Review: Guys and Dolls at Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange Company develops its ongoing collaboration with all-black theatre company Talawa for this, their latest offering, the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.

With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, we are well and truly in the golden age of Broadway musicals. In other words, an age when musicals were perhaps a little more fanciful and comedic than some of today’s through-sung rock opera musicals are. This one is no exception, and traditionally set in Times Square, it is a mickey take of persons perhaps real or imagined that peopled that neighbourhood at that time, based on the Damon Runyon stories of 1930s New York.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen Guys and Dolls before, then the story follows two would-be couples. Two of the area’s most notorious gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, finally get hitched (to Adelaide and Sarah respectively). It is a comedy love story set in this Noir-esque underbelly of NYC.

This version saw the action shift to Harlem, New York’s black neighbourhood, and the directing (Michael Buffong) and feel of the show was much more real and much darker than I have ever seen it before. It suited the cast, as they played their characters with much more truth and realism than the normal mono-dimensional musical theatre caricatures, and the interpretations of some of the leads was totally different from any other time I have seen this show.

Musically too, the orchestra (led by Mark Aspinall) was given leeway to jazz-up many of the songs, giving them much more authenticity in the new setting of the show.

Overall this idea worked and worked well, but it was flawed. I didn’t like the new song that Adelaide sung in the night club in act one – I had never heard that in a theatre performance before, and only realised later that it came from the film; and her very serious and heart-wrenching rendition of her lament was pitched wrongly, finding no comedy in there at all, and with absolutely no hint of her actually having a cold either before it or during it.

There were several other things too which didn’t quite sit right with me, but I’ll just put those down to personal choice, and leave it at that.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen the show before, then you will absolutely love this re-working, and not have anything with which to compare it. Myself, I had mixed reactions to it, but overall did enjoy it immensely, especially Kenrick Sandy’s choreography to Luck Be A Lady and the showstopper Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.

Ray Fearon is a very likeable Nathan Detroit, and he plays his role with charm and ease, whilst the object of his desires, Adelaide, played here by Lucy Vandi, to whom he has been engaged for 12 years, is given a completely new make-over and the strong, sassy side of this new characterisation really did not work at all. Couple number two came in the form of a more nervous and less confident Sky Masterson than I have previously seen, but this suited actor Ashley Zhangazha well, and was the perfect foil for the more tight-lipped and upright Sarah Brown, played wonderfully by Abiona Omonua.

It is clear that this is a musical however, and so vocally one would expect it to be superb. Sadly it wasn’t. Undeniably all the cast could sing but it felt weak in places and the voices seemed much more at home with the bluesy, jazzy, crooning style, instead of Broadway musical numbers. They were also drowned out too a couple of times by the orchestrations.

Happily, my favourite song in the show was sung superbly and so a special mention should be given to Trevor Toussaint, who plays the often understated part of Abernathy excellently.

Guys and Dolls is not perhaps the sure-fire hit that the Royal Exchange were hoping for, but an all black version, as far as I can tell, is a UK first, and it certainly makes it a most interesting and unusual show. There is certainly much to like and enjoy within it, and the cast play it for all its worth with truth and sincerity, which reaps dividends, but running at 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval) it is a little too long.

Guys and Dolls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 27th January.

Review: Voices From Home at The Old Red Lion

The inaugural Voices From Home event from Brighton-based Broken Silence Theatre brought together writers from the Home Counties and beyond to showcase new work from outside the capital. Four thought-provoking short plays all started from the theme of “trust” before heading off in a variety of directions to bring us an evening populated by outspoken refugees, dodgy psychics, estranged sisters and reluctant lovers.

The latter feature in Love Me Tinder, written by James McDermott from Norfolk and directed by Roman Berry. Emma Zadow and Mauricia Lewis prove that opposites do (eventually) attract, as spiky Tina and sweet-natured Ellie cautiously embark on a Tinder-based romance beset by false starts and misunderstandings. It’s a funny and very relatable piece about the many ways we self-sabotage whilst dating out of fear of getting hurt, but it also explores the unexpected and touching ways in which new love can change us for the better.

