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Sep 6th

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime - Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

Reviewed by Louise Winter 4th September 2017

poster Dog

The Curious Incident phenomenon has been ongoing since the publication of Mark Haddon’s novel in 2003. Although it quickly became an international bestseller it wasn’t staged until 2012. Since then it has become an established fixture in theatre-land.

A most unusual book turned into a most unusual play; Simon Stephens’ adaptation is faithful to and respectful of Haddon’s story and Marianne Elliot has brought it to life with her challenging and stimulating direction. The treatment of the book by these creatives must be a primary element in the success of the play; Stephens has been true to Haddon’s novel and Elliot has created a visually innovative and utterly absorbing 3D world from her imaginings of Christopher’s experience of the world.

Dog Scott Reid

photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

When Stephens was asked during the construction of the play in 2012 if he was nervous that he was in part responsible for taking such a loved book to the stage, he responded that he comforted himself with the knowledge that nobody could love the book more than he, Elliot and all the performers involved did.  This love is tangible on stage, not just in the adaptation of the story line, direction, production and staging but in the performances of all the actors. This cast portrays a great compassion, integrity and drive in bringing the story and the ‘messy’ side of some of the characters to life and the depiction of Christopher’s perception and management of the world around him, and in turn that worlds’ perception and management of him, is extremely well crafted, neither trivialising nor stereotyping.

CI Dog

photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Christopher, played with absolute passion and integrity by the utterly brilliant Scott Reid, is a fifteen year old with a collection of eccentricities which combine to create a set of complicated behavioural quirks. These make negotiating everyday life challenging for him and his family. Finding people very difficult to deal with, Christopher doesn’t venture out of his street unaccompanied but when he discovers his neighbour’s dog Wellington has been murdered, he turns detective in order to unearth the killer. A complex adventure/whodunit/family drama unfolds as the key players experience a journey of discovery. None experiences so much as Christopher who is, I suggest, a fitting hero for the 21st century. His travels outside of his comfort zone are gripping and realistically alarming accompanied as they are by an onslaught of ear-assaulting sounds, flashing lights and visuals which shake the auditorium. It’s this use of technology throughout the play that gives the play its uniqueness in creating an all absorbing, fresh experience.  

All is confined within a stage-filling, imposing 3 sided ‘box’, the walls of which serve as huge screens upon which images, text, video, and the mathematical equations that Christopher turns to in times of stress, are projected. Drawers and doors open to reveal props – the combined elements of Christopher’s slowly growing train set is a revelation at the close of the first half – and mobile entrances and exits for characters. The physical dynamism created by Movement Directors, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, is wonderfully creative, particularly so into the travel scenes.

This is a stunning production - challenging, exciting, uplifting, funny and heartwarming. It was packed at MK on Monday night and received a rapturous response. 48 hours later I am still excited and happy as a result of experiencing it!

Do get tickets – it’s on a longer than usual run in MK until Saturday 16th September

Box office 0844 871 7652

Groups Hotline 01908 547609

Access Booking 0844 872 7677

 

Online booking:  www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

Sep 3rd

How the Other Half Loves - Alan Ayckbourn (Theatre Royal Windsor & UK Tour)

By Kate Braxton

It was Bill Kenright who produced the first UK tour of this hit comedy in 1973. This week, with 44 years of mileage, he waves it off on a new run from Windsor following an acclaimed West End revival.  

Its success as a work today proves Ayckbourn’s entertainment value to be timeless.  Although the language, social status commentary and hard-wired telephone props tie it to the late Sixties/early Seventies, the underlying human traits strike today’s virtual chord good and clearly.

The action involves 3 couples of varying age and standing, and both Bob Phillips and William Featherstone are employed by Frank Foster. At the centre of the piece, Frank is tirelessly trying to fathom out what is going on around him. Although he fails to see it, his own wife Fiona is having an affair with Bob, who is in constant conflict with his wife Teresa who feels neglected while raising their baby and is suspicious of his behavior.

