Review: “Unadulterated escapism” ★★★★ Bat Out of Hell – The Musical, London Coliseum

Jim Steinman had a musical theatre show in mind when he first wrote the classic album Bat Out Of Hell and the theatrical nature of both the lyrics and the music mean the songs perfectly lend themselves to the stage.

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Although the story that’s been wrapped around them for the new musical is a bit flimsy, with spectacular staging and plenty of tongue in cheek fun, the result is an evening of unadulterated escapism.

It’s a joyful mix of power ballads and cheesy dialogue (also written by Jim Steinman) with some central performances that are so good, the dubious plot is somehow held together. You will, in fact, get so wrapped up in the spectacle of the show that you’ll almost find yourself believing that a dystopia in which adolescents are stuck at the age of 18 is actually a reality. Well, almost.

Andrew Polec’s Strat leads ‘The Lost’, a band of misfits rebelling against the tyrannical rule of Falco (Rob Fowler). Polec’s performance is reminiscent of the rock front men from yesteryear; a blend of Axel Rose and David Bowie, brimming with charisma and sex appeal, while smoothly meandering through the famed melodies.

The youth becomes obsessed with Raven (played with zeal by Christina Bennington), the daughter of the evil dictator in one those zingy love-at-first-sight moments, and decides he must liberate her from her prisoner like existence. The mesmerising chemistry between the couple makes their stage time a joy to watch and with just enough Addams Family like macabre humour provided by Rob Fowler (whose vocals are to die for) and a wine swilling Sharon Sexton, the action never feels too sickly sweet.

John Bausor’s set design is rumoured to be one of the largest in the world and in this instance bigger is definitely better, with huge futuristic video projections further giving a rock concert feel and some lovely little details – including a plunge pool amongst a rocky outcrop– adding to the overall otherworldly look.

As expected, motorbikes also play a big part in the show, but it’s a convertible car that provides the comedy highlight when it’s pushed into the orchestra pit, resulting in some of the musicians making a hammy exit across the stage with their broken instruments.

Mostly the songs bear little relevance to the plot, but they are nevertheless still extremely powerful and in act two the ensemble’s rendition of “Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” feels particularly poignant.

Yes, it’s formulaic and the ending is predictable, but in the current political climate, a show, which takes you away from the real world, is just what is needed.

Bat Out of Hell The Musical is at the London Coliseum until 5 August 

Photos by Specular

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Review: “An abundance of silliness” ★★★ Tape Face, Garrick Theatre

Fresh from a stint on America’s Got Talent, Sam Wills brings his Tape Face to the West End and with a programme filled with some of his most famous sketches, fans will be thrilled by the two-hour mime marathon.

The modern-day clown – who reached the finals of the stateside competition – presents a show filled with audience interaction and moderate humiliation, which includes an abundance of silliness.

Hip thrusting Grandads, puppetry using old shoes and games with Ping-Pong balls and bubbles are all part of the fun, but the unsophisticated nature of the comedy does have a tendency to become a little repetitive.

Despite a large piece of gaffer obstructing his mouth for the whole show, Wills is extremely expressive and he’s at his best when shooting disparaging looks at his volunteers/victims, when things don’t quite go to plan.

Lovers of slapstick and physical comedy will have a whale of a time, but those who prefer their humour on a more sophisticated level will tire quickly.

Tape Face is at the Garrick Theatre until 23 July 

Review: “Intricate drama” ★★★★ Punts, Theatre503

Like eating, sleeping and defecating, having sex is a basic human need, especially if you’re a young man. But when, if ever, is it appropriate to facilitate someone else fulfilling this need?

Sarah Page’s delicate new play Punts at Theatre503 delves into this question and also examines the transactional value of the act of copulation and its impact on female empowerment.

Jack is 25 and has learning disabilities. His parents feel sure his confidence and self-worth will be improved if he gets his end away like his brothers and his friends at the rugby club. They employ a prostitute (a punt), a hand-picked female sex worker of around the same age to do the deed, but the rendezvous has a profound affect on the family’s stability.

