Sutton Arts Preview 2019/20 Season

 

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Sutton Arts have announced their 2019/20, 75th anniversary, programme. Invariably they produce a thought provoking combination of hidden gems, much loved standards, and the quirky.They have excelled once again. Here is a preview of the treats in store.

Absolute Hell

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Sutton Arts have not bothered to save their best for last, but instead laid down a marker by producing it first.

 
This is a brilliant choice by a relatively forgotten talent, Rodney Ackland, who died in 1991. He was a part Jewish, English playwright, actor, theatre director and screenwriter.
Ackland worked with Alfred Hitchcock, first as an actor, then as a screenwriter, collaborating with him on London fog-bound thriller Number Seventeen .

 
Originally entitled “ The Pink Room”, premiered in 1952, it failed first time round. Rewritten, and retitled , it enjoyed considerable success due to its salacious content. A large cast is provided for, black marketeers, bohemians, gays, artists down on their luck and kept socialites. Character acting opportunities abound. There is even a tyrannical theatre critic – I may well audition. The fabric of the Club is falling to bits – the set team can take a night off.

 

 

Will the director opt for the Weimar feel of Cabaret, or the intellectually foppish world of Freud and Bacon? The Club “La Vie En Rose” is loosely based on Muriel Belcher’s Colony Rooms. Will the producer resist Edith Piafs’s rendition of the eponymous standard? Grace Jones’s perhaps? Go on – I dare you!

 
The script is verbose, misogynistic and crude – and with a running time of about three hours, including a fifteen minute interval and a five minute pause, lengthy. The audience will need stamina as well as a soft cushion. It is also quite static. But at its best it is a heady feast of post-war Soho decadence in bomb-blasted London. A place where members drink into the morning , of lost souls, and bruised lovers. Its content and language , was condemned as ‘a libel on the British people’ when first performed in 1952. Sixty -eight years later how will it look?

 
Towards the end of the play a guest at club in waves a gun above his head. “You’ll never escape!” he yells. Let’s hope the audience do not feel the same for this opus.

 
The play begins in the last days of World War II. London has endured the Blitz, and rationing continues to contract the menu at La Vie en Rose. Around club owner Christine Foskett’s club, artists mix with servicemen, black market dealers and prostitutes, one of whom silently circumnavigates the stage. Boho in Soho. Christine’s American lover has recently abandoned her, and she finds solace in failed writer Hugh Marriner.

 
Sutton Arts took on a huge risk last season with “Jerusalem” – and triumphed. The challenge in “Absolute Hell” is that Ackland asks us to care for people who do not care for each other. I saw the National Theatre production last year. It divided opinion savagely. Will the producer make the production sleazy enough? Will the running time be cut? Will the cast be big enough ( and interesting enough) to counterbalance an essentially slow play?

 
The theatre has taken a chance with this, go and see it, and love it or hate it.

 
Sleuth

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I first saw this as a play in the West End in the early 70’s, it was one of the first stage shows my parents ever took me to. I was enthralled, as I was by the 1972 film starring Michael Caine. It has subsequently been remade for cinema twice.

 

 

Playwright Anthony Shaffer’s script is tight, the mystery and suspense expertly presented. It is set in the Wiltshire manor house of Andrew Wyke, a murder/ mystery author. Wyke’s home is a temple to his obsession with the inventions and deceptions of fiction and his fascination with games and game-playing. He lures his wife’s lover, Milo Tindle, and convinces him to stage a robbery of her jewellery. Thereafter, what is real, and what is imagined, tantalises the audience. It is said that the composer Stephen Sondheim, a friend of Shaffer, who also had a fascination for illusion and mystery, was the inspiration for the play.

 

 

This will delight the murder mystery crowd and draw new admirers to this finely crafted work.
Wizard of Oz

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I was a child. We were living in America. Christmas was coming, The snow was falling thick and fast outside, then this enthralling story set in Kansas unfolded before my eyes. I was hooked. The magic of this story has never left for me.

 
A departure from the straight forwards pantomime of recent years, nonetheless this will not disappoint.

 
I bet Emily and Dexter will have a miniature witch scuttling along the wire over the auditorium…

 
A success as certain as Santa’s arrival on the 25th.

