Review: Dirty Dancing at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika Cutts

It is the summer of 1963 and 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman is on holiday with her family in the Catskill Mountains when she meets the broody and sexy dance teacher Johnny Castle.  The classic coming-of-age love story that follows, made this one of the most iconic films to come out of the 1980s. Women all over the world fell in love with Patrick Swayze/Johnny Castle. The soundtrack generated two multi-platinum albums and the songs are loved and listened to by all generations.

The film was first adapted for stage in 2004 and has had worldwide success as a touring production, including two stints in London’s West End.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

I  always feel a bit nervous about going to see the stage production of a film that is so well known and well loved, so was approaching this evening with slight trepidation. Can a stage adaptation capture the moments that make this cult 1987 film so special? Were we going to “have the time of our lives”? (Sorry – had to do it!)

Kira Malou is outstanding as Baby. Not only does she have the dancing skills and looks of Baby but she perfectly demonstrates the hesitant but strong nature of the character. Her initial attempts at dancing with her arms flailing about is brilliant. Michael O’Reilly certainly has the fantastic dance skills and body for this Dartford audience to appreciate, especially when he takes off his top and gives us a glance of his bare bottom!  His acting at times feels slightly wooden to my ears but I am comparing him to Patrick Swayze perhaps. He has a tough act to follow but pulls it off with great confidence and skill. The choreography flows incredibly well and the chemistry between the pair is a pleasure to watch. It is a very steamy performance and Gillian Bruce’s choreography works extremely well to ensure the dancing lives up to the name of the show!

The ensemble, sets and outfits are so fantastic and believable that as an audience member, I really felt as if I was being transported back to the summer of 1963. A kaleidoscope of colour throughout the performance – swinging, twirling, gyrating bodies, knickers flashing… I felt part of that whole mood and I could see that the audience around me felt it too.

Ex Moulin Rouge can-can girl Simone Covele as Penny Johnson deserves a special mention – her movements and flexibility are dazzling and the spins she performs are mind-boggling! And Lizzie Ottley’s hula scene as Baby’s sister Lisa is a highlight. Sian Gentle-Green’s voice as Elizabeth stands out in this performance, as well as Alex Wheeler for the iconic duet that accompanies Baby and Johnny’s final dance.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

Classic lines such as “I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” are delivered to a satisfied audience and the practising of the famous “lift” in the lake has great lighting/projections which have been done cleverly. I was initially sceptical on how they were going to manage to pull that scene off, but they have.

The production has indeed stayed faithful to the film. It can be said that it is too loyal in some respects. It does feel as if the entire film has essentially been moved onto the stage, which makes it somewhat predictable for me. But perhaps that’s exactly what the audience wants judging by the reaction – from wolf-whistles to laughter, gasps of delight to clapping and dancing. I am pleased that there are a couple of welcome additional scenes which demonstrate the politics/civil rights movement of the time, including Martin Luther King’s speech. It gives the times more context.

For fans who want to see their beloved film recreated faithfully on the stage, this is certainly the right performance to come and watch. There isn’t anything ground-breaking but I don’t suppose there needs to be – the audience come away happily nostalgic and it certainly has the right feel-good factor on a cold Monday evening in Dartford!

Dirty Dancing is at the Orchard Theatre until 6th October.

Review: The Wizard of Oz at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

Having very recently moved to Dartford I had not heard of the Summer Youth Project, so it was with great excitement I came to watch this production of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard of Oz with my 8 year old son Raphael, who himself enjoys acting and dancing. (Mental note to myself to diarise 2019 audition dates!)

This is the ninth year that this project has been running and has been the biggest to date, with over 350 signing up. Talented young people, aged between 9 and 19, go from script to stage in just 2 weeks – which is unbelievable! Over 100 kids were chosen to learn, rehearse and perform RSC’s version of The Wizard of Oz to proud relatives, friends and the local community.

I probably don’t need to go too much into the storyline to readers – the tale of Dorothy and Toto, following their adventures from Kansas to the Land of Oz with their travelling companions – the brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man and the cowardly Lion. The audience is transported to a land of witches, wizards and Munchkins as we follow their path along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. It is a great choice for a production as it is loved and known by adults (in the interval I noticed an adult “Dorothy” complete with her ruby shoes) and kids alike – and especially so for a youth performance as it has so many singing, dancing and acting opportunities within the storyline.

As the curtain opened for the first scene, the show stealer was unexpected. The whole audience gasped and there was a collective “awwwwwww” as in trotted little Toto. I hadn’t expected a live animal on the stage to be honest, and I don’t think the rest of the audience had either – and not one fault throughout the whole performance! He was definitely the star… although sometimes he perhaps received too much attention from the audience and distracted us from the rest of the action.

Holly Radford as Dorothy was a fantastic choice – a great voice, confident and charming. She sang Somewhere over the Rainbow like she had been singing it for years and I could hear my son humming along next to me as I was myself transported to another land!

