Review: A Judgement in Stone at the Orchard Theatre

Ruth Rendell was once described in The Sunday Times as “the best woman crime writer since Christie” – so it seems fitting that Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company, having presumably run out of Agatha Christie stories to stage, has chosen one of Rendell’s most famous works for their latest production. A Judgement in Stone unpicks the story of a grisly mass shooting, but despite commendable performances from an impressive cast of household names, it doesn’t quite succeed in blowing its audience away.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Largely, I think this is simply because it’s not Agatha Christie. Her stories work on stage because often they take place in one location, so focusing all the action in a single room doesn’t feel limiting, and because they build to a big reveal of a shocking, clever twist based on clues that have been liberally scattered throughout the play. Rendell’s novel opens by revealing both murderer and motive; it wasn’t really intended as a murder mystery so much as an exploration of social class divisions in the 1970s. Simon Brett and Antony Lampard’s adaptation forces the story into the classic whodunnit mould, meaning a lot of that subtlety is lost, and we spend the whole evening waiting for a twist that, unfortunately, never comes.

 

That said, it’s an entertaining enough production, and director Roy Marsden certainly succeeds in ramping up the suspense, particularly in Act 2. The play opens some weeks after the murders of the wealthy Coverdale family, as a detective from London – called in by someone important in the Government – arrives to help the local police solve the crime. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, beginning when Eunice first joins the family and building up to the night of the murder nine months later. In between, the two police detectives interview various suspects (at the murder scene, rather bizarrely) on their way to solving the crime, which eventually happens more by luck than judgement; there’s certainly no Poirot-esque flash of inspiration that suddenly makes sense of everything, and this also contributes to the play’s rather subdued conclusion.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

The cast do a good job with some slightly sketchy roles (apart from one brief exchange about family life and fish paste sandwiches, for instance, we learn next to nothing about Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon’s police detectives, who only really seem to be there to set up the next flashback). Sophie Ward is great as the awkward, slightly eccentric housekeeper Eunice, while Deborah Grant has perhaps a bit too much fun as her religious fanatic best friend Joan, and there’s a solid performance from Blue’s Antony Costa as Rodger Meadows, the family’s gardener with a dodgy past.

Having seen and enjoyed several productions from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which work so well on stage, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this latest offering. But here’s a twist: I do now want to read Ruth Rendell’s novel. Although I don’t feel it entirely works as a play, the story and characters have enough potential that I’m intrigued to find out everything the stage version didn’t tell me. And fans of Ruth Rendell’s novels, who already know how the story ends, may enjoy this fresh take on a favourite.

A Judgement in Stone is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th September.

Review: Evita at the Orchard Theatre

Sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to realise how long the shows I grew up with have been around (which in turn makes me feel old… but let’s not go there). While Evita – written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1976 and first performed in the West End two years later – isn’t one I saw on stage until my 20s, I do remember watching the movie version starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas all the way back in 1996. Back then I didn’t necessarily follow all the political context of the story, but I loved the music and was fascinated by the rags to riches tale of a teenage girl from a rural town, who rose to become First Lady of Argentina and “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” – only to die from cancer at the age of just 33.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Now Evita is back on tour, and bringing the story of Eva Perón, second wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón, to a new generation. Starring Wicked‘s Emma Hatton and Italian actor Gian Marco Schiaretti – who recently played Tarzan in Stuttgart – this lavish production from Bill Kenwright is both entertaining and educational, a love story with added politics, and a great deal of style. And whether or not you follow all the ins and outs of Argentine history, it’s a fascinating insight into how a celebrity with no knowledge of politics can power their way to the top by sheer determination. Which makes you wonder if we’ll all be watching an equally tragic – for different reasons – show about Trump in 40 years’ time (if so may I suggest a working title of Covfefe: The Musical).

Not entirely surprisingly, West End star Emma Hatton gives a commanding and vocally flawless performance, just as much when Eva’s crumpled on the ground in the last days of her life as when she’s at the height of her power, performing the show-stopping Don’t Cry For Me Argentina to an adoring crowd. Alongside her, relative newcomer Gian Marco Schiaretti more than holds his own as the omnipresent Che, hitting just the right mix of Latin charm, arrogance and helplessness – and some impressive, not to mention unexpected, high notes. The two have excellent support from Kevin Stephen-Jones as Perón, Oscar Balmaseda as Eva’s first lover (and ticket to the big city) Magaldi, and Sarah O’Connor as the unnamed Mistress, a seemingly minor character who nonetheless wows the crowd with one of the show’s best-known numbers, Another Suitcase in Another Hall.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

With Bill Deamer’s lively choreography that takes inspiration both from the Latin American setting and the oppressive atmosphere of a military dictatorship, and an imposing set designed by Matthew Wright, Evita transports us to 1940s Argentina in a dazzling and fast-moving spectacle that only begins to slow down when its protagonist does. 40 years old the show may be, but the passion and energy of this production prove there’s plenty of life in Evita yet.

Evita is at the Orchard Theatre until 3rd June then continuing on tour.

Review: Ghost the Musical at the Orchard Theatre

When thinking back on classic movies from my youth, Ghost is one that I always tend to forget about. I blame Dirty Dancing for this, mostly; for some unfathomable reason, that particular Patrick Swayze movie always takes first place in my mind.

