Review: Calendar Girls at the Orchard Theatre

The true story behind Calendar Girls – and the inspiration for a movie, play and musical – is, by now, pretty well known. Back in 1999, the ladies of the Women’s Institute in Cracoe, Yorkshire, decided to make a nude calendar to raise funds in memory of a close friend and fellow member’s husband, who had recently died of leukaemia. What started as a fun idea to raise a few pounds soon hit the headlines, and to date the real life Calendar Girls have raised nearly £5 million for blood cancer research charity Bloodwise.

What captured the public’s imagination about the Calendar Girls was the fact that here were ordinary women doing something extraordinary. Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s hit musical (which ran for a surprisingly short time in the West End despite great reviews and obvious popularity) has the same spirit; like its characters, it’s refreshingly genuine and down to earth, with a cheeky sense of humour as an added bonus. It’s also quite the rollercoaster, with desperately sad moments followed almost immediately by scenes that have the audience howling with laughter – the most notable of which, unsurprisingly, is the legendary nude photo shoot that brings the evening to a joyous conclusion.

The ensemble cast exudes warmth and familiarity, making you believe they really have been friends for years, and there are great performances all round. Sara Crowe is touchingly vulnerable as shy Ruth, who throws herself into the WI to escape her troubled marriage, and Fern Britton hits just the right note as snobby Marie, who’s horrified by the potential damage the calendar could do to her WI’s reputation. There’s some great work too from younger cast members Isabel Caswell, Tyler Dobbs and Danny Howker as teenagers Jenny, Tommo and Danny, who have their own problems to deal with. But the standout performance comes from Anna-Jane Casey as Annie, a beautifully written character whose grief over the loss of her husband is rooted not in grand gestures but in the little details that you never think about until someone isn’t there any more.

The score, like the story, combines rousing ensemble numbers with solo performances and though all are well performed, the former are generally far more memorable than the latter – with highlights including the opening number Yorkshire, an uplifting anthem to the community’s northern home. The setting is an important part of the story, and Robert Jones’ simple rustic set of rolling hills and glorious sunsets makes an attractive and fitting backdrop. And yes, maybe the plot sometimes feels like it’s moving at rather a sedate pace, but that somehow doesn’t feel inappropriate given the rural setting.

Calendar Girls is a charming and very British musical that tells this heartwarming true story of love, loss, courage and friendship with just the right blend of humour and pathos. It’s sometimes a bit naughty – be prepared to get a little more than you may have bargained for in the final scene – but there’s considerably more depth to the story and characters than you might expect. All in all, a really enjoyable evening’s entertainment, and great to see a British musical flourishing.

Calendar Girls is at the Orchard Theatre until 16th March.

Review: Notflix – The Improvised Musical at The Vaults

Ever wanted to see Independence Day: Resurgence performed live on stage as a comedy musical? Well, unfortunately you’ve missed your chance, because that was last night and to quote one of the performers, “it will never happen again”. Who knows what the next Notflix show will be? Answer: nobody – not even the cast.

Notflix is an improvised comedy musical that recreates a movie suggested and chosen on the night by the audience. Completely made up on the spot based on a three-line synopsis and not a lot else, it’s fair to assume that the show bears little resemblance to the original film. It is, however, probably a lot more fun, and for a considerably smaller budget. And naturally it’s a musical – because as we all know, everything is better as a musical.

On the other hand, if you’re an improv performer, I imagine everything is also much more difficult as a musical. The dexterity with which the six performers – Holly Mallet, Ailis Duff, Clare Buckingham, Aisling Groves McKeown, Emma Read and Katie Pritchard (collectively known as Waiting For The Call Improv) – magic up not just characters and plot but also several song and dance numbers is nothing short of amazing. On this occasion, those musical delights included an anthem to the planet Zorbatron, and a Hamilton homage featuring the immortal line, “I am an alien…” Impressively, not only do these songs work, some of them are so catchy I caught myself still humming bits of them a day later – much of the credit for which must go to on-stage band members Patrick Stockbridge and Caroline Scott, on keys and drums respectively.

The plot of Independence Day: Resurgence: The Musical brings together a band of plucky astronauts battling to save Earth with the help of a time whip (I think…?), feuding alien brothers who must put their differences aside and work together to invade Earth, and a couple of gun-toting Americans who must decide what they love more – each other, or killing aliens. Given that nobody will ever see this show again, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that in the end Earth wins, the aliens fatally whip each other (again, I think…? I’m really not sure) then make up, and the Americans realise they do love each other, even though she just tried to destroy the planet. And in case you’re wondering – yes, it’s all exactly as insane and brilliantly bizarre as it sounds.

