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: Tango Moderno at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika Cutts

They are back! Strictly dance superstars Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone return to wow audiences with their fourth production – Tango Moderno – and they do not disappoint! Previous sell out shows have included Midnight Tango, Dance till Dawn and The Last Tango; very much an audience favourite, they have danced together for over two decades. The production, with the help of director and choreographer Karen Bruce, cleverly gives a modern twist to a 19th century traditional Argentinian dance. It works superbly well.


Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The story tells of “Cupids of Tango” – Flavia and Vincent – who encourage the singleton characters in the show to go out and find love. It reflects, in its prose and through the dance, the perils of modern day society who are reliant on mobile phones and social media dating sites such as Tinder, and addresses the issues of commuting, loneliness and even a world which includes Donald Trump.

The scene of the story is set through the medium of a narrator – the talented Tom Parsons – whose prose and poetry is sublime and whose renditions of modern day pop songs excellent. Any performance which includes an Ed Sheeran classic – Shape of You – is bound to excite an audience of any age and persuasion! Other songs not necessarily expected from a tango-inspired show, yet which work well, include popular hits Human by Rag n Bone Man, Seven Years by Lukas Graham and The Lazy Song by Bruno Mars, and are a hit amongst younger viewers.

Vincent and Flavia’s chemistry and professionalism during the duos is an absolute pleasure to watch. Vincent had not been able to perform in last year’s shows due to an injury but now he returns to top form thankfully, as he does what he does best. Flavia’s performance is particularly breathtaking and the intensity of the kicks and movement is spine tingling with the pair fusing together ballroom, Latin and Argentinian tango.

The pair are supported by a talented cast of dancers who mix street, hip hop, jive and contemporary to produce an energetic and entertaining story for the audience. If you are expecting to just see tango then this isn’t the show for you – you get so so much more. This is a show that showcases the talents of the written word through Tom Parsons, the incredible voice of Rebecca Lisewski who truly is a highlight of the show, the talent of accomplished violinist Oliver Lewis whose performance of the Flight of the Bumblebee drew gasps of surprise and received lengthy applause, many different genres of dance and of course the reason for this show – Flavia and Vincent.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

There are a couple of moments in the show that some may class as cheesy perhaps – the dancers coming out in wheelbarrows, shopping trollies and lawnmowers as an example – but the enthusiasm and talent make up for this and the point of their reflections are well understood and appreciated by the audience. I’m not sure it’s purely a show on tango – perhaps naming the performance Cupid’s Dance Moderno would be more apt?

Saying that, the classical tango finale is definitely purely tango in its truest form and worth the anticipation. A haunting and mesmerising dance showcasing our main stars’ phenomenal talent. The lighting is just right, the music is just right and the dancing and chemistry as they perform the classical tango has the audience up on their feet.

A wonderful show and great performances by a strong cast. Highly recommended.

Tango Moderno is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th March.

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: Grease at the Orchard Theatre

Grease is a show that needs little introduction. Originally written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey for the stage, it’s best known for the 1978 movie adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and has quite the cult following – at least if the number of audience members dressed as Pink Ladies and T-Birds at the Orchard last night is anything to go by. This is a show that’s known for its classic song and dance numbers, and on that score the latest touring production doesn’t disappoint; the band, choreography and costumes are fantastic and really bring Rydell High to life in all its energetic glory as Danny, Sandy and friends negotiate the perils of teenage romance.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Unfortunately, the production is let down by some underwhelming casting. The Wanted’s Tom Parker, in his musical theatre debut, looks the part and has the dance moves down, but his acting is at times rather stiff and his vocals are inconsistent. Danielle Hope and Louisa Lytton fare better as Sandy and Rizzo, but sadly none of the three really makes much impact, and they don’t even come close to the sky-high bar set by John Travolta and co in the movie. This means it falls to the other cast members, among them Tom Senior as Kenickie and George Olney as the Teen Angel and DJ Vince Fontaine, to bring the energy and steal the show – and it’s the big group numbers that really get the audience going, far more than any of the solos – though admittedly Danielle Hope does a flawless version of Hopelessly Devoted To You.

All that said, this is still Grease, one of the best and most popular musicals of all time (albeit with a slightly iffy message for the teenage girls in the audience, but we all know about that so I won’t go into it here), and you’d have to be made of stone not to be wowed by the high energy spectacle. The production looks great, recreating the quiffs and costumes we all remember – the programme informs us there are over 140 costume changes and 59 wigs in the show – to make sure we feel at home from the start. There’s plenty of cheeky humour too, though as you might expect in a 40-year-old show, some of the dialogue has not aged all that well…

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

With flashing lights and pyrotechnics, there’s a real party atmosphere in the theatre, with the evening frequently feeling more like a singalong than a performance. This means some of the dialogue becomes impossible to hear, but I’m guessing not many people are there for those bits anyway. Ultimately the show is all about the songs, which are as iconic as ever and ensure that if you’re a fan of Grease, you’ll almost certainly have an amazing time regardless of who’s singing them.

Grease is at the Orchard Theatre until 25th November.