Review: Seussical the Musical at Southwark Playhouse

Colourful, feel-good and more than a little bit mad: Seussical is pretty much everything you’d expect from a musical based on the stories and characters created by Dr Seuss. Whether you grew up with the books or, like me, only know the basics (The Cat in the Hat, essentially), there’s plenty to enjoy and just as much to bemuse in this utterly bonkers but ultimately heartwarming show.

Photo credit: Adam Trigg

Written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and co-conceived by Eric Idle, Seussical brings together various Dr Seuss creations, but its central plot is based around Horton the Elephant (Scott Paige), a kind-hearted soul who rescues a tiny planet after he hears its inhabitants, the Whos, calling for help. Despite being bullied by the other animals – particularly the Sour Kangaroo (Ngozi Ugoh) and monkeys the Wickershams (Adam Dawson, Robbie Fell and Rhys Benjamin) – he refuses to give up on his new friends. Among these is young Who Jojo (Anna Barnes), who’s constantly getting into trouble because of her wild imagination, but is encouraged to keep thinking Thinks by her guide, the mischievous Cat in the Hat (Marc Pickering).

The original show – first performed on Broadway in 2000 – was split across two acts, but this production directed by Immersion Theatre’s James Tobias condenses the story into a single act of 75 minutes. In doing so it sets a pretty frantic pace, with musical number rapidly following musical number, and very little in the way of spoken dialogue (although what little we do get is, of course, in rhyming verse). This means the whole show is something of a whirlwind – but that doesn’t really matter, because it’s not so much the plot that’s important as the messages we take away from it. The importance of imagination, kindness, loyalty and being true to yourself all come through loud and clear, whether you’re eight or eighty, and are guaranteed to send you home feeling all warm and fuzzy.

The musical numbers, though not all that memorable (with the conveniently catchy exception of the finale), are enjoyable enough and well performed by the cast. Scott Paige is a sincere and instantly likeable Horton, and there are strong vocal performances from Amy Perry, Ngozi Ugoh and Katie Paine as Gertrude (a bird who’s in love with an unsuspecting Horton), the Sour Kangaroo and Mayzie La Bird respectively. But it’s Marc Pickering who steals the show, with an impeccable comedy performance as the Cat in the Hat. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the start, and whenever he’s on stage – which is most of the time – there’s never a dull (or in some cases, dry) moment.

Photo credit: Adam Trigg

Visually the show is, without doubt, a spectacle; Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is bright, colourful and very recognisably from the world of Seuss. In keeping with one of the show’s core messages, Rachel Cartlidge’s clever and vibrant costumes leave a little bit to the imagination; Horton, for instance, is simply dressed in a grey shirt and tie, so it’s up to the audience to take that final mental leap and picture him as an elephant – at which point it becomes entirely obvious that that’s what he is.

An ideal antidote to the dreary winter evenings, Seussical is feel-good fun for the whole family, with plenty of wise words (and a few very silly ones) to take home. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose… and you could do far worse than heading down to Southwark Playhouse for 75 minutes of joyous silliness. And a cat. In a hat. Because what in the world could be better than that?

Seussical is at Southwark Playhouse until 29th December.

Review: Rapunzel at Chickenshed

If you thought Rapunzel was the story of a girl sitting in a tower waiting for a handsome prince to rescue her – think again. Chickenshed’s ambitious and heartwarming version of the well-known fairy tale is notable not only for its conspicuous lack of princes, but also for a heroine who more than knows how to take care of herself and the people she cares about. Nor is the story all about Rapunzel; we spend just as much time discovering the magical world in which she lives, and following her parents as they search ceaselessly and with unwavering – and ultimately rewarded – hope for their stolen child.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

The story, written and directed by Lou Stein, begins in the attic of a house on the outskirts of London, where six children and their childminder Hazel fall asleep while reading stories. They’re spirited away into Hazel’s dream, in which she’s Rapunzel and has been locked in a tower by Gothel the Witch. These leaves her young charges alone in the woods, where they encounter many magical creatures, among them dryads, underground gnomes and hinky punks. Meanwhile, the Kind Kingdom ruled by Rapunzel’s parents is populated by artisans, royal servants, urchins and more.

When all these groups come together on stage in one of Dave Carey’s rousing ensemble musical numbers, it’s a pretty awesome sight. The total cast for the production numbers 800 (with four rotating teams taking their turn at different performances) and brilliantly showcases Chickenshed’s mission to create inclusive theatre. This show has a role for everyone, and though this means the story at times gets a bit confusing, the overwhelming enthusiasm from all involved is far more joyous to watch than a simpler plot or a smaller, more polished cast would be.

