Behind the Arras Theatre Review of the Year 2018 by Gary Longden

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Theatre continues to be very strong locally, both professionally, and amateur. I count myself fortunate to be able to see so much of it. I write almost all of my reviews immediately after I have returned home from a production, so as well as being factual, they are also an emotional response to what I have seen. It has been a delight to trawl back through those reviews for this piece, fond ( and not so fond) memories rekindled. The following awards simply relate to what I have seen. Inevitably others of merit will have evaded my critical gaze.
Derby Theatre continues to set the pace artistically in the region, unsurprisingly winning in the “Most Innovative Production” category. The Birmingham Hippodrome continues its position as the theatrical Dreadnought, putting on the biggest and most expensive productions on a stage that few in the West End can rival, Sutton Arts Theatre continues to be a beacon for amateur productions of the most consistently highest order, and I am pleased to report that the amateur Grange Theatre in Walsall survived closure due to building’s dilapidations and successfully reopened.
Show of the Year – Mathew Bourne’s Cinderella , Birmingham Hippodrome – a masterpiece.

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Best Pro Play – The Kite Runner, Birmingham Rep. Visceral, compelling, funny, and tragic, an international story that had me spellbound.

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Best Am Play – The Perfect Murder, Sutton Arts . A decent formula thriller lifted above its station by a superb cast, and skilled direction.

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Best Pro Musical – Spamalot , Derby Theatre. A riotously funny Monty Python outing performed lovingly by the cast, with the love and laughter returned in spades by an appreciative audience.

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Best Am Musical – All Shook up, Lichfield Garrick. I tried to resist Elvis’s music, I tried to resist the cheesy script, I tried to ignore the joyful dance numbers, I tried to stop my feet from tapping and my fingers from clicking. I failed.

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Best Pro Dance/ Ballet – Cinderella, Birmingham Hippodrome. An immense slice of theatrical genius in the ballet dance genre, by Sir Mathew Bourne, in which the Café de Paris is blown up on stage before your very eyes.

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Best Pro Comedy – Private Lives Derby Theatre. A trusty old war horse of a show, brilliantly reimagined, but faithfully staged

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Best Am Comedy – Boeing Boeing – Highbury Theatre, Sutton Coldfield. Amongst the best farces ever written, the company threw themselves into the show, the audience threw themselves around in laughter.

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Best Children’s Show– Morgan & West Magic for Kids, Derby. Children’s shows are tricky. The children have to like it, obviously, but the parents who bring them along, and pay for the tickets, need to like it too. Morgan & West delivered that crossover, delighting children and adults alike, in a period magic show which had me wondering how they did it- let alone the children!

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Most Innovative production- Two, Derby Theatre. The stage was extended and converted into a working pub serving beer to the audience and enabling the cast to interact with those seated around them. Brilliantly acted and executed, playwright Jim Cartwright himself was present, and declared it one of the best realisations of the play he had ever seen.

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On stage for “Two” with a working bar!

Best Male Professional Performance – From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, Derby Theatre, Alex Walton is stunning as Martin, a Bowie fan who follows in his idols footsteps to find his hero, and himself. A one man tour de force.

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Best Female Amateur Performance – Dick Whittington, Sutton Arts. Phebe Jackson as Fairy Bowbells. Her energy and singing brought sunshine whenever she appeared. Confident, assured and professional, she set a standard for the rest of the cast to aspire to.

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And with 2019 almost upon us the schedule for the year is taking shape. Torben Betts is bringing the dark comedy “Caroline’s Kitchen” to Derby in January, Mathew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” comes to the Birmingham Hippodrome in February, as does “Les Miserables” in April. “Avenue Q” tours at both Wolverhampton Grand and Derby. I can’t wait!