The intricate drama makes us scrutinize the question of consent; Jack (Christopher Adams) has an inability to read people and so does he really possess the power to say no, or have his parents, who are trying to compensate for their own relationship pressures, simply coerced him into losing his virginity?

The arrival of the lady of the night, Julia (Florence Roberts) makes them question their own intimacies and past decisions; Antonia (Clare Lawrence-Moody) had their son at just nineteen and so missed out on a university education and Alistair (Graham O’Mara) appears to yearn for the bygone wild days of youth.

Julia’s fiery independence also threatens Antonia’s very safe way of life in suburban London and exposes the inadequacies she feels as a homemaker.

Setting the play in an area of affluence is a masterstroke as it removes the idea that sexual transactions only occur in the more seedy areas of our societies and as Julia assures barrister Alistair “you’ve met a prostitute before.”

It’s a tricky subject matter, but Page’s play finds the humour within it, while adroitly examining the moral dilemma.

Punts is at Theatre503 until 24 June 

Review: “An insightful and relevant work” ★★★★ Kiss Me, Trafalgar Studios

Over 700,000 British men died in World War I. With an outbreak of Spanish Flu killing millions more after the fighting had finished, Britain was left with a vastly depleted male population.

The consequences of this devastating loss of life were felt for many years and master storyteller Richard Bean explores the terrible legacy in his play Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios.

We meet Stephanie (Claire Lams) over a decade after the end of the war, a widow who became a lorry driver to help the effort on the home front. At 32 she is seen by society as past it, but longs for a child and thanks to a fairly cloak and dagger scheme by a local doctor, is given the chance to conceive. She is visited by a travelling impregnating machine in the shape of Dennis (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) who has taken it upon himself to repopulate London because as he says “Turkey basters don’t work” and after fathering over 200 children, he is doing fairly well.

But the underlying reasons behind his sexual prowess realistically stem from his survivor’s guilt and in finding a kindred spirit in Stephanie, the purpose of his vocation is thrown into question.

Despite being set in 1929, the themes of human displacement and a desperate search for a reason for existence feel impeccably relevant. The nervous ramblings of Stephanie when they first meet – allowing too much of herself to be exposed and filling any empty space with meaningless chatter – is something I’m sure many of us have experienced on a first date. But, this is supposed to be more of business transaction and that further generates the debate over whether there is a difference between having sex and making love.

Bean has become more well-known in recent years for his crowd-pleasing comedies – including the hugely popular One Man Two Guvnors – but this return to small-scale intimate drama is a welcome one. His script is filled with amusing interludes, but at all times maintains an underlying feeling of desperation.

Claire Lams is totally captivating as Stephanie, cutesy and self-deprecating, while maintaining a forthrightness by illustrating the rise of female empowerment, something that was very much in its infancy in the 1920s.

Ben Lloyd-Hughes is more reserved and makes it clear from his stiff posture and stand-offish body language throughout that this is a man who is tormented by his past and is determined not to let anyone crack his armour.

At just 70 minutes, you are definitely left with unanswered questions and it wouldn’t hurt to explore some of the issue and characters a little deeper, but this play is, nevertheless, an insightful and relevant work, which is worth a look.

Kiss Me is at Trafalgar Studios until 8 July 

Review: “Musically this show is an absolute gem” ★★★★ Working, Southwark Playhouse

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Studs Terkel’s 1974 book entitled Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is on the reading list of many drama colleges.

Nina Faso and Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) first made the character study -which provides a fascinating insight into the lives of normal working citizens of America through a series of interviews – into a musical in 1977. Although it received critical acclaim and a number of revivals in the US, the production at Southwark Playhouse marks its European premiere.

In setting the consultations to music, Schwartz’s masterstroke has resulted in a further humanization of the subjects, with them laying bare their souls for all to see. With additional interpretations from updated interviews, provided by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, musically this show is an absolute gem.

