Review: Dirty Dancing at the Dominion Theatre

Back in the West End following a record-breaking run in 2022, Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage has clearly lost none of its appeal. In short: if you love the movie, you’ll love the show. The stage production is almost an exact replica, from script to costumes, music to – of course – dance routines. The show’s creative team know not to mess with a winning formula, so while the show contains a few added scenes designed to give context to those who want it, the core story of Johnny and Baby has wisely been left untouched, much to the appreciation of an enthusiastic audience.

It’s the summer of 1963, and Frances “Baby” Houseman (Kira Malou) arrives at Catskills holiday resort Kellerman’s with her parents and older sister. Before long, and much to the disapproval of her dad, she’s got involved with the “dance people” and fallen for instructor Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly). Will love conquer all? Of course it will – though naturally there are more than a few bumps on the way to the famous finale.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Like the movie, the show – also written by Eleanor Bergstein – is great fun, and more than a little bit cheesy, though not without straying into a few dark areas (there’s a whole side plot related to abortion, for instance), and even the most cynical of viewers would find it hard not to cheer as Johnny runs down the aisle to interrupt the Kellerman’s end-of-season talent show. Famous lines are greeted with wild cheers, as is any scene where Michael O’Reilly’s Johnny takes his shirt off, and the iconic lift is correctly rewarded with rapturous applause.

Kira Malou and Michael O’Reilly reprise their starring roles from the 2022 West End cast, and are joined by several other returning cast members, including Charlotte Gooch as Penny, Lynden Edwards as Jake Houseman, Jackie Morrison as his wife Marge and Colin Charles as Tito Suarez, who’s a much more significant – and energetic – character here than in the movie. The cast also benefits from some fantastic new additions, notably Danny Colligan and Lydia Sterling, who provide show-stealing vocals on several of the musical numbers.

Visually, the show also looks great, Federico Bellone’s set and Valerio Tiberi’s lighting coming together to bring the ostensibly perfect world of Kellerman’s vibrantly to life. The show understands its limitations and leans into them – it’s not possible, for example, to have a lake on stage, but leaving out the famous lake scene was never an option, so a creative solution has been found which gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening (rivalled only by Georgina Castle’s magnificently terrible rendition of Lisa’s Hula).

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Finally, a note about the dancing (choreography by Austin Wilks), which is unsurprisingly fantastic. If you were ever to wonder why it was necessary to put “the classic story on stage” when the original works perfectly well as it is – the dancing is why; on stage it has an energy and immediacy you can never get through a cinema or TV screen, not to mention an element of risk in “that lift”.

In summary, Dirty Dancing is the kind of show where you could pretty much ignore all of this review after the first two lines (please don’t, though). If you’re a fan of the movie, the show can do no wrong – it has all the fun, energy and romance of the original, and going in you know exactly what you’re going to get. Unlike Baby, it’s not going to change the world, but it’s a great night out and – yes, I’m going to say it – maybe even the time of your life.

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage is at the Dominion Theatre, currently booking until 29th April 2023.

Review: Salt-Water Moon at Finborough Theatre

Though it’s considered to be a Canadian classic, it’s somehow taken nearly 40 years for David French’s Salt-Water Moon to reach the UK, directed by Peter Kavanagh at the Finborough. Part of the semi-autobiographical “Mercer series”, this gentle two-hander introduces us to Jacob (Joseph Potter), newly returned to his Newfoundland home after a year in Toronto, and Mary (Bryony Miller), the sweetheart he’s come to win back. But while it’s first and foremost a story about the rekindling of lost love, the play has a surprising depth to it as it explores the complex reasons behind both characters’ actions, both past and present.

Photo credit: Lucy Hayes

One year ago, Jacob left home abruptly without saying goodbye. In his absence, desperate to make a home for herself and her younger sister, Mary’s accepted the marriage proposal of a wealthy neighbour. It’s a match that will ensure her future, but when Jacob swaggers back into her life one moonlit night a few weeks before the wedding, all her plans are thrown up in the air. Bryony Miller’s Mary has a fragile dignity throughout, resolutely gazing into the middle distance as Jacob tries every weapon in his arsenal – charm, reproach, comedy, emotional blackmail – to break down her defences. Though Joseph Potter’s portrayal is undeniably charming, this dogged approach is not always comfortable to watch, and while the pair’s eventual reconciliation always feels inevitable, it’s by no means clear that taking him back is the wisest decision. It also feels, as the play concludes, like much is still left unsaid about the reasons for his departure; while Mary clearly remembers the events that indirectly prompted his decision, the audience is given only sketchy details, and even Mary gets little explanation as to how or why one led to the other. This is all the more stark considering the way other stories are told over the course of the play, with a level of detail that can at times feel a little awkward, like it’s more for the audience’s benefit than it is for Mary’s.

