Giraffes Can’t Dance – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve, Rose Original Productions and Simon Friend in association with Hachette Children’s Group and Coolabi Group present
Giraffes Can’t Dance
based on the book by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees
adapted and directed by Julia Thomas
Curve Theatre, Leicester 18 December to 5 January

Another Christmas and another stage show adapted from a well-loved children’s story. This year, Curve Theatre together with Rose Original and Simon Friend productions have turned to Giles Andreae’s award-winning picture book Giraffes Can’t Dance (with Guy Parker-Rees’s vibrant illustrations).

Gerald (Sophie Coward) is a gangly, ungainly giraffe who doesn’t think he can dance, his lack of confidence compounded by the other animals in the jungle who mock his dancing prowess. Poor Gerald can only look on as the jungle animals enjoy a variety of dances at their annual Jungle Dance. A kindly cricket (Phyllis Ho) helps Gerald see that all he needs is a different tune to dance to his own music, and Gerald wows the other animals with his unique moves.

Aimed at the three years to infant school audience, this is a bright, busy, 55-minute adaptation with lots of laughs and audience participation. Adult enjoyment comes courtesy of some Strictly-style references and an amusing voiceover by a naturalist (sounding suspiciously like David Attenborough).

Whilst this is still Gerald’s story, adapter and director Julia Thomas has developed the role of Cricket further than in the book; a mentor figure for Gerald, Cricket also acts as Gerald’s cheerleader and narrator for the audience. Ho’s portrayal of Cricket has something of the zen about it, bringing a sense of concerned calm in opposition to the loud antics of the other animals. In this adaptation, the rhyming pattern of the story book has been replaced by dialogue and a handful of entertaining songs (which although didn’t stay in my head, did bring to mind some of the catchier numbers from The Lion King).

Coward is a graceful, rather forlorn Gerald, but his moonlit transformation from knock-kneed non-dancer on his A-frame ladder ‘legs’ to aerial acrobatic maestro is beautifully performed and wonderfully lit by Jane Lalljee.

As the Beetles, and other jungle friends, Joshua Coley, Gracia Rios and Jason Yeboa bring beatbox and a lot of bouncy energy to the stage, encouraging the audience to move and groove along with the show (a hard audience to please, I felt some of the participation responses towards the end of the show felt a little dutiful). Simon Kenny’s costumes add colour and humour, and the shiny Puffa-style jackets as worn by the streetwise Beetles are really effective.

Overall, a lovely show for those with young children, which cheerfully delivers some powerful messages: as well as the story’s overall positive theme that it is okay to be different and everyone is good at something, Cricket and Gerald also reassure us that it is okay to feel sad and lonely sometimes.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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Aladdin – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Imagine Theatre presents
Aladdin
by Eric Potts
directed by Janice Dunn
De Montfort Hall, Leicester 14 December 2019 – 5 January 2020

Imagine Theatre’s production of Aladdin rises high with an enjoyable take on this evergreen classic from the panto pantheon.

All the essential ingredients are here: Christmas cracker-standard jokes, dazzling costumes, well-known songs, and most importantly, an enthusiastic cast who make you enjoy yourself through the sheer force of their broad smiles and exuberant delivery.

Talking of the cast, this year’s draws include past X Factor winner Sam Bailey, now in her fourth year starring in the De Montfort Hall panto. As a Leicester girl, many in the audience already know and love her and as So Shi, she does down-to-earth, relatable humour to a tee—and, of course, has a brilliant voice.

Antony Costa (formerly of boy band Blue) wears Abanazar’s cloak well (the higher the collar, the more evil the character). He strides on stage all mwa-ha-ha and with a sneery disdain for the audience. Boos naturally follow. Many of the gags are at his expense and reference his past career, and he takes it well.

In a deviation from panto tradition, the principal boy Aladdin is indeed a boy, specifically Matthew Pomeroy, an accomplished magician. In something of a straight role (compared to his brother Wishee Washee—more of him in a minute), Aladdin does a lot of the physical work, running around trying to find the lamp, rescuing Jasmine from Abanazar’s evil clutches or encouraging us to wave (sometimes all three at once). It’s his moments of magic though which draw gasps from the audience—fortunately, Princess Jasmine (Natasha Lamb) makes a perfect assistant and their routines disappearing from boxes and levitation are jaw-dropping. Nathan Connor (from Channel 5’s Milkshake!) is a street, rapping Genie with some nice moonwalking moves.

