Review: Dirty Dancing at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika Cutts

It is the summer of 1963 and 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman is on holiday with her family in the Catskill Mountains when she meets the broody and sexy dance teacher Johnny Castle.  The classic coming-of-age love story that follows, made this one of the most iconic films to come out of the 1980s. Women all over the world fell in love with Patrick Swayze/Johnny Castle. The soundtrack generated two multi-platinum albums and the songs are loved and listened to by all generations.

The film was first adapted for stage in 2004 and has had worldwide success as a touring production, including two stints in London’s West End.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

I  always feel a bit nervous about going to see the stage production of a film that is so well known and well loved, so was approaching this evening with slight trepidation. Can a stage adaptation capture the moments that make this cult 1987 film so special? Were we going to “have the time of our lives”? (Sorry – had to do it!)

Kira Malou is outstanding as Baby. Not only does she have the dancing skills and looks of Baby but she perfectly demonstrates the hesitant but strong nature of the character. Her initial attempts at dancing with her arms flailing about is brilliant. Michael O’Reilly certainly has the fantastic dance skills and body for this Dartford audience to appreciate, especially when he takes off his top and gives us a glance of his bare bottom!  His acting at times feels slightly wooden to my ears but I am comparing him to Patrick Swayze perhaps. He has a tough act to follow but pulls it off with great confidence and skill. The choreography flows incredibly well and the chemistry between the pair is a pleasure to watch. It is a very steamy performance and Gillian Bruce’s choreography works extremely well to ensure the dancing lives up to the name of the show!

The ensemble, sets and outfits are so fantastic and believable that as an audience member, I really felt as if I was being transported back to the summer of 1963. A kaleidoscope of colour throughout the performance – swinging, twirling, gyrating bodies, knickers flashing… I felt part of that whole mood and I could see that the audience around me felt it too.

Ex Moulin Rouge can-can girl Simone Covele as Penny Johnson deserves a special mention – her movements and flexibility are dazzling and the spins she performs are mind-boggling! And Lizzie Ottley’s hula scene as Baby’s sister Lisa is a highlight. Sian Gentle-Green’s voice as Elizabeth stands out in this performance, as well as Alex Wheeler for the iconic duet that accompanies Baby and Johnny’s final dance.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

Classic lines such as “I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” are delivered to a satisfied audience and the practising of the famous “lift” in the lake has great lighting/projections which have been done cleverly. I was initially sceptical on how they were going to manage to pull that scene off, but they have.

The production has indeed stayed faithful to the film. It can be said that it is too loyal in some respects. It does feel as if the entire film has essentially been moved onto the stage, which makes it somewhat predictable for me. But perhaps that’s exactly what the audience wants judging by the reaction – from wolf-whistles to laughter, gasps of delight to clapping and dancing. I am pleased that there are a couple of welcome additional scenes which demonstrate the politics/civil rights movement of the time, including Martin Luther King’s speech. It gives the times more context.

For fans who want to see their beloved film recreated faithfully on the stage, this is certainly the right performance to come and watch. There isn’t anything ground-breaking but I don’t suppose there needs to be – the audience come away happily nostalgic and it certainly has the right feel-good factor on a cold Monday evening in Dartford!

Dirty Dancing is at the Orchard Theatre until 6th October.

Review: Summer Holiday at the Orchard Theatre

Long before the Inbetweeners movie was even thought of, there was Summer Holiday, the classic 1963 film in which Cliff Richard and The Shadows enjoyed a far more innocent – but apparently just as action-packed – European adventure. I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone made a stage version of the film, and it’ll come as no surprise that Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan’s musical works, for the most part, very well.

The story is pretty simple, and very much of its time. Four lads (Ray Quinn, Billy Roberts, Joe Goldie and Rory Maguire) driving through France in a red London bus happen upon three gorgeous girls (Gabby Antrobus, Alice Baker and Laura Marie Benson) with a broken down car, and gallantly offer them a lift to their singing engagement in Greece. On their way to Athens they pick up various other damsels in distress, including a sobbing bride-to-be who’s late for her wedding, and runaway singing starlet Barbara (Sophie Matthew), who’s fled from her overbearing mother and agent (Taryn Sudding and Wayne Smith) in search of a simpler life. Not at all surprisingly, despite the best attempts of Barbara’s mum to put a spanner in the works, they make it to Greece in time, and everyone pairs off neatly, falls in love and lives happily ever after.

