Crazy for You – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Jamie Wilson, Gavin Kalin and The Watermill Theatre present
Crazy for You
Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Paul Hart
Curve Theatre, Leicester

If you can cope with lashings of cheese and schmaltz and you’re crazy about corny, old-style musicals, then it’s your last chance to see the Watermill Theatre’s revival of Crazy for You, now hoofing it at Curve, the final venue on its current UK tour.

The reference to corn, cheese and schmaltz should not detract from the fact that this is a wonderfully produced show, featuring a clutch of TV stars and 19-strong company of supremely talented quadruple threats.

All instruments—from baritone saxophone and xylophone to flute and flugelhorn—are played live on stage by the cast, who also sing, dance and act their way through this celebration of the great Gershwin songbook. Even the programme is a thing of beauty (although more briefcase than handbag-sized).

Let’s not dwell too long on the plot; it is the barest of skeletal bones on which to hang the fineries of Diego Pitarch’s period-perfect costumes, his equally impressive set design and Nathan M Wright’s fun, flirty choreography.

Rich banker’s boy Bobby Childs (Tom Chambers) dreams of performing on the stage. His domineering mother demands he travels instead to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on the unused Gaiety Theatre, the owner of which is refusing to sell. Bobby sees Polly Baker (Charlotte Wakefield), the theatre owner’s daughter, and falls instantly in love.

In the instant immediately after, Bobby decides to help Polly and the initially reluctant locals put on a show, sell tickets, pay off the mortgage and, hooray, problem solved. Conflict and drama are added in the shape of Bobby’s fiancée Irene (Claire Sweeney), a case of mistaken identity with “hilarious consequences” as Bobby impersonates impresario Bela Zangler (Neil Ditt) and a lack of an audience.

Wakefield is a sensible, practical foil for Chambers’s relentless charm and cheerfulness, as they spar and make great music together, particularly “Embraceable You”. Wakefield’s performance of “Someone to Watch Over Me” is sublime—a shame she seems to end up with the least appealing costumes (frumpy and a bit too Calamity Jane).

Ditt and Chambers’s routine to “What Causes That?” is great fun and a perfect example of excellent comic timing, slapstick and stage presence – all hallmarks of this show, Chambers in particular. Claire Sweeney adds a zhuzh of glamour; her spats with Bobby, Polly and Lank Hawkins (Christopher Fry) are nice and catty and she flounces on and off stage like a good ‘un.

This show is pure escapism. Based on Gershwin’s 1930s Depression-era show Girl Crazy, Ken Ludwig performed a major re-write, added new songs from the Gershwins’ impressive back catalogue and Crazy for You opened to award-winning success on Broadway in 1992 and the West End the following year. Ludwig has included a lot of good jokes and a welcome antidote to the sugary sentiment.

I feel the inventiveness and exhilaration of “I Got Rhythm”, which brings act one to an end, has more impact than the show’s finale, as Bobby and Polly descend to the stage on a giant crescent moon ‘C’. All very Hollywood, but a bit much for me.

Has it aged well from the ‘90s? The all-white cast needs calling out and female empowerment is swiftly swept under the carpet (as marriage seems to trump all yet again), but in terms of sheer entertainment and enjoyment, this show has it by the shedload.

Images by Richard Davenport

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Easy and cheesy, plus a take on a wedding cake

I often find myself in discussions with people about the joys of looking through the recipe books of long-missed and loved relatives, particularly grandmothers.  I enjoy their familiar, neat handwriting, the odd splatters of food all jumbled up with memories of school holidays, and comforting tastes, smells and textures.

One such recent conversation with Ruth has resulted in a tasty recipe for cheese straws from a much-loved Be Ro book passed down the generations.

These straws are crisp, cheesy and rolled pretty thinly – so maybe cheese thins? Anyway, delicious. I will try these next with gluten free flour at some point soon, as there are two cheese-loving coeliacs in my family who may enjoy them. Nice served as a Jenga straw stack.

And talking of families, two were joined together yesterday at a lovely wedding, you may have heard about it (and I made a cake in their honour, see second recipe).

