Paul Merton as Widow Twankey and Pete Firman as Wishee Washee. Credit Craig Sugden

REVIEW: “Another dazzling success” ★★★★ Aladdin, New Wimbledon Theatre

Like many people, the local pantomime was my first foray into the world of theatre and it’s a yearly tradition I’ve always tried to maintain. As the New Wimbledon is now my home theatre, it seemed only right to make this my first of the season.

They have a reputation for providing locals with celebrity filled Christmas extravaganzas and this year’s production of Aladdin is no different. Think dazzling sets, stunning costumes and even some amazing 3D imagery and you’ll be on the right track.

The star turns this year are a mixed bag with comedian Paul Merton, really just playing himself, but with notable expertise at hiding the grown-up jokes amongst the silliness. He is joined by recent Strictly Come Dancing contestant and boy band star Lee Ryan, whose portrayal of the eponymous hero is rather stiff. You get a feeling he’s not entirely solid with his lines, lyrics and dance moves for the most part. They are both completely over shadowed by the excellent Pete Firman as Wishy Washy, whose grasp of the genre is in every way a masterclass. His engagement with both young and old is beyond reproach and his natural delivery is in equal parts heartwarming and hilarious.

They are well supported by Linda John-Pierre as the Empress (stunning vocals), the Genie of the ring played by Cassandra McCowen and the delightful Lauren Chia as Jasmine, but the girls are really put in the background in this production. That is until the end when Jasmine proves she’s no pushover in a lovely modern twist on the story.

Special mention must also go to the thunderous Adam Pearce, whose Abanazer is a real ruthless treat.

This is another dazzling success from The New Wimbledon Theatre and a must for those young and old to see in the area over the festive period.

Aladdin is running at the New Wimbledon Theatre until 6 January. 

Photo by Craig Sugden.

Summer and Smoke at Almeida. Matthew Needham (John Buchanan and Patsy Ferran (Alma). Photo credit Marc Brenner. (13)

REVIEW: “Expert direction, stunning design and some truly wonderful performances” ★★★★★ Summer and Smoke, The Duke Of York’s Theatre

Tennessee Williams is know for his tense and invigorating work, but Summer and Smoke has never been held in the same esteem as his more famous plays like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. But Rebecca Frecknall’s production, which was a sell out success at the Almeida might go somewhere to remedy that.

And quite apart from the fact that this is a very different and fresh take on the text, it can mostly be attributed to the central performance from the outstanding Patsy Ferran. From beginning to end Ferran’s Alma, a repressed and confused preachers daughter, is a torrent of torment. It’s a hugely impressive portrayal, which makes the pull between high morals and adolescent desires obvious and yet never overdone. There’s just the right amount of subtle comedy pared with a wide-eyed naivety to make Alma easy to adore. She is matched well by a brooding Matthew Needham, who masterfully meanders through the complexities of the young doctor John.

And I must talk about the pianos, which form part of the set enveloping the action, expertly engineered throughout by the exquisite ensemble. I’ve never knowingly seen or heard the strings of a piano bowed before and the underscoring effect is both eerie and electrifying.

This production of Summer and Smoke really cements the idea that taking another look at texts that have previously been cast aside is well worth it. With expert direction, stunning design and some truly wonderful performances, this is a must see this season.

Summer and Smoke is running at the Duke Of York’s Theatre until 19 January 2019. 

Photo by Marc Brenner

REVIEW: A “cheesy dance-fest” ★★ Dirty Dancing, The New Wimbledon Theatre

I must one of the few people who grew up in the 80s to have never watched Dirty Dancing all the way through. I’ve tried to a couple of times because when you say you haven’t a collective gasp rings around a room, but the action has never managed to engage me for more than about 10 minutes. The live stage show would be different though right? Sadly not. It turns out that the reason I’ve never been able to engage with this widely beloved story is because it’s really quite naff! The current touring production, which is running at the New Wimbledon Theatre this week blatantly highlights the huge gaps in the plot of this cheesy dance-fest, while bizarrely trying to replicate the movie’s most famed scenes.

It’s a strange one; electric dance routines expertly performed by an exuberant cast, but woven together with some of the most awful script, direction and acting I’ve seen on a professional stage. I can only assume that the huge cardboard set, which enables the strange inclusion of the log scene is just to tick a box for fans because it does nothing to help drive the dreary story.

There are some good performances and both lead singers (who I can’t name check, because they aren’t credited properly in the programme) show some real flair, while Jonny and Baby, AKA Michael O’Reilly and Kira Malou, gallop through their numbers with verve, until eventually you get to the bit the audience has all been waiting for, the “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” lifting part. It’s only then that the auditorium really comes alive having been in that unfortunate position for much the previous two hours of not knowing if they are meant to be laughing at or with the cast.

