Review: Cabaret at Laban Theatre

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome… to Cabaret, presented by final year Musical Theatre students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Written in 1966 by Kander and Ebb, the musical is set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis, and explores how easily good people can be taken in by clever propaganda, or choose to look the other way and ignore what’s going on around them. In light of all that’s going on in the world in 2018, this subject matter makes it, depressingly, a particularly timely choice for the students’ two-date showcase.

Photo credit: Trinity Laban Musical Theatre

American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Harry Newton / Michael McGeough) arrives in Berlin hoping to find inspiration for his novel. What he finds is the Kit Kat Klub, a nightclub overseen by the sinister Emcee (Barney Fritz / Jake Lomas), where Cliff falls for carefree English cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Jenny Coates / Amy Blanchard). Meanwhile, his landlady Fräulein Schneider (Hannah Macpherson / Hannah Qureshi) is enjoying a romance with another resident, Herr Schultz (Calum Rickman), but when her friends and neighbours realise he’s Jewish, she must decide if marrying him is worth all the trouble it would undoubtedly bring to her door.

For the majority of the 90-minute Act 1 Cabaret is very much a feel-good show, peppered with infectiously toe-tapping tunes and charting two charmingly unconventional new romances. It’s only as the first act comes to a close that we see through the Emcee’s carefully constructed facade and begin to understand what’s really happening, before a much shorter Act 2 hammers the message home with brutal efficiency. And immediately following Sally’s defiant performance of the show’s big title number, the deliberately off-key finale is unsettling – if not particularly shocking – as it forces the audience to re-evaluate all that we’ve just watched from a dark new perspective.

On a brighter note the production, directed by Karen Rabinowitz, was excellent, with confident performances from a talented young cast and stage band. It’s worth noting that most of the central characters were played by two actors over the two days; at the performance I attended, Barney Fritz absolutely owned the stage as the Emcee – intensely creepy but weirdly seductive, he quickly won the audience over with the opening number, and never looked back. Jenny Coates and Harry Newton were strong leads as Sally and Cliff (the former bringing the house down with her performance of Cabaret), but for me the more compelling of the two romances was that between Hannah Macpherson and Calum Rickman as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Despite playing two people much older than themselves, both were totally convincing in their roles, and utterly charming whenever they were on stage together.

Photo credit: Trinity Laban Musical Theatre

With slick choreography from Graham Newell and a simple but attractive set designed by Louis Carver, if you didn’t know then you’d be hard pressed to guess that you were watching a student performance. With the exception of rare – and always quickly corrected – moments of over-exuberance from the band that briefly drowned out the dialogue, there was little to set this apart from a professional performance; it’s certainly a show I’d happily recommend to anyone looking for a great night out. And it also offered a valuable opportunity to see a cast of exciting new talent, who I’ve no doubt will go on to own plenty of much larger stages in the future.

Cabaret was performed at Laban Theatre on 6th and 7th December. For details of future productions, visit

Review: A Christmas Carol at Chickenshed

Of all the many, many versions of A Christmas Carol on offer in and around London this festive season, few could be more heartfelt than the one that opened last week at Chickenshed. Charles Dickens’ much-loved message of compassion and generosity is a perfect match for Chickenshed’s own ethos of inclusivity, and presented here by a rotating cast of 200 (per show – 800 in total), the result is both spectacular to watch and joyously festive to experience.

Photo credit: Ava de Souza

The story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Ashley Driver), who sees the error of his ways one Christmas Eve after being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, has been updated slightly in Lou Stein’s production to take place not in Victorian London, but in the 1930s. This allows for an element of social commentary on the economic and political climate of the time (and not just of that time; an inadequate welfare system and women demanding equal pay both feature prominently), an attractive Art Deco style set designed by William Fricker, and an enjoyable jazz-inspired feel to Dave Carey’s original musical numbers. But it also, importantly, drives home the timeless relevance of Dickens’ novel and the lessons it imparts; whatever century we’re in, the need to look out for each other never goes away.

In what Chickenshed regulars will recognise as a typically ambitious Christmas production, Ashley Driver confidently and very competently leads the core cast as Scrooge. The success of any production of this story depends on having a central character who the audience both dislikes and believes is capable of change – and this one delivers on both counts; at first every inch the villain, as the story moves on Driver proves he can do fear, bemusement and finally infectious joy just as convincingly. Alongside him, Finn Walters is a very likeable Bob Cratchit – doting father to a humorously excessive number of children – and Paul Harris a suitably spooky Marley (though not as chilling as Will Laurence’s Ghost of Christmas Future; think Dementors on rollerblades and you’re not far off). In one of many magical moments, Ghost of Christmas Present Michael Bossisse makes an unexpected entrance that delights the audience, while Gemilla Shamruk hits all the right notes – in every sense – as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

What makes Chickenshed’s A Christmas Carol truly unique, though, is the huge supporting cast. Just as everyone who comes to see a show at the theatre receives the warmest of welcomes, there’s a place too at Chickenshed for anyone who wants to perform, and this is reflected in the diversity, enthusiasm and cooperation we see on stage. Despite the daunting numbers of young people involved, everyone is exceptionally well organised, and there’s a real sense of shared purpose from them all, however big or small their role. And while I’m singing Chickenshed’s praises, let’s also mention it’s great to see a show that not only features signing but places it proudly at front and centre of the performance.