Ruth’s cheese straws

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Makes about 50

4oz (100g) self-raising flour
pinch of slat
pinch of mustard powder
2 oz (50g) butter
3oz (75g) mature cheddar or Red Leicester, grated
1 egg, beaten

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180C, 350F,Gas 4. Grease a baking tray.
  2. Mix flour, salt and mustard together. Rub in the butter.
  3. Stir in the cheese and add sufficient egg to make a stiff dough.
  4. Roll out very thinly and cut into strips. Cut a few rings to stack strips into if wished. Place on a baking tray.
  5. Bake for 10-15 minutes. Place on a wire rack to cool.

Verdict: nice and cheesey. If making again, I could probably roll them out even thinner and cut longer, thinner strips.

A take on a lemon and elderflower cake 

Congratulations Harry and Meghan. Many around the country were inspired to host a tea party in their honour; an excellent idea, and whilst some may be fed up hearing about the wedding, I’m not one to turn down the opportunity for tea, scones and cake. I understand the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex enjoyed a lemon and elderflower sponge cake as part of their celebrations. Such a lovely fresh, late spring or early summer combination of flavours – here’s my homage to the HRHs.

For the cake
8oz (200g) softened butter
8oz (200g) golden caster sugar
4 eggs
10oz (100g) self-raising flour
juice of half a lemon
2 good tablespoons of lemon curd

Icing and filling
A generous tablespoon of lemon curd
14oz (400g) icing sugar
7 oz (175g) butter
elderflower cordial – about 5 teaspoons

  1. Preheat oven to 170C/Gas 3. Grease and bottom-line two Victoria sandwich tins (7″/23cm)
  2. Cream butter and sugar together until fluffy. Beat eggs and add gradually, adding a little flour if needed. Fold in flour, add juice and lemon curd.
  3. Divide equally between the two tins (I also had enough left over for six cup cakes)
  4. Bake for approx 20 minutes until springy to touch and skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin briefly then turn out onto a wire rack to cool (NB the lemon curd makes this quite a sticky sponge).
  5. For the icing: Beat butter, add icing sugar (sieved) and mix to form a stiff consistency. Add cordial gradually and taste. Add more if you like, but add a little more sugar if it becomes too ‘loose’.
  6. Spread lemon curd on one half of the cake, spread a layer of icing on the bottom of the top cake. Place the two cakes together and cover the top with the remaining icing. (I also had enough left over to ice the cup cakes). You could always ice the sides of the cake instead if preferred.
  7. Decorate with flowers, real or otherwise. I used summery daisies and butterflies from Dr Oetker (I’m no cake decorator).

Verdict: not bad. Perhaps more cordial needed to get more than a hint of elderflower. Alternatively, will try making an elderflower drizzle/syrup next time to pour over the sponges once they are out of the oven.

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Fleabag – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

DryWrite and Soho Theatre present
Fleabag
by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
directed by Vicky Jones
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman monologue Fleabag has been on one hec of a journey: first performed by Waller-Bridge at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, the show then toured the UK, was made into a six-part TV series for BBC3, transferred to BBC2 and then Amazon Prime in 2016. Throw in a successful foray to the US, a clutch of awards including a BAFTA  and an Olivier nomination, and Waller-Bridge’s “confessions of a millennial” franchise has come of age.

A revival of the original 60-minute monologue—this time with Maddie Rice as Fleabag who took on the role at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe—is midway through a short UK tour.

We root for our not fully reliable narrator Fleabag from the start; we cringe as a wardrobe malfunction gets a job interview off to a disastrous start, we sympathise and empathise as we learn of the loss of her mother, her tricky relationship with her dad, the death of her best friend Boo (also co-owner of their cash-strapped guinea-pig themed cafe) and we laugh with her as she describes the anthropomorphic antics of Hilary, Boo’s guinea pig. We combine all these emotions as we witness her voracious appetite for sex (including enthusiastic top-ups from Porn Hub). It’s full-on, full-frontal, gross-out funny.

But this is really a study of love, loss and loneliness. Fleabag hasn’t quite realised what she’s searching for, thinking her worth is measured only by her ability to make a man want to have sex with her.

Working one of drama’s key tenets, namely comedy and tragedy are so good together, Waller-Bridge keeps us engaged and on-side with skill, despite some shocking reveals. Rice is charismatic, her in-your-face delivery of Fleabag’s experiences with men, menstruation and masturbation beautifully tempered by masterful use of pauses and half-finished sentences.