The contrasting relationships here help the audience to follow the intertwined plot: one polite, evasive and ‘listening-not-listening’, the other screamy-shouty Corrieastenders styley and we cleverly find ourselves in both living rooms at once, experiencing two different home lives in full simultaneous flow.

A third couple, William and Mary Featherstone, are essentially used as alibis surrounding the affair and both Bob and Fiona have sworn their respective spouses to secrecy over the rumoured red herring infidelities of the innocent couple. All a bit of a ‘Whodunnit?(Ooer)’ for Frank.

The first act culminates in a brilliantly choreographed dinner table scene, which is actually two parties happening on successive nights, with The Featherstones attending each one. Genius!

Robert Daws is exquisite as the flummoxed Frank. He, with Caroline Langrishe as wife, Fiona, provide rich comic artistry and stage experience, along with glorious performances from Matthew Cottle, reprising his role of William from the West End and Sara Crowe’s hilariously awkward Mary. 

Leon Ockenden, best known for his role of Will Chatterton in Coronation Street strides onto the stage with a pec-load of presence, and Charlie Brooks’ Teresa is brash and feisty. While both will appeal to the popular soap audiences, their appreciation of Ayckbourn’s comedy is noticeably less mature than the other actors.  

 

Director, Alan Strachan has worked alongside Ayckbourn for many years, and the depth of his appreciation of the piece is reflected in its slick coordination.  This is a very challenging play to direct, with two scenes taking place simultaneously, and in his own words, “it’s one of the most difficult I’ve ever come across. The concentration required is just extraordinary.” Yet he makes it look easy. 

To top off the enjoyment of the show, Theatre Royal Windsor has just had a full interior refurbishment in partnership with paint and decoration specialists, Farrow & Ball.  However, the dominating delight of this play is in its quickfire action and reaction, so any of the tour venues deserve to have a full house.

How the Other Half Loves runs at Theatre Royal Windsor from 30 Aug - 9 Sept 2017

Booking: 01753 853 888

For full UK tour details see www.kenright.com

 

     

 

 

Aug 31st

Dirty Dancing

By Kirstie Niland

Until Saturday 2nd September 2017, Blackpool Opera House

The cult musical Dirty Dancing continues to thrill audiences of all generations and the UK tour is currently smashing it in Blackpool.

The cast’s evident delight at the standing ovation on opening night added to the everlasting charm and they drew lots of laughs and applause throughout as the 1963 love story of Johnny Castle and Frances "Baby" Houseman unfolded at Kellerman’s holiday resort.

It’s the second time I’ve seen the live show and it is difficult not to compare the characters to the film version, but the cast manage to resemble the original stars as well as add their own personal touch to their performances, succeeding in delivering all of the anticipated lines and moments with panache. Lizzie Ottley in particular puts a stamp on her role as Lisa Houseman, with hints of Marilyn Monroe enhancing her humourous rendition of the Hula Hana song.

This is also true of the actual scenes, with all of the favourites in there plus a few extra parts providing depth to characters that are more one-dimensional in the film.

For example Neil, the grandson of the resort’s owner Max Kellerman, is much more likeable, and we see him go on his own journey, from trying and failing to impress Baby with his job, to setting off on his own path of discovery. Greg Fossard gives Neil an endearing quality that makes us really happy for him as he gets his backpack on and leaves Kellerman’s to join the Freedom Rally.

Then some additional scenes featuring Marjorie Houseman highlight Baby’s fall from grace and the pedestal her father has placed her on, and explain his eventual acceptance of Johnny despite the class difference – he wasn’t always an upwardly mobile doctor and the Housemans do remember what teenage love felt like. The backstory helps us warm more to Baby’s seemingly spoilt sister Lisa as the two become closer through the drama and experience of their summer romances.

The plot of the film was controversial at the time of the film’s release in 1987 but screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein won her fight to keep the storyline involving an illegal abortion - and against all odds the low budget movie became a box office hit. Carlie Milner's acting skills and performances with the English National Ballet and National Ballet of Ireland make her the ideal choice for the streetwise yet innocent Penny Johnson who falls pregnant but for whom the show must go on - and whose captivating dancing Baby is so envious of.

