Review: Dick Whittington at the Marlowe Theatre

You wait all year for a pantomime, and then two come along at once. Following Monday’s hilarious outing to Theatre503 for Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, my pantomime expectations were set sky-high. So did the Marlowe’s Dick Whittington, my second panto in two days, hit the mark? Oh yes it did…

Although a far more traditional pantomime than the night before, there’s so much to love in Paul Hendy’s production that it never once feels tired, despite the presence of all the usual tried and tested panto conventions. The gags – which include the usual local digs and up-to-the-minute topical references – are genuinely funny (even the ones you can see coming a mile off) and while there’s certainly no shortage of innuendo, it’s refreshing to note that Hendy’s avoided the temptation to go after the obvious Dick jokes. And there’s also a 21st century twist to keep us on our toes: a 3D section takes us into a dreamy underwater world that soon becomes more of a nightmare, sending the already impressive decibel level clean through the roof.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

The big name in this year’s Canterbury panto is TV presenter and magician Stephen Mulhern, who charms us with his scene-stealing tricks and infectious giggle. But he’s far from the only star on the stage: West End performer John Barr is a very stagey King Rat (very confusing for a musical theatre fan; half the time I couldn’t decide whether to boo or applaud, and usually ended up doing both). Gymnast Vladimir Georgievsky brings the house down with a jaw-dropping and entirely unexpected (unless you watch Britain’s Got Talent) trampolining display in Act 2. And Marlowe regulars Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollett, appearing together for the sixth year in a row, are a dream comedy duo as Dolly The Cook and Captain Crabstick; clearly having just as much fun as the audience, they really are a joy to watch.

There are moments when you could even forget you’re watching a pantomime altogether, so polished is the production. There are some spectacular group numbers – not least the Act 2 opener, Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat from Guys and Dolls, and later a slightly tenuous but still hugely enjoyable celebration of everything that makes Great Britain great. And in a nice moment Chris Wong, the obviously hugely respected musical director of 22 years, joins the show’s romantic leads, Ben Carruthers’ Dick and Jemma Carlisle’s Alice, on stage with an acoustic guitar for the inevitable cheesy love duet.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

I haven’t been to the Canterbury panto for a long time, but if every year is as good as this one, I’ll definitely be back. Dick Whittington remains true to the pantomime spirit and format, so nobody who turned up particularly wanting to watch an assortment of odd characters sit on a bench and sing Ghostbusters goes home disappointed. But while it’s as predictable and cheesy as you might expect, the show never compromises on production quality, and proves a hugely enjoyable evening for audience members of all ages.

Dick Whittington is at the Marlowe Theatre until 8th January.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Marlowe Theatre

In case anyone’s missed it, this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. To mark the life and achievements of one of our greatest Britons, the RSC has embarked on a massive and daunting task: a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bringing together an ethnically diverse cast made up of professionals and amateurs to celebrate the universal scope of not only Shakespeare, but theatre in general.

It’s a risky project, fraught with challenges and potential pitfalls, but there’s no sign of nerves from the cast at the Marlowe, which includes members of local group the Canterbury Players and children from King Ethelbert School in Birchington. It seems unfair to label the newcomers ‘amateurs’, though; all take to the stage with such aplomb – in particular Lisa Nightingale, who almost steals the whole show as the RSC’s first ever female Bottom – that you’d think they’ve been performing with the company all their lives.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Director Erica Whyman has set the familiar tale in a crumbling, post-war Britain, a time of hardship but also of hope for a brighter future. As the nation prepares for a royal wedding, four lovers escape into the woods, and a band of amateur actors meet to rehearse a play. But little do they all know they’re entering a world of fairy magic and mischief, and that after this night, their lives will never be the same again. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays – there’s a reason we all studied it at school – and there’s plenty to enjoy for young and old audience members alike in this chaotic and colourful version.

In an excellent cast, Lucy Ellinson shines with her spiky-haired Puck. Clearly enjoying doing her master’s bidding and causing as much chaos as she can, she covers every inch of Tom Piper’s versatile set (and beyond) with seemingly limitless energy. There’s great physical comedy from the four lovers (Mercy Ojelade, Laura Riseborough, Chris Nayak and Jack Holden) as the men threaten violence and the women actually attempt it – and as Oberon and Titania, Chu Omambala and Ayesha Dharker bring a vibrant party atmosphere to their fairy realm.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a timeless and irresistible story about love, and the things we’re willing to do for it. Whether it’s romantic love, parental love or simply a love for our art, it can lead us into madness – but it can also inspire us to greatness. It’s fair to say there’s more than a hint of madness about the RSC’s epic scheme to create a Play for the Nation… but there’s plenty of greatness too – not just for those of us who already love Shakespeare but, more importantly, for the next generation of theatre lovers. Here’s to another 400 years!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, until 23rd April.

