Review: Voices From Home at Theatre503

Since its inception in 2017, Broken Silence Theatre’s Voices From Home has been championing new writers from across the South East, and more importantly from outside the capital. Volume 3 found the event in a new home at Theatre503 and showcasing five original pieces on a variety of themes and covering a broad emotional spectrum.

Anatomy of a Victim by Rachel Tookey (Surrey) is an intriguing and slightly unsettling piece about the murder of a young woman. The play starts with an unsentimental laying out of the facts from A (Abbi Douetil) and B (Ella Dorman-Gajic), who are a bit disappointed at the clichéd nature of the young woman’s disappearance, and convinced they’ve just uncovered a huge miscarriage of justice. Which is all well and good, until we’re taken back to the beginning of the story, and meet Rebecca (Hatty Jones) – the victim – who at this point is still alive and well and full of plans for the future, as she tells her friend about a frightening encounter she’s just had with the boyfriend that A and B are so keen to exonerate. The play ends on an abrupt and ambiguous note, leaving us to make up our own minds about what really happened that night, and slightly chastened by the realisation that behind every sensational true crime documentary, there first has to be a real victim.

From the first Kent writer to be featured in Voices From Home, Mark Daniels’ My Boys is a bittersweet portrayal of a grieving family as they take their first steps towards reconciliation after a lengthy estrangement. Stacha Hicks gives a particularly powerful performance as the newly widowed but still delightfully stoical Pauline, alongside David Ellis and Steven Jeram as her sons Jamie and Lenny. Tomorrow is the funeral of their late dad Len, and as he lies in his open casket, the remaining family members finally have a chance to say all the things they couldn’t say before – but have they left it too late? Funny and sad in equal measure, this enjoyable play about family and forgiveness will make you want to call your loved ones (especially if you’ve not seen them in a while) just to say hi.

Also on the topic of grief, Like and Subscribe by Berkshire’s Rachel Causer sees another awkward reunion, this time between two former best friends. One, Polly (Alanna Flynn), has gone on to become a successful podcaster, while the other, Kas (Antonia Salib), has been struggling to come to terms with her mum’s death. With Polly portrayed as superficial and self-absorbed, we’re immediately inclined to dislike both her and her brand of forced positivity, particularly when she appears to be trying to capitalise on her friend’s grief. But things aren’t quite as simple as they seem, and behind the weird podcast voice and fixed grin, there’s more to Polly’s positivity than meets the eye. Like and Subscribe is a witty and relatable story about friendship and the lengths we’re prepared to go to convince the rest of the world we’re fine – even when we’re anything but.

In Losers by Precious Alabi (Essex), two complete strangers meet outside a club. It’s 31st October 2019, and Her (Dominique Moutia) is having a bad night when she runs into Him (Andy Sellers). He thinks she’s superficial, she thinks he’s rude – but as the minutes tick down towards Brexit, they realise that maybe they have more in common than they thought. Though it may sound like it, Losers isn’t really a political play; it’s about two human beings finding a brief connection in a world that’s not treating either of them particularly well, and the many ways in which we make assumptions about others based on first impressions. The conclusion – in which Her has a revelation about how badly she’s behaved – feels a little bit too neat and tidy, but were the piece to be expanded into something longer, there’s potential here for some really interesting character development on both sides.

Last but by no means least, My first time was in a parking lot by Phoebe Wood from Norfolk is a powerful and disturbing story of one woman’s teenage trauma and the lasting impact it’s had on her life, relationships and mental health. Though Mira (Eleanor Grace) talks about her first time with seeming nonchalance, each time she returns to the story it becomes a little clearer that there was a lot more to it than we first thought – and not in a good way. Eleanor Grace gives a brilliant solo performance as this complex character who masks her pain with humour, and while it’s difficult to watch, at the same time this is the kind of piece you want to see again because there’s so much detail in those few short minutes.