One tiny niggle: if, like me, you’re sitting directly in front of the speakers, you may find that some of the spoken dialogue gets drowned out by the music. But since that won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of what’s going on, it hardly seems to matter. So if you’re in the mood for something silly, fun and boasting some serious improv talent, get yourself down to The Vaults this week for a hilarious hour of entertainment that’s also totally unique every time. You don’t get that staying home with Netflix.

Notflix: The Improvised Musical is at VAULT Festival until 10th 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: Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre

September 11th, 2001: while the world was watching the horrifying events taking place in the USA, a very different story was beginning in the Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. With American air space closed, the locals opened their homes and hearts to 7,000 stranded passengers, working tirelessly for five days to feed, clothe and house their terrified guests, and proving that even in the very darkest of times, the best of humanity can still shine through.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

This is the story told in Come From Away – a funny, moving and uplifting new musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Having won best musical awards across North America, the show now arrives in London where, if there’s any justice, it’ll prove to be just as successful.

I might as well admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed with Come From Away ever since I first listened to the Broadway cast recording about a year ago – but while the soundtrack is great, the show itself is on another level altogether. It may have come out of North America, but like its cast of characters the show’s message is universal, and at a time when the news is full of doors being slammed against those who need help, it’s a story we all need to hear – especially when it’s told as powerfully as this.

Mirroring the events and community that inspired it, Christopher Ashley’s production is a seamless team effort, in which every cast member works incredibly hard with the resources at their disposal to produce something quite wonderful. There’s not a hint of ego; despite the amount of stellar talent on stage, no one actor ever feels more or less important than any of the others – so all I can say is that (deep breath) Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon, Cat Simmons and Rachel Tucker are all outstanding.

Nor are there any fancy sets or special effects – armed with little more than a few chairs and a couple of simple wardrobe changes, the company bring to life hundreds of real people and stories, giving each one of them the care and respect they deserve. Nick and Diane, who met and fell in love during their time in Gander; Beverley Bass, the pioneering female pilot devastated at seeing the thing she loves most used as a weapon; Hannah, the mother desperate for news of her son, a New York firefighter; Unga, the pregnant bonobo chimp… any one of these or countless other true stories featured in the show would make a powerful narrative all on their own. Put them all together and the emotional impact is off the scale.

The score, as you’d expect, comes straight out of Newfoundland; with Alan Berry’s excellent band on stage throughout, we could easily be down at the legion with the locals (particularly at the end – whatever you do, don’t leave at the curtain call). Here again it’s all about the ensemble; there’s only one solo number in the whole show, and even that ends up featuring half the cast. The whole production overflows with enthusiasm, generosity and community spirit – the very qualities displayed by the people of Gander back in 2001 – and if it doesn’t send you home with a smile on your face then to be honest I doubt anything will.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Come From Away has everything the world needs right now: infectious music, great performances, a fascinating true story, and a much-needed message of hope, kindness and acceptance. It’s a love story, a comedy and a celebration of Newfoundland spirit and culture – and yet it never loses sight of, or respect for, the tragedy at its heart. If you want to laugh, cry, dance and (however briefly) feel a little bit better about the state of the world, do yourself a favour and go and see this show. I’ll probably see you there.

Come From Away is at the Phoenix Theatre until at least September (hopefully much, much longer).

Review: Cabaret at Laban Theatre

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome… to Cabaret, presented by final year Musical Theatre students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Written in 1966 by Kander and Ebb, the musical is set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis, and explores how easily good people can be taken in by clever propaganda, or choose to look the other way and ignore what’s going on around them. In light of all that’s going on in the world in 2018, this subject matter makes it, depressingly, a particularly timely choice for the students’ two-date showcase.

Photo credit: Trinity Laban Musical Theatre

American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Harry Newton / Michael McGeough) arrives in Berlin hoping to find inspiration for his novel. What he finds is the Kit Kat Klub, a nightclub overseen by the sinister Emcee (Barney Fritz / Jake Lomas), where Cliff falls for carefree English cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Jenny Coates / Amy Blanchard). Meanwhile, his landlady Fräulein Schneider (Hannah Macpherson / Hannah Qureshi) is enjoying a romance with another resident, Herr Schultz (Calum Rickman), but when her friends and neighbours realise he’s Jewish, she must decide if marrying him is worth all the trouble it would undoubtedly bring to her door.

For the majority of the 90-minute Act 1 Cabaret is very much a feel-good show, peppered with infectiously toe-tapping tunes and charting two charmingly unconventional new romances. It’s only as the first act comes to a close that we see through the Emcee’s carefully constructed facade and begin to understand what’s really happening, before a much shorter Act 2 hammers the message home with brutal efficiency. And immediately following Sally’s defiant performance of the show’s big title number, the deliberately off-key finale is unsettling – if not particularly shocking – as it forces the audience to re-evaluate all that we’ve just watched from a dark new perspective.

