Review: Rock of Ages at the Orchard Theatre

Chris D’Arienzo’s 2005 jukebox musical Rock of Ages has a lot going for it: a soundtrack of epic 80s rock classics, a feel-good LA love story, and perhaps most importantly, an absolute refusal to take itself seriously at any point. Add in the universally fantastic cast of Nick Winston’s touring production, and – a little bit of questionable humour aside – you’ve got the recipe for a great show (but maybe leave the kids at home).

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The year is 1987, and wannabe actress Sherrie (Danielle Hope) has just arrived on the Sunset Strip, where she meets wannabe rockstar Drew (Luke Walsh), but their budding romance is endangered when actual rockstar Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday) turns up. One thing leads to another, and as Drew’s getting discovered by a record producer, Sherrie ends up working as a stripper for Justice (Zoe Birkett) at the Venus Club. Meanwhile local legend Dennis Dupree (Kevin Kennedy) must defend his beloved bar from two Germans (Andrew Carthy and Vas Constanti), who want to tear down the Strip and replace it with a Foot Locker – a plan also opposed vehemently by former City Planner Regina (Rhiannon Chesterman). It’s a long and bumpy road, but in the end everyone gets what they want – even if they didn’t know it was what they wanted in the first place.

The story is nothing we haven’t seen plenty of times before, but Rock of Ages realises that and leans into it, understanding that nobody in the audience has bought a ticket for the plot anyway, so why not have some fun with it? Narrator Lonny – in a hilarious, show-stealing performance from Lucas Rush – does exactly that, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, openly acknowledging the formulaic nature of the story and turning it into a running joke that the audience is more than happy to go along with while we wait for the next rock classic.

And fortunately, we never have long to wait. We Built This City, We’re Not Gonna Take It, I Want to Know What Love Is, Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, I Can’t Fight This Feeling, Don’t Stop Believing… and so many more hits make it almost impossible to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. They’re also an excuse for the cast to showcase some sensational vocals; the show has an unusually large quantity of lead characters and without question, every single one of them delivers. Even the numbers that are clearly aiming more for comedy – like Lonny and Dennis’ duet in Act 2, or anything involving the Germans – don’t compromise on vocal quality. Barney Ashworth’s band are similarly excellent, and from a musical point of view, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rock of Ages is a resounding triumph.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The one area where the show falters a little is in some of the humour, which is not so much offensive as just a bit tired. For instance, it’s never really clear why the two property developers have to be German, except as an excuse to make cheap gags at their expense – and in a script that has so much good stuff going for it in terms of comedy, this doesn’t add anything and feels unnecessary. And yes, I know the show is set in the 80s, but the less said about its portrayal of women, the better. (To quote my friend at the interval, “It’s good, but you can tell it was written by a man.”)

All the same, Rock of Ages does what it sets out to do: it well and truly rocks, and does so in an engagingly self-aware way that some other jukebox musicals could definitely learn a thing or two from. Great fun for a cheesy – and slightly cheeky – night out.

Rock of Ages is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th November, before continuing on tour.

Review: Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue at Mid Kent College Theatre

The latest show from Kent-based Fluffy Top Productions’ is Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue about the highs and lows of… well, parenthood. With an original score and book by Emily Moody (who also directs) and Pete Moody, the production takes the form of a series of over 20 individual vignettes, exploring everything from pregnancy to becoming a grandparent. It’s predominantly a comedy, and paints a hilariously accurate – and often less than rosy – picture of life as a parent. But for all the mess and mayhem we encounter along the way, ultimately it’s a celebration of the journey and everything that comes with it.

 

That journey includes the sleep deprivation of the new mum, deciphering fridge doodles, competitive parenting, navigating the treacherous teenage years, waving the kids off to start their adult life… and lots, lots more. Each scene is enjoyable in its own right – many of them very much so, drawing howls of laughter from an audience who could clearly identify with the characters. The score, too, is catchy and fun (though very much adults only, due to quite a bit of bad language and a few dance moves that are best not witnessed by younger eyes). However, the “sketch show” format of the performance, which sees each scene end with a fade-out followed by a pause while the next one is set up, gives the evening a rather stop-start feel. This, along with the lack of any particular narrative flow or returning characters for us to invest in, means the show does begin in Act 2 to feel a little bit longer than it needs to be.