Which is not to say there isn’t a considerable amount of talent on display. Cerys Lambert is a feisty Rapunzel with a beautiful singing voice; Philip Rothery nails the physical comedy in his role as Henry the clumsy woodsman; and Gemilla Shamruk steals the show at the end of Act 1 with Gothel’s dramatic solo number, Don’t Mess With Me. The show also features signing throughout, incorporated seamlessly into the performance of Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk as dryads, and a fantastic band tucked away at the back of the stage.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Nor is it accurate to say this production isn’t polished – managing a fairly complicated plot whilst getting that many children on and off stage with a minimum of fuss is no easy task, yet somehow everyone always ends up in the right place at the right time. This is in no small part thanks to Lucy Sierra’s brilliantly inventive set, which is riddled with secret trap doors, balconies and hidden tunnels, allowing multiple ways in and out so that the action can always keep flowing.

The show is advertised as “Rapunzel as you’ve never seen her before!” and this production certainly delivers on that promise. Along with a magically entertaining story, enjoyable solo performances and toe-tapping tunes, this version sends us away with three particularly powerful messages: look out for each other, don’t fight, and never give up hope. Most importantly, it’s all performed by a passionate, diverse cast whose joy is infectious and truly uplifting. This was my first visit to Chickenshed – and I hope it won’t be the last.


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Review: Little Shop of Horrors (Summer Youth Project) at the Orchard Theatre

For a second year running, the Dartford Summer Youth Project has selected a show that’s new to me. Following last year’s brilliant Bugsy Malone, this summer they’re back with Little Shop of Horrors, the classic horror comedy about a man-eating plant by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, in a production that brings together a community cast of young Dartfordians aged between 9 and 19. The story follows shop boy Seymour, who finds himself in possession of a “strange and interesting” plant that makes him rich and famous – but at what cost…?

The show might be considered a bit gory for kids (it does, after all, involve an abusive relationship, murder, dismemberment and a psychotic dentist) and it had to be sanitised a little for this production. But the horror is all very tongue-in-cheek, and the jokes are pitched so that a lot of the humour can be appreciated by adults whilst sailing over younger heads. There’s also a valuable lesson for all ages to be taken from this cautionary tale about the dangers of putting personal gain ahead of moral values.

I have two main conclusions from this evening’s opening night performance. First, I’ll be keeping a much closer eye on my plants from now on. Second, director Sean Hollands and the rest of the SYP team have pulled off another triumph. After just two weeks of rehearsal, Little Shop of Horrors is slick, professional and features several young performers who could easily give seasoned stars a serious run for their money.

This is particularly true of the principal leads – Ethan Oswald, Olivia Hallett, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens – who all look and sound like they’ve been on stage for years. Each of them has at least one big musical number, and absolutely nails it, with my personal highlights Mikey Stevens’ hilariously deranged Dentist! and Olivia Hallett and Ethan Oswald’s gorgeous duet, Suddenly Seymour. There’s also some brilliant voice acting from Thomas Bassett, the voice of Audrey II, who succeeds in giving us the shivers without once appearing on stage, and impressive vocals from the chorus of glamorous Ronettes.

The principals lead a huge company of over 100 children, all of whom get to be involved throughout the show as they pop up frequently in aisles and on balconies performing dance routines choreographed by Mel Simpson. This sometimes messes with the audience’s view of the stage a bit – but it’s hard to mind that too much when the children are obviously having such an amazing time.

And that’s the genius of the Summer Youth Project. Yes, this is a fantastic production that showcases some outstanding young talent, but more importantly it’s giving each and every one of the children on stage an experience they’ll never forget – the chance to be part of a production led by a professional creative team, performing for a huge audience of friends, family and strangers in a proper theatre. But it’s not just a treat for the kids; their enthusiasm and delight is infectious, and you don’t have to be a parent or even know anyone involved to feel proud of what they’ve all achieved, or to appreciate the hard work they’ve put in. This is something that’s easy to take for granted when watching a professional company for whom it’s just another day at work, and sometimes we need a reminder of why we go to the theatre in the first place: to be entertained. And on that score, Little Shop of Horrors more than delivers.

Little Shop of Horrors continues at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 12th August.

Review: All Our Children, Jermyn Street Theatre

It was never going to be an easy play to watch. Stephen Unwin makes his debut as a playwright with All Our Children, a chilling expose of the brutal programme that saw Nazi Germany send thousands of disabled children to their deaths, ostensibly to ease the financial burden on the state. Over the course of one day, we see the situation through the eyes of five characters, each with a different perspective – and leave disturbed and shaken by the horrors human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.

