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… 😉

Review: Crazy For You at the Orchard Theatre

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 musical Crazy For You has everything: singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, romance, mistaken identities… and – as if all that weren’t enough – former Strictly winner, and now well established stage star, Tom Chambers as main character Bobby Child.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Bobby wants to be on the stage, but his wealthy mother’s bullied him into working at the family bank instead, and demands he go to Deadrock, Nevada, to foreclose on an old theatre. Thrilled to get away from Irene, the fiancée he acquired five years ago seemingly by accident, Bobby arrives in Deadrock and falls immediately in love with Polly – whose dad, unfortunately, happens to be the owner of the theatre. Desperate to save the theatre and win Polly’s love, Bobby comes up with a half-baked plan to pretend he’s theatre impresario Bela Zangler, and chaos, predictably enough, ensues.

Tom Chambers lives up to his leading man credentials from the moment the curtain rises, tapping and twinkling his way through the first couple of New York-set numbers. Then the action moves to Deadrock, and any concerns that this might just be the Tom Chambers show are put quickly to rest as an exceptional company of actor-musicians step into the spotlight. Claire Sweeney is great as the bitchy Irene, who (naturally) follows her man across the country and messes with his plan – as does a confused Zangler, in an entertaining comedic turn by Neil Ditt. But biggest shout-out of the night has to go to Seren Sandham-Davis, who stepped confidently into the role of Polly in the unexpected absence of regular star Charlotte Wakefield, and smashed it.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

The score is largely familiar, with classic tunes like I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Embraceable You and Someone To Watch Over Me. But there are also plenty that were new to me, with highlights including Stiff Upper Lip, an enjoyably silly celebration of all things British led by Eugene and Patricia Fodor (who just happen to stumble into town doing research for their latest travel guide), and the irresistible toe-tapper Slap That Bass. The immaculate choreography from Nathan M. Wright is particularly impressive given that most of the cast are also playing a variety of instruments at the same time.

Full of charisma and glamour, Crazy For You is a perfect evening’s entertainment, full of laughs, romance and catchy tunes. Tom Chambers excels in the spotlight, but even he can’t outshine a ridiculously multi-talented ensemble cast who seem able to do pretty much anything. The story is all very silly, and I still don’t quite understand how it all came together at the end – but when a show is this much fun, who cares if it makes sense?

Crazy For You is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 27th January then continuing on tour.

Review: Cilla – The Musical at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

The Orchard Theatre, Dartford welcomes one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers Cilla to the stage in the opening of this run of the musical for anyone who had a heart: Cilla – The Musical.  

Willy Russell and Laurie Mansfield present a spectacular and heart-warming adaptation of BAFTA Award winner Jeff Pope’s critically acclaimed hit TV series.

Cilla -The Musical tells the story of teenage Liverpudlian Priscilla White, whose dreams of stardom lead her to become one of the best-loved entertainers of all time, Cilla Black. 

Cilla is played by Kara Lily Hayworth in her first starring role. Kara performed in Annie alongside Cilla’s friend Paul O’Grady as one of the child actors. Whilst on break, out with her mother, Kara spotted Cilla in a shop and recalls, “I just went up to her and said I wanted her autograph and that I was going to be a singer and an actress when I was older.” Well, it looks like Cilla has been watching over this fantastic young artist and has had a guiding hand in making her dreams come true, as did Cilla’s. 

Kara does Cilla proud with a powerhouse of a voice hitting those high notes and singing with charisma and tenderness. 

Cilla the teenager is the pride of her parents Big Cilla and John White; through hard work and ambition she has earned herself a prestigious place in the typing pool at British Insulated Callender’s Cables, and Big Cilla is proud to boast this fact to anyone who will listen!

Cilla’s heart really belongs to music though, and we are treated to scenes of her performing with her hairbrush into her mirror at home and regularly popping on stage at Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club, encouraged by friends the Beatles to join them for a number or two. 

It is here that Cilla catches the eye of young Bobby Willis, played by Carl Au, who’s determined to win her heart so encourages her to take him on as her manager. Cilla also catches the eye of big shot music mogul Brian Epstein, played by Andrew Lancel.

In the first half we are quickly transported back to the 60s with hit after hit by the up and coming bands of the day The Big Three, Gerry and The Pacemakers, and of course The Beatles. The costumes, choreography and lighting add atmosphere to the fantastic performances by the live band and wonderful singers; the entire cast take a turn at treating us to the hits of yesteryear such as Roll over Beethoven, Twist and Shout and You Really Got A Hold On Me. 

The second act focuses on the on-off love story of Bobby and Cilla, and her rise to stardom. 

The entire cast transports us in time and makes the audience forget which era we are now in, but supporting actors Carl Au (Bobby Willis), formerly Bad Barry in Waterloo Road, and Andrew Lancel (Brian Epstein), formerly Frank Foster in Corrie, deserve special mentions. Both actors portray their characters extremely well and treat us to unexpected musical numbers themselves. 

Cilla – The Musical is at the Orchard until Saturday 20th January. Grab your tickets before it’s too late, this show is too good to miss!

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.