As a picture of parenthood, however, it’s spot on – or so I was reliably informed at the end by the ladies sitting next to me (their review of the evening: “that’s exactly what it’s like!”). Even for a non-parent, it’s clear that the comedy is very well-observed and brutally honest; much of the humour lies in the fact that the writers – who are parents themselves – aren’t afraid to say what they really think, instead of wrapping the experience of having children in excessive sentimentality. While that’s undeniably a good thing, the more reflective moments that do exist feel very few and far between, and the show could perhaps benefit from a little more emotion to balance things up a bit.

The cast of nine give strong comedy and vocal performances, despite being let down quite badly at the performance I attended by problems with the sound system. The show is very much an ensemble piece, and the variety of scenes provides each member of the cast with an opportunity to showcase their versatility, as they perform not only as a multitude of different characters, but also in a range of musical styles and some delightfully eccentric costumes (highlights include Astra Beadle’s show-stopping Superman/Princess outfit and Jordan Brown’s memorable appearance as a star in the school nativity).

As a brand new piece of musical theatre, Parenthood has much to recommend it, and with a bit of tightening up it has great potential for future development. There’s a lot to enjoy for parents and non-parents alike; the former will be able to recognise elements of their own stressful but rewarding experience, while the latter – like Auntie Jen in one of the musical numbers – can sit back, relax and revel in a childfree life of contraception and wine.

Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue was performed at Mid Kent College Theatre from 15th-17th November. For details of future performances, visit fluffytopfriends.com.

Review: Gilded Butterflies at The Hope Theatre

Debates about the death penalty tend to focus, unsurprisingly, on the moral rights and wrongs of taking a life for a life. Less, perhaps, is known about the dehumanising conditions in which condemned prisoners must await their fate – often for years, or even decades. Tormented Casserole’s two-hander Gilded Butterflies, devised by the company and directed by Kathryn Papworth-Smith, sets out to remedy that. Based on the true account of death row survivor Sunny Jacobs, the play paints a brutal picture of what everyday life is like in solitary confinement, and in doing so it also offers us a poignant glimpse at the lengths to which the human spirit will go to survive, even in unimaginably bleak circumstances.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

Maggie (Francesca McCrohon) is a young woman who spends her days alone in her prison cell in Florida. It’s been a year since she saw or spoke to anyone besides her guards and her lawyer, but she keeps herself upbeat by painting, writing daily letters to her husband, and dreaming of what she’ll do when her lawyer gets her out. Then one day she gets a new neighbour (Samantha Pain) – but having company may not be quite the blessing she expected, and Maggie soon finds herself forced to face up to some devastating truths about what she’s done, and where she might be headed.

Samantha Pain plays three roles: the nameless prisoner next door, Maggie’s lawyer and her sister Lauren. Each of these is not so much a character in their own right as a vehicle to shed a little new light on Maggie’s situation, and it’s Francesca McCrohon who steals the show throughout. Smiley, chatty, kind: in any other circumstances Maggie’s the kind of person you can imagine yourself getting along with. Both the script and McCrohon’s performance draw us in, and for at least the first half of the play we even find ourselves sharing a little of her bright-eyed optimism about the state of her appeals.

And then we find out what brought Maggie to death row, and the tone of the play shifts in a much darker direction. Her dreams for the future are exposed as just that – dreams – and we realise what we’re seeing is a woman desperately battling to hold on to who she is against a system that’s determined to steal every last scrap of humanity from her, before finally ending her life. The lack of human contact; the refusal to allow her the most basic of items; the fact that she’s not even allowed to attend her own court hearings to plead her case; each new detail is one more reminder of how the American justice system views prisoners as less than human, a problem to be eradicated rather than addressed in any constructive way. Maggie is not innocent of the terrible crime for which she’s been convicted, but based on what we later learn of her circumstances, she’s not wholly guilty either – a subtle difference that a black and white system like the death penalty completely fails to take into account.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

The play is simply staged; given the nature of the story, visually there’s not a lot to look at except a static set – consisting of two cells outlined on the ground, each with a metal bed and not much else – which helps to emphasise the monotony of Maggie’s daily existence. At each scene transition, white noise sound effects and abrupt lighting changes from Naomi Baldwin create an oppressive atmosphere that no amount of chatter can quite dissipate.

Gilded Butterflies is a thought-provoking and moving piece that highlights the urgent need for a change in policy and attitudes. The story may be set on death row, but the talking points it raises – specifically around mental health and the importance of rehabilitation rather than punishment – can be just as easily applied to justice systems around the world, including that of the UK. And if the play happens to also make you angry about the insanity of the death penalty – well, that’s an added bonus.

Gilded Butterflies is at The Hope Theatre until 24th November.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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.