The Bodyguard The Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Images by Paul Coltas

Michael Harrison, David Ian, Crossroads Live, MEHR-BB Entertainment, Playing Field Theatre Ltd, Marvish Productions and Michael Watt present
The Bodyguard The Musical
Book by Alex Dinelaris based on the screen play by Lawrence Kasdan, music and lyrics by various
Curve Theatre, Leicester
17–22 April 2023

Maybe the recent notoriety with this show has helped ticket sales, but Curve’s week with The Bodyguard The Musical is practically sold out. This is the next stop on the production’s UK tour following the “viral” anti-social behaviour of a small number of people in the Manchester audience a couple of weeks ago; the audience here in Leicester obligingly followed to the letter the request not to “rustle sweet wrappers or sing along during the show”, with this announcement even receiving a round of applause.

A relatively current show, The Bodyguard The Musical premièred in the West End in 2012 and has been touring off and on around the world since 2015. Alex Dinelaris has done a good job of adapting the 1992 film starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner into this pacey production; it’s pared down to a minimum and characterisation is sacrificed along the way, however, the inclusion of additional Houston hits alongside those from the film soundtrack complement the storytelling.

Director Thea Sharrock gets things off to an explosive start with gunshots from an attempted assassination and our first introduction to former secret service agent Frank Farmer (Ayden Callaghan), followed by hot flames shooting skywards during “Queen of the Night”. It’s all a bit meta as this opening number is a concert performance by Rachel Marron (Samantha Mbolekwa), a global superstar singer and actor. She is unaware a stalker has been sending her death threats; her manager arranges for additional protection and persuades Farmer to come out of retirement to head up her security.

Initially reluctant to accept Frank’s presence and need for additional precautions, Rachel goes against Frank’s wishes and performs at an event where security is weak. Her stalker almost succeeds in attacking her, Frank intervenes and from then on, romance between fiery Rachel and strait-laced Frank develops. This is complicated by unrequited feelings for Frank from Rachel’s overlooked sister Nicki (Emily-Mae). Threats increase, tension mounts and tragedy unfolds.

The songs and vocal performances plus high-value production values are the “stars” here. Mbolekwa and Emily-Mae are particularly good, belting out the big ballads and more up-tempo numbers with power and expression. The karaoke elements were fun and Callaghan’s interpretation of “I Will Always Love You” doesn’t take itself too seriously. The tension generated around the actions of the stalker (Marios Nicolaides) made me jump several times and added thrills.

As mentioned, there’s not much scope here for character development and stereotypes abound, however, the changes in Frank, Nicki and Rachel’s relationships are clearly signposted. Frank’s interactions with Rachel’s son Fletcher (Iesa Miller) provide opportunities to see Frank’s softer side and allow him to break away from looking serious and imposing, frowning a lot and speaking to his colleague on the phone—seriously.

This is a complicated and highly technical production executed with precision, Tim Hatley’s versatile set with sweeping curtains, and costume design with quick-change glamour and sensible ‘at-home’ knitwear are just right and echo the costumes in the film.

This is a slick production with the company delivering the vocal goods, and a nice release at the end for us all to dance and sing as loud as we like, leaving the theatre on a high.

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Noughts & Crosses – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide.

Images by Robert Day

Pilot Theatre presents
Noughts & Crosses
Adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz from the novel by Malorie Blackman
Curve Theatre
28 March – 1 April 2023

The power of Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel Noughts & Crosses is still very real. Two stage adaptations, a BBC TV series in 2020 and a place on the GCSE drama curriculum ensure a wider audience continues to be exposed to its stark examination of racial prejudice and discrimination.

Pilot Theatre revived their original 2019 production last year and it is now coming to the end of a UK tour. Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation has a poetic feel with nods to the diaristic style of Blackman’s novel; Esther Richardson’s direction reflects the whirlwind pace of the long first act, with more contemplative “reveals” after the interval.

