Rocky Horror Show – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Trafalgar Theatre Productions presents
Rocky Horror Show
by Richard O’Brien
Curve Theatre, Leicester
10–15 January 2022

As Usherette (Suzie McAdam) sings “Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear”, a line in the opening number of the Rocky Horror Show, you get an early warning of what to expect in this cult classic, currently on a world tour and a kitsch strand of our cultural heritage.

Flashy, trashy, loud and proud, this is Richard O’Brien’s homage to 1950s sci-fi B movies, born on a sultry summer night in 1973 at the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court and now a worldwide institution. These days, the audience dress up, their hair comes down and it’s all promoted as a “guaranteed party”.

This production, directed by Christopher Luscombe, has been touring for over 15 years and includes a few Rocky cast regulars, although you can’t get more regular than Kristian Lavercombe who has lurched across the stage as Riff Raff an impressive 1,800 and counting times.

Straight-up couple Brad (Ore Oduba) and Janet (Haley Flaherty), newly engaged, arrive at Frank N Furter’s castle after their car breaks down. Brad would like to use the phone to call for help, Mr Furter and his phantoms (from the planet Transsexual, Transylvania) have other ideas and the night becomes one of, how can I put it, “discovery and exploration”.

It’s sexy and silly but great fun and features a cracking collection of songs, including “Damn It, Janet”, “Sweet Transvestite”, “Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me”, and of course, “Time Warp”.

Stephen Webb thrills and chills as Frank N Furter, with an energetic, muscular portrayal of our favourite Transylvanian transsexual.

Ore Oduba is a revelation as Brad, not least performing parts of the show in his sensible underwear. He has a superb voice, his comic timing is spot on and, apposite for a former Strictly winner, nails his moves. Flaherty too shows Janet’s transformation from virgin to vamp with great verve. Suzie McAdam doubles as Usherette and Magenta, and is properly loud and lewd.

Of the many “iconic” moments in this musical, Columbia’s meltdown in act 2 is a key one and Lauren Ingram delivers an expert and cartoonish extended disintegration. Hugh Durrant’s set design continues the cartoon-like theme, with stereotypical spooky castle on the hill and lab complete with giant brain, huge dials and a plunging syringe. The swirl of filmstrip framing the set reminds us where the whole thing began. Great too to have Greg Arrowsmith and his band visible on stage.

Philip Franks as the Narrator reassures with his soothing voice but fires his “ad lib” slings and arrows towards the audience’s heckling, and a few current political figures, with precision. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Relative newcomer Ben Westhead brings innocent charm to Rocky, and, for the first time having seen this show several times, I felt rather emotional at the end.

Age has not diminished this show. So, sing, dance and submit to all its preposterousness and enjoy the ride.

Images by David Freeman

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Sleeping Beauty – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

De Montfort Hall and Imagine Theatre present
Sleeping Beauty
Written and directed by Janice Dunn
De Montfort Hall, Leicester
11 December 2021–3 January 2022

With a bouncy disco opening number, a gorgeously lit set of greens, purples and sparkles and a good proportion of the audience thrilled at the sight of CBeebies presenter Maddie Moate as Fairy Phoenix, Sleeping Beauty gets off to a great start.

As with so many pantos around the country—and world—it’s been two years since the last production and, like an old friend, we delight in welcoming back the hisses, boos and it’s-behind-yous.

But there’s something not quite right—or maybe ready—with this production. Judging by the ticket pricing, this is a preview performance. Two key characters are not played by the advertised stars: Leicester panto dame stalwart Martin Ballard is billed as Nanny Nancy, although for this performance, Ben Millerman (also company stage manager) hoists himself into the increasingly outrageous costumes. Prince Pablo is played by Luke Bell rather than Matthew Pomeroy as programmed. No reason is given for these changes but both Ballard and Pomeroy did such a brilliant job in Aladdin, the last panto at De Montfort Hall, it’s hard not to compare. Millerman and Bell do a fine job but a little more panto polish would help.

