Review: Puss in Moon Boots (online)

Another Christmas season, another annual Living Room Adventure from Sleeping Trees. Following the success of last year’s The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington, this year’s online offering from the comedy trio, Puss in Moon Boots, mashes up references from various well-known tales including Hansel and Gretel, Star Wars and Jack and Jill – and all without ever leaving the house.

Santa’s cat Puss is tired of being left behind every Christmas Eve while Santa and his reindeer head out with the sleigh to deliver all the presents, so he’s invented a rocket that will get the job done much faster. Or at least it would, if anyone would take him seriously. But then Santa gets ambushed by an asthmatic space villain who for copyright purposes is definitely not Darth Vader, and Puss has to step in and save Christmas, with the help of a robotic cow, David Meowie and some newly acquired moon boots.

Anyone who’s seen Sleeping Trees before will no doubt take such a bonkers plot completely in their stride. It’s all extremely silly and a lot of fun, especially for younger audience members who are actively encouraged to get involved by dressing up, shouting at the TV – well it is panto season, after all – and finally helping to steer the heroes home to safety. And while this is undeniably a show for small people, there’s plenty of humour for the grownups too. I don’t have any kids and I had a great time – and I didn’t have to clear up any mess afterwards, which is an added bonus.

As always, all the characters, male, female, spaceman, cat, cow… are played by Joshua George Smith, James Dunnell-Smith and John Woodburn, who along with co-writer and composer Ben Hales and director Kerry Frampton have once again turned an ordinary home into a film set in a whole host of creative ways. Despite the ingenuity of some of the effects, the backdrop is always recognisable as a living room, or a bathroom, or a kitchen, making this a brilliant way of showing children that if they have a great idea they don’t have to look far to make it a reality. As Puss himself might say, determination and self-belief are the most important things – and Sleeping Trees have both these things in abundance.

Last year, making a film without leaving the house was necessary because – well, nobody was allowed to leave the house. This time around, live performance is once again possible, and in fact Sleeping Trees also have a live show, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, happening right now at Battersea Arts Centre, but I’m glad to see the online format hasn’t been abandoned. Already, just two years in, there are running jokes developing (mince pie, anyone?), and hopefully that’s a sign that the Christmas Living Room Adventure is going nowhere.

Puss in Moon Boots is available online until 10th January – tickets cost just £5 and let you watch as many times as you like (sorry parents).

Book review: My Name Is Not Wigs! by Angela Cobbin

The title of this fascinating theatrical memoir is more than just a nod to one of the many amusing anecdotes found within its pages. How many of us theatre lovers, hand on heart, could name the wig designer working on our favourite productions? In her autobiography My Name Is Not Wigs!, Angela Cobbin MBE sets out to challenge that, taking us on a journey through her years working with the biggest names in theatre, and revealing what a critical part she and her colleagues play in bringing some of our best-loved characters to life on stage.

Beginning her career as a hairdresser in the 60s, Angela moved on to design wigs for the models at Madame Tussauds, and was eventually headhunted to join the National Theatre. Since then, she’s worked on countless productions in the West End, on Broadway and all over the world, as well as in TV and film (including a stint working on Spitting Image) – and her memoir drops names right, left and centre as she recalls getting sassy with Ian McKellen (it’s fine, he deserved it), watching Judi Dench play backstage pranks, and having doors held open for her by Luciano Pavarotti (even if she did think he was a stage hand). There’s a real sense of community in the stories she tells, and it’s thrilling to get a small insight into what goes on behind the scenes – though it’s perhaps less heartening to realise just how much success in the theatre can depend on knowing the right people at the right time.

It’s also fascinating to learn more about the world of wig creation and often hasty application. We can all appreciate a good quick change, but how many of us spare a thought for the costume, hair and makeup team left behind in a perspiring heap when the actor walks back onstage after a 90 second turnaround? More importantly, these pages offer an opportunity to see wig design through the eyes of someone who understands it to be an art form in its own right, and to appreciate that it’s far more than just “doing hair”; it’s a crucial detail with just as much power to make or break a production as any other aspect of design.

