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!

Review: The Wedding Singer at the Orchard Theatre

The Wedding Singer‘s first show at the Orchard Theatre had the ultimate happy ending last night, when a member of the audience got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend live on stage. Still, even without that added bonus, you’d have to be a pretty hardened cynic not to come away from this show feeling a little bit in love with love. (And this from someone who by the interval was identifying most with the song about how rubbish it is to be single at a wedding.)

Based on the movie starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, this is the story of Robbie Hart (Jon Robyns), a wedding singer who loves helping happy couples celebrate their big day. But then his own fiancée Linda (Tara Verloop) jilts him at the altar and suddenly Robbie’s not so keen on romance any more – until he becomes friends with, and inevitably falls for, waitress Julia (Cassie Compton). The only problem is, Julia’s just got engaged to sleazy Wall Street banker Glen (Ray Quinn), while her cousin Holly (Roxanne Pallett) has her eye on Robbie. A brief spell in a dumpster, a trip to Vegas and one wildly inappropriate granny dance later, can true love win out?

Photo credit: Darren Bell

Fans of the movie won’t be disappointed, as the musical is pretty faithful to Tim Herlihy’s story, with just a bit of a tweak at the end – and it even includes a couple of original songs sung by Adam Sandler in the film, though the majority of the musical numbers are new, written by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin for the stage. It’s a catchy score, with a good balance of big dance numbers and soaring ballads, a smattering of so-bad-they’re-fabulous lyrics (“oh Linda you make me feel… like a furtrapper clubbing a seal”) and enough of an 80s flavour to help us over any disappointment at not hearing all the classic tunes from the movie.

And it’s not just the music; 80s-inspired set, costume and script mean this is very much a nostalgia trip in every way for those of us old enough to remember that far back. After enjoying clips from retro movies before the show, a brief ride in the DeLorean transports us back to 1985 and a world of big hair and even bigger mobile phones, where Starbucks is just thinking about going national and the height of ambition for any musician is to work with the same guys as Bon Jovi.

Photo credit: Darren Bell

Jon Robyns leads an impressive cast (and a particularly hard-working ensemble) with a performance so engaging he has the audience half in love with him within minutes, so that when he gets his heart broken and goes to the dark side, his self-pity is endearing rather than annoying. Ray Quinn is suitably obnoxious as Robbie’s love rival Glen, really coming into his own in Act 2 with a show-stealing dance number that’s just one example of Nick Winston’s brilliant choreography. Cassie Compton’s Julia is sweetness personified, and both she and Roxanne Pallett as Holly impress with their powerful vocals, while Ruth Madoc – who the 80s kids among us will remember from Hi-de-Hi! – makes a welcome but all-too-brief appearance as Robbie’s grandma Rosie.

There’s so much to enjoy about The Wedding Singer – it’s funny, with a great cast (shout-out also to Ashley Emerson and Samuel Holmes as Robbie’s bandmates), toe-tapping tunes, engaging characters and a classic rom-com storyline that means you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face – even if you don’t get to witness a marriage proposal – and reminiscing fondly about the good old days.

The Wedding Singer is at the Orchard Theatre until 25th March.

Review: Dirty Dancing at the Orchard Theatre

It’s a show that needs no introduction. Like the movie on which it’s based, Dirty Dancing the musical has been a runaway success ever since it first opened in Australia in 2004, and continues to thrill its devoted fan base to this day (this is a show that has no need to cast TV or pop stars to bring in the crowds). Now it’s back for a brand new 2016/17 tour, directed by Federico Bellone – and while return visitors may notice a few differences in the staging, the show itself retains a comforting familiarity that pretty much guarantees its ongoing success.

Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics
Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics

For die-hard fans, there’s really very little I can say by way of review, because the show lifts almost all its dialogue, music, dance moves and even some of the costumes directly from the movie – and as long as Baby gets to carry a watermelon, and nobody puts her in a corner, there’s not much for even the harshest critic to complain about. There are a few additional scenes that seem intended to provide a bit of depth, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the truth is nobody’s going to see Dirty Dancing to hear about freedom riding or how Baby’s parents got together; the show would have gone down just as well without any of the extra content. (Well, with the exception of Johnny flashing his bum, which I think it’s fair to say most members of the audience considered an essential and long overdue addition.)

The cast, led by Katie Hartland and Lewis Griffiths, do a great job of recreating their well-known characters in both look and personality. The dance numbers are genuinely sensational and a joy to watch, particularly those featuring Griffiths with Carlie Milner, who plays Penny. And there are strong vocals from Michael Kent and Daniela Pobega, although it does feel like the show could have given these two talented singers more opportunities to shine; most of the musical tracks are taken straight from the original soundtrack, with a full-length version of She’s Like The Wind the only noticeable absence.

Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics
Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics

Roberto Comotti’s rotating set reproduces every bit of Kellerman’s camp in all its wholesome glory (the effect marred only slightly by a distracting mechanical squeak that could often be heard even over the music), while a huge video screen is put to equally effective use for other scenes – the bit in the lake is particularly creative, drawing audible sounds of appreciation from the audience.

With Dirty Dancing, you get exactly what you’d expect: an entertaining story, familiar characters, a few steamy moments, and a string of fabulous music and dance numbers. It’s also a massive cheese fest, obviously, but the show makes no effort to gloss over that fact, choosing instead of revel in it and, if anything, take it up a notch. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think it’s fair to say this is a show that will have audiences singing, dancing, swooning, and having the time of their lives (sorry, I couldn’t help it) for many years to come.

Dirty Dancing is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 10th September.