There’s a similar blend of laugh out loud humour and human vulnerability in Danielle Pearson’s The History Club, set in the writer’s home county of Berkshire, which examines how grief can make us do extraordinary things. In this case, three women engage the services of a less than convincing psychic to put them in touch with their lost loved ones. Directed by Jennifer Davis, the play sees Vicky Winning clearly enjoying herself as Florence, with moving performances from Anne Rosenfeld, Helen Belbin, and particularly Dominique Moutia as a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of a schoolfriend.

The heartbreaking Trust, written by Sussex-based Ella Dorman-Gajic and directed by Raymond Waring, shows us the awkward reunion of two sisters, played by Alex Reynolds and Abbi Douetil. From a close childhood relationship, marked by a shared love of S Club 7 and a wall chart plotting their heights over the years, Sarah and Lotty become increasingly estranged as their gran’s health deteriorates. It becomes obvious that she effectively raised them in their mum’s frequent absence, and the play ends on a hesitatingly uplifting note as the two attempt to build bridges and come to terms with their loss.

Each Voices From Home event will also feature a Headline Playwright; the first of these is Sevan K. Greene, whose play Asylum – directed by Tim Cook – opened the evening with an alternative and eye-opening view on the first world response to refugees. Lynn (Rosalind Adler) has got an empty house and a kind heart, but never really expected to be taken up on her offer of taking in a Syrian refugee – and when Mohammed (James Hameed) is sprung on her by his caseworker Mike (Matt Kyle), he’s not quite as gushingly grateful as she’d expected. As with all the other plays, Asylum offers lots of laughs, but they grow increasingly uncomfortable as the piece goes on, and we’re forced to examine our own motives, assumptions and reactions to those less fortunate than ourselves.

With so much theatre going on in London every day, it’s easy to forget that there’s plenty to enjoy elsewhere too. Voices From Home co-producers Tim Cook and Katharina Rodda have assembled a strong line-up for their first showcase, bringing a little piece of the Home Counties into the capital and proving to any sceptics out there that good theatre can and does exist outside the M25. Here’s hoping we don’t have too long to wait for the next evening; I’m looking forward to seeing what my home county of Kent has to offer…

For more details about Voices From Home and Broken Silence Theatre, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.

Review: Grease at the Orchard Theatre

Grease is a show that needs little introduction. Originally written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey for the stage, it’s best known for the 1978 movie adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and has quite the cult following – at least if the number of audience members dressed as Pink Ladies and T-Birds at the Orchard last night is anything to go by. This is a show that’s known for its classic song and dance numbers, and on that score the latest touring production doesn’t disappoint; the band, choreography and costumes are fantastic and really bring Rydell High to life in all its energetic glory as Danny, Sandy and friends negotiate the perils of teenage romance.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Unfortunately, the production is let down by some underwhelming casting. The Wanted’s Tom Parker, in his musical theatre debut, looks the part and has the dance moves down, but his acting is at times rather stiff and his vocals are inconsistent. Danielle Hope and Louisa Lytton fare better as Sandy and Rizzo, but sadly none of the three really makes much impact, and they don’t even come close to the sky-high bar set by John Travolta and co in the movie. This means it falls to the other cast members, among them Tom Senior as Kenickie and George Olney as the Teen Angel and DJ Vince Fontaine, to bring the energy and steal the show – and it’s the big group numbers that really get the audience going, far more than any of the solos – though admittedly Danielle Hope does a flawless version of Hopelessly Devoted To You.

All that said, this is still Grease, one of the best and most popular musicals of all time (albeit with a slightly iffy message for the teenage girls in the audience, but we all know about that so I won’t go into it here), and you’d have to be made of stone not to be wowed by the high energy spectacle. The production looks great, recreating the quiffs and costumes we all remember – the programme informs us there are over 140 costume changes and 59 wigs in the show – to make sure we feel at home from the start. There’s plenty of cheeky humour too, though as you might expect in a 40-year-old show, some of the dialogue has not aged all that well…

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

With flashing lights and pyrotechnics, there’s a real party atmosphere in the theatre, with the evening frequently feeling more like a singalong than a performance. This means some of the dialogue becomes impossible to hear, but I’m guessing not many people are there for those bits anyway. Ultimately the show is all about the songs, which are as iconic as ever and ensure that if you’re a fan of Grease, you’ll almost certainly have an amazing time regardless of who’s singing them.