With high quality writing, direction and acting across the board, the third outing for Voices From Home was as enjoyable, varied and thought-provoking as the previous two, and as always, it’s refreshing to see talent from outside London being given a voice. Roll on the next one…

For more details about Voices From Home, visit brokensilencetheatre.com or follow @BrokenSilenceT

Review: Saturday Night Fever at the Orchard Theatre

There can be few movies more iconic than Saturday Night Fever. Its place in popular culture is so established that even if you’ve never seen the film, you almost certainly still know the music and the dance moves, and you’ve probably performed some version of the latter to the former, most likely at a school disco or cheesy student club night. You also, I’d guess, know that John Travolta is Tony Manero, and like most people, you can’t quite imagine anyone else filling his shiny shoes and sharp white suit.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Tony is a young man in 1970s Brooklyn with little to look forward to in life; he still lives at home with his disappointed and unhappily married parents, and works during the week in a local paint store, with no obvious prospect of moving up in the world despite being very good at his job. The one bright spot on the horizon is Saturday nights at local disco 2001 Odyssey, where Tony can do what he loves: dance. When the club announces an upcoming dance contest, he teams up with new love interest Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) – funnily enough, the one woman in town who doesn’t want to sleep with him – to claim the prize, and with it her heart.

So given the tough act he has to follow, how does Richard Winsor fare in Bill Kenwright’s stage version? Actually, not bad. He’s got the classic moves and Manero swagger down, and leads the ensemble dance numbers under the 2001 Odyssey mirrorball with the cool confidence of a man who knows all eyes – particularly the female ones – are on him. For Act 1, that’s pretty much all the plot requires, but as events take a darker turn in Act 2 Winsor also shows us glimpses of the vulnerability behind the arrogance, and finally gives us a reason to root for Tony despite his many flaws.

This change in tone is reflected in the show’s other big star attraction: the soundtrack. While Act 1 packs in the legendary disco hits, from Stayin’ Alive to You Should Be Dancing, after the interval the pace slows, with numbers including Too Much Heaven and How Deep Is Your Love (and also Tragedy, during which everyone of a certain age could be seen physically restraining themselves from launching into the Steps dance routine). Almost all the musical numbers are performed by the show’s very own – and very convincing – Bee Gees, Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull, but every now and again a key character breaks into their own solo, some of which fit what’s happening in the story better than others. Though all the songs are well performed, this lack of consistency in the show’s format jars somewhat, and feels like an unnecessarily confusing distraction.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

There’s no doubt, however, that the production succeeds 100% in capturing the spirit of disco – from Bill Deamer’s irresistible choreography to Nick Richings’ lighting design and Gary McCann’s set and costumes, which between them bring Odyssey 2001 vividly to life both on stage and off. Because the songs stand alone as hits in their own right, they take centre stage throughout; it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and energy of the group numbers, or to feel a sudden urge to get out on the dance floor yourself. The show does have its flaws, and it might not be the most memorable start to the theatre-going year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t head home with a skip in your step, all the same.

Saturday Night Fever is at the Orchard Theatre until 12th January, then continues on tour.

Review: Aladdin at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

As a forty-plus female attending this panto, I can’t deny the main draw for me was my childhood crush Marti Pellow. So I hadn’t really gone into the night with high expectations of what was to follow other than knowing I would hear some  “oh no it isn’t” type of gags. I had prepared myself for familiar panto slapstick.

Wow. I had that completely wrong! The promise “Everything you could wish for in a panto” I would say underplays what we actually got. This was so much more. I hadn’t seen a Qdos production before and confess hadn’t read up about the company and am so glad I hadn’t. This was a special effects/visuals/pyrotechnics and magic spectacular and was a total surprise!

Photo credit: Luke Varley

The pantomime started surreally with villain Abanazar, former Wet Wet Wet frontman Marti Pellow, talking to a giant moving mechanical King Kong – I’m not actually sure why… And from that moment on, I knew this was not any ordinary panto. Marti did an excellent job of playing a Scottish accented villain – his acting and singing were certainly on form and his gags about Dartford and the local area (spanning even to Bromley) were appreciated by the audience. I didn’t feel he was particularly villainous, but perhaps I was seeing him through rose-coloured glasses!

