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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Jungle Book – Derby Theatre

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Jungle Book – Derby Theatre
****

Derby Theatre has a fine tradition of excellent Christmas productions for the family. This year they are hoping to build on that audience by presenting a family show at Easter, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” (1894). It is not a Disney Musical stage show of the much loved film, and has none of the music from that film. It is a big production version of Neil Duffield’s adaptation of the story with original music by Ivan Stott, who composed the score for recent productions of “Hansel & Gretel” and “Peter Pan”.

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Ivan Stott, aka Baloo, also composer

 
It is a bold choice. The film is ubiquitous, endearing and cross- generational. The soundtrack to the film iconic. The story itself, not a story, but episodic tales, serialised, and first published in a magazine. Kipling was a friend of Baden Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, who appropriated numerous aspects of Kipling’s writing. Every cub scout will come across Akela. The Company had big shoes to fill.

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Shere Khan – played by Elliott Rennie

What makes this production unique is that it has fully integrated BSL interpretation and captioning for Derby, the largest deaf community outside of London. Onstage, characters sign, above the stage, a large captions board has the words projected upon it. The premise of the story, a group of animals who adopt a human abandoned child, Mowgli, is perfect for this device, and acts as a natural bridge for communication between the characters.

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A Wolf plays sax

Mowgli, the wolf cub boy, is adopted by, and grows up in the jungle amongst wolves, battling with the tiger Shere Khan, for primacy, with help from Baloo, the bear, and Bagheera the panther. It is a tale of abandonment, reconciling differences, and belonging. Intriguingly Kipling himself was adopted, adding to the authenticity of the abandonment theme. It is also a search for the red flower, and the dilemma Mowgli confronts when he stays in a human village- where is home? The characters are faced with both the law of the animal jungle and the artifice of British Colonial and human village law. Mowgli not only travels between two places, but two worlds.

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A large tree with branches roots and walkways serves as a single set within which the twenty strong cast interact. Set and costume designer Ali Allen has done a fine job at delivering a functional stage and vibrant costumes, lighting by Alastair West is uniformly bright! Iniki Mariano is superb as Mowgli, every movement lupine, eschewing as many human characteristics as possible. As Bagheera, Esme Sears puts on her best performance at Derby Theatre yet. Bold, endearing and an instant hit with the children, as is the rotund Ivan Stott as Baloo, taking method acting seriously, and keeping an eye on the musical score which favours folk over African , the latter of which is always signified by a beating drum.

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In Act one , helped by Bagheera, Mowgli sees off the vengeful tiger Shere Khan, who swears revenge and sets up the inevitable showdown in act two.

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Anyone who has seen a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera or “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” ( probably the Mums and Dads / Grandparents respectively ) will be familiar with the Colonial figure of the Sergeant Major, entertainingly portrayed with bombast and buffoonery by Dominic Rye, who was kept on his toes by some witty one liners from the cub scouts.

 
A full house greeted the finish with enthusiasm and warmth. I have never seen so many deaf, or partially deaf, people in an audience. In itself, this demonstrates the validity of reaching out to an audience which enjoys theatre, and should have access to it, if we make the effort. Derby Theatre did. As did the talented company, mixing professional with community actors, some of whom themselves had impaired hearing, completing the virtuous circle of involvement. The show has a heart as big as a lion, and a beat as insistent as herd of wildebeest on the savannah.

 
A 7pm start and running time of 2 hours 20 mins, including interval, was child friendly, and welcome on a school night. Runs until Saturday 20th April with matinee performances.

Gary Longden

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Les Miserables – Birmingham Hippodrome

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The Birmingham Hippodrome has a sense of occasion. A rarity, it combines modern, superb, front of house facilities, with a lavish, restored, traditional auditorium. It is ideally suited to Les Miserables, a tour which is modern in production and conception, but traditional in its sense of story and values.