As for Dorothy’s faithful companions, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man – Mason Mote, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens did a great job of keeping the audience entertained with lots of fun jokes and antics, especially from the lion, who had got a perm specially! The Wicked Witch, played by Maddie Broadbridge was evil enough to be convincing without scaring the younger audience members too much.

The scenery was simple but effective and the lighting, especially during the tornado scene, was atmospheric and added to the mood and tensions. We did feel at times, though, that the spotlights were too bright and maybe needed some adjustments.

Now over to the main stars of the show – the children. We saw them singing and dancing choruses, and singing solos. They were singing in the aisles, they were singing in the balconies, they were singing on the stage. They were tap-dancing, performing the Charleston, dancing ballet and modern. Some had lines and some had jokes to say. They were trees, they were Munchkins, they were crows, they were monkeys, they were poppies in the field. My son’s favourite was the acrobatic monkey who could do hands-free somersaults in the air!

You could say the children WERE the show – from the scenery to the animals to the characters. And what a talented group. You could really see how each and every one of them was thoroughly enjoying themselves and that is what made the show so special. I noticed even as the show was ending some of the children were continuing to perform and dance with each other impromptu, because they didn’t want it to end. My son commented that there were boys performing, which was good to see. Although talking of gender balance, a comment I would make is that the BME community was underrepresented both in the show and the audience, and it would be great to see this begin to change next summer for their 10th anniversary year.

I can’t end without mentioning the director David Maun, who did an amazing job, and choreographer Debbie Smith and musical director Steven Trill, who must have worked so hard with the children and produced such a successful show. The scenery and music and choreography made the performance what it was and much credit to them for turning this around in 2 weeks!

I definitely wait with anticipation for the show next year and I know my son feels the same… it has made him enthusiastic enough to want to audition for it and he rated the show 9¾ out of 10! Many thanks to the Summer Youth Project for a wonderful evening and well done for all of your hard work – it definitely shows!

The Summer Youth Project’s production of The Wizard of Oz continues at the Orchard Theatre until 18th August.

Review: Son of a Preacher Man at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

The Orchard Theatre, Dartford welcomes the familiar sounds of Dusty Springfield to the stage, towards the end of its UK touring run of the musical Son of a Preacher Man.

This musical differs to what we’ve come to expect; it’s not “Dusty Springfield – The Musical” but a story written by Warner Brown featuring Springfield’s catalogue of 60s hits.

As the story opens we meet the three lead characters: Kat (Alice Barlow) who has recently lost her Gran, Paul (Michael Howe) who has never stopped loving the man he fell in love with as a teen, and finally widowed Alison (Michelle Gayle), a teacher troubled by inappropriate feelings for her student. The lovelorn trio decide the answers to all their problems can be found by visiting The Preacher, a London record store famed for the advice given by its owner.

When they reach the store they find that it is now being run by the son of the former Preacher Man as a coffee shop, aided by the peculiar Cappuccino Sisters. Convinced that the Son of the Preacher Man can live up to his Dad’s reputation, they enlist his help to solve their problems.

Unfortunately this show needs a bit of polishing as its storytelling is laboured and the atmosphere is lacklustre, not the vibrant lively scene expected. Springfield’s music sounds dull and dreary. Craig Revel Horwood’s choreography is a “disaster, darling”; its delivery is clunky and the on-stage instruments sounded out of tune.

I had been really looking forward to this show, and take regular trips to the theatre. Unfortunately this did not live up to my expectations, and it’s disappointing to write my first negative review.

Son of a Preacher Man is at the Orchard until Saturday 30th June.

Review: Gangsta Granny at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

To any parent, the much-loved and critically acclaimed Gangsta Granny by actor, presenter, comedian and author David Walliams needs no introduction. Released in 2011, it immediately went to no. 1 in the children’s book chart, and this touring show, produced by the brilliant Birmingham Production Company – of Horrible Histories fame – is a very welcome addition to the selection of family shows offered at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford. It is the production’s second visit here.

11-year-old Ben, played by the wonderful Tom Cawte, is neglected by his parents while they pursue their love of Ballroom Dancing, and just dreams of becoming a plumber – something his parents don’t understand or have time for.  Meanwhile his lonely old granny, played exactly as I imagined by Louise Bailey, seems to Ben to be boring, smelly and full of farts after eating nothing but cabbage – cabbage soup, cabbage cake, cabbage stew and even cabbage ice cream! But as it turns out she has a big secret – she is a gangsta, or should I say “gransta”. As two outsiders who have both been abandoned, Ben and his gran form a partnership, joining forces on a great heist that leads them to stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London and even meeting the (yes, farting) queen.

