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.

Review: The Quentin Dentin Show at Tristan Bates Theatre

It’s the golden rule of capitalism: to convince a customer that your product will make them happy, you have to first make them realise how very unhappy they are without it. Science fiction musical The Quentin Dentin Show by Henry Carpenter takes this concept to infinity and beyond; now directed by Adam Lenson, the show introduces us to bored (and boring) couple Nat and Keith, who become the unwitting subjects of the universe’s most bonkers marketing scheme when they find a mysterious golden microphone in their living room. At the helm is Quentin Dentin – or at least the synth currently in possession of that name – whose only job is to sign them up to The Programme and make them both happy forever (although what that actually means is removing their souls, but you know, same difference). Naturally, Quentin isn’t doing this for nothing; he’s in line for an upgrade if he can seal the deal, so is willing to do just about anything to sign his subjects up.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

In case you were wondering, this is all absolutely as bizarre as it sounds. Luke Lane steals the show with a gloriously over-the-top portrayal of TV host/preacher/mentor Quentin, backed by his two robotic “friends”, creatively named Friend 1 and Friend 2 (Freya Tilly and Lottie-Daisy Francis). Behind their beaming smiles, cheery singalongs and energetic choreography, there’s a decidedly sinister undertone about this trio as they skilfully manipulate Keith and Nat into signing their lives – and more – away.

Shauna Riley and Max Panks do a good job with necessarily flimsy characters, whose bemusement quickly gives way to acceptance of their own unhappiness and rejection of the dreams they thought they had. It’s a bit hard to believe Nat and Keith would so readily succumb to a strange man who appeared out of their radio, and nor do we ever find out why they’ve been chosen as Quentin’s latest subjects – but by this point we’re so far through the looking glass anyway that it’s best to just go with it.

That said, there is still a nugget of harsh truth about humanity’s constant search for happiness to be found amidst the manic grins, talking microphones and inflatable fish (don’t ask) – and the show’s unexpectedly bleak ending leaves us to wonder rather despondently if finding the meaning of life through artificial means really is the best future we have to look forward to.

Though there are only a couple of songs that are particularly catchy – among them a Hey Jude-esque final chorus that I still can’t get out of my head – all the musical numbers are enthusiastically performed by band and singers, with sharp, synchronised choreography from Caldonia Walton. In fact, movement in general throughout the show is crisp, polished and perfectly timed, down to the simplest turn of a head at just the right moment.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

The production does suffer from a few sound issues; with the band on stage throughout, there are a couple of numbers where it’s hard to make out all of the lyrics, and there’s also an odd disconnect between the intimacy of Nat and Keith’s living room and the fact that they’re talking to each other in it through radio mikes. The show would perhaps work better in a slightly larger space – it certainly has the larger than life personality required to fill a bigger stage.

The show’s been described as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new millennium”, and the influence of Richard O’Brien’s show is obvious (ordinary couple stumble into the path of a charismatic but unhinged stranger, who makes them question everything they thought they knew about themselves). Whether Quentin will ever reach the same levels of cult fandom I couldn’t say, but there’s no denying the show makes for an entertaining – and slightly bewildering – evening out.

The Quentin Dentin Show is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 29th July.

Review: Evita at the Orchard Theatre

Sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to realise how long the shows I grew up with have been around (which in turn makes me feel old… but let’s not go there). While Evita – written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1976 and first performed in the West End two years later – isn’t one I saw on stage until my 20s, I do remember watching the movie version starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas all the way back in 1996. Back then I didn’t necessarily follow all the political context of the story, but I loved the music and was fascinated by the rags to riches tale of a teenage girl from a rural town, who rose to become First Lady of Argentina and “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” – only to die from cancer at the age of just 33.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Now Evita is back on tour, and bringing the story of Eva Perón, second wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón, to a new generation. Starring Wicked‘s Emma Hatton and Italian actor Gian Marco Schiaretti – who recently played Tarzan in Stuttgart – this lavish production from Bill Kenwright is both entertaining and educational, a love story with added politics, and a great deal of style. And whether or not you follow all the ins and outs of Argentine history, it’s a fascinating insight into how a celebrity with no knowledge of politics can power their way to the top by sheer determination. Which makes you wonder if we’ll all be watching an equally tragic – for different reasons – show about Trump in 40 years’ time (if so may I suggest a working title of Covfefe: The Musical).