 

 

Absurd Person Singular

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Alan Ayckbourn is a consummate, hugely successful, playwright. He understands the craft of comedy and farce as well as anyone. He does not write for posterity, he writes for a living, and has earned well out of it. His heyday was the 1970’s, but he was also prolific in the 60’s and 80’s. He was very good at writing about “now”.

 
That now has passed. The now of “The Good Life”, “ It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”, Love they Neighbour” “Are You Being Served”. The relationship neuroses which he specialises in are from a different time . That is no sleight on his writing. Its success was its contemporaneity , not its enduring statement on life and love.

 
There are excellent modern comedies being written by the likes of Torben Betts. “Invincible” (2014) is superb, “Caroline’s Kitchen” (2019) a joy. Betts is himself a disciple of Ayckbourn. It would be good for the Committee to look forwards, and not back, for this genre

 
Sutton Arts have wisely drafted in the master of comedy, Barrie Aitchison, to realise this production. He will not let anyone down.

 

 

An Ideal Husband

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Oscar Wilde plays are a challenge. If you ham them up, they become too smug and arch, played straight, they can be laboured and drawn out. Fortunately, alongside “The Importance of Being Earnest” this is in the top two of his most produced plays.

 
The action is set in London, in “the present”, and takes place over the course of twenty-four hours. Will the Director elect to present this in contemporary 21st century style?

 
He started writing it in the summer of 1893,at Goring-on-Thames, where the pop singer George Michael used to live, after which he named the character Lord Goring.

 
After opening on 3 January 1895, the play continued for 124 performances. But In April of the same year, Wilde was arrested for gross indecency and his name was publicly removed from the play.

 
It is a tale of blackmail and political corruption, public and private honour. “Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do.”

 
Would a man marry a woman he did not love simply to protect a friend, or keep a confidence? Today that would be unlikely, but for the original audiences of “An Ideal Husband,” it was plausible enough amid an array of misunderstandings.

 
Goring declares, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance”. Occasionally the lengthy script, which can run to three hours, does become self- obsessed, but Wilde is such a good writer that it does not matter.
The Deep Blue Sea

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A stunning choice.

 
Written by Terence Rattigan in 1952, the story and characters are based upon his secret relationship with Kenny Morgan, and the aftermath following the end of their relationship.

 
Taking place over the course of one day, the play begins with the discovery of Hester Collyer in her flat by her neighbours, after Hester has failed in an attempt to commit suicide by gassing herself.

 
What distinguishes this play is its exploration of the inequality of passion, and its signature, quintessentially British understatement.

 
The characters are brilliantly written, the part of Collyer should have every actress in North Birmingham and South Staffs hammering at the door to claim.

 
With the right cast it could be the hit of the season. Highly recommended.

 
Company

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This is a left field selection. A revival of a show first performed in 1970 featuring a series of vignettes on love and marriage, not a linear story. It can be seen either as unforgivably bitty, or bravely surreal in its disregard for the conventions of Broadway musical. Its episodic storytelling gives great scope for the wit and neurotic comedy of Sondheim. However its narrative strength, where it exists, is in the unbearable loneliness of urban life, where everyone talks incessantly and nobody listens. Something which Neil Tennant, lyricist with 80’s band the Pet Shop Boys, a huge Sondheim fan, revisited in some of his own songs.

 
Although the libretto will divide, the score will not. I agree with those who believe this to be Stephen Sondheim’s finest music.

 
“The Little Things You Do Together” and “Getting Married Today” are sublime, even if we have insufficient time to develop warmth for the characters themselves. Listen out for     “ Getting Married Today” ,” Ladies Who Lunch” and, at the end, when Evans sings the spine-tingling “Being Alive”. human race.

 
It will be interesting to see whether the Director gives this a 1960’s feel, as per the original, or brings it up to the present.

 

 
There is so much to look forwards to for this season, for dates and booking:
http://www.suttonartstheatre.co.uk/

 

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1984 – Derby Theatre

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George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. Seventy years on Derby University productions have rebooted the story for the 21st Century. The undergraduates have produced every aspect of the show with the only external direction coming from co-directors, Theatre Arts Lecturer, Amanda Wallace, and Artistic Director, Sarah Brigham.