Photo credit: Lucy Hayes

The structure of the play is on paper very simple, consisting of one single 75-minute dialogue between the two former lovers, during which it’s made clear that nobody’s going anywhere until the question of Jacob and Mary is resolved once and for all. Mim Houghton’s set, a gorgeous recreation of the night sky above, also gives little away – and yet there’s a whole world that surrounds the characters, and while we may not see the Newfoundland shoreline or encounter any other members of the small-town community, they all come vividly to life through David French’s evocative, often lyrical text. For those of us whose only knowledge of Newfoundland is from watching Come From Away, it’s a fascinating – if brief – insight into a land with a culture, history, and yes, accent that’s all its own.

Though only a short play, Salt-Water Moon, anchored by two excellent performances and the intimacy of the Finborough, succeeds in drawing us in to Jacob and Mary’s story so that we become invested (one way or another) in the outcome. Some questions are left unanswered as the actors take their well-deserved bows, but the story has enough of a resolution that it doesn’t feel unsatisfying – instead we’re left wanting more, and that’s never a bad thing.

Salt-Water Moon continues at the Finborough Theatre until 28th January.

Review: A Christmas Carol at the Jack Studio Theatre

It’s perhaps no surprise that this year we seem to have even more productions of A Christmas Carol in London’s theatres than usual – times being what they are, Dickens’ story continues to hit home almost two centuries after it was written. This particular adaptation by Ross McGregor takes place somewhere in the middle, on Christmas Eve 1914, as enemy soldiers put down their guns and prepare to meet for a game of football. British medic Jim (Tice Oakfield) isn’t playing in the match; he’s inside, entertaining wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge – a story, we discover later, which has particular significance for him.

Photo credit: Davor @The Ocular Creative

Firstly, if you think you need more than one actor to put on a production of A Christmas Carol, director Kate Bannister and the Jack Studio team are about to prove you wrong. Through a combination of stage magic, video projection, non-threatening audience participation, and an exceptional display of versatility from actor Tice Oakfield, the story is brought to fully three-dimensional life – though not without a couple of tongue-in-cheek nods to the fact this is, at the end of the day, a medic armed with little more than a dressing up box and a few crowd-pleasing magic tricks.

The script remains largely true to Dickens’ original, though anyone familiar with Ross McGregor’s work will recognise his trademark wit occasionally breaking through. What makes this version of the story unique is the WW1 framing, which brings a new perspective – on this most poignant of nights, the past, present and future are more clearly distinct than ever, and the impact each of us can have on our fellow human beings has never been so important. Watching the show in 2022, our immediate circumstances might be different, but that message of kindness and personal responsibility remains just as potent.

Photo credit: Davor @The Ocular Creative

In keeping with that message, Jim offers us the only thing he has – his talents as a storyteller – and that gift is worth more than any high-budget production. The show is full of creativity and surprises, with seamless interaction between audio, video and live action elements (the appearance of the first two ghosts is particularly well done by video designer Douglas Baker). Tice Oakfield is exceptional as Jim, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the performance with the joyful abandon of a man who doesn’t know if he’ll live to see another Christmas. There are even a couple of musical numbers, which serve no particular narrative purpose other than to put a smile on our faces, and the big emotional payoff – Scrooge’s redemption – is suitably exuberant, although maybe a little rushed.

As already observed, this is far from the only option for anyone wanting to see A Christmas Carol in London this year – but if you’re looking for a performance that’s intimate, funny, inventive and a little bit different, this year’s festive offering from the Jack surely has to be a tough one to beat.

A Christmas Carol continues at the Jack Studio Theatre until 30th December.

Review: Paradise Now! at Bush Theatre

What does success look like? What does it feel like? And if you achieve whatever you think success is, is it guaranteed to make you happy? These are all questions expertly dissected in Margaret Perry’s Paradise Now!, in which six women are brought together by a multi-level marketing scheme selling essential oils. Gabriel (Michele Moran) is recovering from a period of severe depression when she meets the ambitious Alex (Shazia Nicholls), who’s on the lookout for “dedicated, ferocious women” to join her Paradise Pack. Fired up by her newfound purpose, Gabriel finds to her surprise that her unorthodox sales technique actually works – but will climbing the ranks at Paradise help her achieve her goal of helping her younger sister Baby (Carmel Winters) to finally get some sleep?

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Inspired by Gabriel’s success, wannabe TV presenter Carla (Ayoola Smart) also joins the group, despite the scepticism of her girlfriend Anthie (Annabel Baldwin), while Alex quickly comes to regret her decision to invite old school acquaintance Laurie (Rakhee Thakrar) into the team. Despite obviously simmering tensions, somehow the six women find their way together to Paradise Now!, the company’s annual conference in Brighton – but when they get there, building a human pyramid turns out to be the least of their problems.

