Review: A Christmas Carol at Chickenshed

Of all the many, many versions of A Christmas Carol on offer in and around London this festive season, few could be more heartfelt than the one that opened last week at Chickenshed. Charles Dickens’ much-loved message of compassion and generosity is a perfect match for Chickenshed’s own ethos of inclusivity, and presented here by a rotating cast of 200 (per show – 800 in total), the result is both spectacular to watch and joyously festive to experience.

Photo credit: Ava de Souza

The story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Ashley Driver), who sees the error of his ways one Christmas Eve after being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, has been updated slightly in Lou Stein’s production to take place not in Victorian London, but in the 1930s. This allows for an element of social commentary on the economic and political climate of the time (and not just of that time; an inadequate welfare system and women demanding equal pay both feature prominently), an attractive Art Deco style set designed by William Fricker, and an enjoyable jazz-inspired feel to Dave Carey’s original musical numbers. But it also, importantly, drives home the timeless relevance of Dickens’ novel and the lessons it imparts; whatever century we’re in, the need to look out for each other never goes away.

In what Chickenshed regulars will recognise as a typically ambitious Christmas production, Ashley Driver confidently and very competently leads the core cast as Scrooge. The success of any production of this story depends on having a central character who the audience both dislikes and believes is capable of change – and this one delivers on both counts; at first every inch the villain, as the story moves on Driver proves he can do fear, bemusement and finally infectious joy just as convincingly. Alongside him, Finn Walters is a very likeable Bob Cratchit – doting father to a humorously excessive number of children – and Paul Harris a suitably spooky Marley (though not as chilling as Will Laurence’s Ghost of Christmas Future; think Dementors on rollerblades and you’re not far off). In one of many magical moments, Ghost of Christmas Present Michael Bossisse makes an unexpected entrance that delights the audience, while Gemilla Shamruk hits all the right notes – in every sense – as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

What makes Chickenshed’s A Christmas Carol truly unique, though, is the huge supporting cast. Just as everyone who comes to see a show at the theatre receives the warmest of welcomes, there’s a place too at Chickenshed for anyone who wants to perform, and this is reflected in the diversity, enthusiasm and cooperation we see on stage. Despite the daunting numbers of young people involved, everyone is exceptionally well organised, and there’s a real sense of shared purpose from them all, however big or small their role. And while I’m singing Chickenshed’s praises, let’s also mention it’s great to see a show that not only features signing but places it proudly at front and centre of the performance.

This is theatre for everyone, by everyone – and if it doesn’t get your Christmas spirit going, then frankly I suspect nothing will. I generally make it a rule to try and see only one A Christmas Carol per year; I’m glad this is the one I chose for 2018. It might not be as polished as some, but there’s no doubt it’s got the biggest heart (not to mention cast) of them all.

A Christmas Carol is at Chickenshed until 5th January.


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Review: Jekyll and Hyde at Chickenshed

Like the gothic novella on which it’s based, Chickenshed’s new musical adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde is short and to the point. Storming through Robert Louis Stevenson’s story in around 70 minutes (plus interval), Jonny Morton’s highly physical piece takes the original plot and adds a modern twist to the performance, along with a strong theme of social responsibility that feels particularly resonant today.

The studio space at Chickenshed has been transformed by set designer Constance Villemot into a smoky, dimly lit Victorian London street, where the poor huddle in corners while the more well-to-do go about their business, blind to the suffering around them. The story’s opening incident, which sees Hyde trampling a young girl in the street, has been upgraded in this version from a moment of carelessness to a deliberate and prolonged attack, which is observed but not interrupted by passing lawyer Utterson (Demar Lambert) and his companion Dr Lanyon (Finn Kebbe). Their chief concern in that moment is not for the nameless girl who’s beaten and left for dead in the street, but for their friend Dr Jekyll (Nathaniel Leigertwood), who they fear is being blackmailed by the perpetrator of the attack, Hyde.

Utterson’s anxiety grows when he’s informed by Jekyll’s household staff, led by butler Poole (Will Laurence), that their master seems changed – but it’s only much later that he learns the truth: Hyde is Jekyll, transformed by a potion of the doctor’s own invention into a villain. Over time, this side of Jekyll has seized control and gone on the rampage, climaxing at the end of Act 1 with the brutal, unprovoked murder of philanthropist Sir Danvers Carew (Ecevit Kulucan) as he tends to the poor.

Both Jekyll and Hyde are played by Nathaniel Leigertwood, and while he gives a good performance as both, it’s as the more interesting of the two – Hyde – that he really comes into his own. His transformation from the elegant and mild-mannered Jekyll into Hyde (further enhanced by Andrew Caddies’ particularly atmospheric lighting) is frighteningly convincing: appearance, voice and personality all change beyond recognition as he’s wracked by spasms and emerges a hunched, animalistic figure with an evil cackle and an absolute lack of remorse.

