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27 February 2013


The Book of Mormon
West End Production
Prince of Wales Theatre, London
Wednesday 27th February 2013

Written by the fathers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, The Book of Mormon has stormed Broadway since its opening in March 2011.  Popular with audiences and critics alike, this controversial show picked up 9 Tony awards for it's Broadway production, including Best Musical, as well as a Grammy award for Best Musical Theatre Album. And now the Mormons have come to London.

The story follows a pair of young, naive Mormon missionaries as they are sent to a remote village in Uganda to share the word of the Book of Mormon with the local villagers.  However with the locals more concerned with their own problems; war, poverty, AIDS; the missionaries have a hard sell on their hands.

If you are aware of the previous work of Messrs Parker and Stone, you will not be surprised to learn that this show contains some extremely strong language, offensively crass stereotypes, exaggerated bigotry and is generally offensive in every way - if you have the wrong sense of humour for it.  If you were offended by South Park then this is perhaps not for you.

What this exquisite musical delivers however, is a brave, clever, uncompromising satire on contemporary world issues.  It is modern theatre at it's best, unafraid to crash through conventions.  Out to shock, certainly, but also to warm hearts with rounded, lovable characters.  It delivers this all in complete synchronicity, wrapped up in a huge coating of endless hilarity.  I have simply never laughed so much in the theatre.  

The entire ensemble are the epitome of perfect casting.  Performances across the board are tightly choreographed, intricately directed and superbly accomplished.  Gavin Creel as Elder Price and Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham work ideally together.  Both American, having been in The Book of Mormon on the US Tour, their comfort with the piece is clear and they bounce off each other generously, creating a hugely entertaining partnership.  The beautiful Alexia Khadime is excellent as Nabulungi, with sugary sweetness and a very powerful voice.  Deserving of his huge cheer at the curtain, Stephen Ashfield was also wonderful as the conflicted Elder McKinley.  Both the Mormon and the Ugandan ensembles are made up of individually talented performers, but it is as a group that each shines at their best.  The Mormon ensemble's "Turn it Off" number is priceless, with the best dance routine of the show and an opportunity for some delightful individual characterisations as well as deft teamwork.  It is the Ugandan ensemble however, with their version of the story of Joseph Smith performed to the Mission President, that had my eyes streaming and sides splitting with laughter.  Their performances of wide eyed innocence and expectation made the scene increasingly funny as it progressed deeper into the ridiculous, and was entirely deserving of the show-stoppingly long cheer it received as an individual number.

There will definitely be people that hate this show - there was the odd empty seat after the interval - but those who do not do their research and understand what to expect of a "religious satire" written by the likes of Parker and Stone deserve to be offended.  For the 95% of the rest of modern society who will love it all, this musical represents the new lofty heights to which future musical comedies must aspire.  You will laugh, cry, gasp and cringe, but above all I defy you not to end up on your feet cheering.  I am converted.

22 February 2013


Garage Band
Mercury Theatre Company
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Friday 22nd February 2013

The first 'Made in Colchester' production of the year takes place in the intimate Studio at the Mercury.  An ideal location for the garage setting of this witty play, that fondly reminisces over the reign of Punk.

A talented cast of just four actor-musicians make up the group of middle-aged rockers, living in the "15th most pleasant village in the country", with lives about as far from being described as "Punk" as it is possible to be.  However, a shared love of the music of The Damned, Buzzcocks and Lynrd Skynrd pulls these four away from their boring work, demanding children and addictive computer games to come together in Gavin's garage and play the songs of their Punk youths.

The narrative of Andy Barrett's play centres on the progression of this unlikely band, through early rehearsals, their first gig, a local tour, and gives us brief insights into their home lives as well as their increasingly overlapping relationships.  Drummer Gavin (Benedict Relton) leads the band and is the driving force behind their progression.  Ranting in a succession of Punk-ish clichés he begins as an angry stereotype, but as his costume descends into almost fancy dress we begin to see genuine emotion behind the raging mask.  Danny (Mark Jardine) is far more fickle in his approach, allowing his hobby to begin to absorb more and more of his time, but ultimately prioritising his work and family above the needs of the band.  He has some of the wittiest moments of the play, and as the lead singer is the front man for selling the musical numbers which he does with genuine charisma.  Geeky Alan (Danny Brown), lead guitarist, has honed his skills playing Guitar Hero and values his successes based on an online presence.  It is his nerdy skills that boost the band's status, as the endearing character triumphs over his untechnical doubters in a charming performance.  Single mother Penny (Liz Kettle) uses her bass guitar and membership of the band to recall the freedom of her youth, before early pregnancies forced her to override her rebellious nature with realistic settling down.  

The story, though entertaining, could possibly be told just as successfully in a slicker and more succinct script, but the loud, energetic live music is ideally pitched and excellently performed.  Well rounded performances from this accomplished cast in a production with much to enjoy, especially for those with fond memories of their Punk years.

19 February 2013


James and the Giant Peach
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Tuesday 19th February 2013

Children's shows are being produced increasingly frequently and becoming more and more popular, which is fantastic for many reasons - not least that it encourages a new generation of lovers of live entertainment away from their various screens and into the theatre - a sentiment that the television hating Roald Dahl himself would have cheered.  And with shows of this quality it is no surprise that children are being lured back again and again to theatrical interpretations of their favourite books and stories.