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At curtain up, for the overture, an orchestra assails the senses. For the duration of the evening it shares equal billing with the stars on the stage from its unseen pit. Every instrument can be heard, every nuance in playing detected, testament to Musical Director Ben Atkinson. The opening scene is measured, restrained, until “At the End of the Day” explodes onto stage as a full chorus bursts onto the stage. Aggressive, brash and energetic, it is no resigned acceptance of their lot, but a sneering, defiant crie de couer

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The lighting, designed by Paul Constable, is subdued, often a gold diffused glow, sometimes you have to peer into the murk, an effort always well rewarded. Shadows are cast all around.

I last saw the show fifteen years ago. This production, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell is different, with a distinctive feel to it. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” plays without empty chairs or empty tables, just ghosts carrying flames.

Jean Valjean is an imperious creation by Killan Donnelly, never more so than on “Bring Him Home”. Nic Greenshield’s Javert steals the night with a towering “Stars”, Katie Hall snaps at his heals with “I Dreamed a Dream”. Donnelly takes us on an astonishing physical journey as he ages before our eyes, “Bring Him Home” is gentle, plangent, and note perfect. Greenshield sings “Stars” so compellingly that everyone else on the stage disappears for those minutes, so enthralling is his performance.

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Katie Hall as Fantine

For “I Dreamed a Dream”, Hall takes Fantine into a smoky cabaret bar, the house band responding to every nuance of her melancholic musing. All three are outstanding, fresh, and vibrant readings of very familiar, and much loved material. Each singer personalises the song, but not such that the song is not the star.

Martin Ball and Sophie-Louise Dann as Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, master and mistress of the house, provide humour, character and energy to their roles. Comic song “Master of the House” is elaborately choreographed, but just fails to draw the audience into being part of the boozy Inn’s customers, but the duo excel as the interlopers at the wedding feast.

It is impossible to resist the epic sweep of the production, a tsunami which overwhelms cast and audience alike, carrying them along on an irresistible storm surge of drama and emotion. British audiences are rightly sparing in standing ovations, but as the night came to a close, the audience rose as one for a rousing production of a story which shows no signs of fatigue, or age. Runs till 11/5/19, continues on nationwide tour

 

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Dirty Dancing – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

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The phrase “musical phenomenon” is oft used- and abused. But for “Dirty Dancing” it is apposite. Critics can be critical, yet the crowds keep on turning out to see it, and for so long as they do, it will survive. The film was a sensation on release in 1987, over thirty years on, that excitement and enthusiasm lives on, this stage adaptation, premiered in 2004 has been vital in keeping that spirit alive.

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Its secret is no secret. The stage adaptation recreates the hugely successful film faithfully, it gives the audience what they want, word for word, note for note, the DD aficionados know the score, the words by heart, and the extra scenes too. The music and dance which made the film so popular is gloriously reproduced, skirts swirl, muscular torso’s ripple, the score soars. A classic love story plays out against a beefed -up social backcloth – sit back and enjoy.

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The curtain opens in the Summer of 1963. Young Frances “Baby” Houseman is on holiday with her family, chances upon a party, meets a bad boy dance instructor, and learns a few moves which are not found in any dance manual – and we follow her as she has the time of her life, desperately trying to impress her new beau, and learn a few dance steps along the way. Can love draw together an uptown girl and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks? Well, “Nobody puts baby in the corner!” Frankie Valli didn’t arrive until late December, obviously…

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Primarily, this is a song and dance show. A vibrantly costumed cast arrive in full early on to let you know what is coming your way. Principles Johnny ( Michael O Reilly),and Frances ( Kira Malou) ,are compelling . Lizzie Ottley impresses with her acting, her comedy, and her singing, as Baby’s sister Lisa.O’Reilly does not put a foot wrong in his debut professional role, and draws the biggest cheer, and leer, of the night for his bare buttocks moment. . Simone Covele is outstanding as Penny the pro dancer, she absolutely convinces in the role ,sporting a series of lavish dresses and footwork which mesmerises. Indeed choreographer Gillian Bruce does a fine job throughout with snappy, pin sharp routines.