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Beauty and the Beast – Sutton Town Hall, Sutton Coldfield

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*****

The Beauty and the Beast story has been popularised in modern times by Disney. However, the original folk story, was written in 1740 and set in France, by Gabrielle- Suzanne de Villeneuve. Popularised in this version for pantomime by Daniel O’ Brien, it is a strong morality tale which resonates with children. It encourages its audience to look beyond superficial beauty and have empathy for outsiders.

 

Director Colin Blumenau does not shirk the French connection, even risking a few Brexit jokes, the best of which was that the audience split 52/48 percent on which character’s team sang the best- which was not sufficient for a decisive victory! The show is presented by The Production Exchange, and from curtain up the values of the production were clear. The single stage set was basic, but adequate, the costumes lavish, the choreography unusually strong, the singing excellent. Theatre has been performed on site at the Town Hall for at least a century , when productions used to be staged for World War 1 veterans. For Beauty and the Beast, the stage had been brought forwards, providing capacious space for actors and musicians.

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What distinguished this show was not only that there was a live band on stage, but that they also held principle acting positions, were multi-instrumentalists, and accomplished musicians at that. Seren Sandham-Davies as Beauty was superb on trumpet, sang beautifully and choreographed the show as well, I hope she picked up three wages!

 

Indeed, the principles were uniformly strong , Pete Ashmore excelling as the Dame. He eschews the camp, and instead plays a pretty impressive female as a man. Comic, sympathetic, but always lifting the energy levels whenever he came on. Playing opposite was Sue Appleby as the evil Enchantress. Dressed and made up like Siouxsie Sue from the Banshees, she took the boos and the hiss(es) as well as playing her fair share of music in the band. A perfect off-beat, villain, very effectively reprising the classic “I Put A Spell On You” to great effect.

 

Some pantomime companies cynically use children in the chorus to boost ticket sales. But here they were an integral, talented and disciplined part of the show. The Petals team were on duty for this performance and I could not help but notice the efforts of Daisy Violet Fitzpatrick who shone like the little star she is, her dance steps, movement and expression, impeccable.

 

The jokes entertained, enough simple gags to amuse the children, but with a sufficiently literate script for adults to be entertained too. I brought along Beau aged seven and Sol aged four, the latter for his first ever panto.

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Beau & Sol enjoying the show

They loved the section where the cast had a water pistol fight amongst the audience, with plenty in the audience taking a squirting too. Both halves lasted around an hour which was perfectly timed to retain the children’s interest. A song and dance were never far away to keep the pace moving . Producer Florrie Whilby has done an excellent job in assembling a first rate cast delivering a show which retains all the tradition of pantomime, but with some fresh ideas too, full of vim, brio and fun.

 

Beauty and the Beast runs until 31st December

 

Gary Longden

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Preview of Caroline’s Kitchen, by Torben Betts, Derby Theatre, 24th- 26th Jan 2019

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Strong modern comedy in theatre is at a premium. Ayckbourn and Benfield penned productions still endure, albeit to an ageing audience , drawn on themes which are forty to fifty years old, and feel it. Even the odd Brian Rix farce still surfaces from time to time.

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Torben Betts

In 1999, Torben Betts’s was invited to be resident dramatist at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre by Alan Ayckbourn. Ayckbourn in turn had worked as an actor under Brian Rix’s direction. Betts’ dramatic lineage is impressive. He studied in Liverpool, home of the best social dramatist of the eighties, Alan Bleasdale. Betts’ writing combines those former influences in comic farce, with the latter’s dark social satire.

 

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Caroline Langshire as Caroline

 

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                                                                                        Aden Gillet as Mike

 

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James Sutton as Graeme

 

 

Almost exactly two years ago Betts and Original Theatre brought “Invincible” to Derby Theatre. It was a fabulous production that played to deservedly enthusiastic audiences and reviews. From that cast, Elizabeth Boag, who played sassy dental receptionist Dawn , returns as does Alistair Whatley to Direct.

