Review: Hair at the Orchard Theatre

When it was first performed 50 years ago, Hair caused quite a stir with its profanity, depictions of drug use and full frontal nudity. These days it’s far less shocking, but still raises an eyebrow or two with its extensive list of pre-show warnings (it’s the first – and quite possibly last – time I’ve ever seen a notice on the door alerting me to “a 20-minute UV sequence”) and even in these more liberal times, it’s still not a show I’d recommend if you’re easily offended. But there’s no question that this 50th anniversary tour is a very strong production, which explodes on to the Orchard stage in a psychedelic showcase of spectacular vocal and visual talent. And songs. A lot of songs.

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair is set in 1960s New York and invites us into the world of “the tribe”, a group of long-haired, peace-loving hippies who take a lot of drugs, have a lot of sex, and ultimately take to the streets in protest against the war in Vietnam. One of their number, Claude (Paul Wilkins), becomes torn between staying true to the pacifist views he shares with his friends and burning his draft card in protest, and the expectation of society and his conservative parents that he go and fight for his country.

A large proportion of Act 1 is taken up by introducing the characters and their way of life; it’s not so much a plot as a picture, which forms piece by piece as each member of the group has their moment in the spotlight. Among them are Berger (Jake Quickenden), who within minutes is running around in the audience wearing a very skimpy loin cloth and not a lot else; Sheila (Daisy Wood Davis), the group’s most outspoken political protester; Jeanie (Alison Arnopp), who’s pregnant and in love with Claude; Woof (Bradley Judge), who’s in love with Mick Jagger… Everyone has their part to play – and although in Act 2 Claude emerges as the story’s central character, the show is performed throughout by a well-honed and seamless ensemble.

While the almost total absence of a coherent plot won’t be to everyone’s taste, one thing that can’t be denied is the quality of the performances. The vocally demanding score – which features an unusually large number of songs, including timeless favourites I Got Life, Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In – proves no match for either Gareth Bretherton’s on-stage band or the fourteen-strong cast. The latter in particular seem utterly unfazed by the high notes, the tongue-twisting lyrics or the fact that they often have to tackle both whilst jumping up and down, lying on the floor, or stark naked (although in fairness, that only happens once and you don’t really see anything).

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

As we were leaving, my friend said that she thought Hair was “of its time” – but I’m not sure I agree. While the set, costumes and characters are very obviously from the 60s and the story speaks about a specific moment in American history and culture, the idea of a nation divided and the responsibility we all have to speak out against injustice and toxic nationalism is, depressingly, as topical now as it’s ever been. So maybe what’s most shocking about Hair isn’t the nudity or the drugs, but the fact that 50 years have passed and nothing’s really changed.

Hair is at the Orchard Theatre until 18th May, then continues on tour.

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: 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.