The book is a very easy read, which strives to explain the intricacies of both hair and show business in a way everyone can understand. Many specialist terms are followed by a “translation” in brackets, allowing the readers to picture each scene even without knowing all the right terminology (there are lots of actual pictures too, which also help). There’s never a dull moment, which keeps those pages turning as we dart from one star-studded anecdote to the next, and Angela is a compelling narrator; it’s clear early on that she takes no nonsense from anyone, which generates more than one humorous story, and that she’s never been afraid to take a risk in the pursuit of her passion.

Whether or not you’ve ever had any interest in wigs, My Name Is Not Wigs! is a great read, shining a light on an often-overlooked aspect of the showbiz world, and the amazing life of a woman who’s been a key part of that world for decades. An interesting, enjoyable book, and definitely recommended for anyone with a love for theatre and the arts.

My Name Is Not Wigs! is available to buy via Amazon.

Theatre Things received a free digital review copy of My Name Is Not Wigs! as part of the online book tour.

Review: Love Dance at Chiswick Playhouse

Rose is a successful career woman who wants a baby but not a relationship. Adam’s a deadbeat musician who had a bad childhood and therefore has zero interest in procreating. When she returns from six years working in America to find he’s accidentally overstayed his lease in her flat, the two of them must find a way to live together despite their differences.

Photo credit: Molly Manning Walker

If you think this sounds like the start of every romantic comedy ever – you are 100% correct. Love Dance by Andy Walker follows the rom com formula to a T, but that’s what makes it fun to watch. We know exactly what’s going to happen, so we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. That said, there are a couple of plot twists that will strain the credulity of even the most hardcore rom com fan. Where usually we’d have a Big Misunderstanding, here we have Massive Ethical Misconduct that feels incredibly out of character, and the play’s ending happens so fast and so perfectly you can practically blink and miss it.

But Love Dance is still a great night out, and that’s thanks largely to two strong performances from Derek Murphy and Jacoba Williams. The pair have an easy chemistry that allows the audience to quickly overlook the characters’ differences and imagine the two together long before either of them catches on to what’s happening. And while they’re both imperfect they’re also very likeable, which makes it easy to laugh at them but also root for them, both as a couple and individually.

All the action takes place in Rose’s modern one-bedroom flat (designed by Humphrey Jaeger), but there’s enough variety in the script that this never gets stale; without leaving the living room, the two manage everything from doing yoga to going dancing to “driving” to the beach. There’s only one moment in the whole play that takes place outside the flat, but it adds nothing to the plot and feels like a misstep from director Lesley Manning in an otherwise pretty seamless production.

Photo credit: Molly Manning Walker

Love Dance is a lot of fun – it’s silly and it knows it, and that makes it an effortless play to watch and enjoy; it was certainly well received by a raucous audience at this particular performance. The storyline isn’t perfect, and could certainly be slowed down a bit at the end to give us time to adapt to what is oddly both an entirely predictable and yet still somehow surprising twist in the plot. But it’s entertaining, funny and completely unchallenging, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need from your theatre.

Love Dance has just announced an extension, and will now run until 4th December at Chiswick Playhouse.

Review: Our Last First at Union Theatre

On the surface, Lucinda Coyle’s play Our Last First is a relatively conventional love story between two characters, charting all their relationship milestones – some momentous, others less so, but all equally important in the journey they take together. What makes this play different, however, is the fact that none of the characters have names, ages, physical descriptions or, most significantly, pronouns. At the start of each performance in the four-night run, scripts are distributed to the diverse cast of four, assigning each of them the role of either A, B, Sibling or Friend.