The cast included the hilarious Ricky K from Britain’s got Talent who was my 8-year-old son’s favourite character by far and the star of the show. His energetic slapstick comedy had the audience in stitches throughout and he did a fabulous job of getting everybody involved. Panto favourite David Robbins, playing Widow Twankey, had a fabulous rapport with Ricky K and the scene where Abanazar, Wishee Washee and Widow Twankey try their tongue twisters looking for a missing shirt was my favourite of the evening. My son was literally crying! A special mention must be made of the costume designer as Widow Twankey’s wardrobe down to her knobbly knees was inspired.

I can’t fault Alexis Gerred as Aladdin but I was surprised we didn’t have a stronger character for Stephanie Elstob as Princess Jasmine. A bit more girl power would have been nice to see – though Stephanie’s acting and singing were great and complemented Aladdin. Best singer most definitely goes to Landi Oshinowo, who played the Empress of China (sorry Marti).

Full credit should go to the stage designer as the sets were amazing – from Peking to Egypt to the treasure-filled cave – and how did they do the magic carpet, we would really like to know? We felt we were being transported into the skies and many children I imagine have come away thinking it indeed was by magic.

Photo credit: Luke Varley

We were all given 3D glasses in the second half, but I hadn’t prepared for the visuals that followed. The fairly long cinematic experience had the audience screaming (they possibly need a warning for the families with very young children). From snakes to dragons to spiders to skulls… it was both spectacular and spectacularly scary! The use of new technology in this way and with the pyrotechnics and “magic” makes me interested to see where panto will go from here in the years to come. I will be back next year for sure.

Looking around, the audience, which ranged from 6 months to 80 years old, seemed to be enjoying themselves and on the way out, I didn’t see anybody who wasn’t smiling. As somebody who only really came for Marti rather than panto, I have been converted by this production. My son gave it 10/10, which says it all.

Oh, I know you are all wanting to know – did they play any Wet Wet Wet songs? I will leave you to go and find out……

Aladdin is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th December.

Review: Rock of Ages at the Orchard Theatre

Chris D’Arienzo’s 2005 jukebox musical Rock of Ages has a lot going for it: a soundtrack of epic 80s rock classics, a feel-good LA love story, and perhaps most importantly, an absolute refusal to take itself seriously at any point. Add in the universally fantastic cast of Nick Winston’s touring production, and – a little bit of questionable humour aside – you’ve got the recipe for a great show (but maybe leave the kids at home).

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The year is 1987, and wannabe actress Sherrie (Danielle Hope) has just arrived on the Sunset Strip, where she meets wannabe rockstar Drew (Luke Walsh), but their budding romance is endangered when actual rockstar Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday) turns up. One thing leads to another, and as Drew’s getting discovered by a record producer, Sherrie ends up working as a stripper for Justice (Zoe Birkett) at the Venus Club. Meanwhile local legend Dennis Dupree (Kevin Kennedy) must defend his beloved bar from two Germans (Andrew Carthy and Vas Constanti), who want to tear down the Strip and replace it with a Foot Locker – a plan also opposed vehemently by former City Planner Regina (Rhiannon Chesterman). It’s a long and bumpy road, but in the end everyone gets what they want – even if they didn’t know it was what they wanted in the first place.

The story is nothing we haven’t seen plenty of times before, but Rock of Ages realises that and leans into it, understanding that nobody in the audience has bought a ticket for the plot anyway, so why not have some fun with it? Narrator Lonny – in a hilarious, show-stealing performance from Lucas Rush – does exactly that, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, openly acknowledging the formulaic nature of the story and turning it into a running joke that the audience is more than happy to go along with while we wait for the next rock classic.