On a brighter note the production, directed by Karen Rabinowitz, was excellent, with confident performances from a talented young cast and stage band. It’s worth noting that most of the central characters were played by two actors over the two days; at the performance I attended, Barney Fritz absolutely owned the stage as the Emcee – intensely creepy but weirdly seductive, he quickly won the audience over with the opening number, and never looked back. Jenny Coates and Harry Newton were strong leads as Sally and Cliff (the former bringing the house down with her performance of Cabaret), but for me the more compelling of the two romances was that between Hannah Macpherson and Calum Rickman as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Despite playing two people much older than themselves, both were totally convincing in their roles, and utterly charming whenever they were on stage together.

Photo credit: Trinity Laban Musical Theatre

With slick choreography from Graham Newell and a simple but attractive set designed by Louis Carver, if you didn’t know then you’d be hard pressed to guess that you were watching a student performance. With the exception of rare – and always quickly corrected – moments of over-exuberance from the band that briefly drowned out the dialogue, there was little to set this apart from a professional performance; it’s certainly a show I’d happily recommend to anyone looking for a great night out. And it also offered a valuable opportunity to see a cast of exciting new talent, who I’ve no doubt will go on to own plenty of much larger stages in the future.

Cabaret was performed at Laban Theatre on 6th and 7th December. For details of future productions, visit trinitylaban.ac.uk/whats-on.

Review: Rock of Ages at the Orchard Theatre

Chris D’Arienzo’s 2005 jukebox musical Rock of Ages has a lot going for it: a soundtrack of epic 80s rock classics, a feel-good LA love story, and perhaps most importantly, an absolute refusal to take itself seriously at any point. Add in the universally fantastic cast of Nick Winston’s touring production, and – a little bit of questionable humour aside – you’ve got the recipe for a great show (but maybe leave the kids at home).

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The year is 1987, and wannabe actress Sherrie (Danielle Hope) has just arrived on the Sunset Strip, where she meets wannabe rockstar Drew (Luke Walsh), but their budding romance is endangered when actual rockstar Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday) turns up. One thing leads to another, and as Drew’s getting discovered by a record producer, Sherrie ends up working as a stripper for Justice (Zoe Birkett) at the Venus Club. Meanwhile local legend Dennis Dupree (Kevin Kennedy) must defend his beloved bar from two Germans (Andrew Carthy and Vas Constanti), who want to tear down the Strip and replace it with a Foot Locker – a plan also opposed vehemently by former City Planner Regina (Rhiannon Chesterman). It’s a long and bumpy road, but in the end everyone gets what they want – even if they didn’t know it was what they wanted in the first place.

The story is nothing we haven’t seen plenty of times before, but Rock of Ages realises that and leans into it, understanding that nobody in the audience has bought a ticket for the plot anyway, so why not have some fun with it? Narrator Lonny – in a hilarious, show-stealing performance from Lucas Rush – does exactly that, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, openly acknowledging the formulaic nature of the story and turning it into a running joke that the audience is more than happy to go along with while we wait for the next rock classic.

And fortunately, we never have long to wait. We Built This City, We’re Not Gonna Take It, I Want to Know What Love Is, Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, I Can’t Fight This Feeling, Don’t Stop Believing… and so many more hits make it almost impossible to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. They’re also an excuse for the cast to showcase some sensational vocals; the show has an unusually large quantity of lead characters and without question, every single one of them delivers. Even the numbers that are clearly aiming more for comedy – like Lonny and Dennis’ duet in Act 2, or anything involving the Germans – don’t compromise on vocal quality. Barney Ashworth’s band are similarly excellent, and from a musical point of view, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rock of Ages is a resounding triumph.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The one area where the show falters a little is in some of the humour, which is not so much offensive as just a bit tired. For instance, it’s never really clear why the two property developers have to be German, except as an excuse to make cheap gags at their expense – and in a script that has so much good stuff going for it in terms of comedy, this doesn’t add anything and feels unnecessary. And yes, I know the show is set in the 80s, but the less said about its portrayal of women, the better. (To quote my friend at the interval, “It’s good, but you can tell it was written by a man.”)

All the same, Rock of Ages does what it sets out to do: it well and truly rocks, and does so in an engagingly self-aware way that some other jukebox musicals could definitely learn a thing or two from. Great fun for a cheesy – and slightly cheeky – night out.

Rock of Ages is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th November, before continuing on tour.