What the show lacks in originality (and political correctness), it fortunately more than makes up for in sunshiny entertainment value. Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews, it’s a feel-good ride crammed with slick dance numbers and a catalogue of classic hits including Living Doll, Do You Wanna Dance and Bachelor Boy, concluding with an extended and very well-received singalong medley of Cliff songs.

All of this is performed by a multi-talented all-singing, all-dancing cast whose energy and perkiness never flag – but as good as they certainly are, the stage really belongs to leading man Ray Quinn. Not only does he do a pretty accurate Cliff impression but his vocals are spot on, he’s a fantastic dancer, and he has no problem at all charming the pants off everyone in sight (himself included, at one point).

Lads’ holidays having “evolved” slightly since the 1960s, the show naturally feels rather tame to a 2018 audience – although the various excruciating attempts of the British characters to communicate with their European hosts remind us that some things (sadly) never change. It may not be the most memorable story, but it’s hard to fault the show in terms of performance – and as the evenings begin to draw in, anything that makes the summer last that little bit longer is just fine by me.

Summer Holiday is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 8th September then continues on tour.

Review: The Wizard of Oz at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

Having very recently moved to Dartford I had not heard of the Summer Youth Project, so it was with great excitement I came to watch this production of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard of Oz with my 8 year old son Raphael, who himself enjoys acting and dancing. (Mental note to myself to diarise 2019 audition dates!)

This is the ninth year that this project has been running and has been the biggest to date, with over 350 signing up. Talented young people, aged between 9 and 19, go from script to stage in just 2 weeks – which is unbelievable! Over 100 kids were chosen to learn, rehearse and perform RSC’s version of The Wizard of Oz to proud relatives, friends and the local community.

I probably don’t need to go too much into the storyline to readers – the tale of Dorothy and Toto, following their adventures from Kansas to the Land of Oz with their travelling companions – the brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man and the cowardly Lion. The audience is transported to a land of witches, wizards and Munchkins as we follow their path along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. It is a great choice for a production as it is loved and known by adults (in the interval I noticed an adult “Dorothy” complete with her ruby shoes) and kids alike – and especially so for a youth performance as it has so many singing, dancing and acting opportunities within the storyline.

As the curtain opened for the first scene, the show stealer was unexpected. The whole audience gasped and there was a collective “awwwwwww” as in trotted little Toto. I hadn’t expected a live animal on the stage to be honest, and I don’t think the rest of the audience had either – and not one fault throughout the whole performance! He was definitely the star… although sometimes he perhaps received too much attention from the audience and distracted us from the rest of the action.

Holly Radford as Dorothy was a fantastic choice – a great voice, confident and charming. She sang Somewhere over the Rainbow like she had been singing it for years and I could hear my son humming along next to me as I was myself transported to another land!

As for Dorothy’s faithful companions, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man – Mason Mote, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens did a great job of keeping the audience entertained with lots of fun jokes and antics, especially from the lion, who had got a perm specially! The Wicked Witch, played by Maddie Broadbridge was evil enough to be convincing without scaring the younger audience members too much.

The scenery was simple but effective and the lighting, especially during the tornado scene, was atmospheric and added to the mood and tensions. We did feel at times, though, that the spotlights were too bright and maybe needed some adjustments.

Now over to the main stars of the show – the children. We saw them singing and dancing choruses, and singing solos. They were singing in the aisles, they were singing in the balconies, they were singing on the stage. They were tap-dancing, performing the Charleston, dancing ballet and modern. Some had lines and some had jokes to say. They were trees, they were Munchkins, they were crows, they were monkeys, they were poppies in the field. My son’s favourite was the acrobatic monkey who could do hands-free somersaults in the air!