Vicky Jones’s direction has the pace just right and, overall, this is a perfect package for fringe theatre: a simple set of a stool on a red square on a raised plinth, minimal movement, lighting and sound design just right (Elliot Griggs and Isobel Waller-Bridge respectively). I say fringe; however, this show is at Curve for five performances in the almost-300 seater Studio, sometimes the main house of other venues on the tour, and a reflection of its success onscreen.

These are the musings of a twenty-something who has grown up with selfies, sexting and swiping left or right, yet does not alienate those for whom these phenomena may have passed them by, such is its grounding in base, human emotions (and bodily functions).

Fleabag offers masterclasses in tight, controlled writing, skilled storytelling and comic delivery. In short, painfully funny, painfully poignant.

Images by Richard Davenport

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Love from a Stranger – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Fiery Angel and Royal and Derogate Northampton present
Agatha Christie’s Love From a Stranger
by Agatha Christie and Frank Vesper
directed by Lucy Bailey
Curve Theatre, Leicester

If you happen to have an Aunt Lou Lou in your life, listen to her. Although something of a Lady Bracknell-esque character and comedic relief in Agatha Christie’s thriller Love from a Stranger, it turns out Auntie has a knack for sniffing out a wrong ‘un.

Christie’s work is enjoying something of a renaissance, what with the high glamour of Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 movie remake of Murder on the Orient Express and the BBC’s chilling TV adaptation of And Then There Were None in 2015.

Perhaps a surprising nugget of information regarding Ms Christie is that she is the most successful female playwright of all time. Writer of 20 plays, not least the West End marathon The Mousetrap (now in its 66th year), she is still likely to be more well known as a novelist; synonymous with crime and detection, although her focus is always on the why and the who rather than police procedure.

And Love from a Stranger is totally relationship driven. Based on Christie’s 1934 short story Philomel Cottage, she adapted it for the stage with further embellishments by Frank Vosper, opening in the West End in 1936. Now, and following success with her revival of Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution), director Lucy Bailey gives this Fiery Angel and Royal and Derngate Northampton touring co-production a re-boot, re-setting it in 1958. Save for a few references and costume changes, however, it could be set any time thanks to its central themes of control, coercion and humankind’s innate fallibility.

Bored and uninspired by the thought of marrying her staid and dependable fiancé Michael (Justin Avoth), newly-minted Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) calls off the engagement in search of a more adventurous and spontaneous life, the intermittent but insistent ticking of a clock a significant background noise. With immaculate timing, enter charming American Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), interested in renting Cecily’s flat but, as the audience quickly discovers, with more sinister plans in mind.

Mike Britton’s ingenious set enables us to see what Cecily doesn’t—the shifting walls and rooms literally changing our perspective and viewpoint. Not knowing Bruce is a peeping Tom with an unhealthy interest in her lingerie, Cecily falls quick and hard for this stranger, and is soon Mrs Lovell.

We must believe prim and proper Cecily will do this, and Bradbury and Frenchum convince as a couple who fall in love at first sight, he seemingly providing all the freedom and escape she is craving. Frenchum’s penetrating male gaze is chilling, but irresistible. My reservations about Cecily’s actions niggle: why would a woman of newly-independent means seeking a different life marry and settle down so quickly? Still, this is 1958 not 2018 of course, and when under sexual tension’s intoxicating spell, you’ll do anything.

Aided by judicious use of screens and blackouts, Oliver Fenwick’s clever lighting and Richard Hammarton’s unnerving sound design, Bailey directs this thriller with aplomb, building tension and moving matters along with controlled pace. The supporting cast work well, including Nicola Sanderson’s imperious Aunt Louise Garrard, and rather fruity maid Ethel (Molly Logan), all asking questions, sprinkling clues and firing the odd smoking gun.

Don’t think too hard about the plot (although it makes for a lively post-show discussion), this is an absorbing and unsettling thriller, packing an erotic charge and with a corker of a climax.

Images by Sheila Burnett

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The Little Mermaid – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Northern Ballet presents
The Little Mermaid
Director and choreography by David Nixon
Music by Sally Beamish
Curve Theatre, Leicester

After Northern Ballet’s 2017 world première of its new ballet The Little Mermaid in Southampton, the national tour is brought to a close for 2018 at Curve in land-locked Leicester.