That said, all Sleeping Beauty panto ingredients are here: King Alfie (Andy Abraham) and his Queen (I think Alexandra Brookes although not credited in the programme) long for a child. Evil Carabosse (Wendi Peters) grants their wish with the arrival of Princess Rosa (Natasha Lamb), but with significant cursed caveats. Spindles are forbidden as a result. Rosa grows up, flirts with Prince Pablo, but at her 18th birthday, an ill-judged gift of a spindle results in her falling into 100 years’ sleep. No more spoilers, but I think we’re in pretty familiar territory.

There are several wow moments as Luke Bell shows off his skills as a magician with Princess Rosa as his assistant. Lamb also assists in the entertaining scene where Jarred the Jester (Jarred Christmas) performs “which bucket is the Princess’s head under”. Christmas is a successful comedian and compère and keeps things moving well here, although some of his humour didn’t seem quite right for this panto and felt a little aggressive at times.

Wendi Peters as Carabosse steals the show and is a safe pair of evil hands, delivering curses, cackling laughs and all-round menace with aplomb. Andy Abraham (an X Factor runner-up) impresses with his super-smooth and soulful voice and leads many of the musical numbers. There’s a nice interpretation of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” (in this case “Bake it Off”) in the kitchen scene, and a fun if exhausting-looking version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Writer and director Janice Dunn keeps everything moving at a good pace (although a 35-minute interval seems excessive), and overall, all the requisite panto ingredients are here. I think it just needs a little more time and performances to rise to show-stopper level.

Images by De Montfort Hall and Imagine Theatre

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A Chorus Line – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Theatre presents
A Chorus Line
Conceived, originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban
3–31 December 2021

A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett’s 1975 ‘concept’ musical featuring dancers auditioning for a part in a Broadway show, seems a brave choice for Curve’s first Christmas show since COVID took hold. So why this show, why now?

Aside from the top hats and high kicks of the iconic “One”, I’d say the full score is not one of the more well-known musicals, with the 1985 film starring Michael Douglas perhaps more widely seen. However, director Nikolai Foster presents this production as a love song to musical theatre and all those within the sector whose careers and livelihoods were so devastatingly affected by the pandemic. And I think this works as the production—the dazzlingly talented cast, Curve’s vast space and impressive lighting rigs—really gets to the emotional heart of this show, and what it takes to create musical theatre.

Grace Smart’s set design has stripped the stage back to its bare walls and we’re there among the dancers in the sweat and stress of an audition. Five mirrors upstage show all sides, including the audience, giving a sense of “we’re all in this together” (unfortunate this is now something of a political slogan). Larry (Taylor Walker), as the Director’s Assistant on stage, frequently moves among the auditioning performers with a camera which projects onto a large screen, giving further perspectives on what we see.

Adam Cooper is Zach, the director of the Broadway show, and an enigmatic force as he strides around the stage or lurks downstage left and right barking questions. He wants to find out what drives the auditionees to dance, leading to the emotion and stories which provides the show’s relatability. So, it’s a ‘meta’ musical (based as it is on interviews with dancers in 1974), but also one that looks out into the world; we don’t all strive to be dancers in a Broadway show, yet we can all understand their motivations, whether that’s the highs and lows of acceptance and rejection, the desire to follow your dreams, earn a living, escape a bad situation, or make your family proud.

The cast are phenomenal, as is Ellen Kane’s sharp choreography, and Tamara Saringer and her live band. Chloe Saunders as Val gives a belting performance of “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”, really capturing the humour and poignancy. A great performance too by Lizzy-Rose Esin-Kelly as Diana Morales, and her storming “Nothing”. Both Saunders and Esin-Kelly are impressive in their professional debuts.

Carly Mercedes Dyer is stunning in Cassie’s key number, “The Music and The Mirror”, and you can hear a pin drop during Ainsley Hall Ricketts’s telling of Paul San Marco’s story.