You could say the children WERE the show – from the scenery to the animals to the characters. And what a talented group. You could really see how each and every one of them was thoroughly enjoying themselves and that is what made the show so special. I noticed even as the show was ending some of the children were continuing to perform and dance with each other impromptu, because they didn’t want it to end. My son commented that there were boys performing, which was good to see. Although talking of gender balance, a comment I would make is that the BME community was underrepresented both in the show and the audience, and it would be great to see this begin to change next summer for their 10th anniversary year.

I can’t end without mentioning the director David Maun, who did an amazing job, and choreographer Debbie Smith and musical director Steven Trill, who must have worked so hard with the children and produced such a successful show. The scenery and music and choreography made the performance what it was and much credit to them for turning this around in 2 weeks!

I definitely wait with anticipation for the show next year and I know my son feels the same… it has made him enthusiastic enough to want to audition for it and he rated the show 9¾ out of 10! Many thanks to the Summer Youth Project for a wonderful evening and well done for all of your hard work – it definitely shows!

The Summer Youth Project’s production of The Wizard of Oz continues at the Orchard Theatre until 18th August.

Interview: Hannah McClean, Ladykiller

The Thelmas are an all-female theatre company founded by Madelaine Moore in response to a growing need for the support and development of new female writers. Most recently seen in London with the Offie-nominated Coconut, the company will next be making their Edinburgh debut with Ladykiller by Madeline Gould, which opens at The Pleasance on 1st August.

Ladykiller is set in a hotel room, in the aftermath of a murder,” explains actor Hannah McClean. “When we meet HER, a hotel maid, she’s covered in blood and distressed – but it’s not what it looks like; she can explain… 

“It’s clear who committed the crime, so the play is more of a Whydunit, than a Whodunit. It’s a very dark comedy with a few twists and turns along the way, which will leave you second guessing our protagonist.”

Ladykiller by Madeleine Gould
Photo credit: Greg Veit Photography

Madeline Gould wrote the play to explore women’s capacity for violence and criminality, after noticing a lack of complexity in the portrayal of female killers. “I’ve never read a script which focuses on female criminality and psychopathy,” says Hannah. “Characters like this are more often than not, written for men. I have read all too many scripts or watched shows where the female characters are portrayed as less complex than their male counterparts. Women are just as capable of the good, the bad and the ugly and this script explores that beautifully.  

“My character is intelligent, charismatic and at times brutally honest, yet you never know where you stand with her. She is not someone you can root for, but she makes it hard for you not to. I can quite honestly say, I’ve never had the opportunity to play anyone quite like HER, nor have I read a script with a character like HER in it. We feel that our show depicts a female character in a way that hasn’t been seen before – truly, she breaks the mould. She is dark, she is dangerous and she is covered in blood.

“When I read the original script, when it debuted as a 15-minute piece in 2015, I was blown away by the writing, its twists and turns and its unapologetically dark humour. It’s now even bigger and better – and also really funny btw – and I’m absolutely thrilled I still get to don my blood soaked apron. At a time when we as a society are examining our gender roles more so than any other, the show taps into this conversation in a most unexpected way. I hope it gets people talking and debating …and laughing.”

Hannah McClean headshot
Photo credit: Chris Mann Portraits

As well as The Thelmas’ Edinburgh debut, Ladykiller also marks Hannah’s first time performing at the Fringe: “I have always wanted to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe and for a long time I have wanted to perform in a one woman show; so to get the opportunity to tick both those boxes at once is so incredibly exciting. And terrifying! But mostly exciting,” she says. “I begged Maddie Gould to write the full length show after performing the original short in 2015, so now I just need to concentrate on making sure it was worth her while (please God!).”

When she’s not murdering people in hotel rooms, Hannah will be busy checking out some of the other shows heading to the Fringe this year. “So far, the shows that have caught my eye are – F**k You Pay Me at The Assembly Room – I saw this at The Vaults this year and loved it, so I can’t wait to see how it’s developed; The Half at The Pleasance (might have to catch that on my day off) looks great; and East Belfast Boy by Prime Cut Productions (have to support the home grown stuff and also, they’re great), to name a few. The exciting thing is discovering new stuff though, so I’ll be soaking up as much as I can.”

