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.

Review: Hairspray at the Orchard Theatre

If you want a show that’s guaranteed to entertain, you need look no further than Hairspray. Flying the flag for anyone who’s ever felt they don’t quite fit in, it’s the story of an American teenager with a heart of gold, who refuses to believe she can’t live her dreams just because she doesn’t look like all the pretty girls on TV. Dancing her way into the nation’s hearts, Tracy Turnblad inadvertently becomes the leader of a civil rights movement, campaigning for racial integration – because the alternative simply doesn’t make sense to her.

Photo credit: Darren Bell

In a weird way, it’s almost depressing that we still need shows like Hairspray. It would be great if we could sit back and enjoy the feel-good story, safe in the smug knowledge that these are yesterday’s problems. Unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, the two big issues addressed by the show – body shaming and racism – are still just as topical today as they were in the 60s (when the story’s set) or the 80s (when it was written).

Perhaps that’s why two of this production’s most memorable moments both come from Motormouth Maybelle – Act 1 finale Big, Blonde and Beautiful, and the electrifying I Know Where I’ve Been. Then again, it could just be because Brenda Edwards, who plays Maybelle, is vocally incredible. Either way, her solos certainly stand out in a musical that’s full of show-stopping moments – among them the sweet comedy duet between Matt Rixon and Norman Pace; it’s a number known for improvisation and innuendos, and this partnership don’t disappoint. And let’s not forget the fabulous finale, which wraps everything up in a neat, glittery bow, and does so with such energy and joy that you can easily put aside how utterly unrealistic it all is.

Newcomer Rebecca Mendoza, making her professional debut as Tracy, proves herself not only a talented singer and dancer but also a gifted comedian; her adoration of Link (a suitably charming Edward Chitticks) is particularly fun to watch. At the other extreme is the villain of the piece, unashamedly racist TV producer Velma, who’s played with great relish by Gina Murray; it’s only a shame we don’t get to hear more of her amazing vocals.

Photo credit: Darren Bell

As well as a great cast who are all worthy of mention, Hairspray also boasts a toe-tapping 60s-inspired score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, brilliant choreography from Drew McOnie and dazzling set and costume design by Takis (not to mention impressively huge hair). The whole show is a riot of colour and vivacity, with plenty to enjoy for younger audience members but a healthy scattering of naughty jokes for the grownups too.

And at the heart of all this fun and froth is that serious message, summed up so succinctly by Tracy herself: “I just think it’s stupid we can’t all dance together.” It might sound like a massive simplification of a huge and complex problem – and it’s true that the show doesn’t exactly offer an in-depth debate of the issues – but in a world that increasingly feels like it’s going backwards, every little helps.

Hairspray is at the Orchard Theatre until 9th September.

Review: Little Shop of Horrors (Summer Youth Project) at the Orchard Theatre

For a second year running, the Dartford Summer Youth Project has selected a show that’s new to me. Following last year’s brilliant Bugsy Malone, this summer they’re back with Little Shop of Horrors, the classic horror comedy about a man-eating plant by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, in a production that brings together a community cast of young Dartfordians aged between 9 and 19. The story follows shop boy Seymour, who finds himself in possession of a “strange and interesting” plant that makes him rich and famous – but at what cost…?

The show might be considered a bit gory for kids (it does, after all, involve an abusive relationship, murder, dismemberment and a psychotic dentist) and it had to be sanitised a little for this production. But the horror is all very tongue-in-cheek, and the jokes are pitched so that a lot of the humour can be appreciated by adults whilst sailing over younger heads. There’s also a valuable lesson for all ages to be taken from this cautionary tale about the dangers of putting personal gain ahead of moral values.

I have two main conclusions from this evening’s opening night performance. First, I’ll be keeping a much closer eye on my plants from now on. Second, director Sean Hollands and the rest of the SYP team have pulled off another triumph. After just two weeks of rehearsal, Little Shop of Horrors is slick, professional and features several young performers who could easily give seasoned stars a serious run for their money.

This is particularly true of the principal leads – Ethan Oswald, Olivia Hallett, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens – who all look and sound like they’ve been on stage for years. Each of them has at least one big musical number, and absolutely nails it, with my personal highlights Mikey Stevens’ hilariously deranged Dentist! and Olivia Hallett and Ethan Oswald’s gorgeous duet, Suddenly Seymour. There’s also some brilliant voice acting from Thomas Bassett, the voice of Audrey II, who succeeds in giving us the shivers without once appearing on stage, and impressive vocals from the chorus of glamorous Ronettes.

The principals lead a huge company of over 100 children, all of whom get to be involved throughout the show as they pop up frequently in aisles and on balconies performing dance routines choreographed by Mel Simpson. This sometimes messes with the audience’s view of the stage a bit – but it’s hard to mind that too much when the children are obviously having such an amazing time.

And that’s the genius of the Summer Youth Project. Yes, this is a fantastic production that showcases some outstanding young talent, but more importantly it’s giving each and every one of the children on stage an experience they’ll never forget – the chance to be part of a production led by a professional creative team, performing for a huge audience of friends, family and strangers in a proper theatre. But it’s not just a treat for the kids; their enthusiasm and delight is infectious, and you don’t have to be a parent or even know anyone involved to feel proud of what they’ve all achieved, or to appreciate the hard work they’ve put in. This is something that’s easy to take for granted when watching a professional company for whom it’s just another day at work, and sometimes we need a reminder of why we go to the theatre in the first place: to be entertained. And on that score, Little Shop of Horrors more than delivers.

Little Shop of Horrors continues at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 12th August.