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Although we are never more than a few moments away from a song and a dance, the script has some genuinely funny lines. The physical comedy in the water scenes was consummately executed, assisted by some adept use of translucent screens. I have never seen anyone dance on a log before. Perhaps there should be more dancing on logs in musicals? Revolving scenery produced lightning fast scene changes and a brisk pace, a credit to producer Karl Sydow and director Frederico Bellone.

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Michael O’ Reilly

All the hits from the film’s soundtrack, which includes “Do You Love Me?”, “She’s Like The Wind” and “Time Of My Life”, are featured in the stage show along with some written for stage numbers. Some fifty songs in total. The story itself has been adapted for the stage by Eleanor Bergstein, who skilfully retains the feel of the film whilst making it work for theatre.

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Kira Malou

“In The Still Of The Night” by Billy Kostecki ( Alex Wheeler) was spine-tingling, the rousing finale came from him and the formidable Sian Gentle-Green as Elizabeth who ensured that the audience had the time of their life, and “that lift”.

Full Company; Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage; Photo credit Alastair Muir (2)
The opening night audience loved it, its slick production and punchy dancing the  highlights, even if the story itself  did not engage as strongly as it might. “Dirty Dancing” runs until 7th April and continues on nationwide tour at: Ipswich, Halifax, Manchester, Guildford, Liverpool, Grimsby, Glasgow, Southsea, Cardiff, Northampton, Dublin, Bristol, Bournemouth, Eastbourne and Leeds
Approximate runtime 135minutes.

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Jerusalem – Sutton Arts Theatre

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****

“Fuck me, the committee have only gone and approved it!”

“They didn’t mind that boring cunts would walk out?”

“Nah, they can have a wank in the bogs for all I care”

The above is an imagined exchange from the production team after “Jerusalem” was programmed for Sutton Arts. Yet it does offer you a flavour of the play itself. Crude, visceral and divisive. Written in 2009 by Jez Butterworth, it should most definitely not be confused with the play of the same name by poet Simon Armitage written in 2005! Butterworth is no street wordsmith, instead he has enjoyed a classic, conventional, distinguished career as a Cambridge graduate, playwright, and screen play writer for TV and film.

Unquestionably the most controversial production in recent years at this theatre, it is, at almost three hours, amongst the longest too. Provocatively staged immediately pre Brexit deadline, this is a play about identity and place. It is as if Ian Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees Mogg, and Nigel Farage are reimagined from their castles and country estates into a caravan in Flintock, an imaginary Wiltshire village, their expensive clothes and specious words stripped away to reveal the ugly core, on St George’s Day.

But instead of Jacob Rees Mogg we have wild gypsy, and former motorcycle stunt-rider, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, brilliantly played by Stuart Goodwin. A pied piper who lures youngsters to his drug and booze fuelled parties. He is a slob, and vain, simultaneously.

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Rooster Contemplates the “Canada Plus” Brexit Option

Shakespeare was fond of setting his plays and scenes in forests for a pastoral setting. Butterworth sees pastoral things as anything but idyllic. It is ironic that in order to write such a tirade about English nation hood,  he should have absented himself to New York to write it, brim full of wildness, rage and defiance. Brexit Stoke, Newport and Sunderland is found here. Mark Natrass and his team excel themselves with a set soaked in decay, debauchery and disillusion.

It is an allegory for the English condition. The once great Rooster finds himself confronted by forces he doesn’t understand. Stupefaction, or fighting, his default ,conflicted response. Like Great Britain, his Empire is now gone, and he awaits eviction from his dilapidated home . His big man reputation of yore now reduced to that of a joke figure, humiliated, lost.

And as Brexiteers blame everyone but themselves, so Rooster brags defiance, that he will prevail in the end, despite the incredulity of his coterie. Perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of our country, his braggadocio is such that he tempts you to believe that maybe, just maybe, he is right. Maybe it isn’t fantasy after all?