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A quirk of fate sees the production taking place thirty five years after the title date, which was itself thirty five years after when it was written, in a slice of auspicious synchronicity.

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The stage adaptation is by Nick Lane an actor turned director, as well as playwright. From 2006-2014 he was the Associate Director and Literary Manager of Hull Truck Theatre, a company with which he has had a long association and with whom he shares a connection with Derby Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sarah Brigham.

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No production of 1984 could omit Orwell’s ubiquitous political slogans, this one uses them well. They loom all over the stage on giant screens, omnipresent, omniscient augmented by wall posters. Big Brother is everywhere. Tom Bathurst’s work as video and projection designer is impressive, the screens at various times sending out messages, watching, and live action interface in Room 101.

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Chelsea Forde, is superb as Julia, the female lead in a story in which women fight to make their mark. Fey, but confident and self- assured, she draws the audience to her as surely as she lures the affections of Winston.

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Director Amanda Wallace redresses the book’s gender imbalance on stage by creating a six strong female chorus of narrators, an innovative idea which works commendably in bridging the gaps between a three hundred page book and a two hour stage production. Shania Waterson stood out, providing another strong female presence. They played a vital role in injecting volume, pace, energy, jeopardy, and a visceral presence, particularly in the memorable “Five Minute Hate” sequence

 

 
Ewan McConnachie plays an intense, reflective, neurotic Winston, in a role now laden with the reality of 21st Century surveillance. It builds to a cataclysmic climax in his betrayal of Julia. His nemesis, the spy O’Brien, is memorably portrayed by Robert Boyle with sinuous malevolence.

 

 
The first act sets the scene, the second is where the narrative unfolds, the highlight of which is unquestionably Winston’s confrontation with rats in Room 101, skilfully utilising multi- media to great effect. Dominic Murray’s lighting design was monochromatic and powerful in white light. Jordan Stych’s sound sparse, but always complimentary. A single, two tier, stage set , designed by Jude Martin, functions well. The bedroom doubles into a torture chamber, a nice twist on the banning of sex – and beware naff hanging picture frames.

 

 
Costumier Emma Jayne Smith decided that any female hairstyle would do, so long as it was a blonde ponytail, a commitment which even Robert Boyle entered into. Boiler suits, and buttoned blousons created a uniform which were enormously effective visually, blending perfectly with the live action screens to chilling totalitarian effect.

 

 
Thematically the story fits perfectly into the 21st Century present .The three word slogans such as “Ignorance is strength” and “Freedom is Slavery” will be familiar to watchers of Trump, and “Build that Wall”, and Brexit with “Leave Means Leave”. Fake news abounds. Winston is coerced into declaring that four is five as nonsensically as our Parliament was recently confronted with the idea that an old deal was a new deal. The only difference being in O’Brien’s success with electric torture.

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This is a hugely rewarding production. Inevitably 1984 cognoscenti will argue about the minutiae of the page to stage adaptation. The second half is more satisfying than the first, but the overall result more than does justice to the book with every member of the cast enthusiastically contributing to a weighty and substantial whole. Ends Saturday 25/ 5/19.
Gary Longden

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1984 – Derby Theatre Preview, Opens Fri 24th May, 2019

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1984 – Friday 24th and Sat 25th May, 2019

Any piece of writing, or film, about the future inevitably meets its day of reckoning, when the future becomes the present. 1984 was first published in 1949, thirty-five years prior to the title date. We are now thirty- five years after that title date. A quirk of auspicious, serendipitous, synchronicity for this new production of Orwell’s masterpiece by the Contemporary Theatre students, Derby University productions.

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Tech work in rehearsal for the show

Behind the Arras was privileged to meet the production team and cast, as rehearsals for the show reached their climax. It is a measure of the credibility of Derby’s Artistic Director Sarah Brigham, and Director Amanda Wallace, that they secured the rights to put on the play, adapted and written by Nick Lane, from the notoriously demanding Rights Holders.

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The stage under construction

Lane is an actor turned director, as well as playwright. From 2006-2014 he was the Associate Director and Literary Manager of Hull Truck Theatre, a company with which he has had a long association and with whom he shares a connection with Sarah Brigham.

