Review: Snow White at Chickenshed

The run-up to Christmas means different things to different people. For the team at Chickenshed, it means it’s time once again for the challenge of putting 800 people on stage in the company’s final production of the year. Not all at once – there are four casts rotating throughout the six-week run – but still, it’s no mean feat to direct 200 people at a time, particularly when the majority of them are children.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

This year, the inclusive theatre company bring us an alternative Snow White. Written and directed by Lou Stein, it’s set in 1960s London, with a feminist plot twist and a heartwarming message about inner beauty, the redemptive power of forgiveness and the importance of staying true to yourself no matter what. Oh, and there’s a couple of really, really catchy tunes that will stay in your head all the way home, whether you like it or not. In other words, it’s the very definition of a Chickenshed Christmas show.

The show isn’t technically a panto – though I was tempted to boo more than once at Sarah Connolly’s gleefully convincing wicked stepmother Jane De Villiers – but it has roughly the same format: lots of musical numbers, a fairly lightweight plot, fabulous costumes, random superfluous characters, a swift and somewhat implausible happy ending, and a little bit of audience participation. There’s even a man in a dress, courtesy of Ashley Driver, who totally steals the show as Jane’s delightfully sassy Mirror. If Kinky Boots ever makes a comeback (please, theatre gods) – I know who I’ll be backing to play Lola.

A bit of romance is also, of course, on the agenda (this is a fairy tale, after all), and Cara McInanny and Nathaniel Leigertwood make an engaging pair as Snow White and security guy/single dad Jason. McInanny has a beautiful voice, and really shines in the musical numbers as her character tries to understand who she is and where she belongs. But there are lighter moments too; the scene in which Jason “kills” Snow White on her stepmother’s orders, for instance, is both a bit surreal and very funny.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Perhaps inevitably, given the sheer number of people involved, there are a few issues with acoustics and it’s sometimes difficult to make out all the lyrics to Dave Carey’s 60s-inspired songs (unless you happen to know BSL, as the whole show is also signed). What the musical numbers sometimes lack in vocal clarity, however, they more than make up for in terms of choreography and sheer enthusiasm. As previously mentioned, at times there are 200 people on stage, and to see them all dancing, singing and having fun together is not only an impressive directorial achievement; it also sums up exactly what Chickenshed is all about. As always, their Christmas show is a festive treat that’s guaranteed to warm your heart and send you home feeling a little bit better about the world. Who can say no to that?

Snow White is at Chickenshed until 11th January.

Review: Rules for Living at Tower Theatre

First performed at the National in 2015, Sam Holcroft’s dark festive comedy Rules for Living starts out simply enough. Brothers Adam (Dickon Farmar) and Matthew (Adam Hampton-Matthews) have come home to spend Christmas Day with their mum Edith (Rosanna Preston) and convalescing father Francis (Tom Tillery). They’re accompanied by Adam’s wife Sheena (Hattie Hahn) and daughter Emma (Helena Braithwaite), and Matthew’s new girlfriend Carrie (Kasia Chodurek), and it doesn’t take long for the audience to realise this is a family with issues – though it’s only as the play unfolds that we begin to appreciate just how dysfunctional they really are.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Entertainment based on nightmare family celebrations is, of course, nothing new – you only have to turn on Eastenders on Christmas Day to see that. But what makes this play unique is a twist inspired by the concept of cognitive behavioural therapy. The actions of each member of the party are governed by a seemingly arbitrary rule, which is made known to the audience but not to the other characters. Matthew, for instance, must sit down to tell a lie, while his brother Adam must adopt a silly accent whenever he’s mocking someone. It’s all good fun to begin with, not least for the audience as we keep an eye out for each character’s rule in action. But what starts as a game soon turns into a bitter dispute, with each character so focused on scoring points against the rest that it never occurs to them this could be a game with no winners.

