Review: Flashdance at the Orchard Theatre

80s kids rejoice – another classic movie from our youth is back on stage. Flashdance, as most of us know, is the heartwarming tale of feisty young welder Alex, who longs to be a dancer, and finally achieves her dream after an iconic audition routine (if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably at least seen that bit). Naturally, she also meets a nice man, and after a few bumps along the way, in the end everything works out fine.

Unsurprisingly, the show is a feast of 80s cheese, with leg warmers and leotards aplenty. And while Robbie Roth’s original songs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable, the score is lifted by several classic hits that guarantee a feel-good finale. The story could use a bit more pace at times, and there’s a side plot involving Alex’s friend that seems to directly contradict the show’s message about believing in your dreams – but let’s face it, how many people are really there for the plot?

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Where the show does come up trumps is in its performances – particularly from leading lady and reigning Strictly Come Dancing champ, Joanne Clifton. It might have been her brother who did Flashdance on last year’s series, but here she claims it firmly for her own with a show-stealing turn as Alex. We knew she could dance, but now we know she can act and sing too, and – maybe most impressive – apparently do it all without breaking a sweat.

She’s joined by Ben Adams, whose former boy band credentials (he was in A1 back in the day) stand him in good stead as the charming Nick Hurley. While his vocals may not always be quite as strong as his co-stars’, and he obviously has a pretty limited repertoire of dance moves, his acting is good – and he certainly looks the part of Alex’s handsome love interest.

In fact it’s a particularly fit (in every sense) cast all round, with more than enough visual talent to keep the whole audience happy, and some astonishingly acrobatic dance moves that you wish you could pause and watch again in slow motion. Several of the musical numbers serve little purpose in terms of plot development, but give this talented cast a multitude of opportunities to show what they can do.

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Not altogether surprisingly, there’s a lot more dancing than welding in the show – but a versatile steel set designed by Takis helps to keep the Pittsburgh setting in mind throughout, and strikes a nice contrast against the colour and vivacity of the show.

It might not be highbrow, but Flashdance is certainly high energy – and ultimately wins everyone over with the sheer joy shown by everyone on stage. With some great performances and a heartwarming message about believing in yourself against all odds, the show is a definite crowd pleaser, and its standing ovation well deserved.

Flashdance is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th October.

Review: A Judgement in Stone at the Orchard Theatre

Ruth Rendell was once described in The Sunday Times as “the best woman crime writer since Christie” – so it seems fitting that Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company, having presumably run out of Agatha Christie stories to stage, has chosen one of Rendell’s most famous works for their latest production. A Judgement in Stone unpicks the story of a grisly mass shooting, but despite commendable performances from an impressive cast of household names, it doesn’t quite succeed in blowing its audience away.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Largely, I think this is simply because it’s not Agatha Christie. Her stories work on stage because often they take place in one location, so focusing all the action in a single room doesn’t feel limiting, and because they build to a big reveal of a shocking, clever twist based on clues that have been liberally scattered throughout the play. Rendell’s novel opens by revealing both murderer and motive; it wasn’t really intended as a murder mystery so much as an exploration of social class divisions in the 1970s. Simon Brett and Antony Lampard’s adaptation forces the story into the classic whodunnit mould, meaning a lot of that subtlety is lost, and we spend the whole evening waiting for a twist that, unfortunately, never comes.

 

That said, it’s an entertaining enough production, and director Roy Marsden certainly succeeds in ramping up the suspense, particularly in Act 2. The play opens some weeks after the murders of the wealthy Coverdale family, as a detective from London – called in by someone important in the Government – arrives to help the local police solve the crime. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, beginning when Eunice first joins the family and building up to the night of the murder nine months later. In between, the two police detectives interview various suspects (at the murder scene, rather bizarrely) on their way to solving the crime, which eventually happens more by luck than judgement; there’s certainly no Poirot-esque flash of inspiration that suddenly makes sense of everything, and this also contributes to the play’s rather subdued conclusion.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

The cast do a good job with some slightly sketchy roles (apart from one brief exchange about family life and fish paste sandwiches, for instance, we learn next to nothing about Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon’s police detectives, who only really seem to be there to set up the next flashback). Sophie Ward is great as the awkward, slightly eccentric housekeeper Eunice, while Deborah Grant has perhaps a bit too much fun as her religious fanatic best friend Joan, and there’s a solid performance from Blue’s Antony Costa as Rodger Meadows, the family’s gardener with a dodgy past.

Having seen and enjoyed several productions from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which work so well on stage, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this latest offering. But here’s a twist: I do now want to read Ruth Rendell’s novel. Although I don’t feel it entirely works as a play, the story and characters have enough potential that I’m intrigued to find out everything the stage version didn’t tell me. And fans of Ruth Rendell’s novels, who already know how the story ends, may enjoy this fresh take on a favourite.

A Judgement in Stone is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th September.

Review: Hairspray at the Orchard Theatre

If you want a show that’s guaranteed to entertain, you need look no further than Hairspray. Flying the flag for anyone who’s ever felt they don’t quite fit in, it’s the story of an American teenager with a heart of gold, who refuses to believe she can’t live her dreams just because she doesn’t look like all the pretty girls on TV. Dancing her way into the nation’s hearts, Tracy Turnblad inadvertently becomes the leader of a civil rights movement, campaigning for racial integration – because the alternative simply doesn’t make sense to her.

Photo credit: Darren Bell

In a weird way, it’s almost depressing that we still need shows like Hairspray. It would be great if we could sit back and enjoy the feel-good story, safe in the smug knowledge that these are yesterday’s problems. Unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, the two big issues addressed by the show – body shaming and racism – are still just as topical today as they were in the 60s (when the story’s set) or the 80s (when it was written).

Perhaps that’s why two of this production’s most memorable moments both come from Motormouth Maybelle – Act 1 finale Big, Blonde and Beautiful, and the electrifying I Know Where I’ve Been. Then again, it could just be because Brenda Edwards, who plays Maybelle, is vocally incredible. Either way, her solos certainly stand out in a musical that’s full of show-stopping moments – among them the sweet comedy duet between Matt Rixon and Norman Pace; it’s a number known for improvisation and innuendos, and this partnership don’t disappoint. And let’s not forget the fabulous finale, which wraps everything up in a neat, glittery bow, and does so with such energy and joy that you can easily put aside how utterly unrealistic it all is.

Newcomer Rebecca Mendoza, making her professional debut as Tracy, proves herself not only a talented singer and dancer but also a gifted comedian; her adoration of Link (a suitably charming Edward Chitticks) is particularly fun to watch. At the other extreme is the villain of the piece, unashamedly racist TV producer Velma, who’s played with great relish by Gina Murray; it’s only a shame we don’t get to hear more of her amazing vocals.

Photo credit: Darren Bell

As well as a great cast who are all worthy of mention, Hairspray also boasts a toe-tapping 60s-inspired score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, brilliant choreography from Drew McOnie and dazzling set and costume design by Takis (not to mention impressively huge hair). The whole show is a riot of colour and vivacity, with plenty to enjoy for younger audience members but a healthy scattering of naughty jokes for the grownups too.

And at the heart of all this fun and froth is that serious message, summed up so succinctly by Tracy herself: “I just think it’s stupid we can’t all dance together.” It might sound like a massive simplification of a huge and complex problem – and it’s true that the show doesn’t exactly offer an in-depth debate of the issues – but in a world that increasingly feels like it’s going backwards, every little helps.

Hairspray is at the Orchard Theatre until 9th September.

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.