Interview: Matthew Seager, Bobblehat Festival

With Christmas now just a couple of weeks away, it’s fair to say the holiday season is well and truly upon us. And this year there’s a special festive surprise (or 24 of them, to be more accurate) lying in wait around Wimbledon, courtesy of the team at Bobblehat. But what’s it all about, and why should we be excited?

“Bobblehat is London’s first live advent calendar,” explains Creative Producer Matthew Seager. “Every day from 1st to 24th December a different door opens somewhere in the Wimbledon area, and an exciting event takes place. We’ve got poetry, theatre, music, dance, comedy and much more. 24 events, 24 days, 24 locations… what’s not to be excited about! Oh, and it’s all FREE…”

Extempore (20th December)

Bobblehat is the first project for William Alder Productions, which was founded in 2016 to create new experiences for audiences by putting on exciting events in unusual places. “Will is the Artistic Director, running the event with me and General Manager Sam Griffiths,” says Matthew. “Will worked on a similar event in Winchester back in 2015, although we think the idea of the advent festival originated in Stockholm.

“Both producers are born and brought up in Wimbledon, so it seemed to make sense to launch here. This festival is all about great events in unexpected places, so I think it takes a pretty in depth understanding of the layout and location of the town to really match the right act with the right location.”

With so many different locations to organise, the team first had to secure support from the local business community. Fortunately, that didn’t prove to be a problem: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Matthew. “Firstly, the festival would most definitely not have gone ahead without the sponsorship and all round support of Love Wimbledon, who are just brilliant. In general, when seeking support from a local business, the most successful approach is just to be passionate about the event and the town. These people own a business in Wimbledon so, in general, it we’re able to get them excited about this then they are happy to support.”

Louise Alder (23rd December)

Matthew and the team have particularly loved the challenge of putting together the month-long programme: “I think that’s one of my favourite parts. We’re in a position to contact artists we already have a relationship with, as well as get in contact with artists we’ve always admired and wanted to work with. Also it’s an opportunity to go to Edinburgh and see lots of shows all over the UK in search of a truly varied programme.”

With the festival now nine days in, there have already been plenty of highlights – and Matthew assures us there are plenty more to look forward to. “They’re all my favourites! They really balance each other out, which is important. We opened with award-winning Shakespeare company The HandleBards in the lower car park of Centre Court shopping centre, we’ve had a silent disco guided tour and an interactive musical family show where you colour in your favourite Christmas meal.

“Coming up we’ve got sketch comedy double act Goodbear on the 14th, who sold out at the Soho Theatre recently. I’m really excited about Extempore theatre – of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical in the West End – with their two-hander Rhapsodes on the 20th, Lead Suspect, a dog murder mystery, on the 21st, and internationally award-winning Soprano Louise Alder on the 23rd. But they are alllll brilliant and there’s definitely something for everyone.”

Attending a Bobblehat event is easy – and if you’re out and about in Wimbledon you might even find yourself turning up to one by accident… “You can’t book tickets, you just turn up to the door that is advertised on our website or social media,” explains Matthew. “It will open at either 4pm or 7pm, and away we go. There will be a sign outside and we’ve definitely had people stumble upon events whilst out and about. I wasn’t sure how that would work going into this, but it’s wonderful to attract both groups of people who have researched the event as well as those who just happen to be around.”

Check out the Bobblehat website or follow @wearebobblehat to see what’s coming up. All events are free to attend.

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.

Once Upon a Snowflake is at Chelsea Theatre until 22nd December.

Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles at Jack Studio Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

The Brockley Jack annual Christmas show is the stuff of Fringe Legend.  It sells out before it even opens, and the reasons for this incredible success are legion. The Brockley Jack is one of the most reputable and iconic venues in London, and it’s run by people who know what they’re doing and care passionately about the space. They pick good scripts, cast talented actors and produce the Christmas show themselves so audiences know it’s a sure thing. Added to this, the Jack does something other than panto – so it’s great marketing for those who are Cinderella-ed out.

This year’s offering is a comedic pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The plot is simple enough: Mr Baskerville has been murdered. People think it’s a huge hell-hound. Holmes goes up there with Watson to solve the mystery. He does. The End. The show is sold out now, so go and read the book, it’s great.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The script owes a lot to plays like The 39 Steps or The Play That Goes Wrong, yet even those examples aren’t original ideas themselves, so this can be forgiven. Hound is a tight-paced physical comedy that has its three actors multi-roling rapidly between scenes, moving scenery and donning different hats, jackets and accents. It breaks the fourth wall constantly as the very conceit of the play is perpetually on the verge of falling apart, and the actors are forced to break character and become “themselves” more than once. Now, whilst I do have an issue with shows that try to do both a crappy play and make that funny (cod-accents and dodgy props), whilst doing a play crappily (falling down sets and scene changes going wrong), I have to admit the grace and tenacity with which this production was helmed completely won me over and had me giggling with glee. The highlight of the show for me was just after the interval when one of the actors gets irate with the audience after reading an interval tweet and forces his co-stars (and us) to go through the first half at triple speed to prove he was capable of a quicker pace. This moment of building chaos really sums up the production for me; it’s self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, it’s modern and humble, but it’s done with such slickness and panache that the audience are happy to be whipped through the same scenes again, like reading a York Notes Study Guide whilst on amphetamines.