Kristine (Katie Lee) and Al (Joshua Lay) light up the stage during “Sing!”, their energy only in danger of being dimmed by Howard Hudson’s lighting design. Utilising what must be every bulb in the building, this element of the production is a character in itself, with the revolving rigs during several of the songs used to breathtaking effect, particularly “One” to bring the show to a rousing and satisfying end.

Foster has taken a chance with A Chorus Line but stuck with his heartfelt motivation to stage what seems the perfect vehicle at the right time to celebrate all that is good about theatre, and the power of performance and collaboration.

Images by Marc Brenner

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Tell Me On a Sunday – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide.

Jamie Wilson, Gavin Kalin and Kevin McCollum
Tell Me On a Sunday
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Don Black
Curve Theatre, Leicester
12–16 October 2021

Tell Me On A Sunday has morphed and evolved over the years, from an album and TV show in 1980 into an hour-long one-woman song cycle which now comprises act 1. This current tour, which began in June, is the 2016 Watermill Theatre production with Jodie Prenger reprising her role as Emma (the production images are also from this tour). In act 2, Prenger and understudy Jodie Beth Meyer perform other songs and provide the ‘A’s in a Q and A.

From the minute Prenger enters the stage at Curve’s more intimate Studio, she grabs the audience by the hand and takes us on her emotional journey from Muswell Hill to New York, looking for love, and a husband. We instantly warm to her and feel like a trusted friend as she shares the highs and lows of her love life. The opening song, “Take That Look Off Your Face”, is a whole story in itself and a perfect summary of Emma’s experiences as she moves from denial to anger, then ‘oh no, not again’ acknowledgement as another relationship comes to an end.

Things are on the up when she meets film director Sheldon Bloom and Emma is on the verge of making a life with him in LA. “Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad” is a fun number and sums up the LA lifestyle as seen through the eyes of “plucky Brit ex-pat” Emma.

Emma’s letters to her mum are a nice device; keeping up a positive front can only be maintained for so long though and her guard comes down as she writes home. The different takes on “Let Me Finish” as Emma confronts a lover and later a friend, or so she thought, reveal her anger and frustration.

A tight four-piece band joins Prenger on stage, playing from behind the NY skyline of David Woodhead’s set. Director Paul Foster keeps things simple with a handful of costume changes to help convey time, location and relationships.

Yes, this show has evolved over the years with new songs added, however, the premise is essentially 40 years old and, looking at it with 2021 eyes and a consideration of the feminist agenda, I’m not quite sure where moving to a new city to bag a husband now fits in (although there is some hope with the “Take That Look Off Your Face” finale). That said, Don Black’s lyrics really stand out—they are clever, conversational, and witty and don’t fall into an overly sentimental trap. Lloyd Webber’s songs are unmistakeable, with his signature melodies and refrains. “Tell Me On a Sunday” is a painfully beautiful song.

Prenger’s performance is masterful and this show is perfect for her; nothing is lost with her powerful voice but she also conveys Emma’s vulnerability with touching honesty. This show won’t change the world but the emotions are true, sometimes raw, and delivered with genuine warmth and humour.

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The Midnight Bell – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

The Midnight Bell
Devised and directed by Matthew Bourne, choreography by Matthew Bourne and Company
New Adventures
Curve Theatre, Leicester
11–16 October 2021

Love, longing and loneliness in the backstreets of London are the setting for The Midnight Bell, Sir Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company’s latest production.

This is Bourne’s first fully devised work since Play Without Words in 2001 and is based on the novels of early 20th-century writer Patrick Hamilton (whose play Rope became part of the Hitchcock pantheon).

This production is rich in atmosphere and mood. Fog circles around the dark chimneys of Soho. Trains rumble by, dogs barking, footsteps. We meet the ten regulars at The Midnight Bell pub, almost always a cigarette and drink in hand, battling their own demons but seeking to satisfy their needs with others. Life is lit dimly here.

