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 clichés 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, Barfée (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 cliché, 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.

Review: Fat Friends the Musical at the Orchard Theatre

On paper, Fat Friends the Musical ticks all the boxes: a nostalgic revival of a much-loved TV series, written by the show’s original creator Kay Mellor; a heart-warming story about loving yourself and your body no matter what you weigh; and a starry cast featuring stage and screen favourites that include Jodie Prenger, Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy.

The show condenses some of the main plotlines from the first series of Fat Friends into one story, primarily focused on Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who’s about to marry the love of her life, Kevin (Joel Montague), and would be the happiest woman in the world if only she could fit into her dream wedding dress. But that’s not so easy when your parents (Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy) own a fish and chip shop, your skinny sister (Rachael Wooding) won’t stop teasing you about your weight, and you’re hungry all the time. Encouraged – for different reasons – by best friend Lauren (Natalie Anderson) and dieting queen Julia Fleshman (Natasha Hamilton), Kelly sets out to lose those extra pounds… but will being slimmer actually make her happy?

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

It’s great to see Kelly, Betty and co again, thirteen years after Fat Friends left our screens, and the show’s script sparkles with Kay Mellor’s trademark Yorkshire wit and warmth. Just as we remember them, the characters are loveable and easy for real people to relate to; some of the biggest laughs are ones of recognition as the slimmers shed as much clothing as possible before their weigh-in, or battle with themselves over whether or not to have that bag of chips. We’ve all been there, and that’s why it works. (And if you don’t leave the theatre craving fish and chips, you’re a lot stronger than I am.)

Jodie Prenger is well cast as the irrepressible Kelly, and soon has us on side with her down to earth humour and unflinching honesty. Sam Bailey – just a couple of years older in real life – seems an unlikely choice to play her mother, but the two pull off a convincing on-stage relationship, with shy, nervous Betty the very opposite of her outgoing daughter. Meanwhile, Rachael Wooding doubles up so effectively as Kelly’s sister Joanne and Julia’s downtrodden assistant Pippa that I didn’t even realise it was the same person, and Natalie Anderson throws herself with seemingly limitless energy into her one character Lauren’s multiple roles as dress shop owner, slimming class leader and Zumba instructor (not to mention hopeless romantic).

Unfortunately, the music – composed by Nick Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Mellor – doesn’t quite match up to the rest of the evening. Despite a few stand-out numbers, and the undeniable vocal talents of Sam Bailey, Jodie Prenger, Natalie Anderson and others, the songs on the whole add little to the plot and, though well performed, are not particularly memorable. Given that its strength lies in the characters, story and dialogue, you have to wonder if the show, which runs at over two and a half hours, might not have worked better as a play.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Although as a musical it doesn’t quite work for me, Fat Friends is still a good night out, with a talented cast and a strong message about body image. By updating the story to the present day, Mellor is also able to cover both the opportunities and the dangers posed by social media, and the many ways in which we allow others – both people we know and complete strangers – to dictate how we should feel about ourselves. A feel-good show with a heart as big as its appetite, this revival of a TV favourite is a lot of fun for old and new friends, of all shapes and sizes.

Fat Friends the Musical is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th April.

Review: Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow at Chickenshed

As the narrator of Chickenshed’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow – a fictional climate change artist called Oscar Buhari – points out, here in the UK we’ve become largely desensitised to the topic of saving the planet. Living as we do in our privileged first world environment, it’s difficult for us to really appreciate the damage that’s already being done, and which will only get worse, as a result of our own irresponsible actions.

The show aims to tackle this by discussing climate change not in terms of the theoretical science (though there is a little of that), but through showing us the real world implications for both our fellow citizens of the world, and ultimately for ourselves. The result is a show that is big, bold and visually stunning, but also terrifying and humbling – not least because it’s performed by a young cast who understand that they’ll be left to deal with the chaos previous generations have created.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Lou Stein’s production is made up of several short pieces blending dance, song and spoken word, each introduced by a short monologue from the affable Oscar Buhari, played by Ashley Driver. These performances take us from the depths of the sea, where marine life is destroyed by an army of discarded plastic, to the lively streets of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches, to an imagined future world whose limited water supply is rationed by a little more each day. The theme of refugees also recurs several times, with stark reminders that it’s not only war that can drive people from their homes.

It’s not all bad news, though, and the show does conclude on a positive note, first by introducing us to two resourceful communities who brought their villages back from the brink of disaster, and finally with a word of gentle advice from Oscar: he’s shown us the picture as he sees it, and now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

Musical director Dave Carey’s score features original music, as well as excellent live renditions of popular tracks including Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Johnny Cash’s Hurt and Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, all imbued with new significance by the context of the show. There’s also a reworded version of The Star-Spangled Banner, reflecting the inadequate political response to Katrina, which packs quite a punch – especially when accompanied by a photo of George W. Bush looking down on the devastation from the safety of Air Force One.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Although each piece was devised by a different team and therefore has its own unique style, they’re all united by a creative incorporation of recycled everyday materials, and a use of colour and light that really brings each performance to life. And as always, it’s a pleasure to see the inclusivity that is Chickenshed’s driving force reflected on stage, both in the show’s large and diverse cast and in the collaborative, mutually supportive spirit of the performance. The young ensemble shows a real understanding of the show’s important message, and their energy and commitment is infectious.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is a powerful call to arms that looks and sounds great, and also makes you stop and think about the careless way we treat our planet, and what the impact of that might be. A fascinating watch, this show is well worth the long trip to the end of the Piccadilly Line.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is at Chickenshed until 31st March.


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… 😉