Panto stalwart and BBC Radio Leicester presenter Martin Ballard drags up again, this time as a Les Dawson-esque Widow Twankey, and between him and Wishee Washee (Paul Burling—impressionist and Britain’s Got Talent finalist), they work their puns, gags and general silliness for all they’re worth. I would particularly like to thank them for their entertaining interpretation of Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” and the elephant in the room gag. These two keep everything going, and Burling has a repertoire of excellent impressions to suit all ages and references. Burling and Ballard were also lovely with the four very young—and painfully cute—participants from the audience. Ahhhh.

Writer Eric Potts and Janice Dunn’s direction keep everything moving at a good pace, the set is a fairly simple series of backdrops and curtains with the whole production brought to life with Matt Ladkin’s effective lighting design (and a big “wow” for the impressive magic carpet sequence)Overall, this production does a good job of keeping as many of the audience as possible as entertained as possible with lots for children to get excited by and plenty for the adults in the room (but not too saucy).

I say leave your grumps outside and feel the fun in this family panto: embrace the puns, inhale the aroma of popcorn, ignore the constant flashing light sabres and wands in the audience and sing, shout and dance along like you’re six years old all over again.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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West Side Story – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Theatre presents
West Side Story
Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Curve Theatre, Leicester 27 November – 11 January 2020

Clutching suitcases and under a large, ragged American flag, a group arrive in Manhattan from Puerto Rico, all with the hope of a better life in the land of opportunity. It doesn’t take long for those already settled in New York to make these new arrivals feel unwelcome in their neighbourhood, and so begins a fresh cycle of turf war, prejudice and mistrust.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, director Nikolai Foster tackles one of the great icons of musical theatre, West Side Story, for Curve’s Christmas show this year. I will try not to say iconic too often, however, this is practically peak icon: almost all the songs are well-known classics, likewise Jerome Robbins’s distinctive choreography. The 1961 film version is well-loved and groans with Oscars (eleven nominations, ten wins) and the stage show has won three Tony awards since the original Broadway production of 1957.

Back in 1957, West Side Story changed the way musicals were done: how songs and choreography drive a story forward, unafraid to show the ugly side of human behaviour with its depiction of gang violence and racial prejudice.

Licensing rights have changed this year, allowing choreographer Ellen Kane the freedom to introduce new choreography to Robbins’s groundbreaking work. Likely a daunting prospect to approach, Kane skilfully weaves more modern takes throughout Leonard Bernstein’s masterful score of jumpy, percussive Latin rhythms and cool jazz.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this is a classic love story of girl meets boy, but from the ‘wrong’ crowd: Maria (Adriana Ivelisse)—sister of Puerto Rican Sharks gang leader Bernardo (Jonathan Hermosa-Lopez)—falls in love with Tony (Jamie Muscato), ‘retired’ Jet and best friend of Jet leader Riff (Ronan Burns). Both gangs live tough lives, scratching around for work and pride amongst the grime-ridden back streets of New York and the slag heap of discarded rubbish cornering Michael Taylor’s set perfectly summarises this air of lost opportunity and discarded dreams.

With dead-end jobs and little else to do, all the gangs have left is to fight each other over territory and avoid capture by the police.

The initial joy and purity of Tony and Maria’s love story is beautifully captured by Muscato and Ivelisse, both doing justice to Bernstein’s soaring melodies. Muscato is a rather laid-back Tony, Ivelisse impressive in her first professional role and together they convince as the two lovers grasping at their chance for happiness only to have it ripped from their hands. Carly Mercedes Dyer is sublime as Anita, Bernado’s girlfriend and Maria’s confidante. Dyer owns the stage and, along with Abigail Climer (consuela) and Mireia Mambo (Rosalia), delivers a thrilling performance of the iconic (sorry) “America”, and its love / hate comparison of Puerto Rico and America.

The big numbers are tackled well, with a pulsating sequence at the dance at the gym, a dreamy, poignant “Somewhere” involving the whole company and inventive humour and slapstick with “Gee, Officer Krupke” which drew enthusiastic and prolonged applause from the audience.

