Review: Saturday Night Fever at the Orchard Theatre

There can be few movies more iconic than Saturday Night Fever. Its place in popular culture is so established that even if you’ve never seen the film, you almost certainly still know the music and the dance moves, and you’ve probably performed some version of the latter to the former, most likely at a school disco or cheesy student club night. You also, I’d guess, know that John Travolta is Tony Manero, and like most people, you can’t quite imagine anyone else filling his shiny shoes and sharp white suit.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Tony is a young man in 1970s Brooklyn with little to look forward to in life; he still lives at home with his disappointed and unhappily married parents, and works during the week in a local paint store, with no obvious prospect of moving up in the world despite being very good at his job. The one bright spot on the horizon is Saturday nights at local disco 2001 Odyssey, where Tony can do what he loves: dance. When the club announces an upcoming dance contest, he teams up with new love interest Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) – funnily enough, the one woman in town who doesn’t want to sleep with him – to claim the prize, and with it her heart.

So given the tough act he has to follow, how does Richard Winsor fare in Bill Kenwright’s stage version? Actually, not bad. He’s got the classic moves and Manero swagger down, and leads the ensemble dance numbers under the 2001 Odyssey mirrorball with the cool confidence of a man who knows all eyes – particularly the female ones – are on him. For Act 1, that’s pretty much all the plot requires, but as events take a darker turn in Act 2 Winsor also shows us glimpses of the vulnerability behind the arrogance, and finally gives us a reason to root for Tony despite his many flaws.

This change in tone is reflected in the show’s other big star attraction: the soundtrack. While Act 1 packs in the legendary disco hits, from Stayin’ Alive to You Should Be Dancing, after the interval the pace slows, with numbers including Too Much Heaven and How Deep Is Your Love (and also Tragedy, during which everyone of a certain age could be seen physically restraining themselves from launching into the Steps dance routine). Almost all the musical numbers are performed by the show’s very own – and very convincing – Bee Gees, Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull, but every now and again a key character breaks into their own solo, some of which fit what’s happening in the story better than others. Though all the songs are well performed, this lack of consistency in the show’s format jars somewhat, and feels like an unnecessarily confusing distraction.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

There’s no doubt, however, that the production succeeds 100% in capturing the spirit of disco – from Bill Deamer’s irresistible choreography to Nick Richings’ lighting design and Gary McCann’s set and costumes, which between them bring Odyssey 2001 vividly to life both on stage and off. Because the songs stand alone as hits in their own right, they take centre stage throughout; it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and energy of the group numbers, or to feel a sudden urge to get out on the dance floor yourself. The show does have its flaws, and it might not be the most memorable start to the theatre-going year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t head home with a skip in your step, all the same.

Saturday Night Fever is at the Orchard Theatre until 12th January, then continues on tour.

Review: Aladdin at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

As a forty-plus female attending this panto, I can’t deny the main draw for me was my childhood crush Marti Pellow. So I hadn’t really gone into the night with high expectations of what was to follow other than knowing I would hear some  “oh no it isn’t” type of gags. I had prepared myself for familiar panto slapstick.

Wow. I had that completely wrong! The promise “Everything you could wish for in a panto” I would say underplays what we actually got. This was so much more. I hadn’t seen a Qdos production before and confess hadn’t read up about the company and am so glad I hadn’t. This was a special effects/visuals/pyrotechnics and magic spectacular and was a total surprise!

Photo credit: Luke Varley

The pantomime started surreally with villain Abanazar, former Wet Wet Wet frontman Marti Pellow, talking to a giant moving mechanical King Kong – I’m not actually sure why… And from that moment on, I knew this was not any ordinary panto. Marti did an excellent job of playing a Scottish accented villain – his acting and singing were certainly on form and his gags about Dartford and the local area (spanning even to Bromley) were appreciated by the audience. I didn’t feel he was particularly villainous, but perhaps I was seeing him through rose-coloured glasses!

