Review: Guys and Dolls at Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange Company develops its ongoing collaboration with all-black theatre company Talawa for this, their latest offering, the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.

With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, we are well and truly in the golden age of Broadway musicals. In other words, an age when musicals were perhaps a little more fanciful and comedic than some of today’s through-sung rock opera musicals are. This one is no exception, and traditionally set in Times Square, it is a mickey take of persons perhaps real or imagined that peopled that neighbourhood at that time, based on the Damon Runyon stories of 1930s New York.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen Guys and Dolls before, then the story follows two would-be couples. Two of the area’s most notorious gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, finally get hitched (to Adelaide and Sarah respectively). It is a comedy love story set in this Noir-esque underbelly of NYC.

This version saw the action shift to Harlem, New York’s black neighbourhood, and the directing (Michael Buffong) and feel of the show was much more real and much darker than I have ever seen it before. It suited the cast, as they played their characters with much more truth and realism than the normal mono-dimensional musical theatre caricatures, and the interpretations of some of the leads was totally different from any other time I have seen this show.

Musically too, the orchestra (led by Mark Aspinall) was given leeway to jazz-up many of the songs, giving them much more authenticity in the new setting of the show.

Overall this idea worked and worked well, but it was flawed. I didn’t like the new song that Adelaide sung in the night club in act one – I had never heard that in a theatre performance before, and only realised later that it came from the film; and her very serious and heart-wrenching rendition of her lament was pitched wrongly, finding no comedy in there at all, and with absolutely no hint of her actually having a cold either before it or during it.

There were several other things too which didn’t quite sit right with me, but I’ll just put those down to personal choice, and leave it at that.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen the show before, then you will absolutely love this re-working, and not have anything with which to compare it. Myself, I had mixed reactions to it, but overall did enjoy it immensely, especially Kenrick Sandy’s choreography to Luck Be A Lady and the showstopper Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.

Ray Fearon is a very likeable Nathan Detroit, and he plays his role with charm and ease, whilst the object of his desires, Adelaide, played here by Lucy Vandi, to whom he has been engaged for 12 years, is given a completely new make-over and the strong, sassy side of this new characterisation really did not work at all. Couple number two came in the form of a more nervous and less confident Sky Masterson than I have previously seen, but this suited actor Ashley Zhangazha well, and was the perfect foil for the more tight-lipped and upright Sarah Brown, played wonderfully by Abiona Omonua.

It is clear that this is a musical however, and so vocally one would expect it to be superb. Sadly it wasn’t. Undeniably all the cast could sing but it felt weak in places and the voices seemed much more at home with the bluesy, jazzy, crooning style, instead of Broadway musical numbers. They were also drowned out too a couple of times by the orchestrations.

Happily, my favourite song in the show was sung superbly and so a special mention should be given to Trevor Toussaint, who plays the often understated part of Abernathy excellently.

Guys and Dolls is not perhaps the sure-fire hit that the Royal Exchange were hoping for, but an all black version, as far as I can tell, is a UK first, and it certainly makes it a most interesting and unusual show. There is certainly much to like and enjoy within it, and the cast play it for all its worth with truth and sincerity, which reaps dividends, but running at 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval) it is a little too long.

Guys and Dolls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 27th January.

Review: Grease at the Orchard Theatre

Grease is a show that needs little introduction. Originally written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey for the stage, it’s best known for the 1978 movie adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and has quite the cult following – at least if the number of audience members dressed as Pink Ladies and T-Birds at the Orchard last night is anything to go by. This is a show that’s known for its classic song and dance numbers, and on that score the latest touring production doesn’t disappoint; the band, choreography and costumes are fantastic and really bring Rydell High to life in all its energetic glory as Danny, Sandy and friends negotiate the perils of teenage romance.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Unfortunately, the production is let down by some underwhelming casting. The Wanted’s Tom Parker, in his musical theatre debut, looks the part and has the dance moves down, but his acting is at times rather stiff and his vocals are inconsistent. Danielle Hope and Louisa Lytton fare better as Sandy and Rizzo, but sadly none of the three really makes much impact, and they don’t even come close to the sky-high bar set by John Travolta and co in the movie. This means it falls to the other cast members, among them Tom Senior as Kenickie and George Olney as the Teen Angel and DJ Vince Fontaine, to bring the energy and steal the show – and it’s the big group numbers that really get the audience going, far more than any of the solos – though admittedly Danielle Hope does a flawless version of Hopelessly Devoted To You.