I was lucky enough to be reviewing this with my 7-year-old son, who giggled away beside me throughout the entire fun-packed production. Always a good sign when they think it is as good as the book. His review – 9 ½ out of 10 because “it has all the best bits” and “the characters are exactly as I had imagined in my head”. (It would have been 10 but the dancers moving the stage scenery as part of the show wasn’t for him.) Behind me was a grandfather laughing even more loudly. This is a show that appeals to both the young and old.

And what makes this production so appealing to all ages? The bond formed between the old and young, due to Ben’s neglect and Granny’s loneliness because of her age, strikes a chord in the audience. And the message about not ignoring the elderly is a strong one. My son, in the interval, voluntary said of his grandparents, “yes, I want to hear about their adventures, I don’t know why I haven’t before”. I have no doubt that his next conversation with them will be a richer one thanks to this viewing. It is a reminder to us all.

The show is at times full of hilarity, with its toilet humour (who doesn’t like a good fart joke?) and peppered with Strictly Come Dancing parodies that fans of the show definitely enjoyed. Much fun was had by kids and grownups alike whilst judging the Strictly competition – loud boos and cheers resounded in the theatre. The show makes a joke out of our obsession with celebrity culture as it follows Ben’s mum’s adoration of the ageing dancing sensation Flavio.

There were a few local references – “I love you more than Gravy’s End” aka Gravesend – was appreciated by the local audience. Other parts of the show were deeply touching; quotes such as “I am proud whatever you do”, “Follow your dreams”, “I am useless” and the heartfelt “I love you Granny” pulled on some heartstrings.

The entire cast are superb with a host of excellent performances, but the part I had been especially looking forward to is that of 16-year-old local dancer from Bexleyheath, Millie Minkowich. I had read in the local press that there had been a search for a local female dancer to play the part of a Strictly contestant and Millie was the talented winner. She was excellent and showcased her talent admirably. I have realised that this production often does this throughout their tour – what a nice support of the local community!

David Walliams, our much loved TV funnyman, has teamed up with the Birmingham Stage Company to create a fun-packed yet thought-provoking show for all the family, from young to old. Other than enjoying the laughter I think both of us came away thinking we will be kinder to our parents/grandparents, and I have vowed to make more time for my children!

Highly recommend by myself and my 7-year-old son!

Gangsta Granny is at the Orchard Theatre until 26th May.

Review: The Cherry Orchard at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Richard Hall

Few plays have arguably resonated at the Royal Exchange Theatre more profoundly than those by the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. His plays benefit enormously from being performed in the round and this superb production is no exception.

This version of The Cherry Orchard, co-produced with the Bristol Old Vic, comes to the Exchange garlanded with four and five star reviews. Directed by Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, this is a production that shows off Chekhov’s naturalistic masterpiece to great effect. The setting for the production appears to have been updated to a period that is placed somewhere between the mid 1930s and the lead up to the Second World War. It features a multinational cast that clearly delight in Boyd’s assured, fresh and modern interpretation.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

Facing financial ruin, Luba Ranyevskaya, a beautiful and spirited widow, returns home after a self-imposed exile brought on by the deaths of her husband and young son. At her family estate she is welcomed back by Lopakhin, a wealthy local businessman who offers to buy it and her beloved cherry orchard.

This being Chekhov, social, personal and political concerns collide and although Lopakhin, the son of a former family servant, believes that the old aristocratic order must change, his unrequited love for Ranyesvskaya and gratitude for her family’s past kindnesses makes it hard for him to contemplate splitting up the estate. Whilst Ranyevskaya agonises over the sale, disaffected servants, for which Boyd has interestingly chosen to cast BAME actors, look forward to the demise of the gentry, anticipating changes that in time will have unparalleled consequences not only for Russia but all of the Western World.

Boyd’s production is stripped bare of any artifice. For the whole performance the auditorium lights are dimmed, making the audience clearly visible, and only essential period props and furniture are used. The wooden panelled floor makes the actors appear as if they are performing on a concert stage and there is indeed something operatic about this production. As Ranyevskaya, Kirsty Bushell is captivating and hauntingly moving; it is impossible not to share in her grief and pain. She is oblivious to all the change around her and only wakens out of her dreamlike state when she briefly sees the spirit of her dead child come alive in front of her eyes.

Photo credit: Liam Bennett

The relationship between Ranyevskaya and Lopakhin is at the very heart of the play; it drives the narrative, creates tension and as Boyd points out in a fascinating programme interview, serves to underline the gulf that exists between their respective classes. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is excellent; his performance is nuanced and highly detailed. The scenes between him and Bushell are compelling and gripping.

Rory Mullarkey’s new and very modern translation helps to make Chekhov’s sub text clearer. Even though a century separates Mullarkey and the premiere of The Cherry Orchard, one senses that he keenly shares Chekhov’s view of the world and some of his sentiment. With this production, the Royal Exchange once again takes an important classic and makes it wonderfully accessible and relevant to the modern age. It is highly recommended.

The Cherry Orchard is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until 19th May.