Review: ‘An energetic and mesmerising musical treat’ ★★★★ Hair, The Vaults

Unlike other critics, I don’t have multiple memories of watching the rock musical Hair. In fact, my only previous experience of the show was from watching the film as a teenager and I was so underwhelmed that I have actively shunned it for years. But after hearing great things about Jonathan O’Boyle’s 50th anniversary revamp at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, the transfer to the Vaults Theatre became a more appealing prospect.

And packed into the dingy bowels beneath Waterloo station I found a show full of life. Performed in a semi immersive manner – the audience surrounding the playing area frequently makes up part of the action – the musical is executed to perfection by an extremely talented young cast.

Hair follows a group of disillusioned young hippies in the late sixties, who are struggling with the prospect of being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. We are shown the moral battle of one in particular, Claude (played with an extraordinary subtly by Robert Metson) who – along with his tribe of peace-loving friends – expostulates the merits of going to war. Should he be a patriot (and honour his family) or stick to his own guns (if you’ll pardon the pun), burn his draft card and stay in America to protest for peace?

The story is really pretty flimsy and the effort to bring it up to date with some audio of recent politics doesn’t really fit. But it’s the music that’s the real winner in this show and with a fantastic band (led by Gareth Bretherton) filling the dungeon-like auditorium with soft-rock melodies, you feel as if you’re in a trendy club. Songs like “Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In” are given a renewed energy by William Whelton’s electrifying choreography, which has elements of pastiche mixed with more modern movements to give an affectionate nod to previous incarnations.

And when it’s performed by the tremendous cast – with vigour and conviction – the result is an energetic and mesmerising musical treat.

Hair is running at the Vaults Theatre until 13 January


Review: ‘A fiendish feast’ ★★★★★ Young Frankenstein, Garrick Theatre

With the celebration of Halloween becoming more and more part of the British psyche the West End has really delivered this year with not one, not two, but three shows which are set to feed the insatiable hunger of horror fans.

For hardcore horror you’ll have to wait for the Excorcist to open at the Phoenix Theatre, but in the meantime you have two monster comedy musicals to choose from in the form of The Toxic Avenger at the Arts Theatre and Young Frankenstein just down the road at the Garrick.

Having been unimpressed by The Toxic Avenger when it had its European premiere at Southwark Playhouse last year, I decided to instead get my fiendish fix from Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein and I was not disappointed.

Lovingly ripping off the budget horror movie genre, the musical is based on the 1974 film and ran for two years on Broadway to mixed reviews.

But it’s been revamped by Brooks for the UK market and after a run in the North East comes to London feeling fresh and new but with the winning structure of a classic musical comedy.

Think Carry on Screaming with a soupçon of Me and My Girl and you’ll get the idea. There’s an abundance of near knuckle titillation and silliness, but with great music, a solid story and some utterly fantastic performances.

Leading the way is Hadley Fraser, whose Frederick Frankenstein (he’s very particular about the pronunciation) follows in his notorious monster making uncle’s footsteps with the encouragement of his henchman Igor, played by standup comedian Ross Noble.  You’d expect Noble to have impeccable comic timing but what is unexpected is his masterful grasp of the other stage disciplines. Their duet “Together Again” sets out the stall for a night of high-energy dance and song, which I loved so much, I would happily watch again this week.

They are matched with some perfectly pitched frivolity from Summer Strallin (the “Roll in the Hay” sequence is so wrong it’s somehow right) and a bit of comedy gold from a pair of stage stalwarts in the shape of Lesley Joseph and Patrick Clancy.

And then there’s Dianne Pilkington, who plays Frankenstein’s spoiled socialite fiancé. She may not be on much but my goodness does she take the limelight when she is with some stonking numbers including the innuendo filled “Deep Love” with the creature, which had me crying with laughter.

And I guess I should mention the creature, who is played so convincingly by Shuler Hensley that I found myself rooting for him in the infamous “Putting on the Ritz” scene, completely forgetting that there is a renowned musical theatre star inside the grizzly façade.

Young Frankenstein is a fiendish feast, which I would like to indulge in again and again.

Young Frankenstein is booking at the Garrick Theatre until 10 February 2018 

Review: “When Clifton starts to dance and you can feel a ripple of excitement reverberate around the auditorium” ★★★★ Flashdance – The Musical, New Wimbledon Theatre

If you yearn for the days of sudden saxophone solos, double denim and leg warmers, you won’t go far wrong with the new production of Flashdance, which will well and truly yank you back to the joys of the 80s.

Flashdance – The Musical is based on the 1983 film, which gained cult status mostly due to its iconic soundtrack – including the academy award-winning song “Flashdance…What a Feeling” – and raunchy dance routines.

Get ready for an enormous dose of cheese, but performed with so much energy and passion that you can forgive the superficial nature of the story and just wallow in the joyful exuberance of a high energy and thoroughly entertaining night out.