Now a classic of children's literature, James and the Giant Peach tells the story of a young boy escaping the tyranny of his vile pair of aunts via a touch of magic, a group of friendly insects, and a giant piece of fruit.  Heart warming, exciting and witty, there is much to enjoy from the story itself.  This production adds another level of entertainment however, by introducing the young audience to a particularly theatrical style of show.  Talented actor-musicians underscore the action live, costumed with recognisably insect-y touches but never allowing the children to doubt that an actor hides beneath the character.  A clever, open stage allows the audience to see into the wings throughout the show, watching as props and set pieces are moved around and items of costume are changed, breaking down any pretence of realism and offering the children an insight into the world of theatre.  

A show that never forgets that it is targeted at children, but also does not patronise with an obvious interpretation that would fit better in the cinema.  A refreshing, unusual and enjoyable production of a classic story.

09 February 2013


An Intimate Evening with Ruthie Henshall
National Tour
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Saturday 9th February 2013

With a new album to promote, Ruthie Henshall is touring the country with this cabaret style night, treating audiences with songs from her life interspersed with charming, charismatic anecdotes.  

After opening with a Beatles track there are many recognisable show tunes for the capacity audience of musical fans; Les Miserables, Crazy for You, Chicago; as well as some less recognisable numbers, such as the hilarious Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.  All delivered with the power, energy and professionalism for which Ms Henshall is known, making us laugh, cry and cheer along with her ideally pitched performances.

The three piece band are impressive back up, and the intelligent lighting design adds a level of visual interest and theatrical excitement that is often lacking in this type of production.

The most charming element of this captivating evening however is Ruthie herself.  Her comfortable, relaxed style gives the impression of spontaneity in what is actually too slick and professional a show to have really been so improvised.  Her stories are personal and interesting, and she shows both starry and grounded sides to her fascinating life, both in and out of the spotlight.  

As well as offering words of support and encouragement to an inspired group of students from her old theatre school, prior to the show she popped into the Cramphorn Theatre next door to offer "Break a Leg" wishes to the children of amateur musical society Offspringers as they prepared for their own performance.  A simple but remarkably kind gesture, displaying a generosity too rarely seen.

A talented and inspirational lady with a slick and professional show - one of the best nights of this style that I have ever seen in Chelmsford - a joy.

07 February 2013


Great Expectations
Live from London's West End
Cineworld, Braintree
Thursday 7th February
This was the first time that a West End show's opening night was filmed and transmitted live, and audiences responded favorably to the new medium with 7,500 people nationwide attending their local cinema to watch the arrival of the celeb-spattered audience, interviews with the Director and audience members, as well as the play itself in its entirity.  Attractive enough to those of us within relatively easy reach of the West End, but particularly advantageous to those further afield.
The camera work was excellent, offering a range of views and close ups without missing a moment of action.  Less impressive was the quality of the interviews carried out before the show and during the interval, with the insightful and enthusiastic Director being asked questions he had already answered by an interviewer who was clearly not listening to him. 
Dickens' epic tale must have been a daunting canvas from which to begin a stage adaptation that wouldn't have audiences aching in their seats.  Despite sticking only to the basics of the plot, through the repetition of key catchphrases the characters are dramatically, and at times grotesquely, charicatured into flambouyant portraits of themselves.  I wonder whether, without prior familiarity with the plot, an audience member would have understood the intricacies of the purpose each character played in the life of young Pip, but there was no doubt of who was who.  Annoyingly, almost every other sentence was addressed directly to the character's name - "What Larks Pip", "I don't want to play Miss Havisham", "Tell me Mr Jaggers" - a structure slightly more necessary in a novel, but wearingly repetitive on stage.
The pace was speedy, and the very many scenes were seemlessly linked with subtle changes of lighting and slick concealed exits around the stage.  This was made possible through the excellent set design, which impressed from the moment the curtain opened.  With the story told in the style of a memory play, adult Pip begins in Miss Havisham's dining room, complete with cobwebbed wedding cake and imposing fireplace.  He remains on stage through much of the action, watching his memories come to life with the audience, and bringing an artistic explanation as to why the many locations dealt with in the plot are all confined to that one room in Satis House.  A neat and successful way to deal with this potentially obstructive obstacle of adapting Dickens' work for the stage.
With the overall effect slightly too sylised for my taste, it was undeniably dramatic and made a long and detailed story into a fast paced thriller.  Impressive design makes it an enjoyable spectacle, but with a predictable script and exaggerated characterisation it is perhaps suited to be an introduction to Dickens, rather than a treat for exisiting fans. 

05 February 2013


The Lion King
West End Production
Lyceum Theatre, London
Tuesday 5th February 2013

14 years in the West End's Lyceum Theatre and still going strong, The Lion King is popular with both home grown audiences and tourists alike, which has helped Disney maintain such longevity in their dominance of one of the most visible theatrical locations in theatreland.
This was my sixth visit to The Lion King and the Disney magic is as alive as ever.  The adaptation from animated film to live action version is ingeniously designed and executed, maintaining all of the charm and beauty of the original movie but adding layers of detail that could only exist in a live action version.  The book is taken almost word for word from the film scripts, and all of the familiar musical numbers are given respectful treatment to please even the most ardent fan of the original.  The addition of the haunting African melodies and chants create an atmosphere of authenticity to the savannah setting, and the puppeteering - everything from African-style shadow puppets, through retractable masks, to full body puppet suits - aside from any of the Disney "packaging", is utterly captivating theatre in it's own right.  The opening number of this show is still, in my opinion, one of the most breathtaking pieces of theatre on offer in the West End.
If you are yet to see The Lion King on stage, it is on tour around the UK at the moment, and remains among the best selling shows in the West End, taking bookings up to 8 months ahead.