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.

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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.

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

Review: “This adventure makes a perfect night out” ★★★★★ Alice’s Adventures Underground

The Vaults at Waterloo are an unusual and pretty spooky venue and as such provide the perfect backdrop for an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, writes Nicky Sweetland.

Carroll’s beloved tale itself blends the fantastical with the sinister and Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground goes even further to establish a world where you don’t ever feel quite comfortable but at the same time totally exhilarated.

First performed at The Vaults back in 2015 the Olivier Award nominated immersive experience has received an overhaul and introduced 10 new characters and a different layout in order to make audiences feel completely submerged within the fairytale world from the very first moment they enter.

The bar area alone is a work of art, with a black and white forest and multilevel lounge area where you can sup on one of the specially designed cocktails. In fact, you can even buy edible cocktails if you are feeling more of an ‘eat me’ rather ‘drink me’ vibe going on.

Your penchant for consuming either liquid or solid is eventually how you choose your path around the myriad of tunnels and fascinating subterranean hallways, as after a brief mooch around the study – which is filled with so much detail you could spend hours pouring over the intricate design – you are invited to fall down the rabbit hole and select your pathway into Wonderland.

The experience you then receive is a mixture of theatrical performances, theme park fun and circus tricks, but all in perfect measure, so as to ensure the pace is always maintained and the 90 minutes flies by.

You can even join in with some crazy speed dating or have a game of Flamingo croquet in the bar afterwards to make the adventure last a bit longer.

Beautifully designed and wonderfully performed this adventure makes a perfect night out.

Alice’s Adventures Underground is at The Vaults until 23 September