Review: A Murder is Announced at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to review the Middle Theatre Company Ltd’s latest production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced on its opening night of a five-night run at the wonderful Orchard Theatre in Dartford.

While young Agatha Christie’s husband was away fighting in the First World War, she worked in the dispensary of the University College Hospital, London, where surrounded by poisons the idea of writing her first detective story was conceived. Her elder sister Madge was an avid supporter of the idea, so Agatha rose to the challenge, and the rest as they say is history.

Mrs Christie was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1971 to honour her many literary works. Known as The Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha penned thirteen novels in the  Miss Marple series. A Murder is Announced is a firm favourite amongst fans of the series.

As Act One of A Murder is Announced opens, the audience are invited into Letitia Blacklock’s drawing room at Little Paddocks, her typically Victorian home in Chipping Cleghorn.

Within minutes of the opening the audience are gripped by the storytelling (adapted for stage by Leslie Darbon) when Dora Bunner, the delightfully dizzy and slightly senile Bunny reads an article from the local paper which reads:

“A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October the twenty-ninth, at Little Paddocks – at six thirty p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.”

The residents are thrown into an excitable turmoil, not sure whether to be thrilled by the excitement in this unexpected event for a sleepy country village or scared by the threat to them. Is it a practical joker taking things a step too far, or is the threat real and the residents should be in fear of their lives…?

Not wanting to spoil the surprise and give the plot away, I’ll just say that the second half of the investigation into the running order of events at Little Paddocks after 6.30pm on that evening is methodically unraveled by Inspector Craddock, along with Sergeant Mellors.

Local resident – and in Inspector Craddock’s view the interfering – Miss Marple (Louise Jameson) decides to get involved and make her own discoveries about the order of events.

It is a small cast of just twelve, but you’ll be thrilled with the star studded line up from Janet Dibley (Fat Friends and Eastenders) as Letitia Blacklock, Louise Jameson (Bergerac and Tenko) as Miss Marple, Tom Butcher (The Bill and Emmerdale) as Inspector Craddock and Dean Smith (Waterloo Road and Last Tango in Halifax) as Edmund Swettenham, to name just a few that you’ll recognise.

There are comic interludes when the wonderful Hungarian housemaid Mitzi (Lydia Piechowiak) takes to the stage, which lighten the audience’s mood amongst the more serious elements of the story.

A Murder is Announced plays at the Orchard from 15th to 19th August. Grab your ticket while you still can to find out whodunnit!

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: 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: La Cage Aux Folles at the Orchard Theatre

There are some shows that just make you feel good about life. La Cage Aux Folles is one such show. Setting the stage for more recent hits like Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Kinky Boots, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s award-winning musical is a feel-good extravaganza that looks stunning, sounds fabulous and features a sensational starring performance from John Partridge.

Based in St Tropez, La Cage Aux Folles is the story of nightclub owner Georges (Adrian Zmed) and his partner Albin (John Partridge), the popular star of the club’s drag act. But then Georges’ son Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter) announces his engagement to the daughter of an infamous right wing politician, and hilarious chaos ensues as the couple attempt to tone down their flamboyant lifestyle and “act normal”.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Act 1 in director Martin Connor’s production acts largely as an opportunity to set the scene and show off Albin’s jaw-dropping array of glittering gowns; “it’s like Black Friday at Primark back there,” he confides after yet another lightning-fast costume change. Perhaps inevitably given this frenetic backstage activity, parts of the first act – particularly during the title number – start to feel a bit like they’re only there to fill time while we wait for the next big reveal. Having said that, it does give us plenty of time to admire Gary McCann’s drop dead gorgeous set, and features one of the highlights of the evening as the distraught Albin, having learned he’s to be excluded from the meeting with Jean-Michele’s new in-laws, brings the house and curtain down with a heart-felt performance of I Am What I Am.

This, by the way, was the only song I knew from the show beforehand, but it turns out to be part of a fabulous, catchy score that’s hard to get out of your head, even 24 hours later. Song on the Sand, With You on My Arm and The Best of Times are just a few of the tunes that get the feet tapping and simultaneously pull on the heart-strings.