Short descriptions in the programme for each character provide helpful clues in the storytelling, although the masterful choreography and huge skill of the dancers reveal so much: a prim, restrained Miss Roach (Michela Meazza), seduced and robbed by Ernest Ralph Gorse, “a cad” (Glenn Graham). Barmaid Ella (Bryony Harrison), in love with Bob (Paris Fitzpatrick) but pursued by the older, persistent gentleman Mr Eccles (Reece Causton).

The duets between “West End chorus boy” Albert (Liam Mower) and Frank (Andrew Monaghan) have much to explore, with humour as well as longing, denial and forbidden love.

Schizophrenic George Harvey Bone (Richard Winsor, a controlled knot of torment and pain) is tormented by his relationship with Netta Longdon (Daisy May Kemp), an out-of-work actress, but also lusts after Jenny Maple, “a young prostitute”, as does Bob.

There is much to take in with movement and stories unfolding, both as the main focus and at the fringes of the spotlight, lurking in the shadows. Seamless transitions from pub to street to club, dancing either as duo, trio or more, these rather sad individuals seek contact and connection. The most intimate relationships are formed in the opening sequences, as each character appears to perform a love duet with their drink, caressing and clutching onto their source of comfort. This is a world marinating in booze, and unsurprising, with Hamilton known as a “connoisseur of alcoholic behaviour”.

Bourne assembles his regular creative collaborators and again, their collective might evokes time, place and atmosphere perfectly.

Paule Constable’s lighting design conjures the smoky, dark haze of the pub, peachy tones at dawn and the silvery grey of twilight. Lez Brotherston’s set suggests much with apparently little: Soho streets with rows of windows, a Lyons Tea Room, the top of a red telephone box. We move to Fitzroy Gardens with lamp post and bench, a glimpse of luxury with hints of velvet in the members’ club. Sound design by Paul Groothius combined with Terry Davies’s score is plaintive and haunting. Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love” fragments into a repeated, echoing refrain, underlining the sense of desperation.

Songs of the era are sometimes lip-synced by the company; this may not be to everyone’s taste and doesn’t move the storytelling forward particularly. It is however a useful device, and to me feels sometimes playful, sometimes ironic but not a distraction.

The Midnight Bell allows the audience to fill in their own interpretations and versions of the narrative. Rich in detail and emotion, this is another Bourne classic, although this time eschewing glamour and fairy tale for a poignant examination of the grimier side of life.

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Home/Killer Pig – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Rambert2 presents
Home
choreography by Micaela Taylor

Killer Pig
choreography by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar

In February 2020, a significant ‘just before’ date as we now know, auditions were held to find dancers from around the world to join the Rambert2 ensemble. Eleven were chosen for their “outstanding ability and individuality” and represent the 2020/21 cohort.

This UK tour represents their on-stage debut as a company, and features a new piece, Home, choreographed by Micaela Taylor, and Killer Pig, with choreography by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, and which premièred for Rambert2 in 2018 (and Carte Blanche in 2009).

A dimly lit stage reveals a door frame stage right, a window, small table and lamp stage left, and the floor covered in a thin, square rug. Home.

Judy Lao is the central figure in this piece, as she appears to settle down to sleep in her home. A sinister tableau of dancers waits behind her. To a soundscape including the dancers’ breathing, repeated words on a crackly recording, and vocalisations from the dancers, we then take a tour around Lao’s headspace. An unsettling experience, as demons and anxieties are confronted.

Taylor’s choreography features jerky, staccato movements, mechanical almost, and exaggerated facial expressions. Fleeting sequences of typing at a keyboard, repetition, unable to leave. An alarm goes off, a voice repeats “this is not a dream”. This feels very much like a depiction of what the last 18 months have been like for many, condensed into 30 minutes. An uplifting end, however, with a change in tone, a more jazzy sound and fluid movement as if waking and beginning a new and better day.