Set in the not-too-distant but recognisable future, this is a re-imagining of the Romeo and Juliet storyline: Sephy (Effie Ansah) is a privileged “Cross” teenager, daughter of Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Daniel Norford) and with the Crosses the authoritarian, ruling class. Callum (James Arden) is a Nought, brought up as playmates with Sephy thanks to Callum’s mum Meggie (Emma Keele) working as the Hadley’s nanny. The Crosses have black skin, the Noughts are white; in a world where the Noughts are oppressed with minimal rights and freedoms, Sephy and Callum are equals as friends, and fall in love.

Sephy is frustrated with her home life: an absent father, an alcoholic mother Jasmine (Amie Buhari) and aloof older sister Minerva (Abiola Efunshile). Sephy and Callum’s situation is further complicated by Callum’s brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) and father Ryan (Daniel Copeland) joining the Liberation Militia, a violent organisation seeking an end to the Crosses’ supremacist rule. Callum gets caught up in these activities and, as with the Romeo and Juliet plot of doomed love, tragedy unfolds.

Responding to Mahfouz’s short, snappy scenes, designer Simon Kenny uses suggestion of a “familiar but different” world, with panels of red, black and neon signifying different spaces, as well as a means to project TV reports and CCTV screens to aid storytelling. The set is sparse—it’s the words and mood that matter here, props are utilitarian, the Crosses have ample space in their scenes, the Noughts are cramped, and Ben Cowans’s lighting further emphasises the various tableaux. Arun Ghosh and Xana’s music and sound design are relentlessly sinister and foreboding.

There has to be chemistry between Sephy and Callum for this fast-paced production to work and Ansah and Arden have this, as well as portraying their characters’ evolution as they cope with both their developing relationship and navigating their prejudiced world. Both actors are impressive in their first professional leading roles, with strong support from the cast covering a variety of roles.

As with An Inspector Calls last week, the audience for this performance (the night before press night) was dominated by groups of schoolchildren, this time it looked like years 7 to 9 (cue much giggling during the love scene). A young man a few seats from me, still in his school blazer, sat totally transfixed throughout, providing a good demonstration of the compelling power of the Noughts & Crosses story. This chilling production does it justice.

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An Inspector Calls – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide.

Images by Mark Douet

National Theatre presents
An Inspector Calls
by J B Priestley
Curve Theatre, Leicester
21–25 March 2023

Many words have already been written about J B Priestley’s stage thriller An Inspector Calls, now approaching the 80th anniversary of its first performance in 1945 in Moscow. And these words aren’t just by the critics over the years but by thousands of GCSE students, given the play’s longstanding appearance on the National Curriculum. Coachloads of young people crowding Curve’s confectionery stands on press night attest to its continued study.

Stephen Daldry made his directorial debut at the National in 1992 with this groundbreaking and multi-award-winning revival, where scrupulous adherence to Edwardian period detail was jettisoned in favour of Ian MacNeil’s surrealist set design.

As an all-clear siren sounds, three children play in front of heavy, slightly tattered velvet drapes which lift to reveal rain pounding grey cobbles and an oddly skewed but grand house on stilts. Cramped in the dining room, the Birlings celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrock) to the wealthy businessman George Croft (Simon Cotton). Sheila’s father Arthur (Jeffrey Harmer) wastes no opportunity to remind the gathered company of his successes as factory owner, Lord Mayor, and now there’s rumours of a knighthood. Sheila’s younger brother Eric (George Rowlands) has issues with alcohol, and mother Sybil (Christine Kavanagh) is the haughty lady of the manor.

And then an inspector calls. Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives at the Birling residence to question the family on their knowledge of Eva Smith, a young working class woman who lies dead at the hospital having committed suicide. Gradually, each character’s involvement in Eva’s life is revealed, along with social commentary on the treatment of the “have nots” by the “haves”.

Created in the early days of Attlee’s post-WW2 regeneration of Britain but set in 1912 as the First World War looms, there is still much that resonates with 21st century Britain. Priestley’s political leanings are clear and in terms of theatre holding a mirror up to society, how far have we changed in these past 80 years? An essay for politics and history students there, I’m sure.

A good essay could also be written on the directorial and theatrical choices with Daldry’s production, currently touring the UK. It is rich in signifiers, not least the ivory tower of the Birlings’ home, perched above the squalor of the streets below. The fourth wall is broken regularly, actors turn to the audience as if giving evidence in court, ever-present subservient maid Edna (Frances Campbell) is always watching, and all accentuated by Rick Fisher’s lighting which puts the family and their behaviour literally “under the spotlight”.