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Liz Boag as Sally

The remainder of the cast comprises:
CAROLINE LANGRISHE (Lovejoy, Judge John Deed), ADEN GILLETT (The House of Eliott), JASMYN BANKS (EastEnders), TOM ENGLAND (Death Trap) and JAMES SUTTON (Emmerdale, Hollyoaks).

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Jasmyn Banks as Amanda

 

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Tom England as Leo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caroline Mortimer is the Caroline of her eponymous kitchen, a kitchen to die for, or die in, during this contemporary piece which starts off as comedy before descending into tragedy.

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You can be assured of razor sharp writing, great acting and a sense that this is happening now. Traditional enough in format to satisfy the established comedy audience, sharp enough to establish a new one. Do make sure that you catch this on its UK tour prior to its New York transfer.

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Gary Longden

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Chantel McGregor – Flowerpot, Derby

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It has been a considerable length of time since I last went to a gig to see a headline artist whose material I had never heard. But my friend Gary, who had seen Chantel four times before, highly recommended her, and because it is a given that anyone called Gary has impeccable taste, I thought that I would go along with him to check her out.

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The Flowerpot is a great pub gig venue. Standing for several hundred, a modest, but decent stage, bar in the auditorium, and a knowledgeable rock crowd. I would guess there were somewhere between three and four hundred there, very creditable for a cold mid-week Thursday December night in the run up to Christmas, an occasion that merited a Christmas song from the band.

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Support acts are often dispensed with these days for a variety of reasons but tonight we had a man with a beard and a guitar, James Manners, to entertain us. Playing a short melodious set of originals, nonetheless it was his cover of Joe Cocker’s Box Tops “The Letter” which stood out.

As the house lights went down, first impressions were drawn. The band are a three piece, Chantel on guitar, drums and bass, the classic Hendrix / Johnny Winter line up. Chantel appeared in a Christmassy red long dress, and although of modest stature, no heels, preferring socks on a stage carpet for comfort. Attractive, and not at all sporting the rock/biker chick chic, I as still not sure what to expect. Then she launched into her guitar. My first reaction was “where on earth is that sound coming from”- then I realised, “from her” And there was no going back, two hours of originals, and I didn’t look at my watch once.

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Her voice is very distinctive. I spent the entire evening trying to think who she sounded like before I realised that she doesn’t, she sounds like herself. Capable of a Chrissie Hynde rasp, she also boasts the phrasing, looks, enunciation and softness of Candice Knight. Her guitar work was also similarly eclectic, a dash of Hendrix and Joe Walsh (think “Turn to Stone”) with phrases and licks that Tony Iommi, Brian Robertson and Jimmy Page would be proud of.

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A three piece (White Stripes aside) is pretty much the minimum rock combination. Each player is glaringly exposed in this format, McGregor has chosen her sidekicks well. Drummer Ollie Goss is impossibly cheerful all the time, and consistently demonstrates an awareness of how his drumming fits into the overall sound. Apart from the essential job of keeping time his drumming offers variety, and a preparedness to offer a tempo of its own, effectively taking the lead in a song sometimes, something you rarely see.

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Ollie Goss

 

 

Fop haired bassist Colin Sutton strikes poses straight out of Paul Simonon’s “London Calling” cover but offers textures similar to that which John Entwhistle offered the Who, with the difference that during Chantel’s extended improvisational work outs his bass runs are far more prominent, pleasingly so.

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Colin Sutton

Although the Blues roots are self-evident, this is a rock show, whose instrumentals and improvisational pieces hark back to 1970’s prog rock. Musically, she reminded me of Johnny Winter in his prime. It is to her credit that she performed as a peer, not an apprentice. Yet there are limitations to a three piece. McGregor’s song writing and musicianship are a given, and I did occasionally wonder what a keyboard might bring to both the stage sound, and her song writing. As focal point, sole guitarist and sole singer, she carries the show on her own shoulders might be liberating. Not that there was any sign of stress from her as she enthusiastically chatted to the crowd about her Bradford roots, her mum and rubbish Christmas cards.