Grease is at the Orchard Theatre until 25th November.

Review: Shirley Valentine at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, welcomes national treasure Shirley Valentine to the stage, as Willy Russell’s favourite approaches its final curtain for this UK-wide 30th anniversary run.

Shirley Valentine is a loveable Liverpudlian, forty-something housewife. With her children now off hand, she feels that her life is stuck in a rut and overtaken with preparing chips and eggs for her husband Joe, while relaying tales of the antics of children Melandra and Brian and a variety of friends and neighbours to her confidant, the kitchen wall.

Shirley is played by Nicky Swift in this one woman show. Nicky, from Merseyside herself, trained at Birmingham University and The Royal Academy of Music, where she received the Ian Fleming Musical Theatre Award. Nicky’s recent accolades include a lead role in Footloose and the formidable Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables.

Nicky brings the role of Shirley to life wonderfully. As the downtrodden housewife in the first half, her character quickly urges you to feel for her plight, a touch of humour in the right places draws you in further wanting her to snatch the opportunity presented, spread her wings, untie her apron strings and escape the confines of her comforting kitchen walls.

In the second half we are transported to a Greek island, where a fulfilled Shirley is transformed into a beautiful sun kissed goddess, with a new zest for life and keen to live life to the full. Shirley’s new confidant is rock, with whom she shares tales of her escapades on the island, including a brief fling with taverna owner Costas.

The show does a great job of raising your spirits and has you leaving the theatre smiling and laughing at comic quotes cleverly thrown in to a brilliant script. Holding an audience captivated for two hours on your own takes some skill and practice, not to mention the astounding number of lines Nicky has to remember.

Shirley Valentine is at The Orchard until Saturday 11th November. Grab your tickets before it’s too late, you really don’t want to miss this.

Review: Flashdance at the Orchard Theatre

80s kids rejoice – another classic movie from our youth is back on stage. Flashdance, as most of us know, is the heartwarming tale of feisty young welder Alex, who longs to be a dancer, and finally achieves her dream after an iconic audition routine (if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably at least seen that bit). Naturally, she also meets a nice man, and after a few bumps along the way, in the end everything works out fine.

Unsurprisingly, the show is a feast of 80s cheese, with leg warmers and leotards aplenty. And while Robbie Roth’s original songs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable, the score is lifted by several classic hits that guarantee a feel-good finale. The story could use a bit more pace at times, and there’s a side plot involving Alex’s friend that seems to directly contradict the show’s message about believing in your dreams – but let’s face it, how many people are really there for the plot?

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Where the show does come up trumps is in its performances – particularly from leading lady and reigning Strictly Come Dancing champ, Joanne Clifton. It might have been her brother who did Flashdance on last year’s series, but here she claims it firmly for her own with a show-stealing turn as Alex. We knew she could dance, but now we know she can act and sing too, and – maybe most impressive – apparently do it all without breaking a sweat.

She’s joined by Ben Adams, whose former boy band credentials (he was in A1 back in the day) stand him in good stead as the charming Nick Hurley. While his vocals may not always be quite as strong as his co-stars’, and he obviously has a pretty limited repertoire of dance moves, his acting is good – and he certainly looks the part of Alex’s handsome love interest.

In fact it’s a particularly fit (in every sense) cast all round, with more than enough visual talent to keep the whole audience happy, and some astonishingly acrobatic dance moves that you wish you could pause and watch again in slow motion. Several of the musical numbers serve little purpose in terms of plot development, but give this talented cast a multitude of opportunities to show what they can do.

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Not altogether surprisingly, there’s a lot more dancing than welding in the show – but a versatile steel set designed by Takis helps to keep the Pittsburgh setting in mind throughout, and strikes a nice contrast against the colour and vivacity of the show.

It might not be highbrow, but Flashdance is certainly high energy – and ultimately wins everyone over with the sheer joy shown by everyone on stage. With some great performances and a heartwarming message about believing in yourself against all odds, the show is a definite crowd pleaser, and its standing ovation well deserved.

Flashdance is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th October.