All that said, this is still Grease, one of the best and most popular musicals of all time (albeit with a slightly iffy message for the teenage girls in the audience, but we all know about that so I won’t go into it here), and you’d have to be made of stone not to be wowed by the high energy spectacle. The production looks great, recreating the quiffs and costumes we all remember – the programme informs us there are over 140 costume changes and 59 wigs in the show – to make sure we feel at home from the start. There’s plenty of cheeky humour too, though as you might expect in a 40-year-old show, some of the dialogue has not aged all that well…

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

With flashing lights and pyrotechnics, there’s a real party atmosphere in the theatre, with the evening frequently feeling more like a singalong than a performance. This means some of the dialogue becomes impossible to hear, but I’m guessing not many people are there for those bits anyway. Ultimately the show is all about the songs, which are as iconic as ever and ensure that if you’re a fan of Grease, you’ll almost certainly have an amazing time regardless of who’s singing them.

Grease is at the Orchard Theatre until 25th November.

Review: Flashdance at the Orchard Theatre

80s kids rejoice – another classic movie from our youth is back on stage. Flashdance, as most of us know, is the heartwarming tale of feisty young welder Alex, who longs to be a dancer, and finally achieves her dream after an iconic audition routine (if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably at least seen that bit). Naturally, she also meets a nice man, and after a few bumps along the way, in the end everything works out fine.

Unsurprisingly, the show is a feast of 80s cheese, with leg warmers and leotards aplenty. And while Robbie Roth’s original songs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable, the score is lifted by several classic hits that guarantee a feel-good finale. The story could use a bit more pace at times, and there’s a side plot involving Alex’s friend that seems to directly contradict the show’s message about believing in your dreams – but let’s face it, how many people are really there for the plot?

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Where the show does come up trumps is in its performances – particularly from leading lady and reigning Strictly Come Dancing champ, Joanne Clifton. It might have been her brother who did Flashdance on last year’s series, but here she claims it firmly for her own with a show-stealing turn as Alex. We knew she could dance, but now we know she can act and sing too, and – maybe most impressive – apparently do it all without breaking a sweat.

She’s joined by Ben Adams, whose former boy band credentials (he was in A1 back in the day) stand him in good stead as the charming Nick Hurley. While his vocals may not always be quite as strong as his co-stars’, and he obviously has a pretty limited repertoire of dance moves, his acting is good – and he certainly looks the part of Alex’s handsome love interest.

In fact it’s a particularly fit (in every sense) cast all round, with more than enough visual talent to keep the whole audience happy, and some astonishingly acrobatic dance moves that you wish you could pause and watch again in slow motion. Several of the musical numbers serve little purpose in terms of plot development, but give this talented cast a multitude of opportunities to show what they can do.

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Not altogether surprisingly, there’s a lot more dancing than welding in the show – but a versatile steel set designed by Takis helps to keep the Pittsburgh setting in mind throughout, and strikes a nice contrast against the colour and vivacity of the show.

It might not be highbrow, but Flashdance is certainly high energy – and ultimately wins everyone over with the sheer joy shown by everyone on stage. With some great performances and a heartwarming message about believing in yourself against all odds, the show is a definite crowd pleaser, and its standing ovation well deserved.

Flashdance is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th October.

Review: The State of Things at Jack Studio Theatre

My theatregoing habit began, more years ago than I like to admit, with a love of musicals – and even now if you put a gun to my head and made me choose a favourite type of theatre, they’d probably still come out on top. So it’s no great surprise that the words “a new musical” always give me a little bit of a thrill – especially when said new musical is coming from The AC Group, whose previous productions have earned widespread acclaim.

So, did The State of Things live up to expectations? Absolutely. It’s got everything – catchy songs, talented actor-musicians, and a story that’s easily relatable for anyone who’s ever felt frustrated by politics (or indeed ever been a teenager).

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

Written by Thomas Attwood and Elliot Clay, The State of Things is about seven friends who discover the A Level Music class they were all planning to take next year is being axed because of lack of funds. Unable to convince their headteacher (“Maggie”) to reinstate the course, they decide to take matters into their own hands and raise the issue with their local MP. But unfortunately they’re teenagers, so not only is their political experience and knowledge a bit sketchy, but other things keep getting in the way, like exam revision, raging hormones and, in one case, a serious family situation.