Performances are strong, sometimes delivery is a little overblown for my tastes, but Brennan convinces as the enigmatic, principled Goole. I prefer also to go with the hope offered by Sheila and Eric as their journeys conclude.

An Inspector Calls justifies its place on the curriculum, as a piece of theatre to thrill, and as a creative endeavour. Further, it provides the opportunity for reflection on human behaviour and how we treat each other, particularly those less fortunate than ourselves. A thought-provoking production in many ways.

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Girl from the North Country

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide (March 2023)

Tristan Baker and Charlie Parsons for Runaway Entertainment and The Old Vic present
Girl from the North Country
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan
Curve Theatre, Leicester
7 – 11 March 2023

In the programme notes, writer and director Conor McPherson describes Girl From the North Country as “a conversation between the songs and the story”. Having received a package of 40 Bob Dylan albums (sent to him by Dylan), McPherson has woven around 20 songs into the narratives of a similar number of characters who congregate at a Depression-era guesthouse in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota.

This is not a jukebox musical, nor do the songs drive the story forward through the usual conventions of the genre. Instead, Simon Hales’s gorgeously harmonic orchestrations and arrangements complement McPherson’s vignettes. This approach allows appreciation of the lyrics and the songs themselves, with space to reflect on the characters’ motivations.

Rae Smith’s set design features a large, tarnished-looking proscenium arch which frames the stage, reminiscent of a radio set of the period. A handful of flats depicting doorways and windows descend to depict different rooms and scene changes, with black and white landscape shots from Duluth projected on backdrops. Substantial wooden furniture is moved by the cast.

The Laine family form the focal point of the various stories, with Nick Laine (Colin Connor) and his wife Elizabeth (Nichola MacEvilly) running the guesthouse, months away from foreclosure. Elizabeth also requires constant care due to advanced dementia, their son Gene (Gregor Milne) is an aspiring but ultimately unsuccessful writer, and their adopted daughter, Marianne (Justina Kehinde), is pregnant, apparently abandoned by the father whom she won’t name.

The guesthouse is a gathering point for people on the move, whether that is looking for work, a better life or escaping something in their past. Boxer Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson) has been in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the Burke family are chasing debtors and escaping creditors, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) acts as an occasional narrator, filling in some of the gaps, but what I liked about this show is the slowly unravelling threads of stories, the possible motives, the unfinished business; the Chekhov’s gun moment surprised me with its later denouement. Ultimately, these are desperate people hoping for something better, and while that could sound relentlessly depressing, the music provides emotional power and lift.

Mood is also enhanced by Mark Henderson’s lighting design, various tableaux lit in silhouette.

The excellent on-stage band The Howlin’ Winds are enhanced by cast members also accompanying on different instruments, and overall, it is the soaring musical score and performance that lift this production into a really satisfying theatrical experience. Vocal performances throughout the cast are superlative and hard to single them out, however, MacEvilly’s performance in “Like a Rolling Stone” is stunning, Gregor Milne makes an impressive professional debut, particularly in “I Want You”, and Kehinde is a compelling and powerful presence as Marianne.

Currently on a UK tour, this production is well-worth your time, no matter whether you’re a fan of Dylan’s music. The arrangements fit well into the period setting but also achieve a timeless feel, another of McPherson’s objectives when creating the show. His direction is paced well, and while these characters are living transient lives and not always giving much away themselves, the couple of hours in their company is an enjoyable experience.

Images by Johan Persson

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Annie – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide (February 2023)

Michael Harrison, David Ian present
Book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin
Curve Theatre
25 February to 4 March 2023

Never work with children and animals, they say. The ever-popular musical Annie does not heed this particular warning, featuring not only performers still in primary school but a dog (in this case, Amber with an understated performance as Annie’s adopted stray Sandy).

Originally opening on Broadway in 1977, Annie boasts a Tony award-winning book and score, numerous productions over the years and two film versions. The acclaimed 2017 West End production now begins its third UK tour, opening at Curve with Craig Revel Horwood reprising the role of boozy, crooked Miss Hannigan (later shows in the run feature Paul O’Grady, Jodie Prenger and Elaine C Smith).