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The “Help to Buy” scheme only applies to alcohol, not houses in Wiltshire

The supporting cast is strong. Rooster’s mate, Ginger, inventively portrayed by Robbie Newton is amusingly bamboozled by the party that never happened being name checked by people who had attended it. Dexter Whitehead is memorable both as pub landlord Wesley, and a Morris dancer, and has clearly concentrated on his lines in more ways than one.

A missing teenage girl and imminent eviction provide the stuff of a memorable finale for a story which asks us to re-examine identity, and what the “real “ England is, or if it exists at all?

Director Emily Armstrong has done a fabulous job staging this production, which is an unequivocal success. It is unlikely to win over the Ayckbourn / Agatha Christie theatre going stalwarts – but I doubt if she ever thought she would. The upcoming “Gin Game” and “Guys and Dolls” will ensure normal business is returned soon enough.

“Jerusalem” ran until 23/3/19.

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Derby Theatre – Avenue Q

 

Avenue Q – Derby Theatre
****

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Avenue Q was premiered in 2003. Sixteen years on, this Tony Award Best Musical award- winning show has lost none of its freshness, or mischief. Its writing credentials are formidable. The music and lyrics are created by Jeff Marx,and Robert Lopez, co-creator of “The Book Of Mormon” and Disney’s “Frozen”. Its heart is as big as its New York setting. The book is by Jeff Whitty. This UK Tour is produced by Selladoor Worldwide with Richard Darbourne Limited who are behind Footloose, Flashdance and American Idiot. Production values are high. Puppets are designed by Paul Jomain of Q Puppets with Puppet Coaching by Nigel Plaskitt.

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The central proposition is that this is Sesame Street grown up for grown- ups. A child like puppeteer presentation belies a teenager’s base humour, and a razor -sharp adult take on the world around us all. The big numbers still resonate. “Everyone’s a little racist sometimes” is painfully on target, “The Internet is for Porn” seems to elicit widespread approval.

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Lucy the Slut

 
The production bubbles with energy and vim. Lead puppeteers Lawrence Smith, Cecily Redman, Tom Steedon and Megan Armstrong are unobtrusive in stage- hand black, the puppets are the stars. What amounts to a group sex session had the house howling with laughter. Set designer Richard Evans has combined a simple, vivid, Avenue Q overshadowed by the New York skyline, complete with Empire State Building from which coins may drop at any time. The lighting, by Charlie Morgan, is bright and brash.

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Simplicity is the order of the day in a production which is largely sung through, assisted by some big screen messages above the stage. Director and Choreographer Cressida Carré keeps things moving briskly from song to song, ensuring that the puppeteers, while an intrinsic part of the show, play a strictly supporting role. The heart of the show is its verité, not smut, as it holds a mirror up to the audience’s prejudices and experiences. She eschews contemporary political references, bar the odd Trump call, staying faithful to the original script.

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It is an ensemble performance, but the people, literally, behind the puppets do so with dexterity and skill. Lawrence Smith excels as Princeton and Rod, Cecily Redman becomes Lucy The Slut. It is the “double hander” (pun intended) of Tom Steedon and Megan Armstrong as Trekkie Monster which thrills the audience. The “real people”, Nicholas McLean as streetwise, Gary Coleman, Saori Oda as the Therapist who need therapy, Christmas Eve, and Oliver Stanley as her husband, have almost as much fun as the puppets.

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Nick McLean

 
A live band makes a big difference, and in the pit Dean McDermott and his five other musicians imbue the evening with vibrancy and pizzazz.

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Some shows are of their time, and once that time has passed, appear dated and irrelevant. Avenue Q has grown up and flourished, but still enjoys dirty jokes and innuendo. A well -attended first night had brought out a younger theatre crowd, which is always welcome. Runs until Saturday 23rd March.

Gary Longden

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