Taylor’s set design, incorporating a three-storey tower of rooms with Doc’s diner below, allows action literally on all levels. Moveable metal fence frames create the alleyways and lots which cage in the disaffected gangs, adding to the sense of no way out. A small point, but there is something of a strange, ‘over-designed’ moment during Tony and Maria’s make-believe wedding scene as a host of wedding dresses descend from the heavens to hang above the stage—a worrying portent of angels perhaps, or a dozen Miss Havershams? Whatever, it detracts from the sweetness of the performance on the stage below.

However, this is a thrilling, dynamic cracker of a production with a superbly talented cast and brilliant work by conductor George Dyer and his musicians all giving due respect to Bernstein’s complex score and Sondheim’s masterful lyrics.

Sadly, with its tragic finale, this story still has relevance and lessons for us to heed, and humans being humans, probably always will.

Images by Ellie Kurttz

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Pepper and Honey – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Notnow Collective presents
Pepper and Honey
by Kristina Gavran
directed by Tilly Branson
Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester
17 November 2019

Pepper and Honey asks a pertinent question: what is home? Writer Kristina Gavran considers this word and concept through the lives of two women: grandmother Baka Ana who lives on a small Croatian island, and Ana, her granddaughter who has left the island and her grandmother to start a new life in England.

Set in the present day, deep in the impasse of British politics with no clear decision about the way forward, we learn about Ana’s 12 years in England as she negotiates and embraces a new country, language and culture—and what she wants to call home. She applies for settled status and tries to buy the patisserie where she works to run it herself (interestingly, the current British owners want to sell up and retire to Spain).

But while Brexit Britain looms like a shadow in this story, the emotional heart of the play is the push and pull between grandmother and grandchild—the tug to and from identity, culture, family, ambition, tradition. Move away or stay and wait?

Baka Ana bakes the sweet and spicy Croatian biscuits paprenjaci and sends a tin every month to Ana, hoping this taste of home will bring her back. Ana, despite enduring taunts and jibes (essentially “go back to where you came from”), is determined to break free from the constraints of how she sees her life had she stayed on the Croatian island.

Tina Hofman plays the roles of Ana and Baka Ana; the transitions from one character to the other are clearly and cleverly done, with Hofman adept at playing hunched, elderly Baka Ana, her arthritic fingers knotted and inflexible. With a confident flourish of her apron, she switches to Ana, head held high, radiant and welcoming. Hofman is an engaging storyteller, bringing in audience members throughout the performance to help her bake the traditional pepper and honey biscuits on stage as Baka Ana, talking only in her native tongue.

Director Tilly Branson and her team deliver a subtle and charming production, rich in detail and interconnecting threads of meaning and experience. Eleanor Field’s set combines a boat and sail, evoking the island life of Croatia, with the functionality and ‘homeliness’ of the patisserie kitchen. Adam McCready’s sound design carries us to and from Croatia with songs, and combines effectively with translations projected onto the sail (David Hately). James Stokes’s lighting design complements the changes in place and character. Whilst some of the play is delivered in Croatian, and sometimes with translations on the sail, this production confidently shows that we humans don’t always need an understanding of the spoken word to understand meaning, with much humour (and a recipe) conveyed through gesture and facial expression.

Gavran’s writing is alive with sensuous detail, painting the different colours of island life and the lives of her two characters. There is perhaps nothing as evocative as the smell of baking coming from the kitchen to remind you of home, and as the play progresses the unmistakable aroma of biscuits baking in the oven wafts through the performing space. A ‘ting’, and they are done, cooked on stage—a lovely touch.

Pepper and Honey does not seek to provide answers or a solution; everyone’s idea of home is different, after all. We share both characters’ journeys, whether that is taking your culture with you as you settle elsewhere, or staying amongst your traditions and family. Home is not as clear cut as the place where you live.

This production has now completed its 2019 run, with more dates to be announced for 2020.

Images by Fernando Photography

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Mince pies – put to the test

Visit any food emporium this time of year and you’ll see mince pies, whether that’s stacks of boxes piled up on supermarket shelves, or a sugar-dusted affair in your cafe of choice, they’re everywhere.

Last year in the UK, we spent £47.7 million on mince pies, with estimates of over 370 million pies consumed. It’s big business, clearly. We’ve consumed these little pies since the 12th century, with the ingredients and idea brought back by the returning Crusades. Back then, it was a more practical affair of a flour and water case used to transport mince meat – mutton. It survived Cromwell’s Puritan years to its transformation in Victorian times as a purely sweet treat, mainly eaten in the festive season.

