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.

Advertisements

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

REVIEW: ‘A truly beautiful piece of theatre’ ★★★★★ Brief Encounter

When you watch the classic black and white film version of Brief Encounter you are struck by the simplicity. There are no modern effects or over complicated plots just a solid story great characters and a fabulous soundtrack.

And in adapting the movie for the stage Emma Rice has managed to perfectly capture that beautiful simplicity, with a breath-taking and visually stunning production.

The show has enjoyed successful runs in Birmingham and Salford, but now comes to London and has found the perfect home at the Empire Cinema Haymarket. The adaptation marries the 1936 play Still Life and the 1946 film, so a cinema feels like its perfect home. And as an added bonus, the seats are much more comfy than at many of the traditional old West End theatres.

And Rice’s meticulous attention to detail with this production will leave you on the edge of seat throughout. Every ounce of heartbreak and comedy are worked through to their maximum potential, with the tiniest little element pounced upon.

And the ingenious mixture of projection by Jon Driscoll and set by Neil Murray frame this ensemble piece with a clean, fresh and yet impressive backdrop allowing for some visually stunning set pieces.

The story revolves around a couple (played by Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon) who after a chance meeting realise they have fallen in love and begin a torrid affair.

But quite apart from the love story at the centre of the action, there are an abundance of incidental characters that take on a huge part, with the station staff becoming the stars of the show. Beverley Rudd’s blousy cafe owner and Dean Nolan’s stationmaster make a handsome pairing as do the young whippersnappers Lucy Thackeray and Jos Slovick. But the real genius is the fact that they also all multi role with lightning quick changes and provide most of the music too; a mixed soundtrack of classic love songs.

The clipped English accents of the lead characters and stiff upper lips are very of their time, but they actually add to the affectionate pastiche of the performances.

All in all Brief Encounter is a truly beautiful piece of theatre and a definite recommendation.

Brief Encounter is running at the Empire Cinema, Haymarket until 2 September. 

Photo by Steve Tanner.

good girl

REVIEW: ‘An outstanding piece of observational theatre’ ★★★★★ Good Girl, Trafalgar Studios

The funniest standup routines always feature material, which is relatable. There’s something very comforting about laughing at mutual misfortune after the event. The shared suffering evokes a strange kind of empathy, which is extremely satisfying.

And Naomi Sheldon has managed to completely capture this feeling in her one-woman show at Trafalgar Studios. Good Girl isn’t a standup routine, but more an amusing collection of anecdotes put into a one-act theatrical production. But for anyone who didn’t necessarily tread the conventional path as a teenager, the stories Sheldon depicts will provoke a fond and, at times, uncomfortable retrospect.

It’s a very genuine and earnest narration of a girl, who has often struggled to vocalize her frustrations and confusions about the adult world and as Sheldon is both the writer and performer, it is very brave to showcase some of the confessional material.

But what Sheldon perfectly portrays is the comedy and tragedy of everyday life. I’m sure most of us are able to look back on our teenage years and laugh at some of the woeful decisions we made. And judging how bad you’re feeling based on how much ABBA it takes to cheer you up is something I’m totally down with.

Good Girl is an outstanding piece of observational theatre that manages to find both the humour and heartbreak in our human experiences.

Good Girl is running at Trafalgar Studio 2 until 31 March. 

REVIEW: A ‘Feast of Fun’ ★★★★ Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Richmond Theatre

I remember my mum and dad watching the classic television show Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em when I was a child. And although I didn’t understand all of the jokes, I do remember finding it very funny, if not a bit strange.

The 70s TV show – by Raymond Allen – inspired Guy Unsworth to write an adaptation for the stage, which is currently touring the country and has brought some mayhem to Richmond Theatre this week.

The comedy play takes on a single episode in the life of the ill-fated Frank Spencer – played by Joe Pasquale. His ever-tolerant wife Betty has discovered she is pregnant and at the same time Frank is pursuing a new career as a magician. A cacophony of catastrophe ensues when his mother-in-law and her new beau arrive for dinner and the BBC turn up to do a feature.

Everything that can go wrong does; mother-in-law gets legless on homemade wine, the house falls apart and the dinner blows up, but the great thing about this and the original television series is the heart warming human story at the centre. We’ve all felt a bit like Frank Spencer at one time or another and Joe Pasquale does a great job of capturing the anxiety and sensitivity of the character.

That said, one of the things I remember so well about Michael Crawford’s portrayal of Frank Spencer, apart from the classic beret and trench coat, was the awkward physicality and athleticism and Pasquale doesn’t fully grasp the physical comedy side with his performance.

Sarah Earnshaw brings some real warmth and composure to the role of Betty however, while Susie Blake is absolutely hilarious as the rampant, sloshed mother-in-law. There is also great support from David Shaw-Parker as the kindly Father O’Hara, Chris Kiely as the wet behind the ears Desmond and Moray Treadwell, who dual roles as the pompous Terry Luscombe and slightly seedy David Worthington.

Simon Higlett must be congratulated for the set design, which helps to add slapstick fun and Jenny Arnold for the choreography; the final sequence with the three Franks on the stairs and the finale routine to Mud’s “Tiger Feet” are a real highlight.

I can see how this wouldn’t be for everyone; lots of the humour is a bit dated and rather silly, but if you’re after an easy night out watching amusing and familiar characters, you’ll enjoy this feast of fun.

Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em continues to tour the UK. You can find all the information and tour dates here.

the best man

REVIEW: ★★★★ ‘Thought-provoking and thrilling’ The Best Man, The Playhouse Theatre

We seem to have resigned ourselves to the fact that using drama is the only way to fully explore our feelings about politics these days. In fact within dramatisations you can often find a seemingly more politically stable world.

That’s certainly the case with The Best Man by Gore Vidal, which premiered on Broadway in 1960 and opened at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End last week.

The play, which boasts an all-star cast, provides an interesting insight into the American political process and despite being written over 50 years ago, it feels like a contemporary and hugely cynical comment.

Set in a Philadelphia hotel room, the play follows two candidates battling to gain the presidential nomination, with Bill Russell – played by Martin Shaw – the apparent front-runner. Shaw plays the smooth and sophisticated politician with aplomb and glides through the silky dialogue utilising the infamous rule of three.

His opponent is a much more brash and obstinate self-made man, played with grit by Jeff Fahey. The pair makes an interesting match and their dubious morals and political tactics feel frighteningly realistic. As do their first ladies – the stiff and distant Alice Russell (Glynis Barber) and the noisy Mabel Cantwell (Honeysuckle Weeks) – who the chaps only really seem to consider as mandatory accouterments.

Their only real moral guidance comes from the outgoing president, played with real class by Jack Shepherd and the forthright committee chair, who is given an abundance of perfectly timed caustic wit by Maureen Lipman.

Writer Gore Vidal, who stood twice for office himself, is acutely perceptive about the dog-eat-dog world of politics and The Best Man feels like an accurate representation, with just enough artistic license to make a thought-provoking and thrilling stage show.

The Best Man is running at the Playhouse Theatre until 12 May.