After the interval, eight dancers return, stripped down to barely-there costumes. To Ori Lichtik’s throbbing club beat and pulsating rhythms, the dancers constantly group and move around the stage space, often breaking out from the pack in solo sequences (particularly Comfort Kondehson), or in twos or more. These group movements suggest flocking and birdlike qualities; where one goes, the others follow.

Killer Pig is a supremely physical piece incorporating ballet and hip hop; Eyal and Behar’s choreography shows off the form and musculature of the human body as the dancers contort and hold challenging positions, then glide back to ‘flocking’ as they work their way around the stage. It is thrilling and mesmerising, with all dancers bringing their own style to this brutal ensemble piece.

The dancers: Loïc Ayme, Judy Luo, Pierre-Antoine Bardot, Caiti Carpenter, D’Angelo Castro, Comfort Kondehson, Emma Spinosi, Jonathan Wade, Archie White, Seren Williams and Verity Wright.

Images by Deborah Jaffe

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Hairspray The Broadway Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Mark Goucher and Matthew Gale present
Hairspray The Broadway Musical
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman
Curve Theatre, Leicester
4–9 October 2021

“I’ll eat some breakfast then change the world.” Yes, Tracy Turnblad’s beehive is back in town as the 2021 UK tour of Hairspray The Broadway Musical arrives at Leicester’s Curve.

Former Curve artistic director Paul Kerryson also returns as director, along with several of the creatives from the last time I reviewed this show for BTG (2017). This includes Drew McOnie’s effervescent choreography, plus set and costume design by Takis. The stage is trimmed of all unnecessary paraphernalia, leaving maximum room for the cast’s energetic gyrations. Different locations (a Baltimore street, Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop, High School gym) are projected onto a large screen and, apart from a giant can of Super Clutch Hairspray and Edna’s trusty ironing board and iron, there’s not much else needed.

It’s now nearly 20 years since Hairspray opened on Broadway (2002), inspired by John Waters’s cult classic film of 1988 and with new audiences introduced (and ensnared, thanks to heartthrob Zac Efron) via the 2007 film version.

Beneath its fun and feel-good top layers, this is a story which tackles big issues. Tracy Turnblad is plus-size but yearns to dance on the Corny Collins show. Set in Baltimore in the early 1960s and as the civil rights movement is gaining momentum and attention, Tracy also sets about making her favourite TV show ‘integrated’, against the bigoted views of the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Rebecca Thornhill) and her bratty daughter Amber (Jessica Croll). We also have love against the odds, with Tracy vying with Amber for local heartthrob Link Larkin’s affections.

Katie Brace is making her professional debut as Tracy and brings a bucketful of feistiness to the role, as well as some wonderful facial expressions to maximise the comedy. West End stalwarts Alex Bourne (Edna Turnblad with a lovely, rich baritone) and Norman Pace (Wilbur Turnblad) are charming as Tracy’s still-in-love parents, and their key number “You’re Timeless to Me” is a joyful masterpiece of comic timing with some rather risqué ad libs thrown in.

It’s been said before, but Brenda Edwards’s vocals on Motormouth Maybelle’s showstopper “I Know Where I’ve Been” are superb, such power and feeling and a sobering counterpoint to the frivolity.

Rebecca Jayne-Davies as Penny is suitably goofy and endearing, Ross Clifton is a charming Link, the three Dynamites (Bernadette Bangura, Natalie Brown, and Eliotte Williams-N’Dure) bring sparkling energy. Kerryson and the whole cast maximise the comedy throughout. My only gripe is over the lack of clarity in some of the dialogue, swallowed up in the accents and losing some of the best lines which sometimes fell flat.

Judging by some audience members’ enthusiastic enjoyment during the performance (and with quite a few replicating the fashions of the period), this isn’t the first time they’ve seen this show, and nor is it mine. But there’s a lot to enjoy many times over: catchy songs, fantastic dancing and singing, comedy and strong messages of acceptance, empowerment and standing up for what you believe.