Not entirely surprisingly, West End star Emma Hatton gives a commanding and vocally flawless performance, just as much when Eva’s crumpled on the ground in the last days of her life as when she’s at the height of her power, performing the show-stopping Don’t Cry For Me Argentina to an adoring crowd. Alongside her, relative newcomer Gian Marco Schiaretti more than holds his own as the omnipresent Che, hitting just the right mix of Latin charm, arrogance and helplessness – and some impressive, not to mention unexpected, high notes. The two have excellent support from Kevin Stephen-Jones as Perón, Oscar Balmaseda as Eva’s first lover (and ticket to the big city) Magaldi, and Sarah O’Connor as the unnamed Mistress, a seemingly minor character who nonetheless wows the crowd with one of the show’s best-known numbers, Another Suitcase in Another Hall.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

With Bill Deamer’s lively choreography that takes inspiration both from the Latin American setting and the oppressive atmosphere of a military dictatorship, and an imposing set designed by Matthew Wright, Evita transports us to 1940s Argentina in a dazzling and fast-moving spectacle that only begins to slow down when its protagonist does. 40 years old the show may be, but the passion and energy of this production prove there’s plenty of life in Evita yet.

Evita is at the Orchard Theatre until 3rd June then continuing on tour.

Review: Paper Hearts at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

You know in The BFG (stay with me) how he makes dreams for people by taking all the different elements and blending them together? Well, this is essentially what Liam O’Rafferty, Daniel Jarvis and Tania Azevedo have done in Paper Hearts. Musical? Check. Books? Check. Love story? Check. Folksy score performed live on stage by actor-musicians with gorgeous harmonies and catchy choruses? Check, check, check, check, check. Long story short – this is my dream show, and I’m a little bit in love.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

After proving a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the show’s been developed into a full-length musical set in The Final Chapter bookshop, where aspiring writer Atticus (Adam Small) is trying to finish his epic novel of romance and betrayal in Stalin’s Russia. When the shop’s threatened with closure at the hands of a large online retailer, Atticus finds himself with only one option – finish the novel in time for the upcoming young writers competition, win top prize, save the bookshop. Simple, right? Well no, actually, because his girlfriend (Sinéad Wall) could hardly be less supportive, he’s got history to work out with his dad (Alasdair Baker) and he’s just met a girl (Gabriella Margulies), who may just be his soulmate – but for one fairly major complication…

Fact and fiction are effortlessly interwoven as we slip into the snowy Russia of Atticus’ main characters Yanna and Isaak, and follow their story – which seems to bear some striking parallels to their creator’s own life. And as the characters develop, it becomes clear they’re shaping his destiny just as much as he is theirs.

Liam O’Rafferty was inspired to write Paper Hearts by his passion for bookshops, and the show overflows from the start with that love for the written word. From Anna Driftmier’s set – built largely from books, and full of delightful details like the floating book light (which is something I never knew I wanted until I saw it, and now it’s all I can think about) – to the brilliant “book-off” where Atticus and new shop manager Lilly challenge each other’s literary knowledge, it’s a thrill for anyone who loves to read.