Creating a musical with no continuous narrative is always a bit of a gamble however, and the pace must be maintained to ensure you don’t lose your audience. The lack of connectivity of the characters within Working, somehow makes the piece feel all the more important, as it reflects the feeling of disconnection to society, which ordinary working class people often feel.

It also helps when the cast is absolutely top-notch and all of the leads within this production showcase an outstanding ability to switch from comedy to tragedy within seconds.

Liam Tamne shows his immense versatility; having the audience roaring with laughter one moment and in floods of tears the next. He is trusted to perform the two fabulous new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, with a hilarious rendition of “Delivery” and an utterly glorious duet with Siubhan Harrison called “A Very Good Day”, which is the musical highlight of the show.

Peter Polycarpou gives an acting masterclass with a tremendously touching depiction of a number of more senior members of society, while Gillian Bevan extracts every ounce of comedy from the book, particularly when portraying a long-suffering school teacher.

Jean Chan’s set design is a tribute to the fact that Southwark Playhouse is built on an old car manufacturing site–with grimy floor tiles and a dingy back office and the oily residue in the seams of all of the costumes by Gabriella Slade, further adds to the celebration of the London mechanics of yesteryear.

It also feels very apt that six young performers are being given their first bite at the professional cherry in this production; mixing a youthful wide-eyed ensemble with a seasoned cast of professionals is a nice touch and gives further depth to the message behind the show.

Working at Southwark Playhouse until 8 July.

Review: “Will leave you dancing into the night” ★★★★ On the Town, Regent’s Park

In 1944 Jerome Robbins choreographed a ballet featuring three sailors called Fancy Free. It gained further acclaim when it was made into the Broadway musical On the Town and then a film version, which starred Jules Munshin, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

Robbins became one of the most revered choreographers of a generation when he went on to score further success with West Side Story and so it seems apt that Drew McOnie should be the one to revive his work at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

McOnie is following in his footsteps – or time steps – in becoming the most talked about choreographer in recent years, with his Olivier win for In the Heights followed by acclaimed productions of The Wild Party (which he also directed), Bugsy Malone and his company’s fabulous take on the Jekyl and Hyde story at the Old Vic.

Like with many of the traditional old musicals, the story takes a back seat in On the Town, with the dancing becoming the main focus of the show. McOnie has perfectly captured the pastiche of the piece by incorporating the Jazz dance style influences of Robbins, but with an added contemporary twist and in the big ensemble numbers you can feel the energy emanating from the stage.

Three young sailors land in New York hoping to find love. They embark on a search for a girl they have seen on a poster and along the way stumble upon all of the glorious sights the city has to offer.

Danny Mac leads the cast as Gabey – fresh from the finals of Strictly Come Dancing – and shows he is a real triple threat performer. His dancing has beautiful fluidity, which is disarmingly appealing. He works well with Samuel Edwards and Jacob Maynard (a last-minute replacement), who both give great performances and their relationships with the girls aren’t too painfully chauvinistic, as is often the case with a show from this era.

Lizzy Connely showcases her comedic chops as taxi driver Hildy, really lifting the spirits with her every entrance, while Sienna Kelly and Miriam Teak Lee help her to steal the show from the chaps with their fabulous dance numbers proving to be the most spectacular.

The joyful nature of the production is enhanced by the glorious amphitheatre at Regent’s Park and despite the slightly dubious storyline you feel like you’ve been on a happy journey by the end of the show.

On the Town will leave you dancing into the night and is a great way to spend a summer evening.

On the Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 1 July

Review by Georgie Harwood

Photo by Johan Persson

Review: “A long way from being a hit” ★★ Miss Meena and the Masala Queens, Greenwich Theatre

With the increasing recognition of the smash hit television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, the art of drag has become part of popular culture more than ever before. In a world of drudgery and disappointment, the art form offers an escape, not only for people who are part of the LGBT community, but for those who need some positives in a world filled with negativity.

