Review: Guys and Dolls at Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange Company develops its ongoing collaboration with all-black theatre company Talawa for this, their latest offering, the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.

With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, we are well and truly in the golden age of Broadway musicals. In other words, an age when musicals were perhaps a little more fanciful and comedic than some of today’s through-sung rock opera musicals are. This one is no exception, and traditionally set in Times Square, it is a mickey take of persons perhaps real or imagined that peopled that neighbourhood at that time, based on the Damon Runyon stories of 1930s New York.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen Guys and Dolls before, then the story follows two would-be couples. Two of the area’s most notorious gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, finally get hitched (to Adelaide and Sarah respectively). It is a comedy love story set in this Noir-esque underbelly of NYC.

This version saw the action shift to Harlem, New York’s black neighbourhood, and the directing (Michael Buffong) and feel of the show was much more real and much darker than I have ever seen it before. It suited the cast, as they played their characters with much more truth and realism than the normal mono-dimensional musical theatre caricatures, and the interpretations of some of the leads was totally different from any other time I have seen this show.

Musically too, the orchestra (led by Mark Aspinall) was given leeway to jazz-up many of the songs, giving them much more authenticity in the new setting of the show.

Overall this idea worked and worked well, but it was flawed. I didn’t like the new song that Adelaide sung in the night club in act one – I had never heard that in a theatre performance before, and only realised later that it came from the film; and her very serious and heart-wrenching rendition of her lament was pitched wrongly, finding no comedy in there at all, and with absolutely no hint of her actually having a cold either before it or during it.

There were several other things too which didn’t quite sit right with me, but I’ll just put those down to personal choice, and leave it at that.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen the show before, then you will absolutely love this re-working, and not have anything with which to compare it. Myself, I had mixed reactions to it, but overall did enjoy it immensely, especially Kenrick Sandy’s choreography to Luck Be A Lady and the showstopper Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.

Ray Fearon is a very likeable Nathan Detroit, and he plays his role with charm and ease, whilst the object of his desires, Adelaide, played here by Lucy Vandi, to whom he has been engaged for 12 years, is given a completely new make-over and the strong, sassy side of this new characterisation really did not work at all. Couple number two came in the form of a more nervous and less confident Sky Masterson than I have previously seen, but this suited actor Ashley Zhangazha well, and was the perfect foil for the more tight-lipped and upright Sarah Brown, played wonderfully by Abiona Omonua.

It is clear that this is a musical however, and so vocally one would expect it to be superb. Sadly it wasn’t. Undeniably all the cast could sing but it felt weak in places and the voices seemed much more at home with the bluesy, jazzy, crooning style, instead of Broadway musical numbers. They were also drowned out too a couple of times by the orchestrations.

Happily, my favourite song in the show was sung superbly and so a special mention should be given to Trevor Toussaint, who plays the often understated part of Abernathy excellently.

Guys and Dolls is not perhaps the sure-fire hit that the Royal Exchange were hoping for, but an all black version, as far as I can tell, is a UK first, and it certainly makes it a most interesting and unusual show. There is certainly much to like and enjoy within it, and the cast play it for all its worth with truth and sincerity, which reaps dividends, but running at 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval) it is a little too long.

Guys and Dolls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 27th January.

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: Our Town at The Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Of all twentieth century classics, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town must be one of the most difficult to produce and hardest to understand plays for both cast and audience alike. In fact, ever since its first performance in 1938, it has continued to be misunderstood and misrepresented. However, there is some theatrical irony in this, since the play itself deals with misunderstanding and misrepresentation on a human scale.

It’s a very odd play, there’s no denying that, and in 1930s America would have been considered ground-breaking too.

It uses the device of it being a play within a play, the play being set in the theatre where the play is taking place, if you see what I mean. The cast are on stage and the Stage Manager enters and mediates between being the actual Stage Manager of the one play whilst narrating the story of the play to the audience of the other play. And if you’re not confused by that, you might just “get it”.

