Review: Gangsta Granny at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

To any parent, the much-loved and critically acclaimed Gangsta Granny by actor, presenter, comedian and author David Walliams needs no introduction. Released in 2011, it immediately went to no. 1 in the children’s book chart, and this touring show, produced by the brilliant Birmingham Production Company – of Horrible Histories fame – is a very welcome addition to the selection of family shows offered at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford. It is the production’s second visit here.

11-year-old Ben, played by the wonderful Tom Cawte, is neglected by his parents while they pursue their love of Ballroom Dancing, and just dreams of becoming a plumber – something his parents don’t understand or have time for.  Meanwhile his lonely old granny, played exactly as I imagined by Louise Bailey, seems to Ben to be boring, smelly and full of farts after eating nothing but cabbage – cabbage soup, cabbage cake, cabbage stew and even cabbage ice cream! But as it turns out she has a big secret – she is a gangsta, or should I say “gransta”. As two outsiders who have both been abandoned, Ben and his gran form a partnership, joining forces on a great heist that leads them to stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London and even meeting the (yes, farting) queen.

I was lucky enough to be reviewing this with my 7-year-old son, who giggled away beside me throughout the entire fun-packed production. Always a good sign when they think it is as good as the book. His review – 9 ½ out of 10 because “it has all the best bits” and “the characters are exactly as I had imagined in my head”. (It would have been 10 but the dancers moving the stage scenery as part of the show wasn’t for him.) Behind me was a grandfather laughing even more loudly. This is a show that appeals to both the young and old.

And what makes this production so appealing to all ages? The bond formed between the old and young, due to Ben’s neglect and Granny’s loneliness because of her age, strikes a chord in the audience. And the message about not ignoring the elderly is a strong one. My son, in the interval, voluntary said of his grandparents, “yes, I want to hear about their adventures, I don’t know why I haven’t before”. I have no doubt that his next conversation with them will be a richer one thanks to this viewing. It is a reminder to us all.

The show is at times full of hilarity, with its toilet humour (who doesn’t like a good fart joke?) and peppered with Strictly Come Dancing parodies that fans of the show definitely enjoyed. Much fun was had by kids and grownups alike whilst judging the Strictly competition – loud boos and cheers resounded in the theatre. The show makes a joke out of our obsession with celebrity culture as it follows Ben’s mum’s adoration of the ageing dancing sensation Flavio.

There were a few local references – “I love you more than Gravy’s End” aka Gravesend – was appreciated by the local audience. Other parts of the show were deeply touching; quotes such as “I am proud whatever you do”, “Follow your dreams”, “I am useless” and the heartfelt “I love you Granny” pulled on some heartstrings.

The entire cast are superb with a host of excellent performances, but the part I had been especially looking forward to is that of 16-year-old local dancer from Bexleyheath, Millie Minkowich. I had read in the local press that there had been a search for a local female dancer to play the part of a Strictly contestant and Millie was the talented winner. She was excellent and showcased her talent admirably. I have realised that this production often does this throughout their tour – what a nice support of the local community!

David Walliams, our much loved TV funnyman, has teamed up with the Birmingham Stage Company to create a fun-packed yet thought-provoking show for all the family, from young to old. Other than enjoying the laughter I think both of us came away thinking we will be kinder to our parents/grandparents, and I have vowed to make more time for my children!

Highly recommend by myself and my 7-year-old son!

Gangsta Granny is at the Orchard Theatre until 26th May.

Review: The Cherry Orchard at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Richard Hall

Few plays have arguably resonated at the Royal Exchange Theatre more profoundly than those by the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. His plays benefit enormously from being performed in the round and this superb production is no exception.

This version of The Cherry Orchard, co-produced with the Bristol Old Vic, comes to the Exchange garlanded with four and five star reviews. Directed by Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, this is a production that shows off Chekhov’s naturalistic masterpiece to great effect. The setting for the production appears to have been updated to a period that is placed somewhere between the mid 1930s and the lead up to the Second World War. It features a multinational cast that clearly delight in Boyd’s assured, fresh and modern interpretation.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

Facing financial ruin, Luba Ranyevskaya, a beautiful and spirited widow, returns home after a self-imposed exile brought on by the deaths of her husband and young son. At her family estate she is welcomed back by Lopakhin, a wealthy local businessman who offers to buy it and her beloved cherry orchard.

This being Chekhov, social, personal and political concerns collide and although Lopakhin, the son of a former family servant, believes that the old aristocratic order must change, his unrequited love for Ranyesvskaya and gratitude for her family’s past kindnesses makes it hard for him to contemplate splitting up the estate. Whilst Ranyevskaya agonises over the sale, disaffected servants, for which Boyd has interestingly chosen to cast BAME actors, look forward to the demise of the gentry, anticipating changes that in time will have unparalleled consequences not only for Russia but all of the Western World.

