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.

Review: A Judgement in Stone at the Orchard Theatre

Ruth Rendell was once described in The Sunday Times as “the best woman crime writer since Christie” – so it seems fitting that Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company, having presumably run out of Agatha Christie stories to stage, has chosen one of Rendell’s most famous works for their latest production. A Judgement in Stone unpicks the story of a grisly mass shooting, but despite commendable performances from an impressive cast of household names, it doesn’t quite succeed in blowing its audience away.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Largely, I think this is simply because it’s not Agatha Christie. Her stories work on stage because often they take place in one location, so focusing all the action in a single room doesn’t feel limiting, and because they build to a big reveal of a shocking, clever twist based on clues that have been liberally scattered throughout the play. Rendell’s novel opens by revealing both murderer and motive; it wasn’t really intended as a murder mystery so much as an exploration of social class divisions in the 1970s. Simon Brett and Antony Lampard’s adaptation forces the story into the classic whodunnit mould, meaning a lot of that subtlety is lost, and we spend the whole evening waiting for a twist that, unfortunately, never comes.

 

That said, it’s an entertaining enough production, and director Roy Marsden certainly succeeds in ramping up the suspense, particularly in Act 2. The play opens some weeks after the murders of the wealthy Coverdale family, as a detective from London – called in by someone important in the Government – arrives to help the local police solve the crime. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, beginning when Eunice first joins the family and building up to the night of the murder nine months later. In between, the two police detectives interview various suspects (at the murder scene, rather bizarrely) on their way to solving the crime, which eventually happens more by luck than judgement; there’s certainly no Poirot-esque flash of inspiration that suddenly makes sense of everything, and this also contributes to the play’s rather subdued conclusion.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

The cast do a good job with some slightly sketchy roles (apart from one brief exchange about family life and fish paste sandwiches, for instance, we learn next to nothing about Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon’s police detectives, who only really seem to be there to set up the next flashback). Sophie Ward is great as the awkward, slightly eccentric housekeeper Eunice, while Deborah Grant has perhaps a bit too much fun as her religious fanatic best friend Joan, and there’s a solid performance from Blue’s Antony Costa as Rodger Meadows, the family’s gardener with a dodgy past.

Having seen and enjoyed several productions from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which work so well on stage, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this latest offering. But here’s a twist: I do now want to read Ruth Rendell’s novel. Although I don’t feel it entirely works as a play, the story and characters have enough potential that I’m intrigued to find out everything the stage version didn’t tell me. And fans of Ruth Rendell’s novels, who already know how the story ends, may enjoy this fresh take on a favourite.

A Judgement in Stone is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th September.

Review: Our Town at The Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Of all twentieth century classics, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town must be one of the most difficult to produce and hardest to understand plays for both cast and audience alike. In fact, ever since its first performance in 1938, it has continued to be misunderstood and misrepresented. However, there is some theatrical irony in this, since the play itself deals with misunderstanding and misrepresentation on a human scale.

It’s a very odd play, there’s no denying that, and in 1930s America would have been considered ground-breaking too.

It uses the device of it being a play within a play, the play being set in the theatre where the play is taking place, if you see what I mean. The cast are on stage and the Stage Manager enters and mediates between being the actual Stage Manager of the one play whilst narrating the story of the play to the audience of the other play. And if you’re not confused by that, you might just “get it”.

The play is very Brechtian in feel. There is no set, no scenery, miming is the order of the day, as well as speaking directly to and questioning the audience, and all the cast are wearing modern contemporary informal clothes. The Stage Manager sets the scene… Our Town is the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, USA, and at the start of the play it is 1901. The play is in three acts and the first act is nothing more than a scene-setting scene, setting the scene and seeing the set-up (apologies to Mr. Bennett). However this first scene is not only necessary to allow us to understand the two acts that follow, it is also this act that has made directors and producers of productions past think that the play is a lyrical pastiche and a yearning on the part of the writer for simpler and happier times. But the play is darker, so much darker than that, and with the second act, despite the play’s upbeat documentary nature, we get a hint of what is to come. It is the third act which acts like a wake-up call to us all. Live our every moment to its fullest and feel, and see as hard and as long as possible, because there is beauty in the little things, and it is the little things that matter.

It’s also a very brave choice of play for any theatre company to attempt, and so kudos to The Royal Exchange for grabbing the challenge firmly and squarely and giving it their best shot. The only question is; did they score a goal? And the answer to that is, I am uncertain. I am not sufficiently learned on Wilder’s oeuvre to know whether or not this production ticked all the boxes for him; I can only go off my own reaction to the play, and of those around me in the theatre. Did I enjoy the play? I am again uncertain, since enjoyment seems the wrong terminology for what I witnessed. Although I wasn’t bored, and there was plenty of humour and bonhomie within the play, or at least the first two acts. But did the play stand up and grab me by the throat to leave a lasting impression on me? No, sadly it didn’t.

