Preview: Come From Away touches down in Europe

2019 looks set to be more than a little exciting in the West End, with Broadway hits Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress among the shows heading to London over the coming months. This week saw the European launch at Canada House of another American import: multi-award winning Come From Away, the story of a small town in Newfoundland that took in thousands of passengers stranded by the 9/11 terror attacks.

Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away will have its European premiere at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from 6th December to 19th January, before taking up residence at London’s Phoenix Theatre from 30th January.

On September 11th, 2001, as news broke of the terror attacks in the States, U.S. airspace was closed, leaving 7,000 people on planes with nowhere to go. Landing in Newfoundland, they were taken in by the residents of Gander, who had dropped everything to get the town ready, and worked tirelessly for five days to make their unexpected guests feel at home.

It’s hard to imagine how a musical inspired by 9/11 could be uplifting, but this heartwarming and universal story, which celebrates friendship, support and resilience in the darkest of times – not to mention the unique and infectious Newfoundland spirit – has been warmly received across North America since it was first performed in Ontario in 2013. “People around the world are hungry for stories about kindness,” said writer David Hein in a video message sent to the London launch, as he and Irene Sankoff prepared for the opening of the North American tour in Seattle. “We can’t wait to share it with the world.”

Directed by Christopher Ashley, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, the European cast includes former Wicked star Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, the first female captain for American Airlines, who was among those stranded in Gander. Starring alongside her will be Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon and Cat Simmons.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The London launch concluded with cast performances of three musical numbers from the show, and even after only two days of rehearsal guests were left in no doubt that we’re in for a treat when Come From Away touches down in Europe. Get booking now for this joyous celebration of the very best of humanity – in a world that often feels a very dark place, this is exactly the kind of story we need to be sharing, and I for one cannot wait.

Book now for Come From Away at Abbey Theatre, Dublin (6th December to 19th January), and Phoenix Theatre, London (from 30th January).

Review: Jekyll and Hyde at Chickenshed

Like the gothic novella on which it’s based, Chickenshed’s new musical adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde is short and to the point. Storming through Robert Louis Stevenson’s story in around 70 minutes (plus interval), Jonny Morton’s highly physical piece takes the original plot and adds a modern twist to the performance, along with a strong theme of social responsibility that feels particularly resonant today.

The studio space at Chickenshed has been transformed by set designer Constance Villemot into a smoky, dimly lit Victorian London street, where the poor huddle in corners while the more well-to-do go about their business, blind to the suffering around them. The story’s opening incident, which sees Hyde trampling a young girl in the street, has been upgraded in this version from a moment of carelessness to a deliberate and prolonged attack, which is observed but not interrupted by passing lawyer Utterson (Demar Lambert) and his companion Dr Lanyon (Finn Kebbe). Their chief concern in that moment is not for the nameless girl who’s beaten and left for dead in the street, but for their friend Dr Jekyll (Nathaniel Leigertwood), who they fear is being blackmailed by the perpetrator of the attack, Hyde.

Utterson’s anxiety grows when he’s informed by Jekyll’s household staff, led by butler Poole (Will Laurence), that their master seems changed – but it’s only much later that he learns the truth: Hyde is Jekyll, transformed by a potion of the doctor’s own invention into a villain. Over time, this side of Jekyll has seized control and gone on the rampage, climaxing at the end of Act 1 with the brutal, unprovoked murder of philanthropist Sir Danvers Carew (Ecevit Kulucan) as he tends to the poor.

Both Jekyll and Hyde are played by Nathaniel Leigertwood, and while he gives a good performance as both, it’s as the more interesting of the two – Hyde – that he really comes into his own. His transformation from the elegant and mild-mannered Jekyll into Hyde (further enhanced by Andrew Caddies’ particularly atmospheric lighting) is frighteningly convincing: appearance, voice and personality all change beyond recognition as he’s wracked by spasms and emerges a hunched, animalistic figure with an evil cackle and an absolute lack of remorse.

Strong individual support comes in the form of Demar Lambert and Finn Kebbe as Utterson and Lanyon – the former a commanding presence, the latter ultimately a broken man destroyed by the knowledge of his complicity in Hyde’s crimes. In reality, however (and in keeping with Chickenshed’s inclusive philosophy), this is an ensemble piece; a diverse, hard-working and vocally impressive chorus perform the majority of the physically demanding musical numbers and provide commentary on events as they unfold.

Like the rest of the production, Dave Carey and Hanna Bohlin’s up-tempo rock musical score has a distinctly modern flavour. With no spoken dialogue, the show moves swiftly from one number to the next, managing to pack an impressive 21 songs (albeit with several reprises) into its 70-minute duration. There are occasions when the vocals struggle to compete with the volume of the pre-recorded soundtrack, and combined with the pace of some of the songs, this can make it difficult to catch every word. Perhaps in recognition of this, the “penny dreadfuls” that are distributed as we arrive contain a handy synopsis of the plot, while the title of each new chapter is projected on the wall to help us orientate ourselves and fill in any plot gaps.

With this production, Chickenshed proves once again that it knows how to entertain audiences with a good story. But the show also asks us to consider some pertinent and rather topical questions about the importance of the choices we make – for ourselves, for others and for society as a whole.

Jekyll and Hyde is at Chickenshed until 20th October.


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Review: Side Show at the CLF Art Cafe

First performed in 1997 – a couple of decades before The Greatest Showman earwormed its way into our lives – Side Show is based on the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Like the recent monster hit movie about the life of PT Barnum, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s musical is a story about being different, but takes a rather darker and more grimly realistic approach than Jackman and co.

As the star attractions of a travelling show, the two sisters – conjoined at the hip – dream of stardom (Daisy) and romance (Violet). But while they experience brief glimpses of both, the two never get to live the one dream they share: that of a normal life. Instead they find themselves ruthlessly exploited by everyone around them, while they’re constantly torn between their desire to be alone and their fear of being apart.