Annie is a well-known, much-performed musical; many love its escapist optimism, others not so much. Having previously been in the latter camp, this production has won me over—it oozes charm, humour and exceptional performances.

Set in 1930s New York in the midst of the Depression, Annie (Zoe Akinyosade) and her fellow orphans endure the cold-heartedness of Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. But Annie never gives up hope that her parents will come back for her. A visit by Grace Farrell (Amelia Adams), personal assistant to billionaire Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks (Alex Bourne), signals a change in Annie’s fortune.

Warbucks, in a fit of philanthropy, wants to treat an orphan to a two-week stay at his mansion over the Christmas holidays. Annie is chosen and, while Warbucks is initially disappointed Annie isn’t a boy, he is soon smitten by her charm and approach to life. However, Miss Hannigan and her dastardly brother Rooster (Paul French) and his girlfriend Lily (Billie-Kay) have other ideas and attempt to make financial gains at Annie’s expense.

Director Nikolai Foster achieves a good balance between the desperate situations of the orphans and those struggling to survive in challenging times, and the humour and razzmatazz of a crowd-pleasing musical; endearing charm cuts through any issues around syrupy sweetness.

There are a few niggles with sound balance and lyrics lost in the “New Yoik” accents, but other than that, this is a dazzling production with a great cast.

Akinyosade gets the tone of Annie just right with her kind-hearted and determined spirit shining through. Her vocal performance too is particularly impressive, her powerful voice belying her nine years. Annie never gives up hope, she charms all she meets (except Miss Hannigan) and, hec, she even inspires FDR and his New Deal policies to invest in public services and work the country out of recession (someone give this girl a role in Number 10…).

Craig Revel Horwood plays Miss Hannigan as a man playing a woman (as opposed to in the style of a pantomime dame); it seems something of a natural next step, complementing his notorious role as the boo-hiss judge on Strictly. He is clearly at home with horrible Miss Hannigan, having fun with the accent, humour and her general wickedness—and a great voice too, with “Little Girls” particularly a real treat.

Colin Richmond’s set and costume design are a sumptuous treat with jigsaw pieces framing the stage and signifying Annie’s search to fit the pieces of her life and identity together, and costume hues of lilac, browns, pink and orange are pleasing to the eye. Choreography by Nick Winston is fun and energetic.

Times are hard for many at the moment and we live in a world of extremes, themes which are mirrored in this musical with the haves and have-nots in stark contrast.

Escape for a while in Annie’s companyfor a welcome and massive dose of optimism, fun and heartfelt emotion.

Images by Hugo Glendenning and Paul Coltas (of Craig Revel Horwood as Miss hannigan)

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide (January 2023)

National Theatre presents
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Joel Horwood
Curve Theatre
31 January – 11 February 2023

Experiencing The Ocean at the End of the Lane is reminiscent of a fairground ride: twists and turns, shocks, scares, and a mixture of joy and sadness as the ride gently slows to a halt. You leave your seat and want to do it all over again.

Adapted by Joel Horwood from Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novella, and with the further creative might of the National Theatre behind it, this gripping production is in the early stages of a UK tour. If you can see it, do so—it is a wholly satisfying theatrical experience.

Underlying themes of things not being quite what they seem and the convergence and divergence of memory and reality frame a poignant story of friendship and family.

Down by a duckpond at the end of a lane, we meet Boy as an adult (Trevor Fox), returning to his childhood home for his father’s funeral. He re-encounters Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams) and, as she gives him a glass of milk, warm from the cow, he is transported back to his childhood where, as a 12-year-old (played endearingly by Daniel Cornish, not pictured in the production shots), he witnesses the aftermath of the suicide of the family’s lodger.

Boy meets Lettie (a fabulously exuberant Millie Hikasa), who appears to be his age, but as they become friends and he meets her mum Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and grandmother Old Mrs Hempstock, there is something mystical and ancient about them: “I remember when the moon was made,” says Old Mrs Hempstock when asked her age.

