Warriors

Darlington Civic Theatre

Prepare yourselves to be amazed beyond the boundaries of your own belief! Direct from Beijing, China, the legendary masters of kung fu, The Shaolin Warriors, are taking Britain by storm.

This fully choreographed theatrical extravaganza is an experience not to be missed and never to be forgotten. The packed auditorium at Darlington Civic Theatre was enthralled by the superhuman strength and soothing serenity of the magnificent men (and boys) on stage.

Indeed, this spectacular show depicts the journey of a young child to highly skilled Shaolin Warrior through diligent training and study, and showcases some of the most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, death-defying stunts along the way.

The hypnotic and pain-defying feats are truly amazing and garnered collective choruses of ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ from the audience. We see a monk being placed on a board of nails and a marble slab put on top of him before it is smashed with a sledgehammer; another is lifted aloft sharpened spears; another performs a handstand using only two fingers, and there are a quick succession of back flips, leaps and gravity-defying jumps.

The sheer agility, endurance and strength of the warriors is absolutely breathtaking, yet for all the spectacle of the entertainment, the show also has a reflective and spiritually enlightening side.

Such is the success of The Shaolin Warriors that they have toured through North America, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and now the United Kingdom. Once the extensive UK tour is completed they head off to wow audiences in Serbia, too.

Finally, it seems appropriate to end this review with the customary warning: Don’t try any of the things you see on stage at home!

Steve Burbridge.

Reviewed on Thursday 28 April 2011.

For tour details see www.theatre-productions.com

 

 

Mar 30th

Goodnight Mister Tom

By Steve Burbridge

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Goodnight Mister Tom

UK National Tour

Reviewed at Darlington Civic Theatre

Since its publication in 1981, Michelle Magorian’s hugely successful first novel, Goodnight Mister Tom, has sold more than 1.2 million copies, been translated into thirteen languages and been adapted for television twice, most notably starring the late John Thaw in 1998. Now, in the year of its 30th anniversary, it is brought vividly to the stage.

David Wood’s adaptation, for the newly established Children’s Touring Partnership, is wonderful and the production values of the piece are second-to-none. The Olivier award-winning actor Oliver Ford Davies plays the eponymous elderly recluse who is forced to house an evacuee who has been billeted with him. Ford Davies brilliantly manages to convey both cantankerousness and tenderness with the greatest aplomb. He is blessed to share the stage with Oliver Tritton Wheeler as Will(iam) Beech, one of the most talented child actors I have ever seen.

The story, for the most part, is unashamedly sentimental, nostalgic and heart-warming – yet there are, occasionally, some dark and disturbing scenes that unflinchingly confront the horrors of child abuse and these are profoundly affecting. Likewise, the narrative also examines issues of mental health and religious hypocrisy. However, these subjects are tackled skilfully and in a manner that takes into account the sensibilities of its target audience – older children.

Robert Innes Hopkins has designed a set that is not only functional, but also ingeniously innovative. He is also to be commended for his authentic costume design. Indeed, creatively this production is ambitious and imaginative, incorporating the use of some impressively life-like puppets to portray Tom’s Border collie dog, Sammy, and the woodland creatures.

Director Angus Jackson has kept the running time to around forty-five minutes for each of the two acts, presumably to avoid the possibility of the children becoming fidgety. However, he need not have concerned himself too much on this score, as the kids (who had turned up by the coach load) sat enthralled and behaved impeccably throughout.

The secret of this show’s success is actually revealed in the brochure: ‘This is not just children’s theatre, this is a children’s story for grownups, and a grown up story for children’. Precisely.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington Civic until Saturday 2 April 2011, before touring to Leeds, Coventry, Dartford, Kingston, Nottingham and Cardiff.