Ladykiller is at The Pleasance from 1st to 27th August (not 13th or 14th) at 1pm. To find out more, watch the trailer – or to support the show, visit the crowdfunding page.

Interview: Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe and Edward De Gaetano, Vessel

In the wake of the recent vote in Ireland to repeal the 8th Amendment, Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe’s play Vessel explores female empowerment at a very particular moment in history, and asks what happens once that freedom to choose has been won. Following successful preview performances at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London, the two-hander moves to Edinburgh’s Underbelly from 2nd August.

Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe
Photo credit: Emma Micallef

Vessel is a show about women’s bodies, choice and love. Maia, a receptionist, and David, a journalist, embark on this journey that sees them navigating through a lot of their own personal difficulties to serve a greater purpose,” explains Edward De Gaetano, who plays David. “It’s set in pre-referendum Ireland when abortion is still illegal, and tells the story of Maia, a woman whose tweet about her unwanted pregnancy goes viral and she becomes the focus of public attention during the Repeal the 8th campaign. We see these characters awkwardly trying to get to know each other in the process, which at times can be quite endearing and/or funny!

It’s a topical story that focuses on the individuals having to make important choices; the aftermath of the referendum that begins to explore a new meaning of choice for women. It celebrates women in many ways as it’s a female writer/performer creating theatre about women for women.”

Laura – a Brighton Fringe Award nominated performer, writer, facilitator, researcher, collaborator and activist – was inspired to write the play by recent events and by the evolving perception of women, not only in Ireland but across the world. “Prior to the recent referendum and until legislation is passed, each day nine Irish women will have boarded a plane to the UK, spent up to €1000 and been considered a criminal in the pursuit of a safe abortion,” she says. “I grew up in an Ireland where we did not talk about abortion, we did not talk about choice. Abortion was something that was talked about in hushed tones behind closed doors and it was always something that the person would regret.

“But something started to change around 2010 – people started talking, marching, campaigning. With the recent referendum there is no better time to tell these stories. Whether it’s the #metoo campaign or #Repealthe8th, we are finally having open and honest conversations about how society views women and the consequences. I wanted to tell this story for all these women and to continue to create platforms for having more of these conversations.

“So much of the theatre I see about women acknowledges and details female struggle and that’s it. Vessel is about exploring what happens after that struggle, what happens to the female character when she has freedom, when she has choice, when she is empowered? As a theatre maker I’m excited by the possibility of female focused narratives, not the retelling of female suffering. For women to keep moving forward socially and artistically we’ve got to start telling and listening to stories of female empowerment.”

Both Laura and Edward are now looking forward to taking the show to Edinburgh and sharing it with new audiences: “Being one of the biggest theatre festivals in the world, we’re excited to perform to such a diverse and international audience,” says Edward. “It’s a place where some of the best artists come to perform, challenge ideas and take a chance at new ideas. The energy and the work is immense and to be a part of that with such a topical play it’s extremely exciting. The Underbelly have been incredible to work with and we simply cannot wait to perform in such a great space being part of such a varied and brilliant programme! 

“As with all festivals you really never know who you are going to meet or bump into; actors and performers have had their careers changed to the better after Edinburgh, so it’s really a place where opportunity meets chance.”

It’s also an opportunity to check out and be inspired by other work – and they already have plenty lined up: “Oh yes, there are loads! To start off with the specific shows we cannot wait to see are Fishamble’s Maz and Bricks by Eva O’Connor; Bottom by Will Hudson; Hightide’s Busking It by Danusia Samal; Frieda Loves Ya at Underbelly; everything at Paines Plough Roundabout; anything by Big in Belgium and Canada Hub; Woman of the Year by Anna Nicholson and In Their Footsteps by Ashley Adelman and Kelly Teaford. We both love comedy, well who doesn’t, so we will definitely be checking out some stand-up comedy gigs and whatever else comes our way – we can’t wait to be inspired by what we see!”

Vessel is at Underbelly Bristo Square from 2nd-27th August at 1.05pm.