There’s no doubt that the attraction of this film is the upbeat love story, music and dancing, but the subplot and social issues keep it real, meaning we root even more for Johnny and Baby’s love to conquer the class divide. It’s also why it never gets old. The movie reached its 30th anniversary this August but three decades on the issues are still relevant and we all long for a happy ending.

Lewis Griffiths and Katie Eccles as the world-famous Johnny and Baby have plenty of chemistry and charisma, expertly mimicking the movements of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey to successfully pull off all of the film's magical moments - and then some. The bedroom scenes are definitely more racy and we see a little bit more of Johnny in the show than we do in the film! Lewis has the necessary presence to turn a couple of thousand heads as he strides up the aisle for the iconic “Nobody puts Baby in a corner" scene; and Katie shows unrelenting feistiness as the idealistic Baby falls in love, learns a few lessons about real life along the way and, through Johnny, begins to settle into her real, grown up name of Frances. Ahhh.

Together they join the ensemble for a finale just as exhilarating as if it was the first time.

Book tickets here

Photographs courtesy of Winter Gardens Blackpool.

Aug 30th

Grease at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

 

Reviewed by Alison Smith

We were hit full blast with nostalgia of the 50s tonight at the first performance of Grease at MK Theatre. There was upbeat music from the excellent 7 piece band led by Griff Johnson, innovative choreography thanks to Arlene Phillips and voice, energy and emotion from the talented cast.

Although Grease is over 40 years old – it first appeared on Broadway in 1972 and then the film became a box office hit with Travolta and Newton-John in 1978 – it still buzzes with fun. Partly this is through the simple story line: boy and girl meet, boy and girl part, boy and girl meet and don’t see eye to eye, and then boy and girl make up and the fairy tale comes to a happy ending and who isn’t a sucker for that ! Of course there is drama on the way, but not too much - this is only the beginning of the Rock and Roll, teen revolution after all. The Pink Ladies have their troubles, a school drop-out and a teen pregnancy, but Frenchy goes back to school and Rizzo’s guy sticks by her. And the black leather jacketed T–Birds are not so tough at all – this is not West Side Story.

 The story and dialogue are secondary in Grease. It is the music  - around 18 songs  - and dance which are spell binding. The best numbers are when the ensemble is on stage for numbers such as Shakin’ at the High School Hop and Grease is the Word. Individuals to mention are Kenickie (Tom Senior) who almost flew  in Greased Lightning and Rizzo ( Louisa Lytton), who pulled at the heart strings in There are Worse Things I Could Do .Teen Angel (George Olney),  gave a wonderfully polished camp performance of Beauty School Dropout. Of the two big names, Danielle Hope and Tom Parker as Sandy ‘goody-goody shoes’ and Danny Zuko , it is the former who gets the accolade. She has a stage presence and a powerful voice with a great range. Her transformation into a seductress, complete with 4 inch heels and skin tight trousers when she belts out You’re The One That I Want is amazing. Tom Parker is, unfortunately, the weak link in the show – his singing, dancing and acting do not reach the standard of most of the cast. I did wonder what Sandy saw in him! 

The set is simple – neon lights and moveable ranks of seats and a bar; the band, such an integral part of the show, is perched high at the rear – sometimes hidden but at other times a sight to appreciate. The lighting is extreme at times – bold, bright with a lit-up guitar and a flashing car. The costumes - 140 costume changes – give credence to the actors. Rizzo’s red and black dress, Sandy’s droopy dress and cardigan, the Pink Ladies net underskirts and  elasticated belts, the T-Birds black leather jackets and winkle-pickers –the rollered hair, the Brylcremed quiffs, the  red lipstick and the sequins , all layers of perection

 This is a show of real musical excellence – a first class production and a musical not to miss.