Boy is a lonely child teetering on the brink of teenagerhood, lost in his books, particularly C S Lewis’s Narnia series, and with Dad (also played by Fox) and Sis (Laurie Ogden), we see a family grieving the loss of their mother the previous year.

Lettie shows Boy the wonders of her “ocean” (the duck pond), the portal to other worlds and monsters. Whilst there, he briefly lets go of her hand, allowing a nightmare to begin. Ursula (Charlie Brooks, clearly relishing the femme fatale and sinister elements of her role) arrives at the family home, worming her way—literally, in a rather gruesome scene—into their lives and all but Boy succumb to her charms. A quest to free Boy, and the world, of his demons begins.

This is a lavish production, an excellent cast and superb direction by Katy Rudd. Steven Hoggett’s movement direction really lifts the action, from the choreography of scene changes to stage battles, and most impressively, the stunning scene where Ursula is not what or where she seems as she negotiates multiple doorways.

There are so many layers to this production: Jamie Harrison’s magic and illusions, Jherek Bischoff’s thumping soundtrack, Ian Dickinson’s chilling soundscape, Fly Davis’s foreboding, fairytale-like forest framing the stage, Paule Constable’s lighting design, and costume and puppet design by Samuel Wyer—the sequence of Lettie and Boy swimming in the ocean is particularly moving, and a striking contrast with the mayhem of monsters.

Thrilling, gripping, fantastical and relatable, this is a production to savour.

Images by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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Cinderella – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide (December 2022)

Imagine Theatre and De Montfort Hall present
by Will Brenton, adapted by Eric Potts
De Montfort Hall, Leicester
10 December 2022 – 2 January 2023

Celebrity siblings AJ and Curtis Pritchard (Strictly and Love Island respectively) along with CBeebies presenter Evie Pickerill are the headline stars in Imagine Theatre and De Montfort Hall’s production of Cinderella. This is wise casting with many demographics captured under this celebrity net and something for everyone—a key panto commandment.

Some cast and creatives return from previous productions, with Janice Dunn directing this year (having written and directed last year’s Sleeping Beauty), and comedian and compère Jarred Christmas transforming from Jarred the Jester to Buttons.

Writer Will Brenton, co-creator of The Tweenies, sets a good tone and the whole book (adapted by Eric Potts) contains a thorough dousing of puns and put-downs. AJ’s Strictly connection has been utilised well; a nice touch naming the stepsisters Tess and Claudia, there’s a “7 from Len”, as well as numerous dancing references.

On the side of all things good, Pickerill is warm and endearing as Cinderella, an excellent singer and actor and with an uncanny resemblance to Kylie which can’t do any harm. Christmas gives Buttons a nice polish; we all feel his pain after his failed marriage proposal to Cinderella (and this, followed by the cruelty of the ticket-tearing scene, brought some young audience members to howling tears).

Madison Swan as the Fairy Godmother brings some welcome attitude, and Richard J Fletcher is an energetic and charismatic Dame Penny Pockets. AJ and Curtis work well together, and I guess it’s no surprise that their dance moves are spot on.

Over on the dark side, Jacob Kohli prowls the stage as Baroness Verruca Wibble, milking every boo and hiss for what she’s worth, aided and abetted by her appallingly mean daughters Tess (Millie Robins) and Claudia (Sophie Camble).

Act 1 is brought to a spectacular close as Cinderella is transformed from her rags to a stunning dress projected onto a vast ‘parachute’ of material, to then be whisked away up into the night sky in her carriage in the sparkliest of dresses.

The “Twelve Days of Christmas” routine is a triumph, with much audience squealing during a water gun soaking, and “it’s behind you” steam let off during the “Ghostbusters” number. And a great ending as we’re all encouraged to “Get On Your Feet” for a rousing Gloria Estefan megamix.

I like the mix of pop music throughout, including Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” and Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”. However, The Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s feminist anthem “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” jars a little as Tess and Claudia’s theme tune, seeing as their sole purpose is to bag a rich husband, preferably Prince Charming, but, well, it’s Christmas I suppose.

This is a slick production and many key panto elements are here, plus some new, more modern touches. Come for the humour, the music, the moonlight, the love and romance—and dance.