Margaret Perry brilliantly takes what sounds on paper like a pretty mundane scenario and makes it fascinating, by focusing not on Paradise but on the people who are drawn to it. Each character has their own motivations and insecurities, and it’s these details, skilfully uncovered little by little, that drive the plot forward and keep us engaged despite a lengthy run time of 2 hours 40 minutes. The three core relationships that make up the narrative are infinitely relatable – two sisters, two lovers, and two old “friends” with very little in common – and the journey they take together is just extreme enough to maintain our interest without ever straying too far from plausible reality. And although Paradise – represented by the voice of mythical “She-E-O” Fiona Franks (Martha Plimpton) – is always portrayed as a shadowy, dangerous presence, Alex isn’t completely wrong when she claims that “these women have become my family”. For all its faults, the scheme does offer some comfort and companionship to people who desperately need it, and this cautionary tale is not without unexpected moments of joy.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s production is equally clever and nuanced; like Perry’s script, it walks the line between comedy and tragedy, and skilfully portrays the often vast dichotomy between appearance and reality. This comes across in the performances of the excellent cast, who deliver their lines with a smile while their body language and facial expressions tell a very different story, resulting in some moments that are hilarious, and others that are heartbreaking. This is echoed too in Rosie Elnile’s set design; at first glance a bland conference room, it quickly proves to be full of all kinds of surprises. Slick scene changes are maximised to the full, offering us further insight into the characters’ lives and personalities even when they’re not saying a word.

If the play has a flaw it’s that it possibly has too much to say. Each of the six characters has their own complex story to tell, and there simply isn’t time to delve into them all as deeply as we’d like to. This leaves the audience with more than a few loose ends as the evening draws to a close, with secrets hinted at but never revealed, and personal anecdotes shared but then never picked up again. But then again, if this play teaches us anything, it’s that true satisfaction comes at a cost – and there’s so much to enjoy in this vibrant new production that filling in a few gaps seems a small price to pay.

Paradise Now! is at Bush Theatre until 21st January.

Review: Jack! at Chickenshed

It’s the festive season, and of all the Christmas shows on offer this year, I’m not sure they could possibly come much bigger than Chickenshed’s Jack! Playing is believing… As ever, the North London theatre company’s end-of-year spectacular is staggering in its ambition, with a cast of 800 in total across four revolving rotas. And if that inevitably means that at times things get a bit chaotic, it’s a small price to pay for a show with such warmth, inclusivity and pure joy.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Jack! is a new twist on the traditional tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, and finds video game fan Jack (Hector Dogliani at our performance, Ellie Carroll at others) selling his precious games console for three lives on a new arcade game called the Beanstalk. Unsurprisingly, his mum (Lauren Cambridge) and younger sibling, known to all as Lil’un (at our performance played by Sylvie Hammersley-Fox, one of four young actors covering the role), are less than impressed – but could there be more to this particular game than meets the eye? With the help of the fourth-wall-breaking Tech Support (Michael Bossisse and Bethany Hamlin) and a diverse cast of avatars, Jack makes his way through the levels, heading for the ultimate confrontation with the last Boss he expected.

Written by Dave Carey and directed by Robin Shillinglaw, Michael Bossisse, Bethany Hamlin and Cara McInanny, the show’s development began with a series of workshops to explore what the different levels of the Beanstalk might look like, before being distilled into the story we see on stage. With so many ideas to weave together, the plot can at times feel convoluted, and there’s more than one hole to be found if you look too hard for them. But a flawless narrative has never been the point of a Chickenshed show; their mission is to welcome and include everyone, and this production does that on every level – in its cast numbers, its seamless incorporation of sign language, and its subtle message about the importance of having faith in people, even when they might not have faith in themselves.

Photo credit: Mark Field

It’s also perhaps the most ambitious Chickenshed show yet in terms of its design. Don’t be deceived by what you see on first arrival; Andrew Caddies’ set has a lot more to offer as we enter the futuristic and not always entirely friendly world of the Beanstalk. Meanwhile costume designer Emma Gale has clearly been busy, creating a clear and unique style for each level of the game, from neon dance wear to spooky Halloween costumes. This all makes for a visual spectacle, which is further enhanced by energetic song and dance numbers that showcase the broad range of talent across the company, and are guaranteed to have you bopping in your seat.

Perhaps it’s not your most traditional of Christmas shows, but Jack! is something much more special: a quintessential Chickenshed production. I’ve said it before, but if you’re going to travel all the way to Cockfosters for a performance, you can only hope it’ll make you feel half as good as this one does.

Jack! continues at Chickenshed until 7th January 2023.