Grease is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 2nd September

www.atgtickets.com

0844 871 7652

Booking fee applies

 

 

Aug 23rd

Sister Act

By Kirstie Niland

Until Sunday 27th August 2017, Blackpool Opera House

The sensational Sister Act has arrived in Blackpool and what an entrance the cast made on opening night, gaining a standing ovation and rapturous applause from a full house of over 2,600 people.

This exciting musical, with its highly-accomplished cast, deserves only the best from a leading lady - and they’ve definitely got that in Alexandra Burke, who brings true star quality to the show.

 

Bursting on to a stage set in 1970s Philadelphia, the wayward Deloris Van Cartier dreams of making it as a famous singer, but discovers that the music world isn't interested, her married lover wants her dead (after she witnessed him commit murder) and she has no one to turn to for help.

Time to change her habits. Literally – for Deloris is placed under witness protection in a convent as Sister Mary Clarence, where she causes havoc amongst the nuns before being put in charge of the choir to keep her out of trouble.

Already a fan of Alexandra Burke since her X-Factor win in 2008, I was expecting her vocals to be amazing. What I didn’t anticipate was how funny she would be. As with all much-loved movies, it’s an enormous feat to step into the shoes of Hollywood greats like Whoopi Goldberg. However, such is Alexandra’s comic timing and stage presence, all thoughts of the film version were forgotten within minutes since she makes this role her own, combining beautiful, rich vocals with an engaging performance that had me rooting for Deloris and her fellow sisters to reunite for a performance in front of the pope.

Every single character portrayal was faultless. From the nuns, whose personalities jumped out from their habits (a special mention to Liz Kitchen as the funky Hip Hop Hippy Sister Mary Lazarus, and Susannah Van Den Berg as the jovial Sister Mary Patrick) to bad boy Curtis, played by Aaron Lee Lambert with a swagger and smooth tones reminiscent of Barry White.

Superbly directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, the nuns’ gospel choir scenes, accompanied by the show's live band, are glorious; and a slow motion fight complete with musical instruments as weapons is hilariously inventive. The costumes and set provide the perfect contrast between changes, switching from a kaleidoscope of 70s colour and kitsch to stark black and white against church panels.

Credible performances from the cast elicit the intended feel-good factor as the moral and material makeovers take place. Joe Vetch is endearing as meek cop Eddie whose loyalty and strutting Saturday Night Fever style makeover means he gets his gun as well as the girl. Sister Mary Robert finds her remarkable voice (belonging to the talented Sarah Goggin) along with the courage to wear Deloris’s blessed purple "FM" boots.

And of the course the biggest deliverance of all comes from the sisterhood and the relationship between Deloris and the brilliantly formidable Mother Superior. As they grow to like and respect each other and their respective beliefs, Karen Mann ensures the exasperation of the nun in charge is comically evident, and Alexandra Burke shows her fine acting prowess, drawing hearty laughs from the audience with her prayers: “In the name of the son, the Father and the Holy Smokes…Jesus Christ I want that dress!" – followed by heartfelt smiles as she glows beneath Mother Superior’s high praise: “As true a sister as this convent has ever known”.

Meanwhile the Opera House was postively glowing too, beneath falling glitter and a giant disco ball that sent lights shimmering across the magnificent auditorium and an exuberant audience - who all clearly agreed that Alexandra Burke and Sister Act are simply Fabulous, Baby!

Book tickets here 

Photos by Jay Brooks

Aug 23rd

Sophie at The Lion and Unicorn (Camden Fringe)

By Cameron Lowe

‘Incomprehensible to most …unbreakable to two

 

 

 

 “Sophie’s love saves me in so many ways..."

 

Sophie opens to the Peter, Paul and Mary song Puff The Magic Dragon’, the lyrics to which tell the story of an ageless dragon and his playmate, Jackie Paper, a little boy. Jackie grows up but in the process loses interest in his imaginary, creative playtime, and in so doing leaves Puff behind. "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" is thought to mean that it was only "little Jackie Paper" who grew up, holding a great significance in the play overall.

