Review: Seussical the Musical at Southwark Playhouse

Colourful, feel-good and more than a little bit mad: Seussical is pretty much everything you’d expect from a musical based on the stories and characters created by Dr Seuss. Whether you grew up with the books or, like me, only know the basics (The Cat in the Hat, essentially), there’s plenty to enjoy and just as much to bemuse in this utterly bonkers but ultimately heartwarming show.

Photo credit: Adam Trigg

Written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and co-conceived by Eric Idle, Seussical brings together various Dr Seuss creations, but its central plot is based around Horton the Elephant (Scott Paige), a kind-hearted soul who rescues a tiny planet after he hears its inhabitants, the Whos, calling for help. Despite being bullied by the other animals – particularly the Sour Kangaroo (Ngozi Ugoh) and monkeys the Wickershams (Adam Dawson, Robbie Fell and Rhys Benjamin) – he refuses to give up on his new friends. Among these is young Who Jojo (Anna Barnes), who’s constantly getting into trouble because of her wild imagination, but is encouraged to keep thinking Thinks by her guide, the mischievous Cat in the Hat (Marc Pickering).

The original show – first performed on Broadway in 2000 – was split across two acts, but this production directed by Immersion Theatre’s James Tobias condenses the story into a single act of 75 minutes. In doing so it sets a pretty frantic pace, with musical number rapidly following musical number, and very little in the way of spoken dialogue (although what little we do get is, of course, in rhyming verse). This means the whole show is something of a whirlwind – but that doesn’t really matter, because it’s not so much the plot that’s important as the messages we take away from it. The importance of imagination, kindness, loyalty and being true to yourself all come through loud and clear, whether you’re eight or eighty, and are guaranteed to send you home feeling all warm and fuzzy.

The musical numbers, though not all that memorable (with the conveniently catchy exception of the finale), are enjoyable enough and well performed by the cast. Scott Paige is a sincere and instantly likeable Horton, and there are strong vocal performances from Amy Perry, Ngozi Ugoh and Katie Paine as Gertrude (a bird who’s in love with an unsuspecting Horton), the Sour Kangaroo and Mayzie La Bird respectively. But it’s Marc Pickering who steals the show, with an impeccable comedy performance as the Cat in the Hat. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the start, and whenever he’s on stage – which is most of the time – there’s never a dull (or in some cases, dry) moment.

Photo credit: Adam Trigg

Visually the show is, without doubt, a spectacle; Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is bright, colourful and very recognisably from the world of Seuss. In keeping with one of the show’s core messages, Rachel Cartlidge’s clever and vibrant costumes leave a little bit to the imagination; Horton, for instance, is simply dressed in a grey shirt and tie, so it’s up to the audience to take that final mental leap and picture him as an elephant – at which point it becomes entirely obvious that that’s what he is.

An ideal antidote to the dreary winter evenings, Seussical is feel-good fun for the whole family, with plenty of wise words (and a few very silly ones) to take home. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose… and you could do far worse than heading down to Southwark Playhouse for 75 minutes of joyous silliness. And a cat. In a hat. Because what in the world could be better than that?

Review: The Three Musketeers at St Paul’s Church

For swashbuckling family fun this summer, look no further than Iris Theatre’s The Three Musketeers. Set at the beautiful St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, the largely open-air production takes Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel and condenses it into a thrilling adventure that sees Athos, Porthos, Aramis and new recruit d’Artagnan battle the mysterious and cunning Milady de Winter.

Even if – like me – you haven’t read the novel, there have been enough TV and film adaptations over the years of the Three Musketeers story that most people will probably have some idea what it’s all about (“all for one, and one for all” etc). What makes Daniel Winder’s adaptation particularly unique and refreshing, however, is that both its hero and its villain are women.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Faced with a future of limited opportunities following the death of her father, the young d’Artagnan (Jenny Horsthuis) has realised the only way she can hope to achieve her dream and gain a position with the Musketeers is to disguise herself as a man. Meanwhile Milady (Ailsa Joy), having suffered years of brutality at the hands of men, has decided to give them a taste of their own medicine; though she’s every inch the baddie, when we learn her story we can’t help but feel some sympathy for her motives. As Milady eventually observes, she and d’Artagnan are more alike than they realise – they’ve just chosen to tackle their situation in very different ways.

Despite having two strong female leads, it’s very telling that it’s still the male characters who make it into the show’s title, despite being rather less heroic than we might expect. The three Musketeers – Aramis (Albert de Jongh), Porthos (Elliot Liburd) and Athos (Matt Stubbs) – are certainly brave, but as individuals, and particularly in their attitude towards women, they leave quite a bit to be desired. (In a funny but significant sequence at the start of Act 2, d’Artagnan – having single-handedly saved Bethan Rose Young’s Queen of France from a plot hatched by Milady and Cardinal Richelieu – is then forced to extricate her colleagues, at great personal cost, from a variety of scandals in a series of country pubs.)