Images by Geraint Lewis

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The Wizard of Oz – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide.

Curve Theatre presents
The Wizard of Oz
Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E Y Harburg, additional music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, additional lyrics by Tim Rice, adaptation by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams from the book by L Frank Baum
Curve Theatre, Leicester
19 November 2022–8 January 2023

If your senses are in need of stimulation over Christmas, then Curve’s production of The Wizard of Oz should hit the spot.

This is a retelling of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams’s 2011 musical based on the 1939 film, which in turn was based on L Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Director Nikolai Foster and his vast team (22 cast, 11 band members and what must be over 50 in production) deliver a trademark Foster creation: an iconic movie brought to the stage as a loving, respectful homage but with inventive twists and cheeky humour.

It is a swirling cyclone of psychedelia, pyrotechnics, video projection, a cute puppet and a clutch of well-known songs, performed with charm and full commitment to the non-stop pace. There is a danger this visual spectacular overshadows the storytelling and characterisation—I found myself drawn to Ben Thompson’s heart-warming puppetry portrayal of Toto and Rachel Canning’s eye-popping costume design: palettes of gingham and blue, fluorescent lime and yellow, trippy reds with The Poppies and biker grunge for the winged monkeys. So much detail, especially when combined with Colin Richmond’s futuristic set, reminiscent at times of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Ben Cracknell’s stunning lighting design.

Canning also provides another example of how the “baddie” tends to get the best costume, with the Wicked Witch of the West’s covetable knee-high purple velvet boots and black fitted coat.

Video projection (Douglas O’Connell) sets the scene in 1930s depression-era Kansas, evoking the cyclone’s destruction as troubled orphan Dorothy (Georgina Onuorah) is swept from her home and into her fever dream of the Munchkins, the Yellow Brick Road, and the Emerald City in the Land of Oz. She is aided on her quest to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West (a great performance by cover Ellie Mitchell who replaced Charlotte Jaconelli due to illness) and find her way home by the Scarecrow (Jonny Fines), Tin Man (Paul French) and Lion (Giovanni Spanó).

Onuorah is a bold and fearless Dorothy, with less of a sugar coating than Judy Garland’s performance in the film and for me this is no bad thing. Her performance of “Over the Rainbow” is beautifully delivered and heartfelt. The scenes with Dorothy, Toto and her three companions searching for their respective brain, heart and courage work well and “Yellow Brick Road”, with the revolving, interlocking road segments and puppet crows, is particularly enjoyable.

The Wizard of Oz’s long-lasting appeal lies in its messages of finding and accepting who you are, and kindness to others. It is busy on stage which could be a distraction from these sentiments, however, this is a production rich in ideas, energy and enthusiasm and a genuine love for the source material and its cultural legacy.

A surreal and escapist Christmas treat.

Images by Marc Brenner.

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Dido’s Bar – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Dash Arts with imPOSSIBLE Producing present
Dido’s Bar
Hattie Naylor, with music by Marouf Majidi and Riku Kantola
The Y Theatre, Leicester
18–19 October 2022

Director Josephine Burton was inspired by Virgil’s epic poem The Aenied to create Dido’s Bar, a contemporary reimagining of the poem’s characters as refugees fleeing war to find asylum.

Here, Aeneas crosses the sea via a smugglers’ boat and arrives at Dido’s Bar where a diverse and thriving collection of musical talent performs. The bar is run by sisters Juno (Georgina White) and Venus (Priscille Grace), both with different ideas on how to run their venue. The resident band, The Underworld, accompany the singers with a rousing fusion of styles and rhythms (Kurdish Iranian composer Marouf Majidi performs on stage as part of the band, and his own story of flight from his homeland is also the inspiration behind this production).

Act 1 tells the story of Dido (Lola May), headline act at Dido’s Bar and where she and rising star Aeneas (Lahcen Razzougui) fall in love. All does not end well, however, as Dido does not have the “right to remain” and falls foul of the authorities.

