Review: The Wizard of Oz at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

Having very recently moved to Dartford I had not heard of the Summer Youth Project, so it was with great excitement I came to watch this production of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard of Oz with my 8 year old son Raphael, who himself enjoys acting and dancing. (Mental note to myself to diarise 2019 audition dates!)

This is the ninth year that this project has been running and has been the biggest to date, with over 350 signing up. Talented young people, aged between 9 and 19, go from script to stage in just 2 weeks – which is unbelievable! Over 100 kids were chosen to learn, rehearse and perform RSC’s version of The Wizard of Oz to proud relatives, friends and the local community.

I probably don’t need to go too much into the storyline to readers – the tale of Dorothy and Toto, following their adventures from Kansas to the Land of Oz with their travelling companions – the brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man and the cowardly Lion. The audience is transported to a land of witches, wizards and Munchkins as we follow their path along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. It is a great choice for a production as it is loved and known by adults (in the interval I noticed an adult “Dorothy” complete with her ruby shoes) and kids alike – and especially so for a youth performance as it has so many singing, dancing and acting opportunities within the storyline.

As the curtain opened for the first scene, the show stealer was unexpected. The whole audience gasped and there was a collective “awwwwwww” as in trotted little Toto. I hadn’t expected a live animal on the stage to be honest, and I don’t think the rest of the audience had either – and not one fault throughout the whole performance! He was definitely the star… although sometimes he perhaps received too much attention from the audience and distracted us from the rest of the action.

Holly Radford as Dorothy was a fantastic choice – a great voice, confident and charming. She sang Somewhere over the Rainbow like she had been singing it for years and I could hear my son humming along next to me as I was myself transported to another land!

As for Dorothy’s faithful companions, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man – Mason Mote, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens did a great job of keeping the audience entertained with lots of fun jokes and antics, especially from the lion, who had got a perm specially! The Wicked Witch, played by Maddie Broadbridge was evil enough to be convincing without scaring the younger audience members too much.

The scenery was simple but effective and the lighting, especially during the tornado scene, was atmospheric and added to the mood and tensions. We did feel at times, though, that the spotlights were too bright and maybe needed some adjustments.

Now over to the main stars of the show – the children. We saw them singing and dancing choruses, and singing solos. They were singing in the aisles, they were singing in the balconies, they were singing on the stage. They were tap-dancing, performing the Charleston, dancing ballet and modern. Some had lines and some had jokes to say. They were trees, they were Munchkins, they were crows, they were monkeys, they were poppies in the field. My son’s favourite was the acrobatic monkey who could do hands-free somersaults in the air!

You could say the children WERE the show – from the scenery to the animals to the characters. And what a talented group. You could really see how each and every one of them was thoroughly enjoying themselves and that is what made the show so special. I noticed even as the show was ending some of the children were continuing to perform and dance with each other impromptu, because they didn’t want it to end. My son commented that there were boys performing, which was good to see. Although talking of gender balance, a comment I would make is that the BME community was underrepresented both in the show and the audience, and it would be great to see this begin to change next summer for their 10th anniversary year.

I can’t end without mentioning the director David Maun, who did an amazing job, and choreographer Debbie Smith and musical director Steven Trill, who must have worked so hard with the children and produced such a successful show. The scenery and music and choreography made the performance what it was and much credit to them for turning this around in 2 weeks!

I definitely wait with anticipation for the show next year and I know my son feels the same… it has made him enthusiastic enough to want to audition for it and he rated the show 9¾ out of 10! Many thanks to the Summer Youth Project for a wonderful evening and well done for all of your hard work – it definitely shows!

The Summer Youth Project’s production of The Wizard of Oz continues at the Orchard Theatre until 18th August.

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.


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… 😉

Review: Gangsta Granny at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

To any parent, the much-loved and critically acclaimed Gangsta Granny by actor, presenter, comedian and author David Walliams needs no introduction. Released in 2011, it immediately went to no. 1 in the children’s book chart, and this touring show, produced by the brilliant Birmingham Production Company – of Horrible Histories fame – is a very welcome addition to the selection of family shows offered at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford. It is the production’s second visit here.

11-year-old Ben, played by the wonderful Tom Cawte, is neglected by his parents while they pursue their love of Ballroom Dancing, and just dreams of becoming a plumber – something his parents don’t understand or have time for.  Meanwhile his lonely old granny, played exactly as I imagined by Louise Bailey, seems to Ben to be boring, smelly and full of farts after eating nothing but cabbage – cabbage soup, cabbage cake, cabbage stew and even cabbage ice cream! But as it turns out she has a big secret – she is a gangsta, or should I say “gransta”. As two outsiders who have both been abandoned, Ben and his gran form a partnership, joining forces on a great heist that leads them to stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London and even meeting the (yes, farting) queen.