Strong individual support comes in the form of Demar Lambert and Finn Kebbe as Utterson and Lanyon – the former a commanding presence, the latter ultimately a broken man destroyed by the knowledge of his complicity in Hyde’s crimes. In reality, however (and in keeping with Chickenshed’s inclusive philosophy), this is an ensemble piece; a diverse, hard-working and vocally impressive chorus perform the majority of the physically demanding musical numbers and provide commentary on events as they unfold.

Like the rest of the production, Dave Carey and Hanna Bohlin’s up-tempo rock musical score has a distinctly modern flavour. With no spoken dialogue, the show moves swiftly from one number to the next, managing to pack an impressive 21 songs (albeit with several reprises) into its 70-minute duration. There are occasions when the vocals struggle to compete with the volume of the pre-recorded soundtrack, and combined with the pace of some of the songs, this can make it difficult to catch every word. Perhaps in recognition of this, the “penny dreadfuls” that are distributed as we arrive contain a handy synopsis of the plot, while the title of each new chapter is projected on the wall to help us orientate ourselves and fill in any plot gaps.

With this production, Chickenshed proves once again that it knows how to entertain audiences with a good story. But the show also asks us to consider some pertinent and rather topical questions about the importance of the choices we make – for ourselves, for others and for society as a whole.

Jekyll and Hyde is at Chickenshed until 20th October.


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Review: Mr Stink at Chickenshed

Chickenshed is an inclusive theatre company that celebrates diversity in all its forms. Mr Stink is a story about a homeless man who’s befriended by a 12-year-old girl – the only person who ever bothers to stop and talk to him. Put the two together, and it’s pretty much a perfect fit.

The second novel from best-selling children’s author David Walliams is a heartwarming tale of friendship, loneliness and the social responsibility we all have to look out for our fellow human beings… even if they really, really stink. Adapted as a musical by director Lou Stein, it’s a colourful, funny and thought-provoking show for all ages, with songs that are so catchy you may well find yourself still singing them the next day, whether you want to or not (trust me on this, I speak from experience). And really, how can you not fall in love with a show that opens Act 2 with a musical number about sausages?

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

Mr Stink (Bradley Davis) is an old “vagabond”, to use his word, who arrives in town one day and takes up residence on a bench. He and his dog are ostracised by the local community because they smell so bad, until one day Chloe Crumb (Lydia Stables) stops to say hello. Chloe has a nice house and a family; she goes to a posh school and always has enough to eat. But she’s also lonely and feels unloved by her exhaustingly perfect sister Annabelle (Maddie Kavanagh) and above all by her mother (Belinda McGuirk), a determined social climber running for election as a local MP. One of her campaign promises is to get “soap-dodgers” off the streets, and so to protect her new friend, Chloe moves him into the garden shed – but he doesn’t stay hidden for long…

Chickenshed never fail to impress with the quality of their productions, and Mr Stink is no exception, showcasing some excellent performances from the whole cast, and in particular Bradley Davis and Lydia Stables (sharing the role with Lucy-Mae Beacock) as Mr Stink and Chloe. Their blossoming friendship is a joy to watch, with each of them helping the other in ways they could never have predicted. Alongside them, Belinda McGuirk and Maddie Kavanagh (sharing her role with Courtney Dayes) are enjoyably loathsome as Mrs Crumb and Annabelle, while Ashley Driver plays the hapless Mr Crumb – who spends most of his time hiding from his wife – to great comic effect.

There’s also a delightful appearance by Goutham Rohan as Raj, the local shopkeeper, who’s always on hand with some helpful advice or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stationery set. Oh, and did I mention Mr Stink marks the professional acting debut of a certain Jeremy Vine, who appears in a pre-recorded video segment as Sir Dave, the host of TV show Politics Today.

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

The show looks amazing, too, with colourful and exceptionally detailed set and costumes designed by Keith Dunne, all of which are beautifully lit by Andrew Caddies. The musical numbers, written by Lou Stein and Dave Carey, may not add much to the story but they do provide a visual treat, and allow for the inclusion in the show of a small chorus ensemble, who execute Dina Williams’ choreography in the group numbers with flair and the boundless enthusiasm that’s such an irresistible feature of Chickenshed performances.

Like all good family shows, there’s something for everyone in Mr Stink; it’s a lot of fun and occasionally very silly, with humour that will tickle kids and adults alike. But it also makes a powerful point; while I don’t for a minute believe David Walliams wants us all to go out and find a homeless man to hide in the garden shed, what his story does show us is the importance of reaching out to help others, without making judgments about who they are or what they do. And that, I think, is a lesson we can all benefit from – whether we’re 8 or 80.

Mr Stink is at Chickenshed until 5th August.