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The audience was predominantly male, and aged fifty plus, which reflects the established market for this type of music. But such is her talent, energy and vim, that I do hope that she also draws a younger fan to her shows, producing a next generation of aficionados for music which she plays so well, and a genre which she re-energises.

 

Her 2019 touring schedule can be found on her website, an early highlight of which is her appearance at the HRH Blues Festival at the o2 in Sheffield, April 13th/14th. Check her out.
https://www.songkick.com/festivals/1420154-hrh-blues/id/33409029-hrh-blues-festival-2019#lineup
http://chantelmcgregor.com/

 

Gary Longden

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Dick Whittington – Sutton Arts Theatre

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****
Dick Whittington is one of the better pantomimes with a well known and coherent narrative. The show is written, and directed, by Dexter and Emily Whitehead who know a thing or two about pantomimes. They understand the formula, and deliver it. Pantomime is a special theatrical form, and a vital one. It is the gateway through which children are introduced to theatre. Done well, it produces converts for life. I brought along Harry aged seven, and Jacob aged five, as my expert reviewing team.

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The show is dominated by two outstanding performances. Phebe Jackson flutters and glows whenever she appears as Fairy Bowbells, her affected cockney accent and scraped back black hair remind me of Martine McCutcheon, whose voice she compares with very favourably. Her singing is fabulous, her Fairyness faultless. In pantomime good has to be countered with evil which brings me to the other outstanding performance, that of Robbie Newton as King Rat. His physical moves are always rodentesque, he spits and snarls his lines, and revels in his role as anti-hero. He had the good fortune to be playing to a Brownie Pack at the front on his side of the stage for this performance. I am not sure who enjoyed the experience more, but I would advise a check on the roof as it was raised several times by the intensity of the girls’ jeers and boos. Whenever Fairy Bowbells or King Rat appear on stage, the energy levels of everyone soared to maximum.

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Paul Atkins plays the dame straight, neither camp, nor overtly feminine, but with a great range of costumes and wigs, the latter of which may need a few extra hair pins for forthcoming shows. Comedy duo Billy Bottle ( Mark Natrass) and Sammy Sack ( James Hutt), and Amelia Farrelly as Sally Slack provide the slapstick which the children enjoyed.

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The supporting cast is large, filling the modest Sutton Arts stage. Sophie McCoy is fragrant and comely, as Alice, opposite love interest Dick (Tim Benjamin) who seems more surprised that he has become Mayor of London than Sadiq Khan was. Izzy Beardsmore commits to her feline persona as Tommy with enthusiasm and skill, Paul Dent is pleasingly paternal as Alderman Fitzwarren and forms a nice double act with Sarah the cook. Th hugely talented Suzy Donnelly makes the most of her cameo as the Sultana of Morocco, who is displeased to intruders, and men at that, on her land without good raisin.

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Having saved on licensing fees with an in-house writing team, money is available for a decent stage and quality costuming. It shows. Mark Natrass’s set is versatile and always convinces, the on- stage structural deterioration of the Saucy Sal being particularly impressive, and the costumes are lavish. The latter is particularly noticeable for the full cast song and dance numbers, the best of which was “In the Navy” – well done to the choreographing team.

 
The children loved it, all the traditional call and response sequences are present, the standard of production was consistently high. The show runs until 22/12/18, catch some of the few remaining tickets if you can.
Gary Longden

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Pete Shelley 1955- 2018 – an Obituary

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Pete Shelley in 2017

I am not enamoured by the grief fests which sometimes surround the deaths of figures in the public eye. The overwhelming majority of people will never have met or known the individual, their perception distorted through the prism of media, vested and self interest. Yet undeniably the odd celebrity death does catch you off guard, prompting a pang of sadness which was not anticipated. I felt thus for the news of the death of Pete Shelley.