I guess this show is for fans of the film and those who are looking for their favourite bits recreated on stage will get them. But if you’re after high quality musical theatre, you need to look elsewhere.

Dirty Dancing is running at the New Wimbledon Theatre until Saturday 24 November. 

Review: A “humorous historical harem” ★★★★★ Six at the Arts Theatre

I’ll be honest, the premise of this musical really didn’t grab me. A pop concert style show about the six wives of Henry VIII? I mean how is that going to work? Well all I can say is that it not only works but it is one of my new favourites.

Originally written as a student show by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, we are drawn in to a reality tv style competition between the “Six” to decide which one was dealt the worst hand.

We rock through Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne Catherine and Catherine’s tumultuous lives with the legendary king, while the audience is given some educational vignettes by the humorous historical harem.

It’s an absolute blast with funny and yet well crafted songs, performed with vigour by an ultra talented cast. Rock ballads and high tempo original pop songs are woven into a show, which eventually becomes a modern rallying call for feminism as the woman realise they are only famous because of their association with the infamous king.

This is one of those shows that will leave you uplifted and invigorated an absolute must see this autumn.

Six is running at The Arts Theatre until 14 October.

Photo by Idil Sukan

REVIEW: ‘No oomph behind the comedy’ ★★ Legally Blonde, New Wimbledon Theatre

There’s something so joyful about American teen musicals. And with the huge success of Mean Girls on Broadway and Heathers here in London, the fun & frothy musicals with a strong female protagonist at their centre are back with a bang.

But there’s one that helped to forge the genre forward when it first hit the stage back in 2007 and that’s Legally Blonde. The musical, based on the novel and 2001 film, became both a cult and commercial success and has continued to enthrall audiences on the amateur circuit. But there was still a hunger for another professional production, and with the UK tour in full flight and conveniently landing in Wimbledon, I thought I’d see if this hilarious girly musical still had what it takes to stand up with the new pretenders.

But unfortunately, with this production at least, Legally Blonde just isn’t in the same league.

The music, by Laurence O’Keefe, who also composed the score for Heathers, is catchy and lyrically hilarious, but there’s just no oomph behind the comedy in this production and the action feels far too slow and lazy. The cast are of a decent standard and Lucie Jones as the heroine Elle Woods is vocally superb, but without the pacy comedy aspect fully explored, it all feels too forced.

And the set design is of such a poor standard, you would be forgiven for thinking you are at a village panto; it’s all badly painted backdrops and clunky set pieces which further slows the pace.

Perhaps if you don’t know the show and are looking on this production with fresh eyes you will be mildly impressed, but I was just left with a feeling of disappointment.

Legally Blonde is at the New Wimbledon Theatre until 23 June.

REVIEW: ‘An absolute masterwork of drama’ ★★★★★ Pressure, Ambassadors Theatre

Now look, I’m going to be honest and tell you that when I first heard the concept for David Haig’s new West End play Pressure, it didn’t immediately grasp me. An adaptation of a true story about a weatherman in world war two didn’t sound like the type of thing that would get my stagey juices flowing.

But I’m happy to admit I was wrong. Haig’s play is an absolute masterwork of drama, with lovable characters, humour, and a really heart-warming storyline running throughout.

Set just before the D-day landings, we are flung into the planning centre for the invasions, which it is hoped will end World War II. The only problem is that the British weather, as usual is so unpredictable, it could be the difference between success and failure and the lives of thousands of service personnel.

So, General Eisenhower (played with absolute aplomb by Malcolm Sinclair) enlists a weather expert in the shape of Group Captain James Stagg, played by Haig; an intense, somewhat gruff perfectionists, who is determined that his theories are correct. They are assisted by general dogs body, but all-round wonder woman Kay Summersby, played by Laura Rogers, who as well as being a dab hand as a mechanic, provides succour for Eisenhour in an electric relationship. Rogers is a bit of a scene-stealer at times, so good is her portrayal of this strong woman, who yearns for the affection of her superior.

The story really is absolutely fascinating and I found myself gripped from beginning to end. Couple that with some outstanding writing by Haig, which brings out every ounce of humour and some truly stunning performances from the lead cast and you’ve got a winner with this one. Highly recommended.

Pressure is running at the Ambassadors Theatre until 1 September. 

REVIEW: ‘A born performer and all round entertainer’ ★★★★★ Louise Dearman, The Other Palace

There are few performers who successfully make the switch from West End stardom to solo success. Going from playing a part to exposing your real personality to an audience is no mean feat, but Louise Dearman makes it look easy.

In a one-off concert at The Other Palace last week, the singer, who is perhaps best known as the only British actress to have played both witches in Wicked, enthralled a near sell-out audience not only with her out-standing vocal ability, but also with her natural aptitude for comedy.