Taking the Hans Christian Andersen version of the story as its inspiration, rather than the more child-friendly 1989 animation, this is a tale of love, pain and sacrifice, and for which there is no sprinkle of Disney fairy dust to ensure a happy-ever-after ending for our protagonist.

Marilla (Abigail Prudames) and her mermaid sisters (Aileen Ramos Betancourt and Miki Akuta) are a little like marine magpies, collecting trinkets discarded or lost in the sea by humans. Marilla falls in love with an image of Prince Adair (Joseph Taylor) from a locket and, after saving him after his ship sinks in a storm, determines she must become human to be with him on land. After taking a potion from Lyr, Lord of the Sea (Matthew Topliss), Marilla gives up her voice and tail in exchange for legs, her new limbs awkward and painful.

By then, Adair has fallen in love with Dana (Dreda Blow), believing her to have been the woman who saved him. Marilla must watch in silence as Adair and Dana marry. Although her sisters provide her with one last chance to return to the sea by ending Adair’s life, Marilla sacrifices her own for Adair’s happiness with Dana.

Choreography and direction by David Nixon, Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Kimie Nakano’s design combine beautifully, creating magical underwater effects in this stylish ballet. We dive into a mystical world of ethereal sirens, mermaids carried high above the corps de ballet, swimming in the waves of the Water Men and Women’s skirts. The attention to detail in movement is stunning: tiny flicks of the fingers as fins, hands and arms swaying gently, suspended in water.

Two shimmering, pearlised underwater edifices switch around to become rough, craggy rocks on land, perfectly depicting the contrast between Marilla’s two worlds.

The storm scenes are thrilling and dramatic as sailors are picked off the ship, dragged under and carried away by the pull of the storm. On land, wedding guests dance a ceilidh reel, the men resplendent in brocade-trimmed kilts.

Blow and Taylor’s pas de deux are innocent, tender and playful. Topliss is a commanding Lyr, his demeanor strong and definite as he pushes proudly through his watery kingdom. This though is the story of the little mermaid, and Prudames shines as Marilla, her hopes turning to physical and emotional pain and tragedy. Her quivers and fluidity underwater contrast with her awkward ‘otherness’ on land.

After Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which also premièred in 2017, The Little Mermaid is more coherent as a concept, and certainly as a ballet. Whilst Sally Beamish’s dramatic score reinforces the Celtic themes in elements of the costume design, there is occasional discord between score and story. The narrative is clear in the main, although reference to the synopsis in the excellent programme prior to act 2 may help, particularly with younger audience members.

A sensuous and absorbing telling of a classic fairy tale.

Images by Emma Kauldhar

 

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The Last Ship – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Karl Sydow and Kathryn Schenker in association with Northern Stage present 
The Last Ship
Music and lyrics by Sting
Book and director Lorne Campbell
Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Described as Sting’s “personal, passionate and political” musical, The Last Ship feels like a love song to this global rock star’s Geordie childhood, as well as a lament to the shipbuilding past of the North East.

Now at its third location on a 12-stop UK tour, this musical has been several years in the making; originally, and somewhat inexplicably for such a peculiarly British show, opening on Broadway in 2014 for a short run, then revived and re-launched in 2017 with new producers Karl Sydow, Kathryn Schenker in association with the Northern Stage, opening at its ‘home’ venue earlier this year.

The Last Ship tells the tale of shipbuilding town Wallsend, where the heavy plant construction of the latest ship towers over the terraced streets. A young Gideon Fletcher wants no part of this and runs away to the Navy, away from home and his sweetheart Meg (unaware she is pregnant by him). He returns 17 years later to Thatcher’s Britain, the shipbuilders on strike, Meg now owner of several businesses and a daughter Ellen, who wants to escape to London with her band.

The shipbuilders have almost completed a new vessel, Utopia, a symbolically significant name given the government and the company owners deem the ship is too costly to sell and should now be dismantled for scrap. As the health of their stoic foreman Jackie White deteriorates, the community takes action to try to save the ship and their town.

As we hear at the start, this community are “the tellers, not the telled”, and the Wallsend story they tell is typical of many nationalised industries of the 1980s at the mercy of political ideology and the marketplace.