Photo credit: Michael Smith

Pint of Wine’s revival, at the suitably unconventional Bussey Building in Peckham, immerses us instantly in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the side show. A lot of attention has clearly gone into the production’s design, with Lemington Ridley’s increasingly glamorous array of costumes plotting the sisters’ rise to fame, while a simple but effective set from Roberta Volpe proves you can do a lot with some wooden bleachers and a couple of screens.

The cast for Dom O’Hanlon’s production are generally strong, with stand-out vocal performances from Matthew James Nicholas as Terry, the twins’ manager, and Lauren Edwards as the sweet-natured Violet. She and Katie Beudert work well together, capturing in both performance and appearance the differences between Violet and Daisy’s personalities, and managing with ease the physical demands that come with being attached to another performer.

As Violet’s love interest Buddy, Barry O’Reilly excels in the dance numbers – including an impressive solo tap routine – and Alexander Bellinfantie is vocally strong as the sisters’ friend and protector Jake. Both seem less confident with their spoken dialogue, however, and we never quite get to the bottom of their character’s complex emotional struggles around their feelings for Violet.

Meanwhile the ensemble give an accomplished performance, particularly as the other side show acts, who step up to support their friends against their bullying adoptive father, Sir (Stephen Russell). In doing so each gives us a glimpse of their distinct personality, and a reminder that they’re not just attractions to be stared at, but real people who live, love and dream like everyone else. In fact, they’re considerably more human than the journalists, doctors and audiences – the other parts played by the ensemble – who view Daisy and Violet as little more than objects to be exploited.

Photo credit: Michael Smith

The musical numbers are performed well, led by musical director John Reddel’s excellent band, with the opening number Come Look at the Freaks and Terry and Daisy’s Act 2 duet Private Conversation among several highlights. The vaudeville routines are great entertainment, and Act 1 comes to a poignant close with the cast’s heartfelt rendition of Who Will Love Me As I Am? This song in particular taps into an emotion we can all identify with – the need to be loved and accepted just as we are – but it also represents something Daisy and Violet seem destined never to have. The show’s sombre conclusion might be more realistic than most, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling a bit unsatisfied by the resignation with which the twins accept what lies ahead.

Pint of Wine’s debut musical theatre production, while not perfect, is a welcome opportunity for London audiences to discover a little-known show – as well as the true story of two fascinating women who, while certainly unique, in a lot of ways really were “just like everyone else”.

Side Show is at CLF Art Cafe in the Bussey Building, Peckham, until 13th October.


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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!

Dirty Dancing is at the Orchard Theatre until 6th October.

Theatre Thoughts: 8 ways we can all #BeMoreMatilda

It’s almost eight years since a little but mighty show called Matilda first opened in Stratford-upon-Avon. Based on the novel by the legendary children’s author Roald Dahl and with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the award-winning musical moved in to the West End’s Cambridge Theatre the following year, and has been delighting audiences of all ages there ever since – many of us more than once.

Why this universal appeal? Well, perhaps it’s because even though the central character – Matilda Wormwood – is only five years old, she’s the kind of person most of us wish we could be. Not only is she much cleverer than a lot of grown-ups, she’s also braver, kinder and has a far clearer understanding of the difference between right and wrong, as well as a greater willingness to step up and fight when she sees something that’s not fair. There’s a lot we can learn from her – so to celebrate the show’s (almost) 8th birthday, here are 8 ways we can all #BeMoreMatilda…

1. Don’t let other people write your story

It’s your life – so stop worrying about what other people think, and live it the way you want. She may only be five years old, but Matilda already knows who she is and what she likes, and she isn’t about to let her horrible parents, or her evil (and slightly unhinged) headmistress, tell her she’s doing it wrong.

2. Turn off the telly and read a book

Despite the best efforts of Mr Wormwood to convince us that books rot kids’ brains and make them boring, put bookworm Matilda next to her TV addict brother Michael, and there’s only ever going to be one winner… (All together now: “Backwards!”)

3. Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

It may be true that two wrongs don’t make a right – but it’s also true that you can’t always beat injustice by sticking to the rules. If Matilda teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes you have to think outside the box and get creative – even if it does mean being a little bit naughty.

4. Learn to speak another language

Speaking another language is a great skill to have – it can help you get a better job, make new friends, see the world; there’s even evidence it can help delay the onset of conditions like dementia. But most importantly, you never know when it might come in handy to save your family from the Russian mob.

5. Work on your power pose

Matilda has a number of signature power poses, and she may well be on to something, as apparently there’s scientific theory proving a good power pose can do wonders for your confidence. Also, let’s be honest – it’s quite fun.

6. Never let a little thing like “little” stop you

Nobody proves better than Matilda that size isn’t everything. She may be tiny, but she doesn’t let that stop her taking on her huge, hammer-throwing headmistress, Miss Trunchbull – who, like most bullies, is also a massive coward. And she’s not the only one; inspired by her example, it’s the “revolting children” who ultimately come out on top.

7. Be proud of being a girl

Guess what, Mr Wormwood? Not having a “thingy” isn’t the end of the world… 😉

8. If it’s not right… put it right

A particularly powerful one to end on. Whether it’s destroying library books, force feeding chocolate cake to a small child or, er, murdering someone’s dad and stealing his house, Matilda knows when something isn’t right, and she won’t let anyone get away with it. If we all took a leaf out of her book and stood up against injustice wherever we saw it, just imagine what a very different – and much better – place the world could be.

Want to #BeMoreMatilda? Why not start by booking your tickets to this funny, inspiring and ever so slightly bonkers show – visit matildathemusical.com to find out more.