Review: Knights of the Rose at the Arts Theatre

On paper, Knights of the Rose is everything I ever wanted in a show. A Shakespearean rock musical, with a soundtrack featuring the likes of Bon Jovi, REM and Muse, and a cast of impressive West End talent, many of them sporting guyliner and leather trousers whilst rocking out with an electric guitar and a big sword. What’s not to love?

In practice… well, it’s now been 24 hours, and I still don’t quite know what I watched – literally, it’s impossible to tell if we’re meant to take Knights of the Rose seriously or treat it as the big silly spoof that it is. And if we have to ask the question, I have a worried feeling that means it’s the former.

Knights of the Rose at Arts Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Dawson

Created by Jennifer Marsden and directed by Racky Plews, Knights of the Rose is the story of Prince Gawain (Andy Moss) and his trusty band of knights, who’ve been away for years fighting a war against various enemies of the realm. When they come home victorious, everyone rejoices – not least the beautiful Princess Hannah (Katie Birtill) and Lady Isabel (Rebekah Lowings), who are immediately proposed to by Sir Hugo (Oliver Savile) and Prince Gawain respectively, much to the distress of the ladies’ other suitors, Sir Palamon (Chris Cowley) and Sir Horatio (Matt Thorpe). As it turns out, the lovers’ happiness is short-lived, because the men are immediately called away to fight again – for reasons that are unclear – and this time they may not all return…

It all gets off to a promising start, with a suitably macho rendition of Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory from the returning knights. Musically, this is a sign of things to come, and Act 1 is basically hit after hit – the women are Holding Out For a Hero while the knights are Addicted to Love (more on that in a minute); there’s a brilliantly surreal moment when Sir Hugo woos Princess Hannah with a bit of Enrique Iglesias’ Hero, and it all comes to a dramatic, heartfelt conclusion with Meat Loaf’s Is Nothing Sacred, as the characters mourn the end of love affairs that have lasted approximately three minutes. In between musical numbers, the script is a patchwork of quotes from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Marlowe, Keats, Tennyson, Byron, Kipling and more; the literary references are so numerous that they take up three whole pages in the programme. It’s all extremely cheesy – but quite enjoyably so, as long as you’re in the mood for a bit of silliness.

Unfortunately, the show uses up most of its best material before the interval, and by the time we return it seems to have rather run out of steam. A couple of protracted death scenes are paired with such bizarre music choices that they become more funny than tragic, while a lacklustre finale leaves us feeling distinctly unsatisfied – and only partly because some of us spent the entire night waiting in vain for Livin’ on a Prayer.

Knights of the Rose at Arts Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Dawson

And therein lies the most frustrating thing about Knights of the Rose: the wasted potential of a show that sounded so promising. Some of the best tracks are thrown away – Everybody Hurts and Don’t Speak are prime examples – while others, like The Calling’s Wherever You Will Go, bear such tenuous links to what’s happening on stage that it becomes very hard to take even the best performances seriously. The plot is thin; even an attempt to make things interesting by introducing a villain ends with a bit of a whimper, and – possibly most irritating of all, particularly given the female-led creative team behind the show – the women serve absolutely no purpose except as beautiful love interests for the men to fight over. (This being Shakespeare of sorts, I kept half hoping at least one of them would disguise herself as a boy and head off to war, but sadly not.)

But let’s try and end on a positive note, because despite everything the show does still manage to be quite fun. It’s surreal, utterly mental fun – but if you’re willing to embrace the madness (and you’re not a diehard scholar of Shakespeare) there’s an entertaining enough evening to be had.

Knights of the Rose is at the Arts Theatre until 26th August.


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: 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.

Interview: Leoe Mercer, GUY

Leoe & Hyde are a musical theatre duo from Manchester, whose previous collaborations include immersive pop-musical Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical and genre-bending mashup The Marriage of Kim K, which toured the UK last summer to widespread critical acclaim. Now they’re preparing for the world premiere of their latest show GUY, a new gay rom-com about the hook-ups and downs of 21st-century dating, at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season.

Writer and producer Leoe Mercer explains, “GUY is about modern dating. Our whole generation has a shared experience of using apps like Tinder and, in the gay community, Grindr. The show is a diverse, body-positive rom-com about love in the gay community, but at the same time Guy, the protagonist, swings back and forth between the highs and lows of these apps in such a way that resonates, regardless of sexuality.”