Sarah Brigham

Sarah Brigham

Sarah and Amanda were at pains to emphasise that the power and importance of this production is that it is the student’s show which aims to educate, inform and entertain a fresh audience. The young actors are responding to a historic piece about the future, now. The set design is also student produced, complete with screens for the slogans, which have now entered the English Language in their own right ( Big Brother is Watching You), and audio visual backdrops.

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The cast in rehearsal

Orwell wrote the book in Jura, a remote Scottish island, whilst recovering from tuberculosis, at the end of the Second World War. A time when the Nagasaki and Hiroshima nuclear bombs threatened global apocalypse, and the world was dominated by men, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, the great war victors. Chelsea Forde, who plays Julia, emphasised her determination to put a 20th century female imprint on her role for a story in which the other female characters fight for prominence.

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Director Amanda Wallace

Director Amanda has sought to redress this gender imbalance by creating an all- female team of narrators amongst the fifteen strong cast who also serve to inject energy and colour into a sometimes otherwise bleak dystopian vision. She commented that the book transfers to stage well, three hundred pages condensed to a running time of around two hours.
Ewan McConnachie plays Winston, and observed that the future Orwell warned about is the reality for young people now, with twenty- four hour surveillance, ubiquitous CCTV, and computer farming of users data the norm. He commented that for a 21st Century audience the story, as warning, is as relevant now, as it was then. But now it is as much about complacency with what is here now, as about what is to come.
Some stories beg for re-evaluation and reinterpreting. 1984 is one of them. How does the imagined world of Winston Smith, and his choices, shape up seventy years later? Is the spy O’Brien irredeemably malevolent, or is he too a victim? How would Feminism shape Julia’s outlook? I cannot wait to have these, and other, questions answered when the show opens on Friday 24th May. Thanks to Sarah Brigham and Amanda Wallace for offering me access to the creative process for this important new production which promises so much.

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The Rocky Horror Show – New Alexander Theatre, Birmingham

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Now in its 46th Year, The Rocky Horror Show shows no sign of slowing down, or losing its edge. Few shows have the audacity to use their best song as the opening number. Yet that is what happens here. The beginning front of curtain “Science Fiction, Double Feature”, sung plaintively and beautifully by Laura Harrison as the usherette, sets a standard which never slips for the next two hours. The live band, situated in partial view in an upper gallery of the set, plays loud and clear. This is a rock musical.
I have seen the show several times over the years. I have never seen it sung better. Lead character Frank N Furter has been memorably played in different ways by various luminaries. Duncan James gives the part an aggression, sexually, and vocally, which I have not seen or heard by others in the role which he dominates quite brilliantly.
The set, designed by Hugh Durrant, is revamped, but the essential ingredients remain, a kitsch castle, a 1950’s ruched stage curtain, and THAT upright bed. A banner like reel of film hangs above the stage to remind us that the show is a glorious pastiche of those post war science fiction films whose ambition always exceeded their budget.

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Bread and Janet

Hapless couple Brad and Janet are convincingly played by Ben Adams and Joanne Clifton. The latter not only carries the white bra and petticoats look convincingly, but reveals also that she  is an accomplished dancer She  sings powerfully too alongside her vocally accomplished partner.

 
The show is written to provide an opportunity for the Narrator to be played by different actors in different towns. For the fortnight in Birmingham, local girl Alison Hammond takes the billing. Her ebullience and effervescence make her a natural for the role. As soon as she sets foot on stage she received a hero’s welcome from the crowd, steadying her first night nerves, and conspicuously revelled in her performance and the rehearsed and adlibbed heckles from the audience.

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A Castle in the middle of nowhere-what could go wrong?

Although I believe “Science Fiction, Double Feature” to be the best song of the night, inevitably “Time Warp” is the most loved, best known, and most eagerly anticipated , so good they perform it in each half. Choreographer Nathan M Wright has excelled in maintaining the signature moves, whilst giving the set piece production a sharpness and snappiness which extends across all the stage movement.

 
Unlike any other show the audience is part of the proceedings. It is heart-warming to see the vintage stalwarts now in their 50’s and 60’s, supported in equal number by young people in their 20’s and 30’s. Stockings and suspenders, corsets and garish make up abounded amongst men , women and theatre staff giving the evening a real sense of occasion. It is an excuse to turn up and show out for everyone. Over the years the audience heckles have become part of the show with the cast pausing to hear them, never quite sure whether they will be the traditional ones, or new ones, keeping everyone on their toes as a result.