Ultimately, though, it all circles back to politics, and that’s the core of the story: the frustration of young people who have the necessary understanding but zero power to influence decisions about the future they’ll have to live with. While some of the friends know little about politics (“I looked it up, the Tories are the ones in power”), others are surprisingly knowledgable and passionate about issues affecting not just their school but the local area as a whole. If anything at times they’re a bit too eloquent to be believable – but the show has a point to make, and in the absence of any grownups on stage, it has to fall to the teenagers, however unlikely this might feel.

As if to balance this out, the exceptional cast of actor-musicians bring their teenage characters to well-rounded life, with all the confusion and embarrassment that’s a painful but inevitable part of growing up. There’s a lot of humour, particularly in their various romantic fumblings – Jaz (Rosa Lukacs) gets jealous when boyfriend Beefy (Toby Lee) talks to his French teacher; Adam (Elliot Clay) can barely bring himself to say a word to his crush Ruth (Hana Stewart), and then when he does he says all the wrong things. Class clown Will (James William-Pattison) is secretly totally confused about whether he’s gay or not, while laid back Aussie Sam (Peter Cerlienco) barely notices gender at all. And then there’s Kat (Nell Hardy), the only member of the group who remains single-mindedly focused on their cause – largely because she has nowhere else to go to pursue her passion.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

The score features a nice mix of upbeat toe-tappers and stirring ballads, all apparently written by the young musicians. Perhaps because of this, they all fit very naturally within the flow of the production (directed by writer Thomas Attwood), and fulfil the dual purpose of driving the story forward and showcasing the talent that could be squandered as a result of cancelling the music course.

If you love a good musical and want to be entertained for an evening, I recommend The State of Things. If you’re interested in the uncertain future of arts education, I recommend The State of Things. If you’re a young person frustrated by the decisions made for you by older generations… well, you get the idea. Basically, this is a thoroughly enjoyable new musical from a talented team – but with an important point to make as well. What’s not to love?

The State of Things is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 23rd September.

Interview: Elliot Clay, The State of Things

The State of Things is a new British musical, written by The AC Group’s artistic directors Elliot Clay and Thomas Attwood. Inspired by their own schooldays nostalgia and the current political situation, it’s the story of a high school band who find out the school is being forced to cut its music course. The show follows the young people’s fight to save their course, as they learn to live and love in austerity Britain.

“Myself and Thomas – the show’s book writer and director – grew up together, so The State of Things is semi-autobiographical, based on our own experiences and encounters with austerity both at school and at home,” explains Elliot. “Arts funding, both in schools and in general, seems to be falling every day the current government is in power. I’ve had people contacting me on Twitter, some of them music teachers, expressing their dismay at the effects of austerity on funding in schools, particularly in creative subjects.

“It’s also a musical about young people in the north, written by young people from the north – it’s these stories that need to be voiced. I hope that the story we tell will, at the very least, open up a discussion with members of our audience, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum. Theatre alone can’t change the world, but it can affect the way people think, talk and vote.”

As composer and lyricist, Elliot’s been enjoying the chance to work with different musical styles: “In terms of musical inspiration, it was a chance to write in styles that you usually wouldn’t find work in a musical. Because all the songs in the show are the songs that the ‘band’ have written, it allowed me to draw on inspiration from The Rolling Stones, Adele, The Beatles, Coldplay, and of course put in some crazy guitar solos!”

Following The AC Group’s acclaimed productions of Macbeth and Side By Side By Sondheim, the company are looking forward – with a little trepidation – to returning to the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, this time with an original piece: “In the words of Stephen Sondheim – ‘excited and scared’!” admits Elliot. “It’s a real privilege to shape every artistic detail of the production, but we couldn’t do it without the brilliance of our creative team and cast.

“I’m incredibly lucky to be working with a supremely talented cast of young actors, all of whom play multiple instruments live on stage every night. It’s such a joy telling this story and sharing the stage with them.”

Surprisingly, the show has only been in development for three months. “Kate Bannister, the artistic director of the Jack Studio let us know in May that there was potentially a free slot for a production in September, and we instantly knew we wanted to write and stage The State of Things,” says Elliot. “Since then the ensuing three months have been a wonderful, crazy and thrilling blur.”

The AC Group was founded by Elliot and Thomas in 2014, when they staged a sell-out musical theatre concert in Covent Garden, with a cast and orchestra of over 50. “Since then we’ve been lucky enough to stage revivals such as the 40th anniversary production of Side By Side By Sondheim at the Jack Studio and Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Macbeth, which was nominated for 2 off-West End awards – alongside developing our new writing. It’s been an exciting journey so far and we’d love to see you at the premiere of The State of Things.”

Book now for The State of Things at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 7th-23rd September.