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Pete Shelley 1977

I never met him. I never knew him. My first connection with him was sitting on the floor at the house of my friend Pete Kerr listening to the Buzzcock’s debut album , “Another Music in a Different Kitchen”. The cover was striking, silver with a picture of the band, the music fast and loud. Yet it was the melodies and sharp lyrics which impressed . They fused the energy and enthusiasm of punk with memorable tunes, some great one liners, and above average lyrics. Shelley, and the Buzzcocks were not the “best” or the “greatest”, but as an entity they were satisfying and fun.

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The Buzzcocks 1978

I saw them live at Leeds Uni in 78, supported by John Cooper Clarke. Punk was in full tilt with gobbing and missile throwing de rigeur. Memorably, Shelley was hit full in the face by a half full beer can during “What Do I Get?”, which I found funny and ironic, although he probably didn’t share the sentiment. It was a great show, brim full with excitement and joie de vivre. I followed them thereafter with admiration and enjoyment.

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Live in their heyday

Subsequently I saw them twice. First at the Market Tavern in 93. A dreadful dive, a music room in a run down pub. The place was sold out and throbbed with the collective bonding of fans and band, a memorable night. Lastly I saw them at the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton in 2010. Physically, Shelley did not look good, overweight and with a large beard, he looked like Papa Smurf, but the songs endured.


“Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with)” is a classic three minute pop song, bright, breezy with a memorable lyrical hook. “Sixteen Again” a nostalgic retrospective written when he wasn’t much older a splenetic explosion. “What Do I Get” epitomised the condensed musical excellence he specialised in.

 
He died only three years older than me. His passing evoking fond memories from both my distant youth, and the recent past. A friend described him, and the band, as “great fun” – he would have liked that.

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Hansel & Gretel – Derby Theatre

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This fable is probably the most well-known fairy tale written by the German Brothers Grimm, first published in 1812. Hansel and Gretel are a young brother and sister kidnapped by a crafty cannibalistic witch living in the forest in a house of cake, confectionery, and candy. The two children of course escape by outwitting her in a manner which will delight all aficionados of the modern story, and film, “Home Alone”.

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Mike Kenny is responsible for this adaptation, before him the tale was adapted into the now famous opera of the same name, in 1893, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
The original has an indisputably dark edge. However, rest easy parents. This production is light, child friendly, with plenty of song , dance, and laughter. I had a five and seven year old with me to ensure I had someone’s hand to hold if things became a little scary! We were fine.

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At showtime, the set designed by Neil Irish immediately impresses, but as the company arrive on stage, it is the work of Tim Heywood, Costume Designer and Head of Wardrobe which enchants and beguiles. There are Rooks. Lots of them. They combine an other worldly Gothic appearance, the males wearing large Georgian coats, with that of nomadic troubadours, replete with colour, sparkle, movement, fantasy and sheer joie-de- vivre. Always ready with a song to move the narrative along.

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The children, Hansel, played by the ebullient Craig Anderson, and Gretel, played by the coquettish Yana Penrose, start off spoiled, then become lured and trapped by the evil witch, before tricking her, resulting in ingredients not to be found in Mary Berry’s recipe book in the oven! It is a classic morality tale with a song and dance never far away.
Physically, the most impressive moment is the transformation of the deceptive candy house into the malevolent witch’s kitchen with its infamous oven…

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Christopher Price excels, as Ginger the Witch. It is a very difficult part to play, but he offers the right amount of specious allure to draw the children in, before morphing into evil, but not so much evil that it disturbs the children in the audience. He succeeds spectacularly with his song ‘Oh Boy’ the musical highlight of the evening. Five years old audience member Jacob muttered, “I hate you”, as the Witch tricked the children – Christopher Price will take that as the compliment it is intended to be!

 

Director Sarah Brigham has once again demonstrated her ability to mould a classic story for a modern audience, combining entertainment with jeopardy, to forge a hugely satisfying production.

 

Fabulous family Christmas entertainment with a proper narrative, edge, humour, colour and fun. Runs until Saturday 5th January.

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