Joey Bartram plays the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes – a role made difficult to make your own after so many iconic performances on screen recently (perhaps the 21st century’s Hamlet?), and this production sees Bartram striding about the stage dripping with confidence (sometimes sweat) and a faraway look, whilst whipping his dark locks about him like he’s modelling shampoo. It’s a boho, gin-drenched, Oxbridge kind of a take on the role, and it’s in keeping with the show, but it’s really the character actor side role/suspects where Bartram shines, teeth-gnashing, winking and scowling his way through scenes.

Adam Elliott plays the Doctor Watson role, which really, due to the absence of Holmes for a large section of the production, is promoted to leading man status. Watson is normally a dog of a part, if you pardon the pun, and yet Elliott does it, thankfully, with charisma and charm. Having seen Elliott perform on the Fringe multiple times now, I’m starting to think that there aren’t many things the actor cannot do. He is a great talent, and one that has a bright future ahead of him. He’s eminently watchable, has an almost flawless grasp of comedic timing, and handles the numerous roles he’s awarded with versatility and a sense of child-like glee. 

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Andrew Fitch completes the trinity with a wide-eyed and energised Sir Henry Baskerville – the next victim of the Hound that Holmes and Watson are trying to keep from becoming pedigree chum. Fitch has a mountain of roles to contend with (even some that have to be performed on the first floor of the building above the theatre), and he manages to distinguish each one clearly and without undue effort, and he more than gives the two heroes a run for their money in terms of acting chops.

Kate Bannister (director), Karl Swinyard (set design) and Michael Edwards (lighting design) deserve all the credit for turning the small acting space of the Jack Studio Theatre into dozens of different locations, flicking instantly between a foggy moor to a dining room to a train carriage to a horse and cart, all with simple props choices, movement direction, action set pieces, moveable scenery and some of the slickest and most inventive lighting operation I have EVER seen on the Fringe circuit, helmed by Stage Manager John Fricker who seriously deserves an Off West End Award by himself just for managing that many sound and lighting cues on a fringe theatre tech desk.

If not already clear, this play is hilariously funny.  The idea is not a new one, nor does it particularly care to strive for anything above an entertaining night out, but it doesn’t have to. It’s an incredibly well-directed, well-performed and well-constructed comedy, that’s firing on all cylinders and never lets up for a second. It’s a work of true skill, made by professionals who know their craft.

Fringe Theatre, at its best, transcends its limitations and is palpably made with love, passion, creativity and care. Kate Bannister and her team have done exactly that. I would say this should transfer somewhere bigger, but then perhaps it might lose some of the charm that makes it so impressive a feat of the face of their restrictions of space and budget. So perhaps I will say that the Jack Studio Theatre deserve and need all the support, investment and love that their community and fanbase can give them, for they really are a jewel in the London Theatre Crown. Edinburgh Festival 2017 Venue Managers, you better get this show booked in whilst you can…

The Hound of the Baskervilles sold-out run at Jack Studio Theatre ends on 8th January.

Review: A Christmas Carol, the Musical in Concert at the Lyceum Theatre

The next time someone tries to tell me Facebook is a bad thing (I have a colleague who tells me this with monotonous regularity, so it undoubtedly won’t be long), I plan to tell them the story of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra. In 2015, Freddie Tapner wrote a casual post looking for fellow musicians to play through a musical, just for fun. 24 hours later, he’d received over 250 replies – and two weeks after that, LMTO was born.

The shared passion that inspired the orchestra’s creation could be felt in abundance last night at the Lyceum Theatre, where an all-star cast joined LMTO for their one-night-only concert performance of A Christmas Carol – never more so than when founder and Principal Conductor Freddie Tapner bounded on to the stage to rapturous applause. His infectious joy was just the first highlight in an evening full of festivity, optimism and goodwill towards men.

christmas-carol-production-shot-5
Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

Though the show, written by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, is better known on Broadway than in the West End, the story of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is as British as they come. Grumpy old man Ebenezer Scrooge is not a fan of Christmas. Or charity. Or indeed people – and definitely not children. Not, that is, until he’s visited on Christmas Eve by the spirit of his former partner Jacob Marley, who’s now suffering for the sins he committed in life. Marley’s appearance is followed by visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who help Scrooge to finally see the error of his ways, just in time.