Leoe & Hyde was set up in late 2016, but the creative partnership between Leoe and composer Stephen Hyde actually began a couple of years earlier. “We met in 2014, and decided to start writing musicals, with Stephen writing and producing the music and me writing the story and lyrics. Soon after, we decided to produce our own shows too – mainly because we were impatient to see them performed! With an eye for real life characters, an ear for fresh pop sounds, and a taste for the sexier side of the zeitgeist, we want to create a sophisticated language for 21st century musical theatre.

“We grow up hearing stories from previous generations about how musicals like Hair in the 60s and Rent in the 90s captured the music and attitude of a generation. We have a hunch that millennials want something similar for ourselves, a musical which honestly captures the unique post-internet variant of life and love using the electronic/pop soundworld we listen to normally.”

Following the success of The Marriage of Kim K, a 72-minute musical/opera about Kim Kardashian’s infamous 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, Leoe & Hyde were keen to try something different – and GUY was the result. “GUY came out of nowhere for us,” says Leoe. “In October 2017 we sat down to write some pop songs for the fun of it. A few weeks later, we realised that they actually formed the skeleton of a story, which over the next six months we developed into GUY. We’ve actually grown a lot from this process: the music style is very fresh because we were trying to write pop music instead of musicals, and the show is more unique because of it.”

Leoe believes there are three key things that make GUY unique: “First, the music. Musicals tend to sound quite like musicals, but the soundworld for GUY is more like you may hear if you switch on the radio in 2018. Second, the story. It’s a feel-good gay rom-com, but at the same time it challenges stereotypes and undermines clichĂ©s from start to end. I recently saw Love, Simon, which has the perfect tagline: ‘Everyone deserves a great love story.’ I’d hope that comes across strongly too: telling a gay love story isn’t enough, it’s important that the gay world you’re representing is full of variety and honesty.”

“And last but not least, the cast. We have a cast of four, with remarkable voices, including X Factor finalist Seann Miley Moore, who was a favourite to win the show in 2015 and has since notched up millions of views on YouTube.”

The show opens next week as part of the Bunker Theatre’s Breaking Out season, a festival of world premiere shows from six emerging theatre companies over four weeks. “Having people who get behind your work is a huge confidence boost, so being selected for a festival is great,” says Leoe. “It’s also exciting because this musical draws from so much of our actual experience – beginning writing only six months ago, it’s great to see that it can be on so soon.

“When you normally watch a musical, the stage and the singers are miles away. Doing a musical at The Bunker with four incredibly powerful singers and a huge electronic score will create a level of intimacy and immersion that will be quite overwhelming. Come along so you can say ‘I saw it first!’”

Book now for GUY at The Bunker Theatre on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Fun fact: yesterday was the final of the US National Spelling Bee in Maryland. The 14-year-old winner, Karthik Nemmani, triumphed by correctly spelling “koinonia” – which means Christian fellowship or communion – after his opponent, aged 12, stumbled on her own word, “Bewusstseinslage” (a state of consciousness or a feeling devoid of sensory components). Afterwards, reports the Guardian, the generous champion took no pleasure in beating his rival, saying, “We weren’t against each other. We were against the dictionary.”

There’s little sign of such magnanimity at the start of MKEC Productions’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. We arrive to find the contestants and organisers milling about the theatre, chatting to the audience and bickering amongst themselves, before the show begins and battle commences. Somehow I’d never seen William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony award-winning musical before – which is ironic considering I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks a show about spelling actually does sound like fun – but I’m now officially a convert. What starts as a hilariously silly comedy about six misfits who love to spell unexpectedly turns into an emotional rollercoaster, as we get to know the contestants and understand the backstories that have brought them to the bee. Unlike most rollercoasters, however, this is one I’d happily get back on and do it all over again. And then again after that.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

This is partly because bits of the show have an improvised feel – specifically those involving members of the audience (nothing too scary and all voluntary, although I’m still glad it wasn’t me up there) and a few pointed one-liners referencing current events – and it would be fascinating to see what goes differently on a second viewing. But it’s mostly because the story, characters and music are all genuinely delightful, despite also being “the slightest bit bizarre” in their own special ways.

There’s last year’s winner Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson), who’s doing fine until he spots a pretty girl in the front row and all the blood rushes from his brain to – well, somewhere else. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lottie Johnson) is desperate to make her two dads proud, while Marcy Park (Jeannie May) knows that whatever she achieves it’ll never be enough for her parents. William Barfee – excuse me, BarfĂ©e (TJ Lloyd) – has a magic foot that helps him spell (yes, really), and Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) is beginning to realise that he might actually be quite smart after all, despite what his family keep telling him. And finally there’s Olive Ostrovsky (Thea Jo Wolfe), who before the show even started, slipped a piece of paper on to the empty seat beside me and whispered, “It’s for my dad.” The obvious and tragic fact that the seat was guaranteed to remain empty made Olive my immediate and enduring favourite.