Wittman and Shaiman’s lyrics are funny and clever, but also have bite—the reminders of injustice and prejudice hit their mark within perfectly packaged musical numbers.

Hairspray is a bankable favourite, full of bounce and many highlights. I went in rather gloomy and came out smiling—what more can you ask for?

Images by Mark Senior

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – review

Review first published in British Theatre Guide

Curve, English Touring Theatre and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse present
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
directed by Anthony Almeida
Curve Theatre, Leicester
3–18 September 2021

“We talk in circles, we have nothing to say to each other.” These words, fired in frustration by different characters during Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, provide a literal reference for the main feature on an otherwise sparse stage in this new production of Williams’s 1955 classic which opened this week at Leicester’s Curve

Rosanna Vize’s design is simple yet rich with metaphor and symbolism: a large circular frame high above and just off centre-stage is draped with a semi-transparent curtain, a veil of deceit and mendacity. There is a table. Props are a single crutch, whisky glasses and liquor (endless bottles). The stage is edged on three sides by a raised walkway, also serving as occasional seating, but mostly as vantage points for the cast to listen and watch, ghostly in the shadows.

The whole stage space itself gives a sense of a fighting arena, apt for the sparring of Big Daddy, Big Mama, their two sons and scheming wives.

It’s Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, and the bullish patriarch and his family have gathered at their home to celebrate. Big Daddy (Peter Forbes) has also just learned from doctors he has a clean bill of health, save for his “spastic colon”.

The family all know he in fact is terminally ill with cancer. Big Mama (Teresa Banham) appears to be in denial. Favoured son Brick (Oliver Johnstone) nurses a broken ankle, is in a childless and loveless marriage with Maggie (Siena Kelly), and has taken to the bottle over the death of his friend Skipper. Elder son Gooper (Sam Alexander) has five young sons, another baby on the way, yet he and his wife Mae (Shanaya Rafaat) are ignored and scorned by Big Daddy.

Lies and feuds, simmering jealousy, sibling rivalry, greed, unrequited and forbidden love, hate—it’s all here as each character tries to assert their claims on Big Daddy’s fortune, and satisfy their individual cravings for love, truth and meaning.

Director Anthony Almeida (winner of the 2019 Royal Theatrical Support Trust Sir Peter Hall Director Award) responds confidently to the question as to why revive this play, and why now? He allows the sparsity of Vize’s design to provide an unrelenting focus on the family drama at the core of Williams’s play. Written in a very different era, these arguments and raw emotions are as relatable now as they ever were.

Kelly’s Maggie is a prowling cat of a woman (and the restless cat on the hot tin roof of a marriage she won’t leave), sultry and scheming and her frustration with her disinterested husband Brick is painful. Johnstone is a jittery, withdrawn Brick and desperately sad. Similarly, Gooper sits ignored and alone, comfort eating his way through the remains of Big Daddy’s birthday cake as Big Daddy and Brick argue. Despite his unpleasantness and bile, Forbes manages to trigger some sympathy for Big Daddy as his vulnerabilities are revealed beneath his brusque exterior.

There are moments of great power and poignancy: when the veil is pulled from the frame, it is used like a shroud, wrapping Brick in a claustrophobic cocoon as Big Mama pulls hard on the umbilical cord of connection between them. Giles Thomas’s sound design keeps things on edge with a constant background ticking—Maggie’s biological clock and Big Daddy’s health.

Curve has joined with English Touring Theatre and Liverpool Everyman Theatre in this production and will tour a further five venues during the autumn. It is compelling and compulsive viewing.

Images by Marc Brenner

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Aidy the Awesome – review

The Gramophones presents
Aidy the Awesome
devised by The Gramophones
directed by Hannah Stone

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Bright, bubbly and with a ‘badass’ granny, what’s not to like about Aidy the Awesome?

Inspired by online workshops connecting five- to twelve-year-olds and their grandmothers during the pandemic, The Gramophones are now taking their devised show Aidy the Awesome on a digital tour to a handful of venues.