I think this is perhaps due to two things which I simply didn’t like about this production. I can only think these were directorial choices rather than scripted, and I must admit was somewhat put off the play because of them. The first is that some of the audience are invited to sit on plastic chairs on the stage, and become a part of the play for those not on the stage. I really liked the idea at first when I took my seat, as the stage was full of people sitting at desks crowded together and chatting. It looked like a school canteen. I understood the relevance for using audience in this way, as the director Sarah Frankcom is using every trick in the book to make this play relevant for our multi-cultural 21st century ‘town’ and therefore inviting audience to become a part of a play that challenges and distorts reality brings much more a community feel to the whole. It almost works in the first act, but in the second and third acts it’s odd and seems wholly inappropriate for them to be on stage.

And the second choice made by Frankcom is that only the Stage Manager should use an American accent. I think I understand what she’s trying to do here too, and say that this town, these people, these situations transcend time and place, but nevertheless, as a personal choice at least, they should all be speaking with the correct accent.

Frankcom’s directing, however, is consistent and intelligent. She realises that this play is about community and celebrating (the brevity of ?) life; and this doesn’t stop in the theatre, but continues in the auditorium too where each evening a community choir serenades patrons with a repertoire that includes the hymn sung several times over in the play itself, Blessed Be The Ties That Bind.

Youssef Kerkour, despite his stature, is a very gentle character, and his demeanour – as well as his New Hampshire accent and lumberjack style checked shirt – fit perfectly. Easy to watch and understand. However, his performance is somewhat eclipsed by the stunning and superbly simple and naturalistic acting style of Norah Lopez Holden as Emily. In a play which requires a certain approach to the acting in order for it to work, Holden hits the nail firmly and squarely on the head, balancing her every emotion to perfection. 

It is a large cast play, 15 characters in total, and these are augmented further by Frankcom using members of both the Royal Exchange Young Company and The Royal Exchange Company Of Elders, so the stage need never be bare and this somehow negates the idea of adding audience members to the throng. However, the main protagonists in the play are well cast, and Patrick Elue works excellently opposite Holden as a wide-eyed innocent turning into a more mature farmer widower, with Nicholas Khan pitching his role as Emily’s doctor father with aplomb.

The production as a whole does work, but on leaving I had the feeling that it could have worked better. Just don’t ask me how or why. However, that is just my own reaction to the production and the curtain call was warmly received, so do go along and judge it for yourselves. It’s a rarely performed piece of classic 20th century literature, waiting and ready for you to take whatever you can from it.

Our Town is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 14th October.

Review: Oh What A Lovely War at Oldham Coliseum

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Starting in 2014, and no doubt continuing right up until the end of 2018, Britain has been commemorating the centenary of World War 1. The Great War, The War To End All Wars. I have seen some extremely moving tributes both theatrical and musical, and now The Coliseum Theatre in Oldham opens its Autumn season with something which is a little of both, Oh What A Lovely War. A pioneering and daring work in its time, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in London’s Stratford East came up with a dark satire which parodies the war and those in charge of it, commenting on its futility and political motivations through sharp humour and song.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

If this doesn’t sound too hard to imagine and a little lame, then remember this was premiered in 1963 when the constraints of theatre were much more rigid than today, and also that at that time, it was less than 20 years since the end of World War 2, with both The Cold War and The Vietnam War still continuing.

Littlewood uses the songs of the period to great effect, interspersing them throughout with little vignettes as the cast of ten dressed in costumes reminiscent of the old Music Hall Pierrettes take on multifarious characters ranging from civilian, military and political persons from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Russian etc, presenting “the ever popular, ‘War Games'”.

To aid us all in this, since this is a history lesson on four years of fighting on a scale never before encountered, there is a large screen in the centre of the stage upon which helpful photographs, documents, maps and information – all historically accurate – are displayed. In fact, Foxton has designed a simple and yet superb set. A circular ‘stage’ around which the performers and their props and instruments wait in Brechtian fashion, with a false gallery and prosc arch, bunting, the royal Coat Of Arms, and footlights. Just what one would have expected to find at the theatre at the end of a pier in those days.