And one of the main reasons for the show being so watchable is its leading lady Joanne Clifton, who plays the steel worker-come-nightclub performer Alex Owens.

The former world showdance champion and current Strictly Come Dancing winner, shows her mettle, with a really breathtaking performance. You can’t watch anything else when Clifton starts to dance and you can feel a ripple of excitement reverberate around the auditorium. Her singing’s not bad either and fits well with costar Ben Adams’ classic pop vocals.

The supporting cast is also pretty good and Matt Coles’ choreography keeps an 80s air, without it feeling outdated. There are also some good comedy turns from Sasha Latoya as the sarcastic care worker and Rikki Chamberlain as the hapless club owner Harry, while Hollie-Ann Lowe puts in a great performance as the tragic Gloria.

This isn’t a show for anyone looking for any theatrical depth, but if you’re after a fun and frivolous night immersed in the 80s, you’re on to a winner with Flashdance – The Musical.

Flashdance – The Musical is running at the New Wimbledon Theatre until 7 October and at the Orchard Theatre Dartford from 9 – 14 October

Review: ‘You won’t find a more joyful show in the West End’ ★★★★★ Five Guys Named Moe, Marble Arch Theatre

I’ve got a lot of history with Five Guys Named Moe. I only went to see the original 90s West End production by accident after Piaf starring Elaine Paige was cancelled and I found the Louis Jordan musical at the Lyric Theatre as a last-minute alternative.

And it ignited a love within a musical theatre-loving, trumpet playing teenager, which has endured. The cast recording formed one of the soundtracks of my youth, so when I heard the Clarke Peters’ musical was to be revived once again; I couldn’t wait to be transported back to the magnificent New Orleans nightclub.

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This time a brand new pop-up theatre has been built to house the production, so as soon as you cross the threshold you feel as if you are in another age, with a band playing above the bar on a veranda and an utterly spellbinding atmosphere.

The auditorium itself is much more opulent than the pop-up theatres which were previously used up at Kings Cross too and if you’re very lucky you will be seated in the Bull Ring, with a conveyor belt revolve moving around you throughout the performance.

And what a performance it is, with the classic songs of Louis Jordan – who was known as the King of the Jukebox – expertly played by the onstage band and his clever and funny lyrics given the perfect voice by six wonderful actors at the top of their game.

Five Guys Named Moe follows the story of Nomax (Edward Baruwa), a chap who has broken up with his girlfriend, is down on his luck and has found solace at the bottom of a bottle. A group who emanates from his radio (Ian Carlyle, Idriss Kargbo, Dex Lee, Horace Oliver and Emile Ruddock) sets about changing his ways and saving him from destitution.

Classic like “Choo, Choo, Ch’boogie” and “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie” are given modern vigor with Andrew Wright’s choreography and the cast performs its socks off, leaving you with a sense of elation.

With its stomping numbers and hilarious interplay, you won’t find a more joyful show in the West End.

Five Guys Named Moe is running until 17 February 2018 

Review: “There’s a real classic in town” ★★★★ Salad Days, Union Theatre

If, like me, you’re a big fan of musicals, it’s likely that you will have a hit list of shows; revered masterpieces that you hope will be revived so you’ll get to experience them at least once, writes Nicky Sweetland.

Recently I’ve managed to tick off a couple (with wonderful productions of Side Show and The Wild Party) but with the return of the Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds’ Salad Days at the Union Theatre, there’s a real classic in town.

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The 1950s musical is well-known for its glorious and uplifting score, with songs like “It’s Hush Hush” and “We’re Looking for a Piano” immediately putting a smile on your face.

But if you look closely beneath the froth and frivolity you’ll find a huge amount of social comment. Written in the post war era, there are observations of the classist system and the pressures of entitlement as well as an insight into a time before the decriminalisation of homosexuality and all cleverly disguised as a kitsch and gentle piece of musical madness.

And it is completely bonkers. We find Timothy and Jane at the end of their university education wondering what the future holds, with overbearing parents breathing down their plummy necks. Timothy must find a job and Jane a husband, but after happening upon a magic piano, their fortunes take a different tack and a fairytale adventure ensues.

Director Bryan Hodgson extracts every inch of comedy from the script and, along with some vibrant choreography from Joanne McShane, there’s an addition of some jaunty innuendo to help alleviate the dated feeling of the action.

It’s magnificently over done, with Lowri Hamer steadying the ship as the enchanting Jane and keeping up the sunshiny pace throughout. Laurie Denman is charming as Timothy, although his somewhat cloudy diction does mean the dialogue is lost at times.

The musical highlight is provided by Maeve Byrne in an energetic Cleopatra Club scene and even with the ‘weird factor’ ramped up in act two (with the appearance of some aliens), the story is filled with touching subtext and intricate characters if you are observant enough.

