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

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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 

A wealth of young talent at Thomas Hardye School variety show

There was a wealth of young talent on display on Friday night in Dorchester at the Thomas Hardye School year 12 variety show.

Two teams of performers were given the challenge to produce an evening of entertainment, to raise funds for the next Rock Challenge competition, with the Blue team plumping for the theme ‘A Night at the Movies’ and the Pink team choosing to perform ‘A Night Through the Decades’. Each side was given a budget and had to source all of the material, performers and everything else that makes up a professional theatrical production.

The Blues were first up with a feast of film fun and opened the show with a rousing dance routine to the Austin Powers theme tune. Thomas Bastian made a dapper Austin Powers, while the rest of the company energetically supported him with some psychedelic verve.

There were some other remarkable ensemble numbers later in the programme too,  with performances to tracks including ‘Lady Marmalade’ from Moulin Rouge and ‘The Hanging Tree’ from The Hunger Games, both boasting extremely impressive choreography by Zoe Cochrane and Steph Wright.

Comedy was provided by some hilarious home movies and affectionate parodies of The Chariots of Fire and Shrek, with the small cast proving they were all versatile performers.

Other highlights included ‘How far I’ll Go’ from Disney’s Moana – sung beautifully by Georgie Harwood, with Jenna Taylor providing a graceful dance accompaniment – and a wonderfully executed tap dance to ‘Hot Honey Rag’ from Chicago.

Audiences were then transported back in time by the Pink team for Act two with a much more vaudevillian style show.

They were first entertained by some impressive singing from Susie Kibuga, accompanied by virtuoso pianist Elliot Warburton, before being astounded by some intricate card tricks.

There were some sensational dance numbers including a tap routine to the classic ‘Putting on the Ritz’ and to the rocking ‘Hot Patootie, as well as a hugely impressive mime by a group called Panic Button.

It was additionally a real treat to hear the Les Misérables classic ‘On my Own’ sung with the original French lyrics by Carys Evans, who showed an enormous amount of confidence by taking to the stage and performing entirely unaccompanied.

All in all this was an extremely well performed and executed evening of entertainment, which as the students go into their final year of studies, bodes well for them to have a future in the performing arts.

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

Review: ‘Hilarious’ ★★★★ Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows, Underbelly Festival

Finding the ‘Weakest Link’ or someone ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ among our British politicians isn’t currently a very a difficult task and in Jon Brittain’s new satirical show at Underbelly Festival, the Iron Lady herself is posing some tricky questions, for the baying hoards to enjoy.

The show follows the tremendous success of Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho and this time sees the former Prime Minister, played by Matt Tedford, enlist some unsuspecting onlookers to take part in classic game shows aimed to thoroughly dis the current political climate.

Writer, Jon Brittain, has had to rewrite much of the show, with the political landscape continuing in an almost constant state of fluctuation since the show premiered at Edinburgh last year.

Alongside some dancing assistants called Strong and Stable the frivolity is maintained as the NHS, human rights and, of course, Brexit are all given a good sardonic seeing to.

There are also some fabulous faux cameo appearances from Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage and Angela Merkel, but it’s the Iron Lady (complete with perfectly coiffed hair and the obligatory wrist mounted handbag), who calls the shots in this hilarious evening of merriment.

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows continues at Underbelly Festival until 2 July 

Review: ‘A hilarious celebration’ ★★★★★ Liza’s Back! (is Broken), Underbelly Festival

Being the daughter of an icon can have its downsides. Despite halcyon days spent living in the Savoy Hotel and touring the world, Liza Minnelli had a tricky start in life and learned early on that having Judy Garland as your mother does not guarantee success.

Despite the many downsides Liza Minnelli grew to be a stage and screen legend in her own right and Trevor Ashley’s affectionate takeoff of the star in his acclaimed cabaret show Liza’s Back! (Is Broken) is a hilarious celebration of the unique personality.

Trevor Ashley as Liza Minnelli

Ashley’s comedy drag show offers a musical display of such a high-caliber; you almost don’t need the quips in between to string the songs together, although lines like “From the waist down I’m a man and from the waist up I’m wasted” are suitably greeted with raucous laughter. Such is his vocal prowess; the impersonator embodies the star with a powerful and authentic sound, married with enough tongue in cheek humour, to keep comedy fans on their toes.

With many of Minnelli’s classics given a masterful rendering alongside other musical theatre favourites (including a wonderful melancholic mash-up of “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “The Wizard and I” to close act one) aficionados and new comers are equally catered for and are treated to a show filled with fun and even a bit of frantic dance.

Liza’s Back! (is broken) is at Underbelly Festival from 27 June until 2 July

Review: ‘A visual feast’ ★★★★ The Wind in the Willows, London Palladium

Us Brits are known throughout the world for our classic literature and particularly for the charm and simplicity of some of our children’s works, but it’s a challenge to bring the ever-so-twee tales up to date.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is quintessentially English, but with woodland characters rather than humans carrying the story, it makes the task of bringing the traditional riverside tale into the modern era slightly easier.

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And with the now well-established musical theatre team of Stiles and Drewe once again collaborating with Julian Fellowes – after their huge success with Half a Sixpence – audiences at the London Palladium are treated to a heartening family musical with humour at its core.

There is something for everyone in Rachel Kavanaugh’s production with enough slapstick for the little ones, teamed with an awe-inspiring set design from Peter McKintosh and an additional element of sarcasm (particularly from the excellent Simon Lipkin as Ratty) to entertain the more pessimistic theatregoers.

It’s not a show that caters particularly well for feminists however, with Denise Welch’s Mrs. Otter failing to add any girl power to the plot known for its boy’s club theme and a song in which Toad transforms into a women in order to escape prison is pretty cringe worthy.

There are however, some lovely little nods for musical theatre fans; you might recognise Toad’s Prisoner number, and the families of animals (especially the hedgehogs), are just so adorable, you can forgive the story for being a little pedestrian and staid.

Craig Mather’s Mole is wonderfully wholesome, while Rufus Hound plays the hatefully hapless Toad with a wealth of humour.

The naughty weasels, stoats and foxes – led by the rock star-like Neil McDermott – steal the show and it’s such a clever twist to have the foxes clad in huntsman attire.

This adds to what is the show’s real draw, as a spectacle, and together with an enormous steam train, which fills the stage to the meandering riverbank bedecked with reeds and rushes, this show is a visual feast.

The Wind in the Willows is at the London Palladium until 9 September

Photos by Darren Bell