There are ten performers in all; but don’t ask me to tell you how many characters they play between them! However, their character changes are swift and clever, with the simple addition of a hat or scarf, or perhaps even just an umbrella. They are also multi-talented as indeed they all must also sing, dance and play at least one musical instrument, as they were also the show’s band, “The Merry Roosters”. And so, piano, bass, clarinet, trombone, drum kit, and goodness knows what else were played by those members not actually involved in the acting of each scenelet.

I must say right now that under normal circumstances I am absolutely no fan of actor-musicians; and I still think I would have enjoyed the show more had they been separate, but it certainly didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as I thought it would, and for a show of this particular style, and the lovely Brechtian directing by the Coliseum’s Artistic Director Kevin Shaw, it was apt and fitted well. I do feel though that some of the songs would have benefited from a fuller sound vocally; although the harmonies were lovely, they were a little sparse.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

In fact Shaw has brought out the best from both his cast and the show in this. It could do with being a little pacier; I felt especially the first half dragged ever so slightly (perhaps because the audience didn’t really “get it”) but hopefully given a few more runs for it to “bed-in” the pace will naturally quicken anyway. Beverley Norris-Edmunds should also be commended here too for her lovely choreography. Stylistically perfect and worked excellently.

It is almost impossible to single out certain cast members from others in a show such as this, a true ensemble piece in every regard, but I cannot leave this review without mentioning them, as they are all excellent. They are Isobel Bates, Matt Connor, Richard J. Fletcher, Jeffrey Harmer, Barbara Hockaday, Anthony Hunt, Thom Petty, Lauryn Redding, Reece Richardson, and David Westbrook. My favourite number from the evening though simply has to be the lovely acapella rendering of When This Lousy War Is Over.

Oh What A Lovely War may not prove to be everyone’s cup of tea (but I guess the same can be said of any piece of theatre); however, I do believe that the Coliseum have got another hit show on their hands with this one. Poignant, relevant, and also very funny, true to the spirit and concept of the original production. Well done chaps!

Oh What A Lovely War is at the Oldham Coliseum until 30th September.

Review: Hairspray at the Orchard Theatre

If you want a show that’s guaranteed to entertain, you need look no further than Hairspray. Flying the flag for anyone who’s ever felt they don’t quite fit in, it’s the story of an American teenager with a heart of gold, who refuses to believe she can’t live her dreams just because she doesn’t look like all the pretty girls on TV. Dancing her way into the nation’s hearts, Tracy Turnblad inadvertently becomes the leader of a civil rights movement, campaigning for racial integration – because the alternative simply doesn’t make sense to her.

Photo credit: Darren Bell

In a weird way, it’s almost depressing that we still need shows like Hairspray. It would be great if we could sit back and enjoy the feel-good story, safe in the smug knowledge that these are yesterday’s problems. Unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, the two big issues addressed by the show – body shaming and racism – are still just as topical today as they were in the 60s (when the story’s set) or the 80s (when it was written).

Perhaps that’s why two of this production’s most memorable moments both come from Motormouth Maybelle – Act 1 finale Big, Blonde and Beautiful, and the electrifying I Know Where I’ve Been. Then again, it could just be because Brenda Edwards, who plays Maybelle, is vocally incredible. Either way, her solos certainly stand out in a musical that’s full of show-stopping moments – among them the sweet comedy duet between Matt Rixon and Norman Pace; it’s a number known for improvisation and innuendos, and this partnership don’t disappoint. And let’s not forget the fabulous finale, which wraps everything up in a neat, glittery bow, and does so with such energy and joy that you can easily put aside how utterly unrealistic it all is.

Newcomer Rebecca Mendoza, making her professional debut as Tracy, proves herself not only a talented singer and dancer but also a gifted comedian; her adoration of Link (a suitably charming Edward Chitticks) is particularly fun to watch. At the other extreme is the villain of the piece, unashamedly racist TV producer Velma, who’s played with great relish by Gina Murray; it’s only a shame we don’t get to hear more of her amazing vocals.

Photo credit: Darren Bell

As well as a great cast who are all worthy of mention, Hairspray also boasts a toe-tapping 60s-inspired score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, brilliant choreography from Drew McOnie and dazzling set and costume design by Takis (not to mention impressively huge hair). The whole show is a riot of colour and vivacity, with plenty to enjoy for younger audience members but a healthy scattering of naughty jokes for the grownups too.

And at the heart of all this fun and froth is that serious message, summed up so succinctly by Tracy herself: “I just think it’s stupid we can’t all dance together.” It might sound like a massive simplification of a huge and complex problem – and it’s true that the show doesn’t exactly offer an in-depth debate of the issues – but in a world that increasingly feels like it’s going backwards, every little helps.

Hairspray is at the Orchard Theatre until 9th September.