The cast included the hilarious Ricky K from Britain’s got Talent who was my 8-year-old son’s favourite character by far and the star of the show. His energetic slapstick comedy had the audience in stitches throughout and he did a fabulous job of getting everybody involved. Panto favourite David Robbins, playing Widow Twankey, had a fabulous rapport with Ricky K and the scene where Abanazar, Wishee Washee and Widow Twankey try their tongue twisters looking for a missing shirt was my favourite of the evening. My son was literally crying! A special mention must be made of the costume designer as Widow Twankey’s wardrobe down to her knobbly knees was inspired.

I can’t fault Alexis Gerred as Aladdin but I was surprised we didn’t have a stronger character for Stephanie Elstob as Princess Jasmine. A bit more girl power would have been nice to see – though Stephanie’s acting and singing were great and complemented Aladdin. Best singer most definitely goes to Landi Oshinowo, who played the Empress of China (sorry Marti).

Full credit should go to the stage designer as the sets were amazing – from Peking to Egypt to the treasure-filled cave – and how did they do the magic carpet, we would really like to know? We felt we were being transported into the skies and many children I imagine have come away thinking it indeed was by magic.

Photo credit: Luke Varley

We were all given 3D glasses in the second half, but I hadn’t prepared for the visuals that followed. The fairly long cinematic experience had the audience screaming (they possibly need a warning for the families with very young children). From snakes to dragons to spiders to skulls… it was both spectacular and spectacularly scary! The use of new technology in this way and with the pyrotechnics and “magic” makes me interested to see where panto will go from here in the years to come. I will be back next year for sure.

Looking around, the audience, which ranged from 6 months to 80 years old, seemed to be enjoying themselves and on the way out, I didn’t see anybody who wasn’t smiling. As somebody who only really came for Marti rather than panto, I have been converted by this production. My son gave it 10/10, which says it all.

Oh, I know you are all wanting to know – did they play any Wet Wet Wet songs? I will leave you to go and find out……

Aladdin is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th December.

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.

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.

Review: Summer Holiday at the Orchard Theatre

Long before the Inbetweeners movie was even thought of, there was Summer Holiday, the classic 1963 film in which Cliff Richard and The Shadows enjoyed a far more innocent – but apparently just as action-packed – European adventure. I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone made a stage version of the film, and it’ll come as no surprise that Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan’s musical works, for the most part, very well.

The story is pretty simple, and very much of its time. Four lads (Ray Quinn, Billy Roberts, Joe Goldie and Rory Maguire) driving through France in a red London bus happen upon three gorgeous girls (Gabby Antrobus, Alice Baker and Laura Marie Benson) with a broken down car, and gallantly offer them a lift to their singing engagement in Greece. On their way to Athens they pick up various other damsels in distress, including a sobbing bride-to-be who’s late for her wedding, and runaway singing starlet Barbara (Sophie Matthew), who’s fled from her overbearing mother and agent (Taryn Sudding and Wayne Smith) in search of a simpler life. Not at all surprisingly, despite the best attempts of Barbara’s mum to put a spanner in the works, they make it to Greece in time, and everyone pairs off neatly, falls in love and lives happily ever after.

What the show lacks in originality (and political correctness), it fortunately more than makes up for in sunshiny entertainment value. Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews, it’s a feel-good ride crammed with slick dance numbers and a catalogue of classic hits including Living Doll, Do You Wanna Dance and Bachelor Boy, concluding with an extended and very well-received singalong medley of Cliff songs.

All of this is performed by a multi-talented all-singing, all-dancing cast whose energy and perkiness never flag – but as good as they certainly are, the stage really belongs to leading man Ray Quinn. Not only does he do a pretty accurate Cliff impression but his vocals are spot on, he’s a fantastic dancer, and he has no problem at all charming the pants off everyone in sight (himself included, at one point).

Lads’ holidays having “evolved” slightly since the 1960s, the show naturally feels rather tame to a 2018 audience – although the various excruciating attempts of the British characters to communicate with their European hosts remind us that some things (sadly) never change. It may not be the most memorable story, but it’s hard to fault the show in terms of performance – and as the evenings begin to draw in, anything that makes the summer last that little bit longer is just fine by me.

Summer Holiday is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 8th September then continues on tour.