This is theatre for everyone, by everyone – and if it doesn’t get your Christmas spirit going, then frankly I suspect nothing will. I generally make it a rule to try and see only one A Christmas Carol per year; I’m glad this is the one I chose for 2018. It might not be as polished as some, but there’s no doubt it’s got the biggest heart (not to mention cast) of them all.

A Christmas Carol is at Chickenshed until 5th January.

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Review: Seussical the Musical at Southwark Playhouse

Colourful, feel-good and more than a little bit mad: Seussical is pretty much everything you’d expect from a musical based on the stories and characters created by Dr Seuss. Whether you grew up with the books or, like me, only know the basics (The Cat in the Hat, essentially), there’s plenty to enjoy and just as much to bemuse in this utterly bonkers but ultimately heartwarming show.

Photo credit: Adam Trigg

Written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and co-conceived by Eric Idle, Seussical brings together various Dr Seuss creations, but its central plot is based around Horton the Elephant (Scott Paige), a kind-hearted soul who rescues a tiny planet after he hears its inhabitants, the Whos, calling for help. Despite being bullied by the other animals – particularly the Sour Kangaroo (Ngozi Ugoh) and monkeys the Wickershams (Adam Dawson, Robbie Fell and Rhys Benjamin) – he refuses to give up on his new friends. Among these is young Who Jojo (Anna Barnes), who’s constantly getting into trouble because of her wild imagination, but is encouraged to keep thinking Thinks by her guide, the mischievous Cat in the Hat (Marc Pickering).

The original show – first performed on Broadway in 2000 – was split across two acts, but this production directed by Immersion Theatre’s James Tobias condenses the story into a single act of 75 minutes. In doing so it sets a pretty frantic pace, with musical number rapidly following musical number, and very little in the way of spoken dialogue (although what little we do get is, of course, in rhyming verse). This means the whole show is something of a whirlwind – but that doesn’t really matter, because it’s not so much the plot that’s important as the messages we take away from it. The importance of imagination, kindness, loyalty and being true to yourself all come through loud and clear, whether you’re eight or eighty, and are guaranteed to send you home feeling all warm and fuzzy.

The musical numbers, though not all that memorable (with the conveniently catchy exception of the finale), are enjoyable enough and well performed by the cast. Scott Paige is a sincere and instantly likeable Horton, and there are strong vocal performances from Amy Perry, Ngozi Ugoh and Katie Paine as Gertrude (a bird who’s in love with an unsuspecting Horton), the Sour Kangaroo and Mayzie La Bird respectively. But it’s Marc Pickering who steals the show, with an impeccable comedy performance as the Cat in the Hat. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the start, and whenever he’s on stage – which is most of the time – there’s never a dull (or in some cases, dry) moment.

Photo credit: Adam Trigg

Visually the show is, without doubt, a spectacle; Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is bright, colourful and very recognisably from the world of Seuss. In keeping with one of the show’s core messages, Rachel Cartlidge’s clever and vibrant costumes leave a little bit to the imagination; Horton, for instance, is simply dressed in a grey shirt and tie, so it’s up to the audience to take that final mental leap and picture him as an elephant – at which point it becomes entirely obvious that that’s what he is.

An ideal antidote to the dreary winter evenings, Seussical is feel-good fun for the whole family, with plenty of wise words (and a few very silly ones) to take home. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose… and you could do far worse than heading down to Southwark Playhouse for 75 minutes of joyous silliness. And a cat. In a hat. Because what in the world could be better than that?

Seussical is at Southwark Playhouse until 29th December.

Review: Renaissance Men at the Old Red Lion Theatre

The complexities of male friendship go under the magnifying glass – literally – in Renaissance Men, a new show written by James Patrick and Bag of Beard. The play made its debut this week with a two-date first sharing, which proved more than enough to whet the appetite for a planned tour in 2019.

A riotous comedy with an unexpectedly dark twist, the play centres around three friends – Irvine (Sam Heron), Quentin (Alexander Knott) and Winston (James Demaine) – who think they’ve discovered a priceless original painting in a charity shop in Streatham. Excited by the prospect of striking it rich, the three call in slightly shady local art dealer Mr Sutcliffe (Jack Gogarty) to confirm the painting’s authenticity – but his visit ends up bringing answers of a very different kind when a shocking secret is revealed.