For gay men from Asian families, drag offers a refuge and Harvey Virdi’s play attempts to expose the need for a change in perceptions and the importance of acceptance in all facets of society.

Miss Meena (Raj Ghatak) has hit hard times since the death of her partner and her drag club is going to the dogs. With dodgy businessmen and a conniving Queen trying to force her out, her only sanctuary comes in the form of wannabe drag diva Shaan (Nicholas Prasad).

Unfortunately, Pravesh Kumar’s production lacks any of the glamour needed to establish this as a credible drag world and with terrible wigs, bizarre musical interludes and some dreadful set changes, it feels like a tragically amateur endeavor.

The script is filled with clichés and any hope of examining the important story is lost after the first few lines, when you realise the subject is being trivialised rather than explored.

This could all be forgiven if we were at least treated to some fabulously camp lip-sync numbers, but apart from during the finale, there aren’t any of those either, just a couple of poorly executed Bollywood scenes.

The potential of this play is huge and the message it’s trying to convey is an important one, which makes this presentation all the more disappointing.

It could be saved by some rewrites and the addition of more music, but this show is a long way from being a hit.

Miss Meena and the Masala Queens is at Greenwich Theatre until 27 May

Review: “Powerful, yet perplexing” ★★★ Woyzeck, The Old Vic Theatre

In tackling George Büchner’s famously unfinished play, Jack Thorne set himself a difficult task. The playwright is no stranger to taking on tricky adaptations however, having recently scored huge success by collaborating with J.K. Rowling to bring Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to the London Stage, winning an Olivier Award for his efforts.

For his reworked version of Woyzeck, Thorne has chosen to set the disturbing tale in 1980s Berlin amidst the claustrophobic confines of the Cold War and with John Boyega taking on the titular role, the play becomes an interesting insight into the world of a vulnerable young man striving for betterment.

Sarah Greene and John Boyega in Woyzeck at the Old Vic

Boyega, who rose to fame after playing lovable Stormtrooper Finn in one of the most recent Star Wars films, is a good fit as the troubled young squaddie, whose childhood demons return to haunt him. Struggling to provide financial support for his partner Marie (played with great fervour by Sarah Greene), Woyzeck’s insecurities and traumatic upbringing eventually lead to a demise in his mental state.

It’s bizarre stuff and you might miss some of the hints as to what is to come within the nightmarish alternate existences. In framing the action with enormous moving chunks of wall insulation, Tom Scutt’s dynamic set adds further misperception to the seemingly ordered universe but it becomes an accomplice to Boyega by the end of act one, when the audience is left in no doubt that this tormented soul will further decline into a state of madness.

It’s a powerful performance by Boyega, despite Joe Murphy directing a display of so many stereotypical traits including foaming at the mouth and sudden outbursts of rage. The subtleties of his paranoia are well executed however, and you can’t help but fall in love with the doe-eyed dote and hope his impending demise will be halted

The undertones of the classist system within the British Army are also well presented, with the excellent Steffan Rhodri and his plummy accent making it clear who has the upper hand, while his nymphomaniac wife (Nancy Carroll) glories in her freedom and wealth, with no care for those living in poverty.

Powerful, yet perplexing, this Woyzeck isn’t a classic, but is nevertheless, a thought-provoking comment on the forgotten factions of modern society.

Woyzeck is at the Old Vic Theatre until 24 June

Review: “The musical really took flight” ★★★★★ The Color Purple Gala Concert, Cadogan Hall

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was first adapted into a musical by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis in 2005 and enjoyed a celebrated run on Broadway.

Following an acclaimed production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013, the show received a revival on the Great White Way and once again had critics in raptures about its heart breaking story and sensational score.

Seyi Omooba, Marisha Wallace and Rachel John

There have been rumours of a West End production looming, but so far nothing has materialised. Instead, producer Danielle Tarento decided to present a charity gala concert version of the show at Cadogan Hall last night and with a cast of West End stage stars, the musical really took flight.