The play is very Brechtian in feel. There is no set, no scenery, miming is the order of the day, as well as speaking directly to and questioning the audience, and all the cast are wearing modern contemporary informal clothes. The Stage Manager sets the scene… Our Town is the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, USA, and at the start of the play it is 1901. The play is in three acts and the first act is nothing more than a scene-setting scene, setting the scene and seeing the set-up (apologies to Mr. Bennett). However this first scene is not only necessary to allow us to understand the two acts that follow, it is also this act that has made directors and producers of productions past think that the play is a lyrical pastiche and a yearning on the part of the writer for simpler and happier times. But the play is darker, so much darker than that, and with the second act, despite the play’s upbeat documentary nature, we get a hint of what is to come. It is the third act which acts like a wake-up call to us all. Live our every moment to its fullest and feel, and see as hard and as long as possible, because there is beauty in the little things, and it is the little things that matter.

It’s also a very brave choice of play for any theatre company to attempt, and so kudos to The Royal Exchange for grabbing the challenge firmly and squarely and giving it their best shot. The only question is; did they score a goal? And the answer to that is, I am uncertain. I am not sufficiently learned on Wilder’s oeuvre to know whether or not this production ticked all the boxes for him; I can only go off my own reaction to the play, and of those around me in the theatre. Did I enjoy the play? I am again uncertain, since enjoyment seems the wrong terminology for what I witnessed. Although I wasn’t bored, and there was plenty of humour and bonhomie within the play, or at least the first two acts. But did the play stand up and grab me by the throat to leave a lasting impression on me? No, sadly it didn’t.

I think this is perhaps due to two things which I simply didn’t like about this production. I can only think these were directorial choices rather than scripted, and I must admit was somewhat put off the play because of them. The first is that some of the audience are invited to sit on plastic chairs on the stage, and become a part of the play for those not on the stage. I really liked the idea at first when I took my seat, as the stage was full of people sitting at desks crowded together and chatting. It looked like a school canteen. I understood the relevance for using audience in this way, as the director Sarah Frankcom is using every trick in the book to make this play relevant for our multi-cultural 21st century ‘town’ and therefore inviting audience to become a part of a play that challenges and distorts reality brings much more a community feel to the whole. It almost works in the first act, but in the second and third acts it’s odd and seems wholly inappropriate for them to be on stage.

And the second choice made by Frankcom is that only the Stage Manager should use an American accent. I think I understand what she’s trying to do here too, and say that this town, these people, these situations transcend time and place, but nevertheless, as a personal choice at least, they should all be speaking with the correct accent.

Frankcom’s directing, however, is consistent and intelligent. She realises that this play is about community and celebrating (the brevity of ?) life; and this doesn’t stop in the theatre, but continues in the auditorium too where each evening a community choir serenades patrons with a repertoire that includes the hymn sung several times over in the play itself, Blessed Be The Ties That Bind.

Youssef Kerkour, despite his stature, is a very gentle character, and his demeanour – as well as his New Hampshire accent and lumberjack style checked shirt – fit perfectly. Easy to watch and understand. However, his performance is somewhat eclipsed by the stunning and superbly simple and naturalistic acting style of Norah Lopez Holden as Emily. In a play which requires a certain approach to the acting in order for it to work, Holden hits the nail firmly and squarely on the head, balancing her every emotion to perfection. 

It is a large cast play, 15 characters in total, and these are augmented further by Frankcom using members of both the Royal Exchange Young Company and The Royal Exchange Company Of Elders, so the stage need never be bare and this somehow negates the idea of adding audience members to the throng. However, the main protagonists in the play are well cast, and Patrick Elue works excellently opposite Holden as a wide-eyed innocent turning into a more mature farmer widower, with Nicholas Khan pitching his role as Emily’s doctor father with aplomb.