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Review: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest at Chickenshed

Here’s an interesting piece of pub quiz trivia: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was both a novel and a play over a decade before it became an Oscar-winning movie. In fact Dale Wasserman wrote the play just a year after the publication of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel – long before Jack Nicholson and co got involved – and in doing so kept largely faithful to Kesey’s original plot. In taking on such a culturally significant story, Chickenshed and director Lou Stein have set themselves a daunting challenge. Having said that, this poignant and still relevant story about the way society treats those who don’t fit the mould feels like an appropriate choice for a theatre company that prides itself on making everyone welcome.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

In a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, the ward’s well-established and quietly humdrum routine is thrown into chaos by the arrival of Randall McMurphy, who’s managed to get himself committed in order to avoid a hard labour sentence for statutory rape. Almost immediately McMurphy clashes with the formidable Nurse Ratched, encouraging the other patients to have some fun and join him in rebelling against her reign of tyranny. At once harrowing and uplifting, you don’t need to have seen the movie (or indeed read the book) to appreciate why this story is hailed as a classic.

As ever at Chickenshed, a diverse cast brings Kesey’s characters to life, with an outstanding performance from leading man Olivier LeClair in particular. He’s got Jack Nicholson’s beanie hat and sly grin, but otherwise succeeds in making this iconic role completely his own, in a charismatic and energetic turn that has us on his side from the beginning. Belinda McGuirk’s Nurse Ratched is introduced more subtly, her seemingly compassionate manner gradually revealed to be a facade as she manipulates and belittles her patients – not to mention the ward doctor – into submission. There are moving performances also from Bradley Davis as Chief Bromden, a Native American patient who’s feigned being deaf and mute for years, and Finn Walters as shy, stuttering Billy Bibbit, who’s spent his whole life feeling like a disappointment, and just wants someone to love him.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

The production makes use of every little bit of space in the intimate studio theatre; characters often speak (or sing) from off stage, and the action even expands into the corridor outside at one point. Nor does everything happen at floor level – Robin Don’s set features a slanting roof window that opens skywards, offering the characters a way in… and potentially a way out, if they only have the nerve to take it. The fact that most of the patients are revealed to be on the ward voluntarily speaks volumes about a world where being different is so hard that they’d rather not even try. And while the clinical practices portrayed in the play may no longer be used today, society’s understanding of mental illness is still dangerously insufficient, making One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as relevant now as it was when Ken Kesey first put pen to paper.

In a rather unhappy coincidence, Chickenshed’s production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest opened just a few days after the death of Miloš Forman, who directed the acclaimed 1975 movie adaptation. In the show programme, Lou Stein dedicates the production to Forman – and this unique, courageous and entertaining play makes a fitting tribute.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is at Chickenshed until 12th May.


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Review: Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow at Chickenshed

As the narrator of Chickenshed’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow – a fictional climate change artist called Oscar Buhari – points out, here in the UK we’ve become largely desensitised to the topic of saving the planet. Living as we do in our privileged first world environment, it’s difficult for us to really appreciate the damage that’s already being done, and which will only get worse, as a result of our own irresponsible actions.

The show aims to tackle this by discussing climate change not in terms of the theoretical science (though there is a little of that), but through showing us the real world implications for both our fellow citizens of the world, and ultimately for ourselves. The result is a show that is big, bold and visually stunning, but also terrifying and humbling – not least because it’s performed by a young cast who understand that they’ll be left to deal with the chaos previous generations have created.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Lou Stein’s production is made up of several short pieces blending dance, song and spoken word, each introduced by a short monologue from the affable Oscar Buhari, played by Ashley Driver. These performances take us from the depths of the sea, where marine life is destroyed by an army of discarded plastic, to the lively streets of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches, to an imagined future world whose limited water supply is rationed by a little more each day. The theme of refugees also recurs several times, with stark reminders that it’s not only war that can drive people from their homes.

It’s not all bad news, though, and the show does conclude on a positive note, first by introducing us to two resourceful communities who brought their villages back from the brink of disaster, and finally with a word of gentle advice from Oscar: he’s shown us the picture as he sees it, and now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

Musical director Dave Carey’s score features original music, as well as excellent live renditions of popular tracks including Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Johnny Cash’s Hurt and Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, all imbued with new significance by the context of the show. There’s also a reworded version of The Star-Spangled Banner, reflecting the inadequate political response to Katrina, which packs quite a punch – especially when accompanied by a photo of George W. Bush looking down on the devastation from the safety of Air Force One.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Although each piece was devised by a different team and therefore has its own unique style, they’re all united by a creative incorporation of recycled everyday materials, and a use of colour and light that really brings each performance to life. And as always, it’s a pleasure to see the inclusivity that is Chickenshed’s driving force reflected on stage, both in the show’s large and diverse cast and in the collaborative, mutually supportive spirit of the performance. The young ensemble shows a real understanding of the show’s important message, and their energy and commitment is infectious.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is a powerful call to arms that looks and sounds great, and also makes you stop and think about the careless way we treat our planet, and what the impact of that might be. A fascinating watch, this show is well worth the long trip to the end of the Piccadilly Line.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is at Chickenshed until 31st March.


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