While it does give us plenty to think about, Paul-Ryan Carberry’s promenade production is also a lot of fun, with an immersive atmosphere and plenty of opportunities for audience members of all ages to get involved in the action as we make our way around the gardens and into the church itself. A hard-working cast play multiple roles, with special credit going to Stephan Boyce, who has to change costume and personality every five minutes as he plays four very different characters during the course of the show. The sword fights, choreographed by Roger Bartlett, are also particularly impressive – even more so given that cast member Albert de Jongh’s “wounded warrior” Aramis broke his ankle three days before the show opened.

A rip-roaring adventure full of humour, intrigue and drama, The Three Musketeers offers a fresh perspective on a well-known classic that can be enjoyed by the whole family – and in particular by young girls who want to see female characters do more than fall in love and get rescued. And with tickets starting from just £14, and special family offers available, it’s one of the best value theatrical experiences you’ll find in central London this summer.

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Review: Spiked at Pleasance Theatre

Three mothers face a nightmare scenario in Félicité du Jeu’s Spiked; their teenage children have been admitted to A&E, along with the rest of their class, after being struck down by mysterious symptoms at school. It’s a strong premise, with the potential for plenty of drama and suspense, and which opens the door for discussions about themes including race, class and what constitutes “good” parenting. As individuals, Joanna, Rozhin and Karen could hardly be more different, but as they sit together waiting for news, they begin to find some common ground in the struggles that come with being mother to a teenager. That is until they discover that their children ate a cake deliberately spiked with drugs, at which point the inevitable speculation and finger-pointing begins in earnest.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

The fault lines that divide the three are obvious from the start: Joanna (Charlotte Asprey) is well-off and a bit of a drama queen, while Karen (Daniella Dessa) is a straight-talking single mum and Rozhin (Katie Clark) is a sweet but naive immigrant from Kurdistan. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see which direction the accusatory fingers are pointing in – but what is unexpected is how on the money they turn out to be. It’s a confusing outcome given that the play clearly sets out to challenge these stereotypes, and slightly undermines an eloquent and passionate speech from Rozhin in defence of her family. It also, unfortunately, means that the play ends on a bit of an anticlimax, especially after what looks like it’s going to be a dramatic twist in the tale doesn’t actually go anywhere.

It’s in its exploration of what it means to be a mother that both script and performances are most assured, as the three women try their best to identify with their teenage children in a world that’s moved on in unfathomable ways since their own adolescence. In particular, their attempts to grasp how social media works bring a note of humour to the play, although their lack of understanding also means they react surprisingly calmly to revelations of cyberbullying and sexting amongst their kids.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

Charlotte Asprey, Daniella Dessa and Katie Clark also play the three teenagers, in intermittent scenes that offer us a further insight into the relationship they have with their mums and with each other. Because of the simple but necessary costume changes required, however, these scenes break up the flow of the action in Gemma Kerr’s production, and don’t really tell us anything about the teens that we haven’t already learnt from listening to their mothers’ conversation in A&E.

It’s the mothers, though, that are at the heart of the play, and a final direct address to the audience proves that despite all their differences, these three women have one thing in common: a wish to keep their kids safe, happy and healthy at all costs. Echoing those words and aspirations with recorded clips of other real-life mums is a nice touch, and ensures that despite any unpleasantness that’s gone before, Spiked concludes on a heartwarming note.

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Review: Odd Man Out at The Hope Theatre

The two shows that make up Odd Man Out – Dominic Grace’s Rabbitskin and Lesley Ross’ Diary of a Welshcake – weren’t written to be performed together. Nor are they similar in plot, character or even performance style. But what unites these powerful monologues is the themes of love, loss and isolation explored by their two protagonists: Joe, a sensitive book lover struggling to live up to the expectations of his father and four older brothers; and Ralph, a gay Welshman on a journey of self-discovery and unexpected romance in Hong Kong.

The first character to take the stage is Rabbitskin‘s Joe, who quickly wins our hearts with his shy smile, childlike innocence and obvious affection for both his family and his favourite books. His is a story that can only be told by dipping into others, and Grace’s script skilfully weaves episodes from Joe’s life together with the yarns spun by his father. Like both Joe and his dad, Luke Adamson proves himself a masterful and thoroughly engaging storyteller, who slips effortlessly between characters – one moment a wide-eyed seven-year-old Joe, the next his Irish father telling the legendary tale of Cu Chulainn, the next his bullying brother Cal. He even manages to make something as mundane as the washing up sound utterly magical.