 

In the set-up we see Julia Pagett, sister to Sophie sifting through a collection of photographs, among which she finds a scrunched up piece of paper, a memory-trigger; ‘but what can it represent?,’ we ask ourselves.

 

It definitely appears to stir something deep inside of her, till she averts her focus back to what she is doing but it isn’t too long before she has to expel the fiery ball of fury she has allowed to build up, at which point too the music rapidly slows down, till it comes to a complete standstill; comparable, you could say with a wind-up toy, that is void of all momentum.

 

The intro, sans dialogue, for a good few minutes is used as a valuable dramatic device, to help a necessary level of tension to mount, whereupon the music possibly resembles the slowing down of someone’s heartbeat, or blood pressure.

 

The play seems to hold two principal themes, the first being identical twins, which always brings with it a curiosity, and yet most people cannot admit as to why.

 

‘She’s in everything I do.” 

 

I guess, perhaps, it is because the world we live in expects a difference among individuals, in their appearance and behaviour. Therefore, when two individuals are a tight match, our perceptions of how the world is made up is challenged immediately.  And these likenesses then set off a variety of reactions – both negative and positive, needless to say we continue to be drawn in. Why, some people retain an element of jealousy toward twins, in regards to how close their social interaction can be.

Pagett takes ahold of her emotions once again after a splendidly truthful outburst, she then draws reference to the bike on stage, just one in a few props. A symbol one might say of Sophie’s euphoric liberation.

A second theme is introduced, the unpredictability of depression, and the importance of its power never being underestimated, at which point we witness a definite change in mood as the play becomes considerably darker: and to sum up the writings of Rich Larson:

‘… depression and cynicism. ..go hand-in-hand, along with ..anxiety. ..the three ..eat hope ..quickly ..’ leaving behind despair. ‘despair is exhausting ..we keep it to ourselves to (not) be a burden’

 Until it becomes too much. It doesn’t matter who you are, depression can cause you to feel isolated, and at worse it can result in you dying without anyone by your side.

Yet society has us believe that passive thoughts are transitory and so less dangerous than those which are active.

It can be unclear as to when we should intervene but severe symptoms of depression can be unpredictable. It, therefore, is better to be seen to overact than to not act at all.

What might be deemed as a passive thought should be acknowledged as it can be a sign of a darkness looming up ahead.

Sophie is an eloquently written, passionately performed piece, which successfully brings out the idea that despite even the kinship between twins, every one of us is an individual, and we, as individuals, drive the passive and active thoughts inside our heads.

 

Let the rawness of Sophie break the stigma surrounding mental health.

 

Sophie will continue to run as part of The Camden Fringe Festival until Sun 27 August 2017.

*A donation box will be available after the performance to raise money for MIND in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest. Or donations can be made online at http://www.justgiving.com/sophie-play

 

Sophie

 

A new play

written and performed by Julia Pagett

directed by Keir Mills

lion and unicorn                                                                                

link to The Camden Fringe Festival 2017:http://www.camdenfringe.com/show.php?acts_id=1058

 

Review writer © Tremayne Miller

Aug 20th

War of the Sperms - Edinburgh Festival

By G.D. Mills

After a glut of one and two man shows, which the Edinburgh show format seems to favour, it was refreshing to see a large stage teeming with life. The phrase ‘teeming with life’ seems particularly apt given that most of the eleven strong cast play individual sperm cells, inhabiting John’s testes and tasked with the mission of fusing with John’s girlfriend’s egg. Dressed all in white, including a swimming cap and a tail to match, this naieve bunch are instructed in the ways of insemination by a guru, an ageing sperm cell, who uses a flipchart to address the two rows of pupils, divided as they are into X and Y chromosomal categories. John is heralded as their supreme leader, while the occasional booming, omniscient voice-over provides the narration. Soon the sperms set out on their dangerous mission: most will fall by the wayside, others will be knocked off in battle, while only one will find his way to his intended destination.