When choosing a mince pie, it’s personal: flaky pastry or shortcrust? Packed with filling or just enough? Infused with booze or plenty of fruit? Choice is more restricted for some: vegan? Gluten-free?

Reader, I’ve eaten all the pies. OK, not all of them, but I have conducted my own taste test to help narrow things down a little.

For my sample, I chose five different varieties of mince pie readily available in supermarkets. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order, scored them out of five in each of three categories: overall appearance, filling and pastry and so each is scored out of a total of 15 points. Surveys like these often announce ‘you’ll be amazed/surprised/your life will be changed by the results’ – I just found it a fun thing to do!

As a post-script, there is of course, the home made option. I like making them, usually a week or so before Christmas Day, seasonal music on, bun trays out. I prefer thin, shortcrust pastry, quite small mouth-sized pies and a rich, vegetarian suet filling packed with fruit. I’ve been known to add extra cherries just because I like them. And I like a pastry star for a lid. But that’s just me.

(And as a second post-script, my Little Elf Helper’s test of the same pies reported completely different results to me. Just shows!)

ALDI – All Butter Classic Mince Pies
£1.25 for 6
Appearance
: Evenly cooked, golden crust, filling just peeking through (4)
Filling: moist and juicy, immediate citrus hit on the first bit (4)
Pastry: melt in the mouth, not too thick, not too thin (4)
Total score:12

CO-OP – Mince Pies
£1 for 6
Appearance: smallest of the bunch, completely covered pie (3)
Filling: more like a paste, overpowering taste of brown sugar with a hint of ginger (2.5)
Pastry: too much pastry, dry and claggy (2)
Total score: 7.5

CO-OP IRRESISTIBLE
All Butter Pastry Luxury Mince Pies

£2 for 6
Appearance: Glimpses of filling through the pattern, well-cooked, golden crust (4)
Filling: juicy, not a particularly rich or fruity taste and an odd bitter tang as an after taste (2)
Pastry: buttery and rich, crumbly (4)
Total score: 10

OGG – Luxury Handmade Mince Pies (vegan)
£2.50 for 4
Appearance: looks appealingly homemade, heavy dusting of icing sugar, filling visible around the edges. A bit flat looking (3.5)
Filling: juicy, quite fruity (3.5)
Pastry: crumbly and light, reminded me of my childhood rather strangely (4)
Total score: 11

SAINSBURY’S TASTE THE DIFFERENCE
All Butter Mince Pies Infused with Brandy

£2 for 6
Appearance: largest pie,well-cooked, golden crust (4)
Filling: not well-filled (1cm gap between pastry and filling), ‘dark’ fruity flavour (3)
Pastry: good buttery flavour, thin (3.5)
Total score: 10.5  

So, here’s the winner: Aldi’s All Butter Classic Mince Pies

 

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Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Mark Goucher, Jason Donovan, Gavin Kalin, Matthew Gale, Laurence Myers with Nullarbor Productions and MGM on Stage present
Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, based on the Latent Image/Specific Films motion picture
Directed by Ian Talbot
Curve Theatre, Leicester
 to 

With the country in the perfectly manicured grip of the “she”-naningans of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK on TV, the timing of a tour of the drag-celebratory Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical couldn’t be better.

Having starred in previous West End and touring productions, Jason Donovan now joins the production side of the stage in this popular musical based on the 1994 low-budget, big hit film The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, now eight venues into an extensive UK and Ireland tour.

The camp is strong with this one—right from the opening number, brace yourself for tight shorts, outrageous wigs, even more outrageous double entendres, as well as lashings of sequins, sparkle and top-drawer sarcasm.

Director Ian Talbot gives a quick-fire, high-energy experience, not least with the many rapid costume changes, but there is also emotional shade as our queens travel their own journeys in Priscilla, their pimped-up campervan (Charles Cusick-Smith and Phil R Daniels’s set and costume design is superb).

Tick, drag name Mitzi (Joe McFadden), gathers his two friends, transexual Bernadette (Miles Western) and Adam, drag name Felicia (Nick Hayes), for a trip across the Outback to Alice Springs. They’re off to perform a show to help out casino owner Marion, also Tick’s estranged wife and mother of his young son Benji. Tick has never met Benji, but wants to put things right, despite fears over how Benji will judge his sexuality and career choice. Along the way, the three friends encounter homophobic abuse and violence, as well as a bemused kangaroo and enthusiastic tourists.