Photo credit: Luke Adamson

But stories will only protect you from real life for so long – and as sympathetic as Joe undoubtedly is, there’s a darker side to this character that refuses to stay hidden behind his defensive wall of fantasy. As the story begins to come together, and Joe’s placid demeanour cracks with increasing frequency, we know something is coming… yet the end of the story, when we arrive there, still shocks with its sudden brutality.

Gregory Ashton’s Ralph – also known as Tom – in Diary of a Welshcake is a somewhat different character; while still very likeable (and not just because he begins by handing out food) he doesn’t have Joe’s innocence, or feel quite so much a victim of his circumstances – perhaps because he ultimately acknowledges his own guilt over how the story of his Hong Kong adventure ends. Despite this, his is a much more openly comic tale, with a lot of the humour stemming from cultural differences, and particularly the absolute inability of characters from outside the UK to understand the difference between England and Wales.

Photo credit: Gregory Ashton

These other characters – male and female – allow Ashton to demonstrate his versatility as a performer; Ralph’s “predominantly heterosexual” American flatmate Matthew is a particular highlight, and there’s even a bit of (unfortunately inaccurate) Chinese in there at one point. Ashton’s been performing the show for over ten years, and it shows; his delivery falls somewhere between stand-up and theatre, so much so that the show begins to feel like it could actually be a true autobiographical account. The easy rapport that quickly develops between actor and audience is taken full advantage of later in the show as we’re invited to help recreate a dream of Ralph’s, a bizarre but very funny moment that deliberately steers us off course in the build-up to a shocking revelation.

Each of these stories could – and does – stand alone as a skilful portrayal of a man who doesn’t quite know who he is or where he belongs. Put together, they make for an evening that’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and quietly heartbreaking, featuring two engrossing solo performances. If nothing else, come for the free food; you won’t regret it.

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Review: Mumburger at Old Red Lion Theatre

First, a word of warning: don’t go and see Mumburger on an empty stomach. It’s all kinds of confusing.

Now that we’ve got that out the way, let’s discuss Sarah Kosar’s play. Andrea just died in a horrific car accident on the M25, leaving behind her devastated daughter Tiffany (Rosie Wyatt, reprising her Offie-nominated role) and husband Hugh (Andrew Frame). What begins as a seemingly straightforward story of two people struggling to process their grief in very different ways (she’s made a Google spreadsheet and is looking at urns on Amazon; he just wants to read the messages of condolence on Facebook and watch his wife’s favourite movie) takes a surreal and grisly turn when a mysterious delivery arrives. Inside the greasy bag are burgers – an odd enough sight in a house of committed vegans, even before we learn that they’re in fact a “Digestive Memorial” arranged by Andrea as a way to sustain her family after she’s gone.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

If it’s visceral theatre you’re after, you’ve come to the right place; it’s impossible to watch Mumburger – which follows Tiffany and Hugh’s horrified attempts to abide by Andrea’s final wish – without feeling some kind of physical reaction. Director Tommo Fowler has obeyed to the letter the writer’s instruction that “the actors should consume food when it says they eat”, so there’s no getting away from either the consumption or the various bodily functions that accompany it. (Or indeed the smell of cooking burgers, which explains the confusion I mentioned earlier.) It’s disgusting and messy and uncomfortable to watch, particularly when you add into the mix a series of video projections against the curtain at the back of the set, which verge at times on motion sickness inducing.

But let’s put the meat to one side for a second. At its heart, Mumburger is a story about a family coping with the loss of the person that held them together. Though we never meet Andrea, Kosar’s script paints a detailed picture of her; it’s clear from listening to Tiffany and Hugh argue and reminisce that she was the common link between them, and that without her they’re almost strangers who have no idea how to communicate. Both are also pretty annoying in their own ways; Tiffany, played by Rosie Wyatt, is shrill, domineering and self-involved, while Andrew Frame’s Hugh would rather play Candy Crush on his iPad than deal with anything even remotely difficult. Each believes that they knew Andrea better and therefore has more right to grieve, and the mumburgers become a physical manifestation of that competition. All of which begs the question: was Andrea’s intention really a noble wish to help her bereaved daughter and husband go on, or was it prompted by her own selfish need to maintain her position at the centre of the family for as long as possible?

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Many plays about bereavement go for the emotional jugular, encouraging us to feel sympathy for the characters and move us to tears as we watch them bond over memories of their loved one. Mumburger is not one of these plays. You’re more likely to come out feeling slightly sick than overwhelmed with emotion (though the play certainly has its moments) but that doesn’t make it any less real, and in this regard it’s actually oddly refreshing. Death – particularly of the sudden, violent kind – is not romantic or glamorous, but messy and painful. Not everyone who dies is perfect; nor are the people they leave behind. Grief can drive us apart just as much as it brings us together. These may not be truths we want to hear – or see, or smell – but they’re truths all the same. Not one for the faint-hearted (or vegetarians), maybe, but Mumburger certainly makes a lasting and powerful impression.

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