The play is a challenging one to stage, with the script demanding a degree of choreography and meticulous attention to detail – but director John Chapman rises to the task admirably in this accomplished new production at the Tower Theatre. The excellent cast, too, who display expert comic timing and complete conviction throughout, enthusiastically seize the opportunity to bring their dysfunctional characters to full three-dimensional life. This is not a play where two characters speak while everyone else sits around doing nothing; whether it’s Adam Hampton-Matthews and Dickon Farmar making silent but fervent rude hand gestures at each other behind the others’ backs, or Kasia Chodurek and Hattie Hahn’s hilarious range of facial expressions, there’s always something to look at, and we learn just as much – if not more – about their relationships with each other from observing their reactions.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

The game-play element is portrayed through the use of a screen, upon which each new rule is displayed just at the opportune moment, and which in Act 2 converts into a scoreboard as the “game” begins to heat up. This part of the play becomes quite complex, especially once all the characters start talking at once, but it also lends the play a clever and interesting new dimension that actively engages the audience and encourages us to listen to what each of the characters is revealing about themselves every time they speak or act.

Perhaps not your traditional feel-good festive show, but we’ll have plenty of those to choose from in London this month. So for something a bit different (and a few lessons on what not to say to the family this Christmas), this entertaining, high-quality production is highly recommended.

Rules for Living is at Tower Theatre until 7th December.

Review: A Pissedmas Carol at Leicester Square Theatre

We all know the basic plot of A Christmas Carol by now, right? Scrooge is a wealthy but stingy old man who hates Christmas, people and life in general. Then one Christmas Eve he gets visited by lots of ghosts, who show him the error of his ways and make him a new man by Christmas morning.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge Photography

That’s how it’s supposed to go, anyway. But all bets are off in this riotous production from Shit-faced Showtime – due to the fact that one member of the cast has got good and drunk before the show begins. The chosen one at each show (at press night it was Daniel Quirke, although for obvious reasons it’s a rotating duty) then proceeds to cause as much merry mayhem as possible, while their fellow actors, a compere dressed as Charles Dickens, and various audience members – as you might expect, this is a front row beware kind of show – gamely attempt to keep things moving along in vaguely the right direction.

Despite being familiar with the work of Magnificent Bastards – who first founded Shit-faced Shakespeare, before branching out with Shit-faced Showtime – this was my first time seeing them in action, and the show was exactly as silly and outrageous as expected. Though there’s occasionally the faint sense that the jokes may not be quite as out of the blue as they appear, the abilities of the rest of the cast to run with whatever happens on stage – aggressively floating mince pies, inappropriate observations about the wallpaper, bizarre new personal greetings – are impressive, and the results predictably enjoyable.

While the primary objective of the show is comedic chaos, and the apparent mission of the drunk is to sabotage proceedings as much as possible, what’s clever about the format is that there’s still a proper performance to be enjoyed here too. The fundamentals of the plot and script we know are all in place – albeit with a few unexpected tweaks of which Mr Dickens might not entirely approve – and the various festive musical numbers in Katy Baker’s production are beautifully performed (Issy Wroe Wright’s heartfelt Last Christmas is a particular stand-out moment). This gives the audience a bit of a breather from the relentless mayhem, and allows us to appreciate the talents of the actors not only as comedians but also as serious performers.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge Photography

If you’re easily offended by drinking, swearing, nose-licking (don’t ask)… you should perhaps give this show a miss, and maybe go and see a more traditional production of A Christmas Carol; there are, after all, always plenty to choose from in London. If, on the other hand, you’re tired of watching regular adaptations, you fancy a change from panto, or you just like the idea of watching a very good actor make an absolute fool of themselves on stage while several other very good actors try and keep a straight face – A Pissedmas Carol is well worth a visit for an hour of good-natured silliness, great entertainment and copious amounts (quite literally) of Christmas spirit.

A Pissedmas Carol is at Leicester Square Theatre until 5th January.

Review: White Christmas at Dominion Theatre

Like it or not, the festive season is well and truly upon us – and nowhere more so than at the Dominion Theatre, home until the new year to the West End transfer of White Christmas, following its critically acclaimed run last year at Leicester Curve. A glitzy, joyous and unashamedly cheesy spectacle with a stellar cast, this revival of Irving Berlin’s festive musical will undoubtedly send even the most determined of Scrooges away feeling at least a little bit Christmassy.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Which is funny, really, since most of the show doesn’t have much to do with the holiday season, and for most of the evening it’s easy to forget we’re watching a Christmas show at all. Set in 1954, the plot follows soldiers turned Broadway stars Bob Wallace (Danny Mac) and Phil Davis (Dan Burton), as they team up with singing sisters Betty (Danielle Hope) and Judy Haynes (Clare Halse) to put on a spectacular new show. Their goal is to save a struggling Vermont inn, owned by their much-respected former general Henry Waverly (Michael Brandon) and managed by no-nonsense concierge Martha Watson (Brenda Edwards). Along the way, naturally, there are misunderstandings and miscommunications – but eventually everything sorts itself out, everyone falls in love, and it starts snowing just in time for their Christmas celebrations.