 
If you have seen the “Rocky Horror Show” before come and see it again for a fresh, vibrant take, full of vim and life, not least to appreciate Duncan James’ performance. If you have not been before, you will not be disappointed for a run which continues until 25th May and continues on nationwide tour.

 
Gary Longden

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Turn of the Screw- Derby Theatre

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“Turn of the Screw”, written by Henry James in 1898, is an essential component in the canon of English Literature adapted for stage here by Tim Luscombe. It is co-produced by Mercury Theatre Colchester, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre, and directed by Daniel Buckroyd. At under two hours running time, with Act one at forty- five minutes, and Act two at fifty, it does not waste a moment. Although over a hundred and twenty years old, the tale has lost none of its snap crackle and pop . Luscombe’s vision is bathed with Gothic splendour.

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Originally a horror novella, it first appeared in serial format, in twelve parts, in Collier’s Weekly magazine (January 27 – April 16, 1898). In October 1898 it appeared in The Two Magics, a book published by Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London. James revised The Turn of the Screw ten years later for his New York Edition and subsequently made several changes including the children’s ages.

 
Classified as both gothic fiction and a ghost story, the novella focuses on a governess who, caring for two children at a remote estate, becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted. Modern audiences may see this as purely a ghost story. Yet when it was originally written, Spiritualism and the supernatural were mainstream concerns. Henry James was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which was established in 1882, a body replete with academics, philosophers, and scientists, which survives to this day.

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The story pivots on whether what we are seeing is real, or in the imagination of the Governess. Evil hovers, confusion and suspense abound. Luscombe offers no answers, his adaptation simply strengthens the ambivalence of the conundrum. The intrinsic strength of the tale has seen it retold on numerous occasions, and on every platform; radio drama, film, stage, opera, ballet, and television, including a 1950 Broadway play, and the 1961 film The Innocents.

 
A four hander, the parts are played by Janet Dibley as The Governess, Amy Dunn is Mrs Conroy, Mrs Grose is played by Maggie McCarthy and The Man is portrayed by Elliot Burton, with the children very effectively played by adult actors doubling up.
Dibley, best known for her work in The Two of Us, Coronation St and East Enders, is compelling at the centre of the strange and sinister, her character seemingly always on the edge of insanity. Her opening interview with her prospective employer, is a masterpiece in controlled manipulation. Dunn, McCarthy and Burton are superb, balancing melodrama with razor sharp tension.

 
This is part ghost story, part psychological thriller, but eschews stereotypical ghosts. Instead the ghosts are eerie extensions of everyday reality, with the exact lines blurred. The stage features an irregular, offset, set, innovatively conceived by Sara Perks and spookily lit by David Kidd. The amount of light in scenes shadows the strength of the supernatural or ghostly forces apparently at work. John Chambers provides a classic soundscape full of discordant notes, jolts and bangs. Period costume, delightfully realised by Ella Clarke, and set , meld perfectly, in a beautifully presented production, rich to the eye, menacing the soul. A rocking horse is revealed at curtain up, in motion, with no-one else around. From then on, the mystery and suspense is meticulously layered, teasing, and tempting the expectations of the audience.

 
Luscombe asks to believe both the proposition that the governess is mad, and that the ghosts really do exist, and consider both dreadful implications simultaneously. The exact nature of the evil alluded to is unspecified but sexual violence and coercion seep from the pores of this powerful production. Director David Buckroyd has fashioned a gem of a show which runs until Saturday 11th May.
Gary Longden

 

 

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Club Tropicana – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

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Name checking one of Wham!’s greatest hits, then not performing it, or any other George Michael composition is an inauspicious start. Fortunately, the 80’s spawned a plethora of toe tapping, finger snapping, hits, many of which appear in this show on the night.