I was lucky enough to be reviewing this with my 7-year-old son, who giggled away beside me throughout the entire fun-packed production. Always a good sign when they think it is as good as the book. His review – 9 ½ out of 10 because “it has all the best bits” and “the characters are exactly as I had imagined in my head”. (It would have been 10 but the dancers moving the stage scenery as part of the show wasn’t for him.) Behind me was a grandfather laughing even more loudly. This is a show that appeals to both the young and old.

And what makes this production so appealing to all ages? The bond formed between the old and young, due to Ben’s neglect and Granny’s loneliness because of her age, strikes a chord in the audience. And the message about not ignoring the elderly is a strong one. My son, in the interval, voluntary said of his grandparents, “yes, I want to hear about their adventures, I don’t know why I haven’t before”. I have no doubt that his next conversation with them will be a richer one thanks to this viewing. It is a reminder to us all.

The show is at times full of hilarity, with its toilet humour (who doesn’t like a good fart joke?) and peppered with Strictly Come Dancing parodies that fans of the show definitely enjoyed. Much fun was had by kids and grownups alike whilst judging the Strictly competition – loud boos and cheers resounded in the theatre. The show makes a joke out of our obsession with celebrity culture as it follows Ben’s mum’s adoration of the ageing dancing sensation Flavio.

There were a few local references – “I love you more than Gravy’s End” aka Gravesend – was appreciated by the local audience. Other parts of the show were deeply touching; quotes such as “I am proud whatever you do”, “Follow your dreams”, “I am useless” and the heartfelt “I love you Granny” pulled on some heartstrings.

The entire cast are superb with a host of excellent performances, but the part I had been especially looking forward to is that of 16-year-old local dancer from Bexleyheath, Millie Minkowich. I had read in the local press that there had been a search for a local female dancer to play the part of a Strictly contestant and Millie was the talented winner. She was excellent and showcased her talent admirably. I have realised that this production often does this throughout their tour – what a nice support of the local community!

David Walliams, our much loved TV funnyman, has teamed up with the Birmingham Stage Company to create a fun-packed yet thought-provoking show for all the family, from young to old. Other than enjoying the laughter I think both of us came away thinking we will be kinder to our parents/grandparents, and I have vowed to make more time for my children!

Highly recommend by myself and my 7-year-old son!

Gangsta Granny is at the Orchard Theatre until 26th May.

Review: Once Upon a Snowflake at Chelsea Theatre

Given that we had our first (very brief) snow of winter last week, the timing of Paper Balloon’s alternative Christmas show Once Upon a Snowflake seems particularly appropriate. Combining live music, shadow puppetry and storytelling, Once Upon a Snowflake introduces us to three spriteologists, who begin by smugly informing us (in song, no less) that there’s nothing they don’t know about sprites. But when a young girl disappears after an encounter with a mischievous winter sprite, they’re forced to enlist the audience’s help in solving the mystery.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

The show has plenty to delight audiences of all ages: catchy songs, colourful costumes, plenty of witty references to popular stories, and – naturally – a bit of audience participation (the section in which the cast improvise a story and song with suggestions and props supplied by their young audience is a highlight, if only to see how they manage to turn a shoe and an umbrella into a footballing dinosaur). As in all the best family shows, the humour is carefully pitched so it can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, and there’s even an educational element: while we may not all believe in winter sprites, there’s still a lot to learn for all ages, whether it’s that polar bears don’t live in Antarctica, or that sometimes even so-called experts get things wrong.

But what makes this production really stand out from your typical seasonal family show is the skilful use of light and shadow puppetry, which are put to magical effect throughout the show, particularly when telling us about the missing Liza; it proves as fascinating for the grown-ups as it is for the children to watch her dream-like world come alive. The shadow work is incorporated seamlessly into spirited performances from Alex Kanefsky and Dorie Kinnear who, as well as spriteologists, also play at various points Liza, her parents, her neighbour and even the chatty sprite she discovers in her pocket one day, all while interacting with their (at times unpredictable) audience.

The two also have excellent support from Joseph Hardy, who not only plays an impressive number of musical instruments (frequently all at once, with the aid of a loop pedal) but also sings and provides wonderfully creative and entertaining sound effects for the story. Darren Clark’s music – like the rest of the production, which was originally directed by Maria Litvinova – has a very Russian folk feel to it, all of which adds to the show’s unique character and style.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

Once Upon a Snowflake is charming, quirky and different, sidestepping the usual panto conventions but still delivering a heartwarming Christmassy message about acceptance and friendship. Perhaps the story might go a little over the heads of some younger children – but it’s beautifully presented, and the show has more than enough joyous energy to keep most little ones spellbound regardless.


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… 😉