Sting’s lyrics and Lorne Campbell’s book have a poetic strength, although frequently veer into simplistic, predictable rhyming couplets, occasional cheesy sentiment and stereotypical characters. That said, the choral power of Sting’s music gives this show real heart and soul, with stunning vocal arrangements and songs mainly in a folk style (often accompanied with emphatic stamping), along with a few jazz, soul and Latin-inspired numbers.

59 Productions’ design is a key element to this production, evoking coastal, crashing waves, the community church’s stillness and arched grandeur, as well as the cranes and metalwork of Tyneside’s skyline. On-stage projections are an effective addition to many shows currently, and this is one of the best I’ve seen.

A busy stage, the cast of 18 (and just-on-stage band of five) all deliver strong performances, dynamic and full of energy. Whilst this is very much a male-dominated industry, I found the female relationships and performances of more interest, particularly Frances McNamee’s independent, proud Meg nuanced with her fears for her daughter Ellen, a spirited performance by Katie Moore doubling as narrator.

Charlie Hardwick as Jackie’s wife Peggy is tender, but strong when she needs to be, and her scenes with Joe McGann (Jackie) are sincere and convincing as a long-married couple. Richard Fleeshman (Gideon) sings in a similar style to Sting, not a bad thing but an interesting reflection of his position as returning local boy having made his name elsewhere in the world.

As the musical nears its end, the plot is in danger of floundering on the rocks of cliché and implausibility, however, a rousing speech by Moore (notwithstanding a rather left-field plea to “save our NHS”) and a storming, stomping finale bring this ship home to a heartwarming conclusion.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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The Siren Club – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Young Company presents
The Siren Club
Written and directed by Sarah Ingram
Choreography by Melanie Knott and Darren Bennett
Musical director Stephen Waterhouse (CYC) and Lucy Wass (RSA)

“Let’s sing, dance and fall in love like tomorrow never comes.”

These are the inviting words of MC and host at The Siren Club, Archie Wells. When tomorrow does come for Archie, he’ll leave his tuxedo and Blighty behind for the uniform of the 8th Army and the Second World War’s latest recruit.

In this second production by CYC Musicals, one of the Curve Young Company programmes for 7- to 25-year-olds, the cast and professional creatives supporting them have devised and choreographed The Siren Club; it’s 1942 and the last night of freedom for the 8th Army’s new recruits. Predominantly through song and dance, moments of lives on the cusp of huge change and danger are presented—a rushed proposal, a young soldier besotted with a nightclub singer, young beaus and their girls enjoying the music to help them forget what’s coming.

Set out like a dance hall with cabaret seating and walls adorned with cheeky posters of the period (“Let’s catch him with his panzers down”), the cast of 33 perform around us, dancing to the Siren Club band (the accomplished Robert Smyth Academy Big Band).

Writer and director Sarah Ingram, together with choreographers Mel Knott and Darren Bennett (currently busy at Curve, combining this with his performances in An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical) wanted the cast to experience performance beyond the fourth wall, encouraging performers to research and devise their characters and remain in character throughout. Actors sometimes ask for the pleasure of a dance with an audience member, or swing and execute the odd acrobatic tumble to many classics of the era: “Little Brown Jug”, “Pennysylvania 6-5000” and “In the Mood”.

There is something of a backlash currently to use of the word ‘immersive’, yet many productions now boast an immersive element to their shows; it will certainly be a useful skill for aspiring triple-threaters. As an audience member, I found this immersion a thrill to be in amongst the energy of this group of talented performers, dancing to the big band sound and getting proceedings after the interval off to a pulsing start with Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”.

Finlay Watkinson plays a smooth and debonair Archie Wells, in control of the night from the start. Mialuca Backus is mature and sultry as nightclub singer Miss Ruby, and Carmen Farrell’s performance of a poem leading into the “White Cliffs of Dover” cuts through the nightclub vibe with a poignant yet beautifully optimistic delivery to bring the evening to an end.

There are two stark reminders of why we’re all here: suddenly ushered out at the interval as the air raid siren wails (a chilling sound no matter your age), and closing with young men marching out to their fate as their girls cry and wave them off, the actors themselves not far in age behind those who did it for real.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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