Review: Hitchcock Homage at Barons Court Theatre

The setting could hardly be more appropriate. Leaving behind the cheerful bustle of the Curtains Up pub in Barons Court, we descend a narrow flight of stairs towards a small, dark basement theatre, inside which the familiar Psycho theme music can be heard. As we take our seats, we discover a dead body on the floor, and as the lights go down, an instantly recognisable figure steps on to the stage.

So begins Hitchcock Homage, a play written and directed by Nick Pelas, and loosely based on the 1948 movie Rope. Two lovers have killed a man, seemingly for no obvious reason, and hidden his body inside a chest. While Beth (Grace Carmen-Davis) is ice-cool, Claudia (Francesca Mepham) can’t quite decide if she’s turned on or terrified by what they’ve done, and the pressure is beginning to get to her. The two plan to host a party for friends and family of the victim, at which snacks will be arranged on the very chest in which the dead man, Nick, is concealed. But as the party gets underway, it becomes clear that old schoolmate Roberta Fox (Roxanne Douro) is the true guest of honour…


As in the movie, which is famous for appearing to be one single continuous shot, all the action in Pelas’ play takes place in Beth and Claudia’s apartment. Because of this, the opening scenes feel a little clunky, as many of the characters – including Hitchcock himself (David Parry) – enter one by one to briefly establish who they are and their role within the story, and it’s a relief when the party begins and the action can start to flow more seamlessly.

Pelas’ tribute to the ‘master of suspense’ includes plenty of references to Hitchcock’s work, including cameo appearances from the man himself and a twist ending. And if there’s not a huge amount of suspense in the traditional sense, the murder already having been committed before the play begins, there’s nonetheless plenty of tension – both social and sexual – in the intensely awkward gathering of several distinctly unloveable characters. There’s the friend who’s only interested in making connections (Kitty Kelly), the guest who drinks too much and refuses to give straight answers to a question (Cath Humphrys), the shameless flirt (Shaun Dicks), the surly maid (Daniela Mansi); even the victim, we soon learn, wasn’t a particularly nice guy. Only Bentley (Yasser Kayani), with his clumsy attempts to woo Roberta and apparently genuine concern for his brother’s welfare, and – to a certain extent – Claudia, who gradually unravels as the play goes on, inspire any kind of sympathy. This assortment of unsavoury characters makes the whole idea of the party less sadistic and shocking than it might perhaps otherwise have been; after a while we almost want someone to find the body, just to see what they’ll do.

Photo credit: Nick Pelas
Photo credit: Nick Pelas
The other side effect of the gathering is that both story and stage become a bit crowded, and it starts to be difficult to keep track of who’s who and the relationships between them. It’s clear that several of them go way back, a fact that proves in at least one case to be key to the motivation at the heart of the story. While the cringeworthy social interactions are fun (I particularly enjoyed Ken and Layla’s insightful movie criticism), it would have been great to spend a little more time exploring these dysfunctional relationships in greater depth, to help us better understand both the events of the play and its disturbing conclusion.

Nick Pelas’ enthusiasm and admiration for Hitchcock’s work is clear throughout the play, and while some of the references may perhaps be lost on non-aficionados, the story also stands on its own as an exploration of the lengths human beings will go to in order to be accepted. The plot might date from the early 20th century, but in an age where few of us can do anything without immediately taking to social media to let our friends (and others) know about it, the story is still very relevant – much like Hitchcock himself, whose influence will undoubtedly live on for many years to come.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Footloose at the Orchard Theatre

Footloose, as most people above a certain age will know, was the 1984 movie starring a young Kevin Bacon as teenager Ren McCormack. Forced to leave Chicago and move to the small town of Bomont, Ren discovers that dancing’s been banned by the town council, and immediately sets about trying to change their minds. It’s based on a true story about Elmore City, Oklahoma, and touches on issues of religion, loss, prejudice and gender roles.

Now adapted for the stage by the movie’s original creator Dean Pitchford, and directed by Racky Plews, Footloose is a toe-tapping triumph of a show in which the multi-talented cast are also the band; they may not always be allowed to dance but they can still express themselves through music, playing everything from the electric guitar to the oboe. This gives the show a very collaborative feel, reminiscent of the brilliant Once (although in every other respect the two couldn’t be more different).

Luke Baker as Ren and the cast of Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin
Photo credit: Matt Martin

It might surprise some people to learn that the show’s big name star, Gareth Gates, doesn’t play the central role of Ren. That honour goes to Luke Baker, who gives an impressive, layered performance as the tortured teen. Gates, meanwhile, plays Ren’s friend Willard, in what turns out to be a perfect piece of casting. He’s a bit awkward, nervous around girls and far too attached to his mama, but with a twinkly charm and impeccable comic timing that’s guaranteed to win over anyone who still thinks of him as just that guy from Pop Idol. And his performance is memorable for another reason… but I won’t ruin the surprise.

Maureen Nolan – no stranger to emotional roles after recently reprising her role as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers – plays Vi Moore, the preacher’s wife torn between loyalty to her husband (Nigel Lister) and concern about the rebellious behaviour of their daughter, Ariel (Hannah Price, who makes her professional debut in style). But it would be wrong to single out any one cast member; this is very much a team effort, and a fantastic one at that.

Photo credit: Matt Martin
Photo credit: Matt Martin

Choreographer Matthew Cole has captured the freedom of dance that’s so key to the story; though it may not all be particularly elegant, it’s full of energy and an irresistible joy to watch. The cast also make the line dancing routines look very easy, which I know from brutal experience they really aren’t. (I went to a line dancing class the other day. Let’s move on.)

And finally there’s the music, some of which was written specially for the musical by Tom Snow – but the tunes that really get the audience bopping in their seats are the classic hits from the movie, which include I Need A Hero, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and, of course, the title track. It’s a perfect piece of 80s nostalgia, for those of us old enough to remember that far back; for everyone else it’s just great fun.

Footloose is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Saturday 13th February.