Act 2 is set in the more upmarket Bar Latinas run by singer Matina (Gemma Barnett) and her fiancé Turnus (Tuukka Leppänen). The mood and style is jazz, with the band now performing as The Tibers, including a costume change to white dinner jacket and bow tie. Against Matina’s instincts, Turnus wants to take the musical style away from jazz to a more folk style and his nationalistic tendencies come to the fore, culminating in a shocking racist attack on barman and migrant worker Marco (Lola May).

All the cast are impressive vocalists and it is this and the score which impress most. The tense and powerful “Panic Boats” closes act 1, and contrasts with the beautifully evocative “100 Moons” and “Sour Cherries”.

Cabaret seating at The Y Theatre lends itself well to this immersive performance and the cast mingle among the audience giving real impact. There are rich, lyrical and poetic elements to the dialogue, in keeping with the production’s roots. “Sour cherries, salt and rosewater tea” is a lovely line and capture Aeneas and Dido’s shared longing for their homeland. However, a running time of well over 2½ hours is too long and reflects the overall lack of pace, particularly in act 2. Dramatic tension comes only in the closing scenes but otherwise, several passages lack momentum.

This is an imaginative concept with a distinctive score and impressive vocal performances but, unfortunately, is let down by a sluggish pace.

The production will continue its tour to Portsmouth and Oxford during October.

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The Shawshank Redemption – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide.

Images by Jack Merriman

Bill Kenwright Ltd presents
The Shawshank Redemption
Based on the novella by Stephen King, adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns
Curve Theatre, Leicester
10 to 15 October 2022

A key theme of The Shawshank Redemption is time: doing time, how best to fill your time, biding your time. An unexplained delay of a good 15 minutes before the performance began plus extra after the interval therefore seemed ominous.

I remember in the early days of the DVD player, the 1994 film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1982 story Rita Heyworth and The Shawshank Redemption was often a free gift with the purchase of this new technology and the film has since become a fixture on many “best movie of all time” lists. This is a well-known and well-loved story, first adapted for the stage in 2009, and now “freshly rewritten” and midway through a nine-venue UK tour.

All scenes take place in the notorious Shawshank Maximum Security Penitentiary and Gary McCann’s set design of concrete pillars and walls, metal bars and harsh lighting leaves no hiding place for the inmates. An oak panel descending from the flies and leather chair offer a glimpse of the seat of power in Warden Stammas’s office.

To end up in Shawshank, you’ll have done something to deserve it, usually murder. Of course, all the prisoners will tell you they’re innocent, although in former banker Andy Dufresne’s case (Joe Absolom), convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, it turns out he is. Enduring the unwelcome advances of the Shawshank “Sisters”, Bogs (Jay Marsh) and Rooster (Leigh Jones), during his time inside, former banker Andy navigates their beatings and rape as well as the greed of Warden Stammas (Mark Heenehan) and guards. Andy eventually has a foot in both camps: keeper of his jailers’ financial secrets and champion of his fellow prisoners, obtaining books for the library run by long-timer Brooksie (Kenneth Jay) and helping new inmate Tommy (Coulter Dittman) take his school exams. When Tommy tells Andy of evidence that could help to free him, the Warden’s response is the catalyst Andy needs to set his plan for freedom underway.

This is a classic story of hope and humanity overcoming corruption and injustice, with the development of trust and friendship between “fixer” Red (Ben Onwukwe) and Andy at its core. Onwukwe and Absolom convince with their performances; Absolom reveals Andy’s quiet persistence and understanding of his fellow man—prisoner or guard—with dignity and restraint, and complements Onwukwe’s more robust portrayal of narrator Red. Brooksie’s story and Jay’s portrayal is heartbreaking: institutionalised and, although he has status on the inside, it is no preparation for his life back in society.

Aside from Red, Andy and Brooksie, characters are one-dimensional and stereotypical, and some scenes drag during the second act. The passage of time is marked by the changing music of the passing years framing key scenes rather than any discernible change in characterisation. This feels a patchy production with occasional technical issues, some detail lost in the staging and clatter and noise off stage during Red’s realisation of what Andy has achieved in the final scenes. These may be teething problems on the first night in a new venue, however they did detract from an otherwise gripping production.

There are moments of humour woven through this gritty tale of incarceration and redemption; the contrast in scenery and power of the final scene will restore your faith in the power of friendship and fortitude.

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