Priscilla breaks down but kindly Bob (Daniel Fletcher) comes to the rescue, and Bob and Bernadette become close. Bob and Bernadette’s blossoming friendship is gently handled, and Western gives a charming, endearing performance as elegant Bernadette. In contrast, Hayes’s performance as Felicia is deliciously wicked and wanton, with a cheeky display in “Venus”.

TV star and Strictly champion Joe McFadden gets the main billing; a strong singer, he portrays Tick’s confusion about his sexuality and fears of embracing fatherhood well although I felt he was holding back a little and his inner queen is still to be freed.

In true drag style, our queens lip-sync their way through the classic songs of the ’70s and ’80s, sung on stage by a Greek chorus of Divas (Aiesha Pease, Claudia Kariuki and Rosie Glossop). They are magnificent, and an additional pleasure that they are accompanied by Sean Green’s live band—I particularly enjoyed the rather dark arrangement of Kylie classics. A versatile ensemble cast execute Tom Jackson Greaves’s energetic choreography with high-kicking gusto.

This show is like a cocktail comprising the rush of an energy drink, a shot of sarcastic sours mixed with the warm comfort of hot chocolate; it’s hard not to love a show packed with classic pop, loveably outrageous characters, and a clear and present message of tolerance and love (and don’t forget the ubiquitous audience dance-a-long at the end).

Images by Darren Bell

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A Taste of Honey – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

National Theatre presents
A Taste of Honey
by Shelagh Delaney
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Curve Theatre, 22 – 26 October 2019

In 1958, Shelagh Delaney’s debut play A Taste of Honey opened at The Theatre Royal, Stratford and, with the National Theatre’s revival now on a UK tour, you can still sense the ripples it must have caused at the time.

There is a fresh feel to this play though, mainly due to the superbly catty, sometimes wincingly cruel exchanges between vampish Helen (Jodie Prenger) and her teenage daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson). The dialogue between these two is realistic, entertaining, but heartbreaking—if only they could find some other way of communicating rather than slings, arrows and put-downs.

Arriving at yet another crummy rented property in Salford—this one backing onto a slaughterhouse—Helen gets stuck into another bottle and arguments with her daughter; it is Jo who often appears the responsible adult in the relationship. One of Helen’s old flames, Peter (Tom Varey), turns up, flashes the cash and Helen is soon preparing for life as Peter’s wife, and escape, happy to leave her daughter to fend for herself.

Jo’s romance with a Nigerian sailor, Jimmie (Durone Stokes), displays her naivety despite the perception and insight she shows with her mother’s relationships. Pregnant and abandoned as her sailor returns to the sea, Jo’s life appears to stabilise when her gay friend Geoffrey (an impressive debut by Stuart Thompson) effectively takes on the mothering role she needs. However, one character’s return to the fray brings a painful showdown.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costume design gives a good sense of place and period. Graffitied pillars, filthy kitchen and a drab curtain on a rail around the only bed show the shabby grime of their surroundings, although this is spread over the whole vast stage—the arguing and frustrations and need to escape suggest the need for a more condensed, claustrophobic set.

The on-stage three-piece band led by David O’Brien stays true to the original production and cool jazz underscores and punctuates the dialogue as well as accompanying characters’ occasional moments of song.

Delaney’s play is remarkable for many reasons: she as a working class young writer, emerging on the cusp of the massive social changes which will follow in the 1960s, trying to find her way in a theatrical world dominated by well-educated men. The programme includes a reproduction of Delaney’s letter to Joan Littlewood to whom she first sent her play. It is a charming, hopeful and self-deprecating approach to another woman, and a woman who recognised Delaney’s talent and helped bring her work to the stage. Given when this was written, Delaney’s unselfconscious and matter-of-fact depiction of abusive relationships, prejudice and homosexuality is ahead of its time.

The troubled relationship between Helen and Jo is at the core of this piece. Direction by Bijan Sheibani and the performances by Prenger and Dobson are spot on, allowing us to see through their cynicism and bickering to their fears and frailties without resorting to melodrama.

A Taste of Honey is a still-pertinent study of life, particularly the mother-daughter dynamic; Helen and Jo prowl around each other like two cats in an alley when you feel all they really need to do is sit down together and have a hug.

Images by Marc Brenner

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