In keeping with the superhero genre, Aidy (Farrrell Cox) discovers by chance—and via a surprise revelation from Glorious Granny (Deborah Sanderson)—that she has superhero powers. Frustrated by classroom plagiarism from Charlie (Alice McKenna) and an encounter with the dastardly Ron de Chocolate (Kathryn Hanke), Aidy throws herself into a mission to seize back her and Granny’s stolen superpowers, as well as her own voyage of self-discovery.

As with much of The Gramophones’ work, Aidy the Awesome is playful and well produced, combining aerial work with cartoonish comedy. Farrell Cox is outstanding as Aidy, instantly drawing the audience in with good use of some GoPro camerawork, and a charmingly convincing and enthusiastic portrayal of an eight-year-old.

Hanke’s Ron de Chocolate is a treat—not only an anti-hero bearing Milk Tray and all manner of other chocolate bar references, but an amusing channelling of the irresistible Lord Flashheart from Blackadder, with hints of Pharoah (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat).

Deborah Sanderson wows as Glorious Granny as she and Cox go airborne for some impressive aerial work choreographed by Gwen Hales. Alice McKenna supplies air guitar opportunities as she rocks out on stage with Darren Clark’s fun music and lyrics.

The Gramophones are a female-led company who “create shows that put women and girls centre stage”. One of the aims of this show is to break down the princess archetype and show girls in “alternative feisty, funny and strong roles”. I’d say mission accomplished here. Director Hannah Stone and Associate Director Ria Ashcroft (and also producers) maximise the caped comedy and larks, and Rachel Bunce’s camera work provides a good sense of the different levels of performance (that is literally: on the ground and in the air).

After 45 minutes of energetic fun, the ending seems a little flat; whilst satisfying and with its concluding positive message that everyone is a superhero, it seems to lack the ‘kapow’ of the rest of the show. A small point, however, and the activity sheets and encouragement to send in photos of “you being a superhero” is a great way to keep everyone busy once the streaming is over.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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The Girl of Ink and Stars

The Girl of Ink and Stars – review

Satinder Chohan, based on the book by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The Spark Arts for Children in association with Inspire Culture, Learning and Libraries

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

As we continue our lives in tiers, the Spark Arts for Children invites you to don headphones, close your eyes and join them in a mystical world of adventure.

As part of their lockdown offering for children (aged 7+), their families and also for schools, an audio version of their 2019 production of The Girl of Ink and Stars, which toured libraries in the East Midlands, is now available over three podcast episodes.

Satinder Chohan’s play is based on Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s multi-award-winning 2016 novel of the same name. Chohan has focused on the quest element of Millwood Hargrave’s popular children’s book, and it is both gripping and reassuring in turn—although mainly gripping.

Isabella (Sally Ann Staunton), a young girl living on the Isle of Joya, is an avid student of her cartographer father’s maps and follower of the mythical stories about the island, particularly Arinta who fought the fire dragon Yote one thousand years ago. When Isabella’s friend Cata goes missing in the Forbidden Territories, she uses her father’s maps, her knowledge of Arinta’s story and her friend Pablo (Reece Carter) to find Cata and bring her safely home.

Isabella is a brave and resourceful young heroine, Pablo a more reluctant and cautious companion, but together a relatable pair. Director Adel Al-Salloum’s pacing of the three episodes is nicely balanced; this could have been a breathlessly relentless experience but moments of light and calm are welcome in what is a tense and at times, sinister story. The episodic production allows children to explore their own imaginations, and the accompanying creative resources enrich this experience.

The soundscape by composer Craig Vear is excellent; we of course have no visual reference but are immediately immersed in ‘place’, whether via lapping waves, a cave of shimmering crystals, crawling through a furnace-like maze deep underground, or confronted by the tibicenas—the demon dogs.

This is a thrilling and atmospheric audio experience based on an imaginative tale of bravery and friendship—and a welcome escape to another world.

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