Review: Blood Brothers at the Marlowe Theatre

As musicals go, this one probably needs little introduction. Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers began life as a school play, and opened in the West End in 1983, before running for 24 years from 1988. I still remember it as the only show that’s ever caused me to openly sob throughout the curtain call, and I’m sad that I only got to see it once before it closed in 2012.

But hurrah! Blood Brothers is back, and embarking on a national tour, which kicked off at Wimbledon last week, before transferring to the Marlowe in Canterbury. Directed by Bob Tomson, it stars Marti Pellow (who old folk like me remember from his Wet Wet Wet days) as the narrator and Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone, a struggling single mother who agrees to give one of her newborn twins away to her wealthy employer. The two boys grow up in very different surroundings, but somehow keep finding each other, with ultimately heartbreaking consequences.

Blood Brothers

But in case you think that all sounds a bit depressing, never fear, because Blood Brothers is also one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in ages. It’s set in Liverpool, with a cheeky Scouse personality, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – the script is happy to acknowledge the fact that the same actors are playing more than one part. But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Blood Brothers is the way it has adult actors playing the characters throughout their lives, beginning at age 7 (nearly 8). It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does – the cast capture brilliantly all the mannerisms of children, and after a while you completely forget they’re grown ups in kids’ clothes. And then when they do grow up, and graduate from toy guns to real ones, you find you really care what happens to them.

Blood Brothers is an unusual musical, in that it only actually has a few songs, which are repeated throughout the show, with slight variations. Each character has one or two themes – Mrs Johnstone tells the story of her family through the recurring Marilyn Monroe, while the Narrator warns the characters of their impending doom with The Devil’s Got Your Number, and the twins, Mickey and Eddie, wish themselves into each other’s shoes with That Guy. However, that said, there are a few standalone numbers – Eddie’s wistful love song to Linda, I’m Not Saying a Word, is particularly poignant, especially given what happens next.

Blood Brothers

I was intrigued to see Marti Pellow on stage, having heard mixed reviews of his recent performance in Evita. His Narrator prowls the stage with intense eyes and moments of almost violent aggression as he reminds the two mothers of what they’ve done. Compared to some of the other characters, the Narrator doesn’t have a huge amount to do vocally, but this is a character who’s all about presence, and Pellow certainly delivers on that front. Meanwhile Maureen Nolan reprises her role as Mrs Johnstone, which I always think must be one of the most emotionally demanding parts to play, calling as it does for extremes of happiness and devastation. Like Niki Evans, who I saw in this role before, Nolan looks shattered at the curtain call, as well she might; her closing scene is one of the most powerful in musical theatre.

But while these may be the ‘headline’ members of the cast, there are plenty of other standout performances: Paula Tappenden is brilliant as the well to do Mrs Lyons, descending into madness as a result of her own made-up superstition. And I doubt there was anyone in the theatre who didn’t leave a little bit in love with Sean Jones, who plays Mickey, the ultimate cheeky chappy. Joel Benedict and Danielle Corlass complete the trio of inseparable friends who ultimately – and perhaps predictably – find themselves embroiled in a love triangle.

Blood Brothers
Picture: Lorne Campbell / Guzelian

If you’ve seen Blood Brothers before, you’ll know it’s brilliant. If you haven’t, I urge you to seize this second chance to catch it. It’s a story about family, and the enduring debate over nature versus nurture. And despite being written in the 1980s, it still feels very contemporary, with its questions about class and poverty. With great music and memorable characters, this is a show not to be missed.

Blood Brothers is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until 26th September.

Theatre round-up: 10 Aug 2015

Although I just had one theatre trip this week, you may recall I’ve been to a couple of Edinburgh previews over the past couple of weeks. And unlike some national publications that I won’t name, I honour requests to keep quiet until opening night. (I also don’t use grainy photos taken on a hidden camera phone, but that’s a whole other story.)

Anyway, since the Fringe is now well and truly underway, my reviews have been published, so I feel comfortable talking about them here. Beginning with:

To She or Not To She

I was excited to see how this one-woman show, written and performed by Emma Bentley of Joue le Genre, had turned out, after getting a brief glimpse at the Morley College scratch night a few months ago. And I wasn’t disappointed – what began as a research project into female actors playing Shakespearean characters has turned out to be a very funny yet deeply thought-provoking piece about the very current topic of sexism in the acting industry. Emma Bentley is enthusiastic and likeable, and at the same time clearly very passionate about her message; the show is evidently a labour of love and one that I feel privileged to have seen in its early stages. With plenty of in-jokes for the actors and the women in the audience, it’s a very inclusive show – and there’s a fair bit of Shakespeare fangirling too, which is never a bad thing.