Salad Days is at the Union Theatre until 9 September 

Photos by Scott Rylander

Review: ‘As good as it gets’ ★★★★ Evita, Phoenix Theatre

Society has long been fascinated with the wives of powerful men. From Lady Diana to Michelle Obama and now the Duchess of Cambridge, the beguilement continues. But it all started with a very special First Lady back in the late 1940s. Eva Peron was an iconic figure that rose from poverty to become half of a political powerhouse in Argentina before suffering an untimely demise at the age of just 33.

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The icon’s life was turned into a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1978 (the last musical the pair worked on together) and is seen by many as their greatest work.

Personally, I have always found the show a bit bland, with the discordant nature of the score and the reliance on the big song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (with continuous repeats of the hook) making the rest of the production anticlimactic.

That said; I always go to see a new production with an open mind and the revival – which first toured the UK before settling into the newly vacated Phoenix Theatre in the West End – has given me a little extra love for the classic musical.

That is mostly down to the leading lady Emma Hatton’s quite wonderful performance. Hatton is no stranger to big singing shows – having recently finished playing Elphaba in Wicked – and although some of the songs in act one fail to showcase her powerful belt, when act two begins, you know you’re in for a display of vocal virtuosity.

She slightly overshadows her costar, Gian Marco Schiaretti, with her stagecraft – although not in stature as he cuts a majestic figure. Schiaretti struggles to come to terms with the depth of Che’s character and his historical significance. Nevertheless it is an extremely charismatic portrayal and he does a great job of lifting songs like “Rainbow Tour” and “Goodnight and Thank You” out from under the continuous onslaught of the monster tune.

The other real surprising highlight – as you don’t think of Evita as a dance show – is Bill Deamer’s choreography, which is both intricate and interesting and adds fervor to the limited number of ensemble numbers.

Evita is a show that is a must see for musical fans – purely for its significance to modern theatre – and this production is as good as it gets.

Evita is running at the Phoenix Theatre until 14 October 

Photos by Pamela Raith Photography

Review: ‘Perfect for fans’ ★★★ The Blues Brothers Summer Special, Hippodrome Casino

Since bursting onto the scene in 1978, the Blues Brothers have garnered a cult following and fans of the fictitious musical felons will get some much needed summer fun at the Hippodrome casino over the next few weeks with a new revue show celebrating the colourful couple.

The tribute to the characters – invented by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi for their Saturday Night Live sketch show – features some sunshiny songs alongside the classic melodies associated with the pair, which brings an added comedy element. Band members parade around in inflatable water toys dressed in neon Hawaiian outfits and songs like ‘Tequila’ and the Motown classic ‘Heatwave’ are given an upbeat rendering.

Leading the charge with an energetic portrayal of Elwood Blue is Joshua Mumby, who shows an exceptional aptitude on the harmonica and gallops around for the full two hours with gusto. His high-energy work helps him to not be too overshadowed by David Kristopher-Brown, as his brother Jake, whose straight-laced delivery coupled with outstanding vocals threaten to steal the show.

They are well matched by both Helen Hart and Hannah Kee as the Stax Sisters, who as well as providing backing vocals, also show their mettle with solo renditions of favourites including ‘Respect’ and ‘Proud Mary’, while Arnold Mabhena (in a very dodgy wig) performs with fervor as both an evangelical preacher and as the soul superstar Ray Charles.

I have to say, I didn’t get most of the references, but the majority of the audience were obviously Blues Brothers aficionados who sang and danced along throughout and so the production’s one misgiving – the lack of context and narrative – didn’t matter to most.

The Blues Brothers Summer Special is an entertaining evening of music, which is perfect for fans.

The Blues Brothers – Summer Special is at the Hippodrome Casino until 26 August 

Review: ‘Stirring and affecting’ ★★★★ Yank! Charing Cross Theatre

The bravery of our military personnel will never fail to astound me, with the sacrifices made by so many during the two World Wars in an attempt to ensure the rest of us can live in freedom, something we will be eternally grateful for, writes Nicky Sweetland.

But there has always been echelons of society who have remained repressed and the bravery of the gay community is highlighted beautifully in James Baker’s production of the musical Yank!, which ran at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester prior to receiving a London transfer.

It tells a touching tale of forbidden love between two soldiers in World War II, a time when homosexuality was illegal.

We aren’t new to heartbreaking stories of prohibited love, but this is no Romeo and Juliet, with the untold story of gay military personnel (which is virtually untold) providing a stark reminder just how far gay rights have come over the last 50 years, but how much further as a society we still need to go.

In fact, in this country, despite the decriminalisation of homosexuality over 50 years ago, gay military personnel and merchant seamen could actually still be jailed until 1994.

