Review: Grease at the Orchard Theatre

Grease is a show that needs little introduction. Originally written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey for the stage, it’s best known for the 1978 movie adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and has quite the cult following – at least if the number of audience members dressed as Pink Ladies and T-Birds at the Orchard last night is anything to go by. This is a show that’s known for its classic song and dance numbers, and on that score the latest touring production doesn’t disappoint; the band, choreography and costumes are fantastic and really bring Rydell High to life in all its energetic glory as Danny, Sandy and friends negotiate the perils of teenage romance.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Unfortunately, the production is let down by some underwhelming casting. The Wanted’s Tom Parker, in his musical theatre debut, looks the part and has the dance moves down, but his acting is at times rather stiff and his vocals are inconsistent. Danielle Hope and Louisa Lytton fare better as Sandy and Rizzo, but sadly none of the three really makes much impact, and they don’t even come close to the sky-high bar set by John Travolta and co in the movie. This means it falls to the other cast members, among them Tom Senior as Kenickie and George Olney as the Teen Angel and DJ Vince Fontaine, to bring the energy and steal the show – and it’s the big group numbers that really get the audience going, far more than any of the solos – though admittedly Danielle Hope does a flawless version of Hopelessly Devoted To You.

All that said, this is still Grease, one of the best and most popular musicals of all time (albeit with a slightly iffy message for the teenage girls in the audience, but we all know about that so I won’t go into it here), and you’d have to be made of stone not to be wowed by the high energy spectacle. The production looks great, recreating the quiffs and costumes we all remember – the programme informs us there are over 140 costume changes and 59 wigs in the show – to make sure we feel at home from the start. There’s plenty of cheeky humour too, though as you might expect in a 40-year-old show, some of the dialogue has not aged all that well…

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

With flashing lights and pyrotechnics, there’s a real party atmosphere in the theatre, with the evening frequently feeling more like a singalong than a performance. This means some of the dialogue becomes impossible to hear, but I’m guessing not many people are there for those bits anyway. Ultimately the show is all about the songs, which are as iconic as ever and ensure that if you’re a fan of Grease, you’ll almost certainly have an amazing time regardless of who’s singing them.

Grease is at the Orchard Theatre until 25th November.

Review: Shirley Valentine at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, welcomes national treasure Shirley Valentine to the stage, as Willy Russell’s favourite approaches its final curtain for this UK-wide 30th anniversary run.

Shirley Valentine is a loveable Liverpudlian, forty-something housewife. With her children now off hand, she feels that her life is stuck in a rut and overtaken with preparing chips and eggs for her husband Joe, while relaying tales of the antics of children Melandra and Brian and a variety of friends and neighbours to her confidant, the kitchen wall.

Shirley is played by Nicky Swift in this one woman show. Nicky, from Merseyside herself, trained at Birmingham University and The Royal Academy of Music, where she received the Ian Fleming Musical Theatre Award. Nicky’s recent accolades include a lead role in Footloose and the formidable Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables.

Nicky brings the role of Shirley to life wonderfully. As the downtrodden housewife in the first half, her character quickly urges you to feel for her plight, a touch of humour in the right places draws you in further wanting her to snatch the opportunity presented, spread her wings, untie her apron strings and escape the confines of her comforting kitchen walls.

In the second half we are transported to a Greek island, where a fulfilled Shirley is transformed into a beautiful sun kissed goddess, with a new zest for life and keen to live life to the full. Shirley’s new confidant is rock, with whom she shares tales of her escapades on the island, including a brief fling with taverna owner Costas.

The show does a great job of raising your spirits and has you leaving the theatre smiling and laughing at comic quotes cleverly thrown in to a brilliant script. Holding an audience captivated for two hours on your own takes some skill and practice, not to mention the astounding number of lines Nicky has to remember.

Shirley Valentine is at The Orchard until Saturday 11th November. Grab your tickets before it’s too late, you really don’t want to miss this.

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.