Photo credit: Zöe Grain

You might be tempted to assume, given their artistic background and love of a good philosophical debate (the company have deliberately steered away from the stereotypical image of the millennial generation), that these three friends would be more than capable of expressing how they feel about things. You might think that – but you’d be wrong. Behind the laugh-a-minute banter and quick-fire insults that characterise their friendship, and which are delivered with delightful authenticity by the cast, there are a whole heap of deep and unspoken emotions. This is particularly true for Sam Heron’s painfully vulnerable Irvine, whose recent interest in writing erotic poetry increasingly seems to be an attempt to get something very serious off his chest – if only his mates weren’t too distracted by their own dramas to pay attention.

It might be early days for the play, but Ryan Hutton’s production is already highly polished. All four characters are expertly drawn and totally convincing both in writing and performance; the four actors work very naturally together, and even in the play’s relatively short running time of 70 minutes, there’s a complexity and detail to each character that leaves us wanting to know more. Dysfunctional and eccentric they may be, but a few moments of genuine affection do manage to slip through the barriers the characters have constructed around themselves, making it obvious their problem isn’t that they don’t care about each other, but that they just don’t know how to say so.

The pace of the drama also feels just right, with the very funny first half of the play carefully laying clues to what’s coming, so that while it comes as a surprise, on reflection what happens next actually makes perfect sense. And there’s a growing suspense – heightened by the fact that we never get to see the painting ourselves – as we wait to find out if the three friends really are on to a winner.

Photo credit: Zöe Grain

Topical, original and very funny, Renaissance Men is off to a great start, with two sell-out performances already under its belt and no doubt many more to come. What begins as a simple story about three friends who like to wind each other up is quickly revealed to have hidden depths, and touches on some important issues – but while the play certainly enters some pretty dark territory, it never fails to be great entertainment. This is a really promising new production; let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for the next chance to see it.

Renaissance Men was performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November. For details of future shows, visit or follow @BagOfBeard.

Review: Radiant Vermin at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, which sees a young couple resort to murder to secure their dream home, is a disturbing supernatural fantasy based on an equally depressing reality. With house prices still prohibitively high for so many, the play asks us to question not only what we would be willing to do to get on the property ladder – but also where we’d be prepared to stop.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Jill (Laura Janes) and Ollie (Matthew John Wright) are a young couple, recently married and looking forward to the birth of their first baby. As they despair of ever escaping their rented flat on a grotty estate, they’re invited by the mysterious Miss Dee (Emma Sweeney) to join a government scheme that will give them a free house, on the condition they take care of all the renovations. The couple jump at the chance, knowing it’s the only way they’ll be able to afford their dream home. When Ollie accidentally kills a homeless man on their first night, only to discover their kitchen has been magically transformed into the one they saw in Selfridges, he and Jill realise what they need to do, and set out on a murderous mission to complete the rest of the house. But then their baby is born, and new neighbours move in – and pretty soon Jill and Ollie find they can’t stop “renovating”, despite the terrible cost.

The play takes the form of a “confession” to the audience; Jill and Ollie hope if they can make us understand then it’ll justify what they’ve been doing and, more importantly, allow them to continue. Ridley’s play is a damning comment not only on the housing crisis but more broadly on the ease with which human beings adjust our moral compass to suit our own needs, implicating not only its characters but also the audience. Jill and Ollie seem like nice, normal people; the way they tell their story is very funny and engaging, and in spite of ourselves we find ourselves both liking and relating to them.

This is due largely to winning performances from Laura Janes and Matthew John Wright, who quickly build a rapport with the audience and bring the story vividly to life with the aid of absolutely no set or props. The action in Dan Armour’s production takes place against a stark white backdrop, and almost everything that happens is not seen but described by Jane and Ollie, inviting us to imagine, perhaps, our own dream home taking shape around them. Although excellent throughout, the pair’s stand-out moment comes towards the end of the play, at a birthday party for Jill and Ollie’s baby son, when the two actors play between them around twelve different characters – a high-speed tour de force that leaves both actors and audience breathless.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Though the majority of the stage time belongs to Jill and Ollie, it’s clear from the start that they’re not at all in command of the situation. Despite appearing only twice, all the power is in the hands of Emma Sweeney’s Miss Dee, who calmly manipulates and seduces the couple into taking her deal. There are enough clues scattered throughout the play to help us figure out Miss Dee’s true identity, but even without them it doesn’t take a genius to understand who – or what – we’re looking at.

Deeply disturbing but undeniably funny, Radiant Vermin is a cleverly written play that turns the spotlight ultimately on its audience. We all like to think we wouldn’t take the deal – but in a world where materialism reigns and enough is never enough, can we ever really know for sure?

Radiant Vermin is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 1st December.

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