The show was led by Marisha Wallace, who is currently alternating with Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre and after this performance, I’m sure a few more people will be booking tickets to see her. The American singer displayed an amazing ability to extract every ounce of emotion from the sensitive lyrics and her powerful, yet resonant vocals filled the cavernous auditorium with ease. Her rendition of “I’m here” resulted in a spontaneous standing ovation.

She was matched by rising star Seyi Omooba as her sister Nettie who also captured the very heart of her character, despite performing in a stationary position throughout.

Tyrone Huntley and Wendy Mae Brown

Rachel John, exhibited rock star quality as Shug Avery and Tyrone Huntley was excellent as the ever optimistic Harpo. Wendy Mae Brown’s raucous Sophia added some comedy to proceedings, while Cavin Cornwall was delightfully detestable as Celie’s abusive husband.

A concert version can never evoke the same range of emotions as a full show, but with sensational individual performances this came close.

The British Theatre Academy presented the charity gala to raise money for young performers who cannot afford to train in performing arts and seeing so many in the gospel choir exuberantly entertaining the sold out audience really brought home how important the funding is.

This story of a young girl who somehow manages to triumph despite huge adversity is still so relevant and definitely deserves another London run.

Photos by Scott Rylander

Review: “An interesting and inspirational piece of theatre, which you’d be a fool to miss” ★★★★★ Judy!, The Arts Theatre

Following a highly acclaimed run at Southwark Playhouse Ray Rackham’s biopic musical play about the Hollywood icon Judy Garland is back and has lost none of its charm, writes Nicky Sweetland.

The name of the show has changed from Through the Mill to simply Judy! and at the Arts Theatre, the performers are faced with a traditional pros arch stage rather than the thrust, which gave a real closeness with the audience when the show was at Southwark last summer.

Helen Sheals, Lucy Penrose and Belinda Wollaston in Judy! at the Arts Theatre. Photo by Lara Genovese

Somehow they have managed to keep an intimate feel to the production however, with everyone’s favourite ‘girl next door’ portrayed with such an astonishing depth, that you can’t help but be drawn in.

Rackham has an astute talent for layering stories, with his previous stage success Apartment 40C interlocking tales across decades. The interwoven plots within Judy! see three eras of the performer’s life and career, expertly portrayed by a trio of ultra talented actresses, who illustrate the star’s many struggles behind her successes.

West End debutante Lucy Penrose plays Garland at the time when she was given her break in showbiz at the tender age of 12, before shooting to stardom when cast as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. Penrose has developed into a formidable force since first being cast in the show and her every movement and facial expression are perfectly pitched to exude the essence of the young star without it being an impersonation.

Belinda Wollaston gets possibly the most difficult task when giving us Judy in her Palace Theatre Days, a time when at the age of 29, she was already seen by many as being past her best. Wollaston’s sensitive and impassioned performance – particularly when delivering her Palace Medley – is simply breathtaking.

Not to be outdone by her younger cohorts, Helen Sheals also unleashes some powerhouse vocals to play CBS Judy, bringing a huge dose of humour balanced with fragility to the well-known star.

This is billed as a play with music (rather than a musical) and the emphasis is very much on the intricate and well-timed dialogue, but when the famous standards – including “Get Happy” and “The Man that Got Away” – do come along, my goodness do they bring the house down, with each of the Judys giving momentous and inspiring renditions.

There are also some impressive performances by the supporting cast, with Perry Meadowcroft as George Schlatter and Carmella Brown as Judith Kramer, ensuring it’s not just the ‘Talent’ that takes the limelight and with each ensemble member doubling up as the house band, there is a wonderful sense of support and camaraderie, which emanates from the stage.

Judy! is a heartwarming show about a much-loved legend played with aplomb by a hugely talented cast. If you’re a fan of Judy Garland, it’s a must see, but even if you’re not, this is an interesting and inspirational piece of theatre, which you’d be a fool to miss.

Judy! is at the Arts Theatre until 17th June 2017.