This ingenious little play began life at the INK Festival and has since grown into a successful 60 minute show. It is littered with filthy puns, some of which creep up on you, and there is more than a good deal of physical comedy. War of the Sperms carries a clever concept right through into its well developed narrative. Some performances were notably stronger than others and there were moments where the skill of the writing isn’t entirely matched by its delivery. Overall, however, the cast as a whole were so irresistibly endearing this didn’t much matter: there is such a sense of anarchic fun that the audience seem willing to be led into the silliest, naughtiest and dampest of comedic crevices.

 At first I thought this show might be favoured by a student crowd and yet there were people of all ages in the audience. There was no shortage of laughter and a great deal of shared enthusiasm as people left the studio. Sperm may have a notoriously short lifespan, indeed the War of the Sperms has come to the end of its run in Edinburgh, yet it certainly deserves to have another life somewhere else beyond the fringe.

Image result for four and a half stars

Aug 18th

Margarita Dreams

By Kirstie Niland

Until 28th August 2017, Edinburgh Fringe Festival

There’s no doubt that Margarita Dreams - a cocktail of absurd comedy - is written by a past master. Step forward Richard Sparks, creator of the Schoolmaster Sketch made famous by Rowan Atkinson and material for Not the Nine O'Clock News. 

It begins with Dave on a beach in Mexico, drinking margaritas. An alcohol-induced dream catapults him through a series of sketches, starting with paranoia about his phone and ending with a surreal Abba-esque disco dancing therapy session - with divorce, cross-dressing, a medium and a flasher in between.

Earning praise from comedy royalty Jack Black, Kathy Lette and Griff Rhys Jones, this show brings classic daft comedy into the modern world.

 

Book tickets here

Aug 18th

The Cambridge Footlights International Tour Show 2017: Dream Sequence

By Kirstie Niland

Until 28th August 2017, Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The world-renowned Cambridge Footlights troupe has launched comedy household names such as Stephen Fry and Sue Perkins, and the Edinburgh Fringe is just one stop on their global tour of London, California, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and more.

As expected the show was packed ready to see what the latest esteemed new talent would be like. It was exactly the kind of slapstick British character comedy you would expect to see from those following in the footsteps of the greats.

The current troupe – Sam Knights, Ruby Keane, John Tothill, Ania Magliano-Wright and Henry Wilkinson – gel well together and show real promise.

The scene which drew the biggest laughs was the hilariously accurate sketch portraying primary school teachers on a day out: "Fingers on lips…what are we doing Year 4? We're looking at YOU Toby!" This scenario was clearly relatable to one and all as we replied obediently in chorus: "Representing the school”. A series of mishaps occurs, including the teachers losing the theatre tickets..."We'll do what we always do, we'll pin it on Toby".

Other highlights included a cross-dressing parody of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and some grotesque face-pulling by Sam Knights over the sensation of a warm sheet of paper from the photocopier - uncannily reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson.

Altogether an hour well spent - and possibly an opportunity to have seen some more British stars of comedy in the making.

 

Book tickets here

Aug 18th

Murder She Didn’t Write

By Kirstie Niland

Until 28th August 2017, Edinburgh Fringe Festival 

Who can improvise a whodunnit and make it fabulously funny? The finger of suspicion points to Degrees of Error with their murder mystery, Murder She Didn’t Write.

It begins with the usual formula of suggestions from the audience, except this time there’s an extra challenge in that the actors have to create a drama surrounding a victim and killer, as well as motives for the rest of the cast, without giving the game away or losing the plot.

And so we, henceforth referred to as the groundsmen, look out for clues as the cast is gathered at a séance for The Case of the Straight Banana. The cast’s comic timing and ability to think on their feet is outstanding, with many flashes of brilliance - such as the quick response from Madam Scarlett (a clairvoyant author) when a fellow actor tests her with the question - what does her book title ABCDEFG stand for? "And Because Clues Don’t Exactly Flourish – Ghosts!"

With Cluedo-inspired names and some first class acting and improv, the result is a rip-roaring, polished performance.

 Book tickets here