Which is a shame, actually, because Ghost is a great story, with a bit of everything: tears, laughter, life after death and good old-fashioned murder. And now it also has songs, thanks to Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, who along with the movie’s screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin adapted it for the stage back in 2011. Tonight was my second visit, having previously seen Ghost during its West End run a few years back – so how did Bill Kenwright’s new touring production compare?

ghost_jan17_prol

On the whole, the show is pretty faithful to the movie, though a couple of big events get slightly rewritten to make them work on stage. A quick recap for anyone who doesn’t know the plot: Sam and his girlfriend Molly are building the perfect life together, until they’re attacked one night and Sam is fatally shot. Unable to leave while Molly’s still in danger, Sam enlists the help of the only living person who can hear him, fraudulent psychic Oda Mae Brown, to bring his killer to justice and say a final farewell to the woman he loves.

Tonight’s show in Dartford saw the debut of Carolyn Maitland in the role of Molly – and it’s fair to say she smashed it, with spot on vocals and a genuinely heartbreaking performance as Sam’s bereaved girlfriend (and she also remembers not to look at him when he’s standing right in front of her, which I imagine must be a pretty difficult thing to adjust to). Andy Moss, continuing in his role as Sam, has a slight tendency to overact during his musical numbers, and his vocals don’t always live up to those of his co-star – but the chemistry between the pair is touchingly believable, especially for the first night of a new partnership.

Oda Mae Brown is an absolute gift of a part, and West End star Jacqui Dubois seizes it with both hands. Like Whoopi Goldberg before her, there’s no doubt she gets all the best lines, and they’re delivered with perfect comic timing and a fabulously sassy attitude; it’s a shame we have to wait till well into Act 1 for her first appearance.

The score is actually better than I remember, and includes some really quite beautiful numbers, with Molly’s spine-tingling solo, With You, the absolute highlight for me. And of course no production of Ghost would be complete without Unchained Melody, which makes several appearances (and yes, they brought the potter’s wheel with them).

Photo credit: Matt Martin
Photo credit: Matt Martin

Where this production slightly falls down compared to its West End predecessor is in the special effects. Last time, I remember being left open-mouthed when Sam walked through closed doors, or someone who I just saw drop dead on one side of the stage suddenly appeared on the other, and I vowed to pay more attention next time to see how they did it. Apparently, in this production those mind-boggling effects have been stripped back so we can all focus more on the love story, and sadly what’s left is not as impressive. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some pretty cool stuff going on – but let’s just say this time I could see the strings, and it slightly took the shine off.

That said, Ghost is still a great show and well worth a visit, especially if you love the movie. Get ready to laugh, cry, tap your foot and, best of all, join in with the cheesy dialogue (all together now: “Ditto…”) – then head home and curl up on the sofa for a Swayze double bill.

Ghost the Musical is at the Orchard Theatre until 21st January.

Review: The Sound of Music at the Orchard Theatre

If the measure of a good show is how many people burst into song as they leave the theatre, The Sound of Music is surely well up there. Based on the true story of the Von Trapp family, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is undoubtedly a classic, featuring a host of much-loved songs, a heartwarming love story, some unexpected Nazis and the world’s nicest children. What’s not to love?

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Set in 1930s Austria, The Sound of Music tells the story of Maria, a young woman struggling to adapt to the restrictive life of a nun, who’s sent away to live with the Von Trapp family as a governess. Charmed by the seven musically talented Von Trapp children, it’s not long before she starts to fall for their father too. All seems to be turning out well, until the Nazis turn up and try to ruin everything (as Nazis do).

Bill Kenwright’s revival stars Lucy O’Byrne, who gives a pitch perfect performance in just about every way. Maria is a role that requires a lot more vocally than just do-re-mi, and O’Byrne wastes no time in showing off the incredible range that took her all the way to the final of TV’s The Voice, along with the irresistible joie de vivre that instantly wins over both Von Trapps and audience alike.

But it’s not just the star of the show who hits the mark vocally. Rebecca Caine comes close to outshining the rest of the cast, as she brings down the curtain on both acts with her stunning rendition of Climb Every Mountain. Former Corrie star Andrew Lancel produces a charming Edelweiss, and the Von Trapp children repeatedly melt our hearts with their polished performance and beautiful harmonies.

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Gary McCann’s set is one of the most impressive I’ve seen at the Orchard. The story takes us back and forth more than once between Nonnberg Abbey and the Von Trapp house, with occasional trips to other locations – and the set follows suit, without ever missing a beat or compromising on either scale or detail. And these frequent set changes happen so smoothly that the audience, absorbed in the story and music, barely notices them.

Nazis aside, The Sound of Music is very much a feel-good show; it’s difficult not to walk out feeling a little bit better about life (and, let’s be honest, even the Nazis aren’t that scary, really). It’s a love story first and foremost, but there are some other themes in there too, like growing up, finding your passion in life and standing up for what you believe in, no matter what anyone else says. Also, singing is good. As are hills.

For lifelong fans of The Sound of Music, this revival is a fitting tribute. For first timers or – dare I say it – sceptics, it may just win you over. Either way, it’s a production not to be missed.

The Sound of Music is at the Orchard Theatre until 1st October.