The production, directed by Nikolai Foster and choreographed by Stephen Mear, is undeniably brilliant. Highly polished and visually stunning, it showcases the talent and charisma of an exceptional cast. Leading men Danny Mac and Dan Burton are an effortlessly charming duo, and Danielle Hope and Clare Halse prove more than a match for them as the glamorous and accomplished Haynes sisters. The choreography and design are exquisite, and there are moments in the show – particularly during the lavish dance numbers, and any time the magnificent Brenda Edwards is on stage – that genuinely take your breath away.

While everything about the production is of the highest quality, the same can’t necessarily be said of the show itself, which sometimes struggles under the burden of a weak and dated storyline, and songs that are – with one or two obvious exceptions – not particularly memorable or relevant to what’s going on. (Which is not to say they’re not catchy; there’s a song about snow in Act 1 whose lyrics make no sense at all, but it’s still incredibly hard to sit still through it.)

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Still, it’s difficult to be too bothered by any of this because, well, it’s Christmas… Maybe it’s not perfect, and it certainly takes a while to get warmed up – but sometimes a bit of feel-good festive escapism is all you need, and on that front the show delivers in style. Before long the stage is overflowing with so much joy, romance and goodwill to all that ultimately, much like the snow song, this White Christmas proves impossible to resist.

White Christmas is at the Dominion Theatre until 4th January.

Review: Oopsy Daisy at Katzpace

A dark comedy about sex, power and friendship, Oopsy Daisy is the story of two strangers brought together first by coincidence (and too much rosé), and later by an impulsive decision that will change both their lives.

Jo (Holly McFarlane) is a well-known actor and celebrity who finds herself, to her consternation, sharing an Uber Pool one night with Jamie (Rory Fairbairn). He’s also an actor, but a far less established one, and he can’t believe his luck when Jo announces she’s going to get him a role in her latest film. But her loneliness and his ambition prove a dangerous combination, and what seems in the moment to be a fun, naughty idea backfires spectacularly. Can they save their careers and their friendship – or has one bad decision cost them everything?

Photo credit: Maria Shehata

Written by Holly McFarlane and directed by Mat Betteridge, Oopsy Daisy is a witty and very current piece of new writing that nonetheless packs quite a punch when it needs to. The play explores – though not unsympathetically – the things that successful people might be willing to do to stay on top, even at the expense of those they claim to call friends. It also exposes the less glamorous side of fame; Jo may be a success in a lot of ways that matter to other people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s any happier than Jamie. Stuck in a soulless hotel room, isolated from her friends and husband and living out of a suitcase, we can’t blame her for seeking a bit of excitement – even if her later actions prove more difficult to forgive.

The on-stage relationship between Holly McFarlane and Rory Fairbairn is perfectly executed and totally convincing, both in moments of humour and of tension. Both characters have depth to them – it would have been easy to paint Jamie as a hapless victim of Jo’s whims and manipulation, but instead the fallout from the incident presents an opportunity for him to reveal a much darker side, and for the balance of power between them to shift dramatically in the second half of the play.

With references to the likes of Game of Thrones, James McAvoy and – of course – Uber Pool, and less direct nods also to #metoo and the power of the press to make and break careers, from the start Oopsy Daisy feels very current. The fateful decision at the heart of the plot may be inspired by a rumour about a 40-year-old movie, but the themes of the play are very much of 2019 – or perhaps it’s just that when it comes to the pitfalls of fame, not much has changed in the last few decades. Either way, this is a funny, fast-paced play featuring two excellent performances; hopefully this short run at Katzpace won’t be the last we see of it.

Oopsy Daisy is at Katzpace until 20th November.