Boyd’s production is stripped bare of any artifice. For the whole performance the auditorium lights are dimmed, making the audience clearly visible, and only essential period props and furniture are used. The wooden panelled floor makes the actors appear as if they are performing on a concert stage and there is indeed something operatic about this production. As Ranyevskaya, Kirsty Bushell is captivating and hauntingly moving; it is impossible not to share in her grief and pain. She is oblivious to all the change around her and only wakens out of her dreamlike state when she briefly sees the spirit of her dead child come alive in front of her eyes.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

The relationship between Ranyevskaya and Lopakhin is at the very heart of the play; it drives the narrative, creates tension and as Boyd points out in a fascinating programme interview, serves to underline the gulf that exists between their respective classes. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is excellent; his performance is nuanced and highly detailed. The scenes between him and Bushell are compelling and gripping.

Rory Mullarkey’s new and very modern translation helps to make Chekhov’s sub text clearer. Even though a century separates Mullarkey and the premiere of The Cherry Orchard, one senses that he keenly shares Chekhov’s view of the world and some of his sentiment. With this production, the Royal Exchange once again takes an important classic and makes it wonderfully accessible and relevant to the modern age. It is highly recommended.

The Cherry Orchard is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until 19th May.

Review: Spamalot at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika Cutts

Having grown up watching Monty Python on repeat, I was already smiling even before sitting down to watch this touring Selladoor production of Spamalot at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford.

On arrival, as a reviewer, I was handed a bag which contained… yes… a tin of Spam of course, and settled down to an evening of singing, dancing and much hilarity with fellow fans.

Was it going to be as funny as the real thing, was my main worry. Was it going to be like the time I watched Grease on stage, disappointed it wasn’t John Travolta and Olivia Newton John? How would the jokes compare if not said by the original six? And did I want it to compare?

I’m very pleased to say it certainly did not disappoint.

The antics of King Arthur, played by the fabulous Bob Harms, careering through the musical with his inept crew of Knights of the Round Table was gleefully silly and brought about a great night of laughter and nostalgia.

The quest for the Holy Grail took the audience along the journey with boundless energy and mishaps as the motley bunch of characters made fun of themselves, musical theatre,  topical news (yes, Donald Trump did make an appearance) and a fair share of camp humour. The one liner about Dartford’s infamous “Air and Breathe” nightclub drew a lot of laughs!

Rhys Owen’s performance as servant Patsy with the iconic coconuts was excellent, and the voice of the production certainly belonged to Sarah Harlington who played the Lady in the Lake (or the Watery Tart as described by Dennis). Songs such as “Whatever happened to my Part” and “I’m all alone” stood out. All the actors played their characters with enthusiasm and gusto, making them seem larger than life.

Firm favourites which drew laughs, whistles and cheers, such as the Knights who say “Ni”, The Black Knight (who won’t let you pass) and Bring me a Shrubbery felt effortlessly funny and the wonderfully familiar jokes hit the mark.

Monty Python lovers will note some off piste storylines to the original film – the most obvious being the significant promotion of Dennis The Repressed Peasant and an unlikely matrimony for Sir Lancelot (without wishing to give away the storyline!).

The choreography was excellent and the sequinned singing and dancing, including tap dancing on tins of spam, makes this a production for lovers of musicals as well as Monty Python fans like myself.  Elements of pantomime and slapstick humour permeated throughout the production. At times even the actors were having so much fun that giggles got the better of them and parts of the second half felt refreshingly unscripted.

This was Monty Python with a modern day spin, as well as a lot of spam!

Well done Spamalot – they ripped off the motion picture (as promised in the title) admirably. We were whistling “always look on the bright side of life” and grinning all the way home.

Spamalot is at the Orchard Theatre until 28th April.

Review: Fat Friends the Musical at the Orchard Theatre

On paper, Fat Friends the Musical ticks all the boxes: a nostalgic revival of a much-loved TV series, written by the show’s original creator Kay Mellor; a heart-warming story about loving yourself and your body no matter what you weigh; and a starry cast featuring stage and screen favourites that include Jodie Prenger, Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy.

The show condenses some of the main plotlines from the first series of Fat Friends into one story, primarily focused on Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who’s about to marry the love of her life, Kevin (Joel Montague), and would be the happiest woman in the world if only she could fit into her dream wedding dress. But that’s not so easy when your parents (Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy) own a fish and chip shop, your skinny sister (Rachael Wooding) won’t stop teasing you about your weight, and you’re hungry all the time. Encouraged – for different reasons – by best friend Lauren (Natalie Anderson) and dieting queen Julia Fleshman (Natasha Hamilton), Kelly sets out to lose those extra pounds… but will being slimmer actually make her happy?