To She or Not To She review for LondonTheatre1

A Fine line

The second preview was also a one-woman show, but couldn’t have been more different. Ronnie Dorsey’s new work, about the six-decade relationship between two best friends, is a moving and incredibly powerful piece. In just an hour, the story of Rita and Angie takes us on an emotional journey that covers puberty, sex, babies, infidelity, love and loss. Judith Paris gives an intimate performance as she shares one elderly lady’s rambling memories; at times it feels like the audience is intruding on a very private moment as she addresses her monologue to her absent friend. Ultimately, the play reveals itself to be much more than just an assortment of memories; it invites us to consider the different kinds of love, and the fine line between expressing our true desires and conforming to society’s expectations.

A Fine Line review for LondonTheatre1

These shows are currently being performed in Edinburgh, and I’d recommend them both if you’re lucky enough to be there.

As for my one ‘official’ theatre trip of last week…

Dirty Dancing

If the two Edinburgh previews were thought-provoking, Dirty Dancing is anything but… and that’s why we love it. Any fans of the movie will also be fans of the stage show, which I saw at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, because they’re essentially the same, bar a few really minor changes. The music, costumes, props – including that watermelon – and the script are all pretty much identical, and there’s something quite relaxing about going to see a show you know so well you can quote the lines along with the actors. And yes, I’ll admit I’m still daydreaming about Lewis Kirk, who plays Johnny (with or without his shirt). It’s a feel-good show; the cast look like they’re having a great time, and it sends you away with a smile on your face… and you can’t really ask for more than that.

Dirty Dancing review

Theatre round-up

This week’s theatre

Blood Wedding (Dreamcatcher Theatre), The Bread and Roses Theatre

The Backward Fall (Penny Productions), Hen and Chickens

Consolation (Theatre Voliere), Bridewell Theatre

The Two Gentlemen of Verona / Hay Fever (Changeling Theatre), Boughton Monchelsea

Review: Dirty Dancing at the Marlowe Theatre

Sometimes you can’t beat a classic. As much fun as it is to see a brand new show, with little or no idea what emotions it’s going to make you feel… sometimes all you really want is to sit back, relax and enjoy a story that’s so familiar you can quote the script along with the actors.

There can’t be too many people of my generation who don’t at least have a rough idea what Dirty Dancing is all about. Boy meets girl, girl carries a watermelon, boy teaches girl to dance. Then they fall in love, boy gets fired but returns for a triumphant final scene which puts everything right with the world.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' & Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' - cTristram Kenton

It’s a total cheese-fest, but that’s why we love it. The producers of Dirty Dancing were always on to a winner by reviving the stage production, because the movie has such a die-hard following that the theatres were bound to be full. Building on that popularity, director Sarah Tipple’s Dirty Dancing is almost an exact replica of the original version; the script, costumes, routines and even some of the actors appear to have been transported straight from Kellerman’s, in the summer of 1963. There are a few additions – references to the political situation of the time, freedom rides, Martin Luther King and the Cuban Missile Crisis – which add a little substance, and minor characters Tito and Mr Schumacher are both given a bigger role. Though none of these changes is a bad thing, the show would probably go down just as well without them; the audience is there for the story they know and love, as fluffy and insubstantial as it might be.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' - cTristram Kenton

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set uses video screens to recreate the camp in the Catskills, including the iconic lake scene, and a rotating turntable, which gives the show a multi-dimensional feel and allows different stories to unfold simultaneously. In between scenes, we’re given an insight into the wholesome family fun enjoyed at Kellerman’s – sack races, piggy backs and musical chairs – in direct contrast to the far from wholesome activity going on in Johnny’s bedroom.

Leads Jessie Hart and Lewis Kirk have great chemistry; her perkiness and his intensity make for a perfect combination. Unsurprisingly, Lewis Kirk is particularly popular with the female-dominated audience; he could probably have not said a word all night and we’d all still have loved him (and his hips). Carlie Milner steps seamlessly into her stand-in role as Penny, and Georgina Castle is brilliant; her wonderfully terrible performance of Lisa’s Hula is one of the highlights of the show. Meanwhile there’s more comic relief from Kane Verrall; his Neil is much more likeable than the original character, with dance moves that are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, we get to enjoy all the classic music we love – the only song I missed was the full version of She’s Like the Wind. Unlike most musicals, the majority of the numbers are performed by the supporting cast – Natalie Winsor and Matthew Colthart in particular deserve recognition; their performance of the final and best-known number, (I’ve Had) the Time of My Life, is incredible, and more than holds its own alongside the attention-grabbing dance routine.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' and ensemble - cTristram Kenton

Dirty Dancing is the ultimate feel-good show; you can’t help but leave the theatre with a smile on your face and a skip in your step. It’s a production that’s aware of, and revels in, the imperfections of the story, faithfully reproducing the characters and events that the audience want to see, and not making any serious attempts to change anything. And if it all starts to feel a bit like a hen party at times – well, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not ashamed to say that I whooped along with everyone else when Johnny said, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’.

And because I know you’re all waiting for me to say it – yes, I really did have the time of my life.

All photos ©Tristram Kenton