The subject matter sounds grim, and it is – not for what we see but rather what we don’t. There are no children in the play; we never leave the comfortable office of Dr Victor Franz (Colin Tierney), chief paediatrician at a children’s clinic near Cologne. But we come to know them, through the pain of a mother who’s lost her son, the remorse of another who’s realised the patients in the clinic are, after all, “just children”, and through the cowardly attempts of a man who once swore to do no harm to justify sending his innocent charges to be murdered.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

It’s this, more than anything, that really sends a chill down the spine. Franz is an experienced and compassionate doctor; he’s often funny, has an obvious affection for his devoted maid Martha (Rebecca Johnson), and dislikes the odious SS man Eric Schmidt (Edward Franklin) who’s there to make sure he toes the line and meets his grotesque quotas. Franz could be quite a likeable guy, in fact, but for the cold, clinical way he reels off the official justifications for his actions. Unlike the fanatical Schmidt, who simply hates the clinic’s patients and everything they represent, it’s obvious from the doctor’s hangdog expression, late night drinking and constant efforts to hide the truth from Martha that he knows full well what he’s doing is wrong. The arrival of David Yelland’s Bishop von Galen (a real historical figure, whose public opposition to the programme was key to its eventual abolition) could hardly be more timely, and his dignified rage in the face of Franz’s cowardice speaks for all of us.

The play is a very personal project for Stephen Unwin, who also directs, and there’s no doubting the passion or anger behind every word – but he resists the urge to preach his views, instead presenting a sensitive and balanced debate from which ultimately it’s the compassionate voices that cry out the loudest. While the men each get their turn to argue the intellectual and moral points of the debate, the two women – both mothers – represent the emotional heart of the play, and it’s their scenes that really drive home the horror of what’s happening. Lucy Speed’s Frau Pabst breaks our hearts as she describes her son with none of the eloquence of the men but a great deal more feeling; she knows Stefan will never have a job or pay tax – but he’s her son and she can’t bring herself to share the view that his is a life not worth living. And Martha’s softly spoken realisation that the patients she used to feel so sorry for are no different to her own three “normal” children has just as much impact as the bishop’s outrage.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

A few slightly artificial sound effects aside, All Our Children is an incredibly effective and thought-provoking piece of theatre, a warning from history that reminds us of our continuing duty to look out for those who need our help, particularly at a time of government cuts and growing intolerance. We may not be in Nazi Germany, and it may not be 1941 – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learnt, or battles to be fought.


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Review: Suddenly…! at the Cockpit Theatre

I always imagine it must be pretty terrifying making theatre for children. Grownups will (usually) at least pretend to look interested, but with kids there’s no such guarantee. Fortunately, Really Big Pants Theatre’s Suddenly…! had its young audience at the Cockpit Theatre spellbound from the start… and the adults had a pretty good time too.

Photo credit: ID Photography

Suddenly…! takes elements from different fairy tales and mixes them together in an original, exciting and heartwarming story about the importance of friendship. Red Riding Hood, Mr Wolf, a faulty genie and a wicked stepmother all make an appearance, as a young boy’s well-intentioned attempt to get his dad’s attention goes horribly wrong, and we set out on a quest to recover three special items and help Grandma save the day.

The show’s written and performed by Really Big Pants’ Joe Bromley and Willow Nash, who play all the characters with the help of assorted interesting headwear and a variety of accents, not to mention boundless enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment. It’s thoroughly entertaining, but there’s also a strong educational element to the show; besides its core message about how friendship and spending quality time together are more important than having lots of stuff, there are also brief lessons in history and science, a bit of feminism (no princesses waiting around for a man to rescue them in this story, thank you very much), and – to my delight – a tribute to the late great Roald Dahl. Afterwards, children can take away worksheets and even enter a story-writing competition for a chance to see their work published in the Ham & High newspaper.

Not surprisingly for a kids’ show, audience participation is encouraged, but in a gentle, positive way that means nobody feels singled out or uncomfortable – and it’s a testament to how enjoyable it all is that everyone’s more than happy to join in (yes, even I was up on my feet doing the genie dance). Judging by the enthusiasm of our relatively small audience at the Cockpit, I can only imagine the noise levels when the show’s performed in a school hall full of excited children.

Photo credit: ID Photography

The show is also very funny, and like any good kids’ story contains jokes for both children and adults, so everyone stays engaged and entertained throughout. But the humour isn’t the only thing that works on two levels – as the story itself points out, it’s not just children who need to be reminded that material possessions aren’t everything, or that we should put down our phones once in a while and spend some time with the people we care about.

Suddenly…! is a great story and a lot of fun for the whole family, performed with an infectious energy and enthusiasm by two ladies who clearly love what they do. It’s educational but never boring, and enjoyably silly without being patronising. And because Really Big Pants encourage their audience – young and old – to go away and write their own stories, the fun doesn’t have to stop when the show ends.

Really Big Pants Theatre perform at theatres, festivals, schools and community venues. For all upcoming dates or to book them for an event, visit reallybigpants.co.uk or follow them on Twitter @reallybptheatre.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