Trying to keep some kind of order amidst all this pandemonium are former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Gray), and bizarrely, Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde), who’s doing his community service consoling defeated spellers. As you do.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

Because there can be only one winner at the spelling bee. As we get to know more about the contestants and what drives them, it becomes obvious this is much more than just a game to our six young spellers, and the final round is surprisingly tense as we wait to see who’ll crack first under the pressure. But although each elimination is a sad moment, the show ends on an upbeat note with the realisation that winning isn’t necessarily everything. Sure it’s a clichĂ©, but when you’re having this much fun, who cares?

A seemingly casual joke about the show’s brief rehearsal time highlights what a polished production this is in spite of that. A brilliant cast excel both individually and as an ensemble, hitting all the right comic notes but also giving emotional depth to characters who at first glance appear to be no more than stereotypes. Director and choreographer Adam Haigh makes full and effective use of the intimate space, setting the tone of the production with the pre-show activities to ensure the audience – who are cast early on as proud parents watching the bee – always feel involved and connected to what’s going on.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is brilliantly bonkers, and proves what I knew all along – that spelling really is fun. But the show also champions those who dare to be different, and reminds us that sometimes it really is the taking part that counts. This little gem of a production is a feel-good treat and guaranteed to put a smile on your face; don’t miss it.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 16th June.


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: Into The Woods at the Cockpit Theatre

Once upon a time… Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine got together to write a musical based on classic fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. But there’s a twist to this tale: the happy ending comes halfway through, and on reflection in Act 2 turns out to be not quite so happy after all – mostly because none of the characters is satisfied even after they get their wish. A lot of the show’s appeal lies in that simple fact: after listening to their stories all our lives, it’s oddly comforting to discover our favourite fairy tale characters are just as flawed as the rest of us.

In this revival of his 2014 adaptation, Tim McArthur takes that idea one step further, bringing the characters out of their fairy tales altogether and into a world inspired by 21st century reality TV. TOWIE, Jeremy Kyle and Made in Chelsea are all recognisable influences – although interestingly, the Baker and his Wife seem to hail more from Greggs than from Bake Off.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

It’s a clever concept, and works reasonably well in terms of entertainment value as the various characters are introduced, although it doesn’t really go anywhere after that. The story – and some of the characters – remain very much rooted in a world of myth and magic, where it jars slightly that even these very modern characters can’t just whip out their phones and Google how to get what they want.

For lovers of fairy tales, the musical itself is an enchanting blend of familiar and original. The story centres around a childless Baker (Tim McArthur) and his Wife (Jo Wickham), who have to collect four obscure items to break the curse put on them by the Witch (Michele Moran) so they can have a baby. Into the woods they go, where they stumble into the paths of Jack (Jamie O’Donnell), Cinderella (Abigail Carter-Simpson), Rapunzel (Louise Olley) and Red Riding Hood (Florence Odumosu) – who just happen to have all the things they need. All seems well, until in a considerably darker Act 2, a giant starts terrorising their village and the characters are forced back into the woods to fight for survival.

This production is staged in the round, which both works and at the same time, really doesn’t. On the plus side, it does mean that the audience feels surrounded by the action; you never quite know where an actor is going to pop out of next. On the other, even from my relatively high vantage point, I couldn’t see or hear much of what was happening on the other side of Joana Dias’ impressive but complicated set of many ladders, and consequently felt like I was missing out on half the action. This wasn’t helped by the score, which frequently has actors speaking or singing over each other, and to make matters worse, there were also a few technical problems with the sound system at this particular performance.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

In spite of these issues, the cast are generally very good, with standout vocal performances from Michele Moran and Abigail Carter-Simpson as the Witch and Cinderella respectively. Meanwhile Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke bring the house down with their hilariously posh rendition of Agony (yah), and Jamie O’Donnell and Madeleine MacMahon are good fun as Glaswegian Jack and his chain-smoking, beer-swigging Mother – although their accents are at times so thick, particularly in the musical numbers, that it can become tricky to make out what they’re saying.

Though not without some problems, Into The Woods is nonetheless an ambitious and entertaining show, which puts an interesting new spin on a classic whilst retaining the wit and charm of the original. Worth a visit for fairy tale family fun.

Into The Woods is at the Cockpit Theatre until 24th June.