The cast of actor-musicians are sensational and work seamlessly as an ensemble to bring the score to life. And what a score it is, taking in a range of genres but always feeling very natural, like it’s just a bunch of friends getting together to play – and did I mention the gorgeous harmonies? There are some really beautiful songs here, with two of many highlights the heart-wrenching duet Stand Up and the title number Paper Hearts, which closes the show on a soaring high.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Perhaps one of my favourite things about the show is, despite its frequent forays into Stalin’s Russia, how very British it is; you can totally imagine it on screen as a Richard Curtis rom-com in the vein of Notting Hill. The dusty old bookshop is quintessentially British, the script has a wry, self-deprecating humour – particularly from Matthew Atkins’ gloriously camp shop owner Norman – and when things go wrong, everyone’s immediate response is to put the kettle on. This gives the production a very cosy, homely feel, and makes the characters and everything that happens to them incredibly relatable.

The show does get a bit dark and tense at times (gun alert) and there’s no shortage of emotion either. But overall Paper Hearts is uplifting, heartwarming and basically just a joy from start to finish. It’s got everything you could want from a West End show at a fraction of the ticket price – so see it now before it gets snapped up for a transfer. And then go again, because it’s worth it.

Paper Hearts is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 20th May.

Review: La Cage Aux Folles at the Orchard Theatre

There are some shows that just make you feel good about life. La Cage Aux Folles is one such show. Setting the stage for more recent hits like Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Kinky Boots, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s award-winning musical is a feel-good extravaganza that looks stunning, sounds fabulous and features a sensational starring performance from John Partridge.

Based in St Tropez, La Cage Aux Folles is the story of nightclub owner Georges (Adrian Zmed) and his partner Albin (John Partridge), the popular star of the club’s drag act. But then Georges’ son Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter) announces his engagement to the daughter of an infamous right wing politician, and hilarious chaos ensues as the couple attempt to tone down their flamboyant lifestyle and “act normal”.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Act 1 in director Martin Connor’s production acts largely as an opportunity to set the scene and show off Albin’s jaw-dropping array of glittering gowns; “it’s like Black Friday at Primark back there,” he confides after yet another lightning-fast costume change. Perhaps inevitably given this frenetic backstage activity, parts of the first act – particularly during the title number – start to feel a bit like they’re only there to fill time while we wait for the next big reveal. Having said that, it does give us plenty of time to admire Gary McCann’s drop dead gorgeous set, and features one of the highlights of the evening as the distraught Albin, having learned he’s to be excluded from the meeting with Jean-Michele’s new in-laws, brings the house and curtain down with a heart-felt performance of I Am What I Am.

This, by the way, was the only song I knew from the show beforehand, but it turns out to be part of a fabulous, catchy score that’s hard to get out of your head, even 24 hours later. Song on the Sand, With You on My Arm and The Best of Times are just a few of the tunes that get the feet tapping and simultaneously pull on the heart-strings.

After the interval, there’s more action and fewer costume changes, so the comedy can begin in earnest as we head towards a somewhat predictable but still heart-warming conclusion; I’m not ashamed to admit I welled up at one point, and spontaneously cheered at another. As light-hearted as the show is, it still has an important message about accepting others and ourselves, and Dindon the homophobic politician (Paul F. Monaghan) unfortunately feels just as real in 2017 as he was when the musical was written in the 1980s.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

As Albin, John Partridge is exquisite – and not just in appearance, though he does look amazing in every outfit he puts on. Vocally, emotionally, comically, he pitches his performance exactly right, and his relationship with Adrian Zmed as Georges is both believable and touching. But while, much like his character, Partridge is undoubtedly the star of the show, the rest of the cast are by no means in his shadow. Zmed is easily likeable and a natural comedian, Marti Webb (literally) steals the limelight during her all too rare appearances as restaurant owner Jacqueline, and Samson Ajewole is particularly fun as the sassy maid/butler Jacob.

La Cage Aux Folles may not be one of the best known musicals for British audiences, but that deserves to change. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart, this dazzling production of a hugely entertaining and uplifting show is well worth a visit. If it doesn’t brighten your day, then I really don’t know what will.

La Cage Aux Folles is at the Orchard Theatre until 13th May.