The production as a whole does work, but on leaving I had the feeling that it could have worked better. Just don’t ask me how or why. However, that is just my own reaction to the production and the curtain call was warmly received, so do go along and judge it for yourselves. It’s a rarely performed piece of classic 20th century literature, waiting and ready for you to take whatever you can from it.

Our Town is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 14th October.

Review: Oh What A Lovely War at Oldham Coliseum

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Starting in 2014, and no doubt continuing right up until the end of 2018, Britain has been commemorating the centenary of World War 1. The Great War, The War To End All Wars. I have seen some extremely moving tributes both theatrical and musical, and now The Coliseum Theatre in Oldham opens its Autumn season with something which is a little of both, Oh What A Lovely War. A pioneering and daring work in its time, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in London’s Stratford East came up with a dark satire which parodies the war and those in charge of it, commenting on its futility and political motivations through sharp humour and song.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

If this doesn’t sound too hard to imagine and a little lame, then remember this was premiered in 1963 when the constraints of theatre were much more rigid than today, and also that at that time, it was less than 20 years since the end of World War 2, with both The Cold War and The Vietnam War still continuing.

Littlewood uses the songs of the period to great effect, interspersing them throughout with little vignettes as the cast of ten dressed in costumes reminiscent of the old Music Hall Pierrettes take on multifarious characters ranging from civilian, military and political persons from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Russian etc, presenting “the ever popular, ‘War Games'”.

To aid us all in this, since this is a history lesson on four years of fighting on a scale never before encountered, there is a large screen in the centre of the stage upon which helpful photographs, documents, maps and information – all historically accurate – are displayed. In fact, Foxton has designed a simple and yet superb set. A circular ‘stage’ around which the performers and their props and instruments wait in Brechtian fashion, with a false gallery and prosc arch, bunting, the royal Coat Of Arms, and footlights. Just what one would have expected to find at the theatre at the end of a pier in those days.

There are ten performers in all; but don’t ask me to tell you how many characters they play between them! However, their character changes are swift and clever, with the simple addition of a hat or scarf, or perhaps even just an umbrella. They are also multi-talented as indeed they all must also sing, dance and play at least one musical instrument, as they were also the show’s band, “The Merry Roosters”. And so, piano, bass, clarinet, trombone, drum kit, and goodness knows what else were played by those members not actually involved in the acting of each scenelet.

I must say right now that under normal circumstances I am absolutely no fan of actor-musicians; and I still think I would have enjoyed the show more had they been separate, but it certainly didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as I thought it would, and for a show of this particular style, and the lovely Brechtian directing by the Coliseum’s Artistic Director Kevin Shaw, it was apt and fitted well. I do feel though that some of the songs would have benefited from a fuller sound vocally; although the harmonies were lovely, they were a little sparse.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

In fact Shaw has brought out the best from both his cast and the show in this. It could do with being a little pacier; I felt especially the first half dragged ever so slightly (perhaps because the audience didn’t really “get it”) but hopefully given a few more runs for it to “bed-in” the pace will naturally quicken anyway. Beverley Norris-Edmunds should also be commended here too for her lovely choreography. Stylistically perfect and worked excellently.

It is almost impossible to single out certain cast members from others in a show such as this, a true ensemble piece in every regard, but I cannot leave this review without mentioning them, as they are all excellent. They are Isobel Bates, Matt Connor, Richard J. Fletcher, Jeffrey Harmer, Barbara Hockaday, Anthony Hunt, Thom Petty, Lauryn Redding, Reece Richardson, and David Westbrook. My favourite number from the evening though simply has to be the lovely acapella rendering of When This Lousy War Is Over.

Oh What A Lovely War may not prove to be everyone’s cup of tea (but I guess the same can be said of any piece of theatre); however, I do believe that the Coliseum have got another hit show on their hands with this one. Poignant, relevant, and also very funny, true to the spirit and concept of the original production. Well done chaps!

Oh What A Lovely War is at the Oldham Coliseum until 30th 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!