This bold decision on the writer’s part not only makes the play intriguing to watch – in a longer run, I’d certainly go back and watch it again to try and catch a different combination of actors – but also makes a key and crucial point: love is love, whoever that love is shared by. Stripping away the characters’ gender means that the focus of the story is entirely on the blossoming relationship between A and B (at the performance I attended played by Tazmyn-May Gebbett and Aitch Wylie) as they begin to build a life together, with all the ups and downs that entails. And while the anonymising of all the characters, including those we never meet like parents and flatmates, occasionally jars a bit, it certainly doesn’t detract from the main narrative.

Photo credit: Daniel Francis-Swaby

That narrative is instantly compelling. Coyle begins at the end, before looping back to the start of the story and A and B’s nervous first date. The characters feel very believable – neither of them is perfect and both make mistakes, which helps the audience become invested in their rollercoaster romance. Meanwhile the two side characters, Sibling and Friend (in this case Jonathan Case and Louis Raghunathan), make brief but significant appearances, as a reminder that no relationship exists in a vacuum; outside forces also have a part to play in the direction they can take.

The feeling of a life constantly evolving is reinforced by Beth Colley’s adaptable set, consisting of boxes that are rearranged by the cast as the action moves between different locations. Director Stanley Walton makes good use of the space, although there are a couple of scenes that take place on the floor, meaning audience members sitting a few rows back may struggle to see what’s going on.

I hope that Our Last First will return for a longer run in the future; it’s an original and refreshing idea and one that it would be great to explore further.

Our Last First has its final performance this evening (19th November) at the Union Theatre.

Review: Doing Shakespeare at the Bridewell Theatre

Having kept audiences laughing through Covid with their award-winning online DOING series, the Northern Comedy Theatre return to the stage with Doing Shakespeare, a clever and joyously silly play celebrating Shakespeare in all his occasionally incomprehensible glory. The Felching Players are back in action, and excited to be performing for a real live audience after all this time. And director Tom (Robert Stuart-Hudson) has had a brilliant idea: to do Shakespeare as Shakespeare would have done Shakespeare – in other words, each actor learns their part in isolation, and the whole cast meet on the day to plan entrances and exits. Unfortunately, due to a Zoom-related communication breakdown, when the day arrives, it turns out they’ve all learnt different plays. Another group might have let that stop them, but not this one; they decide to go ahead regardless, with predictably chaotic results.

Photo credit: Shaun Chambers

So begins an immensely entertaining 90 minutes, during which six big personalities battle to outshine each other both on and off stage. David Spicer’s script quickly establishes the characters and relationships within the group as they bicker their way through Act 1, before coming together (sort of) in Act 2 to present… well, something. Such is the skill of the cast and director Shaun Chambers that it’s impossible to tell how much of Act 2 is scripted and how much is improvised on the spot – but either way, it works, and what the Players’ performance lacks in plot or coherence it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. And while the characters may be nothing we haven’t seen before – pompous Ebon (Steven Arnold), mouthy Terri (Kathryn Chambers), anxious Judith (Natasha Agarwal) – that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch or root for.

Ultimately, despite the in-fighting, cheap costumes and terrible acting, there’s something very heartwarming about Doing Shakespeare. The Felching Players may not be destined for theatrical stardom (one of them, it turns out, has only ever bothered to learn one Shakespeare play and uses the same lines in every performance – and none of her fellow actors have ever noticed), but they care about what they’re doing, and their excitement at being back in a real theatre is matched by that of both their fictional and real audiences. Who cares if they’re saying the right lines, as long as they’re standing (sometimes lying) on a stage and everyone’s having a good time?

Photo credit: Shaun Chambers

For those who do “do Shakespeare”, there’s plenty of fun to be had trying to spot fake quotes among the real ones, but knowledge of the Bard certainly isn’t a prerequisite, and there’s something for everyone in this hilarious production. High culture it isn’t; great entertainment it absolutely is.

Doing Shakespeare continues at the Bridewell Theatre until 13th November.