And fortunately, we never have long to wait. We Built This City, We’re Not Gonna Take It, I Want to Know What Love Is, Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, I Can’t Fight This Feeling, Don’t Stop Believing… and so many more hits make it almost impossible to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. They’re also an excuse for the cast to showcase some sensational vocals; the show has an unusually large quantity of lead characters and without question, every single one of them delivers. Even the numbers that are clearly aiming more for comedy – like Lonny and Dennis’ duet in Act 2, or anything involving the Germans – don’t compromise on vocal quality. Barney Ashworth’s band are similarly excellent, and from a musical point of view, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rock of Ages is a resounding triumph.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The one area where the show falters a little is in some of the humour, which is not so much offensive as just a bit tired. For instance, it’s never really clear why the two property developers have to be German, except as an excuse to make cheap gags at their expense – and in a script that has so much good stuff going for it in terms of comedy, this doesn’t add anything and feels unnecessary. And yes, I know the show is set in the 80s, but the less said about its portrayal of women, the better. (To quote my friend at the interval, “It’s good, but you can tell it was written by a man.”)

All the same, Rock of Ages does what it sets out to do: it well and truly rocks, and does so in an engagingly self-aware way that some other jukebox musicals could definitely learn a thing or two from. Great fun for a cheesy – and slightly cheeky – night out.

Rock of Ages is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th November, before continuing on tour.

Review: Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue at Mid Kent College Theatre

The latest show from Kent-based Fluffy Top Productions’ is Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue about the highs and lows of… well, parenthood. With an original score and book by Emily Moody (who also directs) and Pete Moody, the production takes the form of a series of over 20 individual vignettes, exploring everything from pregnancy to becoming a grandparent. It’s predominantly a comedy, and paints a hilariously accurate – and often less than rosy – picture of life as a parent. But for all the mess and mayhem we encounter along the way, ultimately it’s a celebration of the journey and everything that comes with it.

 

That journey includes the sleep deprivation of the new mum, deciphering fridge doodles, competitive parenting, navigating the treacherous teenage years, waving the kids off to start their adult life… and lots, lots more. Each scene is enjoyable in its own right – many of them very much so, drawing howls of laughter from an audience who could clearly identify with the characters. The score, too, is catchy and fun (though very much adults only, due to quite a bit of bad language and a few dance moves that are best not witnessed by younger eyes). However, the “sketch show” format of the performance, which sees each scene end with a fade-out followed by a pause while the next one is set up, gives the evening a rather stop-start feel. This, along with the lack of any particular narrative flow or returning characters for us to invest in, means the show does begin in Act 2 to feel a little bit longer than it needs to be.

As a picture of parenthood, however, it’s spot on – or so I was reliably informed at the end by the ladies sitting next to me (their review of the evening: “that’s exactly what it’s like!”). Even for a non-parent, it’s clear that the comedy is very well-observed and brutally honest; much of the humour lies in the fact that the writers – who are parents themselves – aren’t afraid to say what they really think, instead of wrapping the experience of having children in excessive sentimentality. While that’s undeniably a good thing, the more reflective moments that do exist feel very few and far between, and the show could perhaps benefit from a little more emotion to balance things up a bit.

The cast of nine give strong comedy and vocal performances, despite being let down quite badly at the performance I attended by problems with the sound system. The show is very much an ensemble piece, and the variety of scenes provides each member of the cast with an opportunity to showcase their versatility, as they perform not only as a multitude of different characters, but also in a range of musical styles and some delightfully eccentric costumes (highlights include Astra Beadle’s show-stopping Superman/Princess outfit and Jordan Brown’s memorable appearance as a star in the school nativity).

As a brand new piece of musical theatre, Parenthood has much to recommend it, and with a bit of tightening up it has great potential for future development. There’s a lot to enjoy for parents and non-parents alike; the former will be able to recognise elements of their own stressful but rewarding experience, while the latter – like Auntie Jen in one of the musical numbers – can sit back, relax and revel in a childfree life of contraception and wine.

Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue was performed at Mid Kent College Theatre from 15th-17th November. For details of future performances, visit fluffytopfriends.com.