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Joe McElderry in the pink as camp entertainments manager Garry

Club Tropicana is reinvented as a hotel, with a house, poolside band, who serendipitously have a well-rehearsed 80’s repertoire. Although the show is about the clothes and music there is a narrative trying to escape. Lorraine ( Karina Hind) and Olly (Cellen Chugg Jones) break up on their wedding day, but decide independently, to use the holiday anyway with their friends. Club 18-30 holidays are conjured with all the excesses, and awkwardness, of young Brits on their first time abroad.

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Entertainments manager Garry (Joe McElderry) does his best to bring the estranged couple together, combining announcing with a stint as a Blind Date compere – who knows what that might lead to? A thin romantic sub plot involving hoteliers Robert ,Sugababes singer Amelle Berrabah as nervous hotel manager Serena, and the dastardly Christine, provides the opportunity for different songs and slapstick nonsense. Things do not run smoothly at the Tropicana, it is a case of Fawlty Towers meets Benidorm. If Trip Advisor had existed then, you would not be booking.

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Can true love win through?

Writer Michael Gyngell triumphs in shoehorning independently written songs into a coherent story, with a surprisingly generous helping of laughs, and slapstick comedy.
80’s music cognoscenti will guess many of the songs in advance, a wedding? Fantastic Day. A break up? Don’t Leave Me This Way. A romantic decision? Making Your Mind Up. What I did not expect was some very enjoyable ensemble choreography, most of which is heavily and recognisably lifted from 80’s music videos with vim and style by Nick Winston. The musical arrangements are variable. “Making Your Mind Up”, “Only You” and “Relax” are terrific. Others, notably “Temptation” and “Addicted to Love”, are not.

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Kate Robbins ( far right) is fabulous as Consuela

 
The star turn for me is Consuela, delightfully played by Kate Robbins, the long suffering, all seeing, put upon cleaning lady whose comedy, singing, and voice impressions add vital quality to proceedings. Although it is a cliched, standard, theatrical device, she carries off the part with style, and panache. A great character part.

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The costume department excels with colourful dance wear at the disco, hairstyles culled from “The Face” and clothes from Chelsea Girl and Top Shop. Find your back copies of “Smash Hits” to mug up on the lyrics, and have a great time. A very well attended opening night had a ball on a show short of substance, but full of heart. Cheesy as hell, it is performed with brie -o…
Club Tropicana runs until Saturday 4th May

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Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

 

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I have never seen a television episode of Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom. But I do have two pre -school age grandchildren, May aged 3 and Solomon aged 4. As an Easter treat for them, I had the perfect reviewers with me to find out more. I enjoy children’s shows, mainly, because they are fiendishly difficult to pull off. If it is not up to scratch, little voices start to enquire, “ When will this finish?” ( I have felt this during several adult productions),or declare that they need the toilet – urgently. If the show is good, they sit captivated.

 
At curtain up, I learned that: “Somewhere, hidden amongst the thorny brambles is a little kingdom where everyone is very, very small…”

 
A programme skim reveals the creators of the show to be BAFTA award winners Neville Astley and Mark Baker from Entertainment One who were also responsible for Peppa Pig. The company is Fiery Light Productions, the original music by Julian Nott, who also wrote the scores for Wallace and Gromit and Peppa Pig. Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom can be found on television on Nickelodeon Junior, and 5’s “Milkshake”.

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Adults should come prepared with plenty of cash to buy show merchandise such as Ben & Holly’s wands. There is no escape.

 
All the essential elements of a children’s show are present, including games, giggling, songs, communal singing, dancing, audience participation, and a game of hide and seek . The masked actors and colourful costumes make for a vibrant spectacle, as elves and princesses do what elves and princesses do, in neat, brief, episodic form in two half hour slots broken by an interval.

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The fun unfolds in the Little Kingdom where the flowers and grass are big. The eponymous Holly, a young Fairy Princess, is learning how to fly, not always without incident, alongside her best friend Ben the Elf. Ben can’t fly so hitches a lift on the back of Gaston the Ladybird, who was a firm favourite with the children whose messy, smelly, cave delighted them. The highlight was the jelly flood at the Kings feast at the end, any parents about to serve jelly in the near future, beware.

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Professionally produced, and skilfully put to together, a song and dance was never far away, and our two children were enthralled from start to finish. This is an ideal “first show” for any pre school child, and a perfect gateway to introduce them to theatre before their first pantomime. Highly recommended entertainment for little people.

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