The cast of singers brought together the cream of West End talent, including Robert Lindsay, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Peter Polycarpou, Hugh Maynard, Madalena Alberto and Norman Bowman, to name just a few. Alongside them were several young performers who proved more than a match for their more experienced co-stars; 9-year-old Tobias Ungleson particularly shone as Tiny Tim, with a performance that hit all the right notes both musically and emotionally.

But the biggest star of the evening, appropriately, was the orchestra. So often an afterthought for musical theatre audiences, here the musicians had the opportunity to take centre stage, and they didn’t waste a moment of it. It hardly mattered that the show was in a concert format; Alan Menken’s glorious score and the orchestra’s joyous performance of it told us everything we needed to know. Though not without its darker moments – the appearance of Jacob Marley (Norman Bowman) was suitably creepy, for instance – A Christmas Carol is, for the most part, a full-on celebration of all things festive, and if anyone left the Lyceum not feeling even a little uplifted – well, frankly they should probably change their name to Scrooge now and be done with it.

christmas-carol-production-shot-4
Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

In fact the whole evening was so delightful that it almost feels wrong to find fault… so please don’t call me a Grinch for quietly pointing out that there were times when the orchestra’s enthusiasm became just a little overwhelming. Despite their best efforts, the singers were occasionally drowned out, and much of the spoken dialogue – particularly Robert Lindsay’s grouchy mutterings as Scrooge – was barely audible at all. (There was also one forgotten lines moment right at the end, but it was well covered, and by that point the entire theatre was so delirious with festive cheer that nobody gave a figgy pudding anyway.)

The main downside of the evening, though, is that it was only a one-off performance and we won’t get to see it again. However, it’s clear that the London Musical Theatre Orchestra are not going anywhere, and that is certainly news to which we can raise a festive glass or two.

So Merry Christmas – and God bless us, every one!

Find out more about the London Musical Theatre Orchestra at lmto.org.

Review: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Orchard Theatre

The other day, I was trying to explain to a friend from overseas what a pantomime is. I’m not sure I did a very good job; in fact I think I might have scared him a bit. And it was only when I tried to describe the concept to someone who’s never seen a panto before that I realised quite how random – not to mention incredibly British – the whole business is.

I’m not sure what my friend would make of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this year’s festive offering at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford. Besides all the usual panto jokes and conventions, not to mention songs (it seems Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop The Feeling is this year’s musical number of choice), it also stars TV’s Joe Pasquale, who’s both a much-loved British entertainer and something of an acquired taste.

dsc_2515

Like most pantos, the show’s appeal depends primarily on that of its star – if you’re a fan, you’ll have a great time; if not, you may find it a bit hard going. Act 1 of Snow White is very much the Joe Pasquale show; all the other characters become rather secondary while he – as Snow White’s lady’s maid’s son Muddles – messes about, makes fart jokes and interrupts (at length) Snow White’s big romantic moment/mannequin challenge with the dashing Prince Calum of Kent. It’s not sophisticated humour, but we knew that going in; this is basically Joe Pasquale doing what he does best, and his trademark comedy style proves a resounding hit with kids and adults alike.

Act 2 allows the rest of the excellent cast a bit more stage time. Ceri Dupree is particularly fun as Dame Dolly Diamond, in costumes that grow increasingly outrageous and enormous as the show goes on, and Rachel Stanley is a fabulously wicked and deranged Queen Sadista. As Snow White, Victoria Serra doesn’t have a huge amount to do besides fall in love and do the dwarfs’ housework – even her poisoned apple snooze only lasts a couple of minutes – but impresses in the musical numbers with her beautiful voice. Alexis Gerred throws himself energetically into his role as love interest Prince Calum, enduring Pasquale’s playful torture with cheerful good humour, and I wish we could have seen more of the dwarfs who, despite being spectacularly un-PC, brought a cheeky charm to their reworked version of You Raise Me Up (“I now feel four foot tall”).

dsc_3348

A couple of words of warning: there are a lot of flashing lights in the show, which are used to great effect at scene changes but can also be slightly headache-inducing. And the show may be a bit frightening for young children; I heard one little girl during the interval talking plaintively about “the scary man in the mirror”, while the 3D segment in Act 2 takes us on a mad dash through the forest and face to face with a variety of nightmarish creatures. (Think Aragog in Harry Potter 2, and you’ll get the idea.)

Technological wizardry aside, Snow White is very much a classic panto; all the familiar cheesy jokes are in there, and just because we know they’re coming it doesn’t make them any less fun (there’s also plenty of humour specifically for the adults, which – I hope – will sail right over the kids’ heads). Joe Pasquale is a likeable lead, supported by a strong and polished cast who all look like they’re having a great time. And that’s a surefire way to ensure the audience do, too.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is at the Orchard Theatre until 31st December.