The show comes after the release of Louise Dearman’s new album. Entitled For You, For Me, it’s an album that is packed with some fantastic versions of some of her favourite songs, along with tunes that fans have asked her to perform.

Louise began the concert with a mention of the album and hilariously made reference to  the title sounding like the famous Chuckle Brothers’ catch phrase. And alongside performing a plethora of well-known standards, the songstress continued to add mirth between each musical gem, to a point where I ached from laughing by the end.

But really we were all there for the music and Louise Dearman showed her versatility by performing a hugely varied programme to perfection.

Musical highlights included a powerful rendition of “Burn” from Hamilton, a glorious version of Carol King’s “Beautiful” and a fabulous Donna Summer medley, which the enthusiastic crowd were encouraged to sing along to.

Louise Dearman is a born performer and all-round entertainer, whose solo career, will undoubtedly continue to soar and I’m sure I’m not the only person, who would love to see a return to the West End in the not too distant future.

REVIEW: ‘At times heart-breaking, but ultimately liberating’ ★★★★ Beautiful, The New Wimbledon Theatre

It’s easy to forget just how much impact Carol King has had on pop music. The composer wrote over 100 Billboard Top 100 hits. And the musical about her life and featuring some of her back catalogue became both a Broadway and West End hit. Now touring the UK and being staged in Wimbledon this week, the show hasn’t been pared down for the tour and with an arsenal of recognisable songs, still remains a fantastically entertaining piece of theatre.

King’s is a somewhat simple story in truth, a young girl who strives for musical greatness, but who prioritises love and family along the way. She is played with absolute charm by BrontéBarbé, who brings a real innocence and vulnerability to the role along with some truly stunning vocals. Her husband and collaborator is given a charismatic rendering by Kane Oliver Parry and the often fractured relationship sizzles whenever they are onstage. They are supported well by Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves as song writing contemporaries Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann and by a fantastic ensemble who energetically portray pop starts of the era from Neil Sedaka to The Drifters.

This is a great show for fans of 60s music and with a story that is, at times heart-breaking, but ultimately liberating at its core, remains a relevant piece of theatre.

Beautiful is running at the New Wimbledon Theatre until 26 May. 

Photo by Craig Sugden

REVIEW: ‘Some moments of real brilliance’ ★★★★ 3Women, Trafalgar Studios

With the increased discussion about what feminism in society, a play looking at its meaning to three generations of women is a brave study. And with Katy Brand’s new comedy you get an interesting insight into the journey British women have come along over the past 50 years.

In 3Women, we are given a snapshot of the lives of a baby boomer, her granddaughter, a millennial, and a member of the forgotten generation X on the eve of her wedding. It’s an interesting mix and Brand has taken the extremes and squashed them together in a sometimes-uncomfortable watch, with fractured relationships laid bare and parental guilt put on display.

But with Brand’s humour infused and some exceptional performances from the three lead cast, there are some moments of real brilliance.

Anita Dobson thrives as the hardened mother figure, whose constant disapproval of her daughter leads to some hilariously caustic one-liners, while Debbie Chazen plays the lovable bride to be with real charm. And Maisie Richardson-Sellers teenage swagger is brilliantly done.

There is however times when the trio feels a bit too caricatured and the story too contrived, but overall, this is a relatable play, with some very funny and clever writing throughout.

3Women is running at Traflgar Studio 2 until 9 June.

REVIEW: ‘A must see’ ★★★★★ Much Ado About Nothing, Rose Theatre, Kingston

As Shakespeare’s works go, Much Ado About Nothing has to be one of the silliest. But its simple, superficial characters and ludicrous storyline make it much easier to plonk into any setting.

And that’s what Simon Dormandy has done at the Rose Theatre Kingston. The production, which opened in the middle of a spring heat wave this week, is pertinently set at a luxury spa on a Mediterranean holiday island. Think MAMMA MIA! mixed with Made in Chelsea and you’ll get the idea. It’s all about mafia culture and the patriarchal society, which works extremely well as a contemporary piece, with the story, becoming a complex mishmash of romantic comedy and Godfather-style intimidation between warring family factions.

But it’s in the humour where this play will really win you over, and despite the occasional bit of over exuberance; the comedy is done with real flair.

Leading the way is television star Mel Giedroyc, who will soon begin rehearsal to join Broadway star Patti Lupone in the West Production of Company. And Mel shows her mettle with this performance, with perfect comedy timing and a good grasp of the character of Beatrice. She is well matched by John Hopkins as Benedick, whose clowning is excellent. But this is very much an ensemble production and from the dastardly Don all the way down to the lowly musicians every inch is wonderfully thought out.

Special mention must also go to designer Naomi Dawson, whose multi-layered set is awe-inspiring.

For Shakespeare lovers and theatre beginners, this is a production that’s a must see.

Much Ado About Nothing will run at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 6 May 2018