After the interval, there’s more action and fewer costume changes, so the comedy can begin in earnest as we head towards a somewhat predictable but still heart-warming conclusion; I’m not ashamed to admit I welled up at one point, and spontaneously cheered at another. As light-hearted as the show is, it still has an important message about accepting others and ourselves, and Dindon the homophobic politician (Paul F. Monaghan) unfortunately feels just as real in 2017 as he was when the musical was written in the 1980s.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

As Albin, John Partridge is exquisite – and not just in appearance, though he does look amazing in every outfit he puts on. Vocally, emotionally, comically, he pitches his performance exactly right, and his relationship with Adrian Zmed as Georges is both believable and touching. But while, much like his character, Partridge is undoubtedly the star of the show, the rest of the cast are by no means in his shadow. Zmed is easily likeable and a natural comedian, Marti Webb (literally) steals the limelight during her all too rare appearances as restaurant owner Jacqueline, and Samson Ajewole is particularly fun as the sassy maid/butler Jacob.

La Cage Aux Folles may not be one of the best known musicals for British audiences, but that deserves to change. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart, this dazzling production of a hugely entertaining and uplifting show is well worth a visit. If it doesn’t brighten your day, then I really don’t know what will.

La Cage Aux Folles is at the Orchard Theatre until 13th May.

Review: Made in Dagenham at the Orchard Theatre

Made in Dagenham is based on the true story of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968, which became key to the passing of the Equal Pay Act two years later. Not surprisingly given the subject matter, it’s a feel-good show with some rousing musical numbers and a finale that simultaneously reminds us how far we’ve come and unashamedly commands us to get on our feet and face up to the challenges still ahead.

The Dartford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (DAODS) are one of the first amateur groups in the South East to get the rights to perform Made in Dagenham, which closed in the West End in 2015 after a well-received but relatively short run starring Gemma Arterton. And they’ve proved themselves more than worthy of the honour by producing another excellent show, with director Alex Campbell making her Orchard directorial debut in swinging 60s style.

Photo credit: Rob Hooker

The story follows Rita O’Grady (Stephanie Trott), a Ford machinist who finds herself the unwitting leader of the strike after a dispute over pay scales turns into something much bigger. Facing off against the male-dominated unions, the might of Ford – represented by one very unpleasant American – and the disapproval of her husband Eddie (Alex Freeman), Rita and her girls take their struggle all the way to the top, rubbing shoulders with prime minister Harold Wilson (John Woodley) and Employment Secretary Barbara Castle (Julia Bull) on their way to winning over the TUC conference with an impassioned plea for equality.

Let’s be clear about one thing: this is not a serious or, I suspect, hugely accurate depiction of the events surrounding the strike. Nor is it particularly balanced – the opening number says it all: “If you want something done, ask a busy woman… cos you’re wasting your time asking a man.” Later, when he forgets their 10th wedding anniversary, Eddie offers as an explanation: “I’m just a man with a foolish brain.” The show at times tiptoes very close to the line between cheering for women and putting down men, but is always good humoured enough to pull it back at the last minute.

Leading lady Stephanie Trott is an experienced musical theatre performer, and it shows; she’s perfectly at ease and totally genuine both as the bubbly wife, mother and friend, and as the feisty activist – we could easily have been watching her on a West End stage. Alex Freeman, a DAODS veteran of over 10 years, offers great support as husband Eddie, really coming into his own in Act 2 with a heartfelt rendition of The Letter. And there are great – if surreal – comic performances from John Woodley as Harold Wilson, unflatteringly portrayed as a sort of man-child who’s terrified of women (and indeed any kind of responsibility) and Alex Tyrrell, who’s brilliantly bitchy as the cowboy American boss flown in to put down the revolt. Most importantly for a show that’s about solidarity, the whole cast has great chemistry and the big ensemble numbers are real highlights in an already brilliant show.

From the moment the curtain rises, there’s no doubt what era we’re in; the set and costumes are right on the money and transport us instantly to the swinging 60s. My only minor gripe about the production is that there are occasional sound issues; in the factory scenes the background chatter becomes slightly overpowering, and a few of the lyrics get lost when the band’s in full swing.

Made in Dagenham is a slightly bonkers little show in many ways, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The show has some catchy tunes and a cheeky, self-deprecating sense of humour, and it makes us realise how lucky we are to have had battles like this fought for us long before we were even born, even as we understand there’s still work to do. Best of all: the show may have been made in Dagenham – but DAODS was made in Dartford, and they’ve done us proud.

Made in Dagenham is at the Orchard Theatre until 29th April.