It’s a somber subject matter, but David Zellnik’s gentle rendering of the story, in making it feel like a classic musical of yesteryear, means we are treated to a touching tale, whilst being left in no doubt about the seriousness of the themes.

And with Joseph Zellnik writing some glorious sweeping melodies for his brother’s lyrics to nestle in, musically it’s a real pleasure.

There are also some really poignant performances from both Scott Hunter and Andy Coxon, supported by an excellent ensemble – which includes the magnificent Sarah-Louise Young expertly portraying all of the female roles – making this is a show, which exudes charm.

It’s just the technical side, which lets it down a bit. The set is ropey – with flimsy flats framing the stage – and some of the lighting cues need to be tightened up to ensure the actors can get on with the job of telling the story without suddenly finding themselves in shadow.

That’s one of the joys of live theatre however, and with a show as exquisite as this, it’s really a minor misdemeanor.

This is a stirring and affecting musical, which is performed beautifully and is a real recommendation.

Yank! is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 19 August

Photo by Clair Bilyard

Review: ‘Utterly captivating’ ★★★★★ Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

Trying to get ordinary people engaged with theatre is a tough ask these days. With a squeeze on household budgets and a vast array of media available from the comfort of your own home, why would you spend out on a ticket to see a play?

If you throw in the word Shakespeare, you get a reaction not unlike that from marmite. Many will have been forced to study it at school and therefore either love it or hate.

Creating a production, which stays true to the author’s original story, while making it more accessible to modern day audiences is not a new idea, but how Robert Icke has succeeded – with his version of Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre – where many have failed before him is by reinforcing Shakespeare’s humour within the tragic drama.

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The production received a transfer to the West End following a phenomenally successful run at the Almeida Theatre and with its modern setting and stellar cast, is exactly the right type of stage show to entice in those who would otherwise not be theatregoers.

Obviously, putting a celebrity in the cast also ensures you will get bums on seats but this is no stunt casting of a famous face that is not up to the job. Andrew Scott’s Hamlet is both astute and infinitely endearing. As the prince of Denmark, who is heartbreakingly weighed down with the burden of grief following his father’s death, Scott oozes charisma as he meanders through the famed soliloquies as if he is making them up on the spot. Each phrase is perfectly pitched to ensure the verse never sounds out of date and with his passionate physical embodiment of someone who has suffered – with tense arm movements and a browbeaten deportment – his portrayal of Hamlet’s pain is utterly captivating.

He’s well matched by the rest of the cast too, with Angus Wright suitably hatful as the smarmy Claudius and the pairing of Madeline Appiah and Calam Findlay (as Rosencranz and Guildenstern) providing a welcome variation to the famous couple, while Peter Wight adds a great depth to the devotion of the blustering Polonius.

Hildegard Bechler’s slick design transforms Elsinore into a big brother-like state with cameras capturing every move, even the Moustrap scene, which is made all the more uncomfortable when the villain’s reaction is projected onto a big screen via video link.

Despite this being Shakespeare’s longest play, the production is so filled with magnificent performances that the three and a half hours flies by and I was heartened to see the diverse age of those in attendance. In fact, it’s the youngest midweek matinee audience I’ve been amongst for a very long time.

For a first foray into Shakespeare and particularly Hamlet, this is perfect, but even if you’re a seasoned watcher of the Bard, you won’t go wrong if you buy a ticket for this production.

Hamlet is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 September

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Review: ‘Genuine beauty’ ★★★ Voices of the Amazon, Sadler’s Wells

The fledgling theatre company, Sisters Grimm scored a tremendous success with their stage spectacular Inala, which featured the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo earning a Grammy nomination in the process. For their latest show, the company – founded by composer Ella Spira and dancer Pietra Mello-Pittman – has instead turned their attentions to South America for a dance musical which attempts to highlight the plight of the Amazon rainforest, through the voices of it’s inhabitants.

It’s an important, but tricky issue to tackle and although the production, which showcases a wealth of talent, has its heart in the right place, it never really delves deep enough.

Ella Spira’s music establishes a fairytale-like feeling, with Latin rhythms fused with soaring melodies and Kay Elizabeth’s powerful vocals harness the passion of the cause, while Jeremy Iron’s (in a prerecorded narration) guides the audience through the story of a water spirit who must find a cure for her dying sister.

We meet a menagerie of forest creatures along the way and Helen Pickett’s choreography, which is a mix of ballet and capoeira, gives some charm and humour to the animals whose future is under threat from deforestation.

It also contains a touching love story, but with a focus on dance and with most of the lyrics in Portuguese, it gets a bit lost in its endeavor to deliver the fable while attempting to maintain the moral message.

That said, the dancing is mesmerising and there’s a genuine beauty to the musical composition, which captures the magic and intrigue of the ancient forest.

Voices of the Amazon at Sadler’s Wells until 8 July 

Photo by Johan Persson