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

It’s great to see Kelly, Betty and co again, thirteen years after Fat Friends left our screens, and the show’s script sparkles with Kay Mellor’s trademark Yorkshire wit and warmth. Just as we remember them, the characters are loveable and easy for real people to relate to; some of the biggest laughs are ones of recognition as the slimmers shed as much clothing as possible before their weigh-in, or battle with themselves over whether or not to have that bag of chips. We’ve all been there, and that’s why it works. (And if you don’t leave the theatre craving fish and chips, you’re a lot stronger than I am.)

Jodie Prenger is well cast as the irrepressible Kelly, and soon has us on side with her down to earth humour and unflinching honesty. Sam Bailey – just a couple of years older in real life – seems an unlikely choice to play her mother, but the two pull off a convincing on-stage relationship, with shy, nervous Betty the very opposite of her outgoing daughter. Meanwhile, Rachael Wooding doubles up so effectively as Kelly’s sister Joanne and Julia’s downtrodden assistant Pippa that I didn’t even realise it was the same person, and Natalie Anderson throws herself with seemingly limitless energy into her one character Lauren’s multiple roles as dress shop owner, slimming class leader and Zumba instructor (not to mention hopeless romantic).

Unfortunately, the music – composed by Nick Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Mellor – doesn’t quite match up to the rest of the evening. Despite a few stand-out numbers, and the undeniable vocal talents of Sam Bailey, Jodie Prenger, Natalie Anderson and others, the songs on the whole add little to the plot and, though well performed, are not particularly memorable. Given that its strength lies in the characters, story and dialogue, you have to wonder if the show, which runs at over two and a half hours, might not have worked better as a play.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Although as a musical it doesn’t quite work for me, Fat Friends is still a good night out, with a talented cast and a strong message about body image. By updating the story to the present day, Mellor is also able to cover both the opportunities and the dangers posed by social media, and the many ways in which we allow others – both people we know and complete strangers – to dictate how we should feel about ourselves. A feel-good show with a heart as big as its appetite, this revival of a TV favourite is a lot of fun for old and new friends, of all shapes and sizes.

Fat Friends the Musical is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th April.

Review: Tango Moderno at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika Cutts

They are back! Strictly dance superstars Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone return to wow audiences with their fourth production – Tango Moderno – and they do not disappoint! Previous sell out shows have included Midnight Tango, Dance till Dawn and The Last Tango; very much an audience favourite, they have danced together for over two decades. The production, with the help of director and choreographer Karen Bruce, cleverly gives a modern twist to a 19th century traditional Argentinian dance. It works superbly well.


Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The story tells of “Cupids of Tango” – Flavia and Vincent – who encourage the singleton characters in the show to go out and find love. It reflects, in its prose and through the dance, the perils of modern day society who are reliant on mobile phones and social media dating sites such as Tinder, and addresses the issues of commuting, loneliness and even a world which includes Donald Trump.

The scene of the story is set through the medium of a narrator – the talented Tom Parsons – whose prose and poetry is sublime and whose renditions of modern day pop songs excellent. Any performance which includes an Ed Sheeran classic – Shape of You – is bound to excite an audience of any age and persuasion! Other songs not necessarily expected from a tango-inspired show, yet which work well, include popular hits Human by Rag n Bone Man, Seven Years by Lukas Graham and The Lazy Song by Bruno Mars, and are a hit amongst younger viewers.

Vincent and Flavia’s chemistry and professionalism during the duos is an absolute pleasure to watch. Vincent had not been able to perform in last year’s shows due to an injury but now he returns to top form thankfully, as he does what he does best. Flavia’s performance is particularly breathtaking and the intensity of the kicks and movement is spine tingling with the pair fusing together ballroom, Latin and Argentinian tango.

The pair are supported by a talented cast of dancers who mix street, hip hop, jive and contemporary to produce an energetic and entertaining story for the audience. If you are expecting to just see tango then this isn’t the show for you – you get so so much more. This is a show that showcases the talents of the written word through Tom Parsons, the incredible voice of Rebecca Lisewski who truly is a highlight of the show, the talent of accomplished violinist Oliver Lewis whose performance of the Flight of the Bumblebee drew gasps of surprise and received lengthy applause, many different genres of dance and of course the reason for this show – Flavia and Vincent.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

There are a couple of moments in the show that some may class as cheesy perhaps – the dancers coming out in wheelbarrows, shopping trollies and lawnmowers as an example – but the enthusiasm and talent make up for this and the point of their reflections are well understood and appreciated by the audience. I’m not sure it’s purely a show on tango – perhaps naming the performance Cupid’s Dance Moderno would be more apt?

Saying that, the classical tango finale is definitely purely tango in its truest form and worth the anticipation. A haunting and mesmerising dance showcasing our main stars’ phenomenal talent. The lighting is just right, the music is just right and the dancing and chemistry as they perform the classical tango has the audience up on their feet.

A wonderful show and great performances by a strong cast. Highly recommended.

Tango Moderno is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th March.