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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Cabaret – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Bill Kenwright presents
Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Rufus Norris
Curve Theatre, Leicester 15 – 19 October 2019

“Divine decadence, darling” promises Kit Kat Klub singer Sally Bowles as she hoofs it up in Weimar Berlin, the setting for Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical Cabaret.

Decadence is certainly on display here, gradually overtaken by a descent into humanity’s horrifying depths in this latest Bill Kenwright production, currently mid-way through its 2019 UK tour.

Director Rufus Norris has a longstanding relationship with this show, initially opening at the Lyric Theatre in 2006, followed by a revival in 2012, incorporating new direction, design, choreography and lighting, and several tours since.

Emcee (a magnificent John Partridge) is ringmaster to a troupe of dancers in bondage-inspired, tight black leather lederhosen as they cavort and strut, revelling in their opportunity to be who they want to be in the Kit Kat Klub’s heady atmosphere of sexual freedom. Having got through the Great War, hyperinflation and food shortages, each character’s instinct to live for now but also survive is strong and the sense of increasing desperation as the characters realise the good times are slipping away is deftly handled by Norris.

Whilst the Emcee charts Germany’s changing political climate in a fascinating cocktail of playful camp and sneering menace, it is the relationships between two couples which grip the heart.

American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Charles Hagerty) arrives in Berlin on New Year’s Eve 1930, he meets the opportunistic Sally Bowles (Kara Lily Hayworth) and they embark on a heaven and hellish relationship; Bradshaw’s confused sexuality and realisation of the ominous rise of Nazism clashes with Sally’s head-in-the-sand approach to how the world as she knows it is changing. The well-known musical numbers “Mein Herr” and ‘Cabaret” are superb, and perfect vehicles for Hayworth’s impressive vocals.

The doomed romance between the more senior couple Fraulein Schneider (Anita Harris) and her suitor Herr Schultz (James Paterson) provides a welcome, although ultimately painful, contrast from the more in-your-face provocative liaisons elsewhere. Paterson’s portrayal of Schultz, ever the optimist despite his persecution as a Jew, is particularly moving, as is Harris as she skilfully depicts Fraulein Schneider’s own agonies over her life-changing decisions.

Katrina Langley’s set and costume design and Javier De Frutos’s choreography ignite this production, particularly during the Emcee and the Company’s chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. There are shades of George Grosz’s Dadaist cartoons, and a hint of Monty Python’s Mr Creosote as a bloated Emcee lampoons in the satirical “The Money Song”.

Always a pleasure to see the band on stage, although Phil Cornwell’s expert musical direction is briefly usurped by Partridge as Emcee conducts the “Entr’acte”.

Innovative and entertaining, yes, but also shocking and dark, this is definitely a show appropriate for teens upwards. Historically and politically relevant, Cabaret still has powerful messages to share, and the haunting finale will stay with me for a long time.

Images by The Other Richard

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My Beautiful Launderette – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide


Curve Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham and Leeds Playhouse present
My Beautiful Launderette
by Hanif Kureishi
directed by Nikolai Foster

Curve Theatre, Leicester
 to 

“I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money,” sang The Pet Shop Boys in those brash, bold days of the 1980s, and an apt choice of song to include in this new stage version of My Beautiful Launderette (for which The Pet Shop Boys have provided the music), adapted from one of the standout films of the period.

Commissioned as part of a series of TV films and first shown in 1985, the film helped launch the careers of actor Daniel Day Lewis and director Stephen Frears in the groundbreaking, early days of Channel 4.

Writer Hanif Kureishi earned Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Screenplay and he has now revisited the piece in this new co-production between Curve, Belgrade Theatre, Everyman Theatre and Leeds Playhouse, directed by Nikolai Foster.

We go back to a South London summer of 1985, back to Thatcher’s Britain, the National Front and making loadsa money. Weighed down by the prevalent motivational forces of income, career and a good marriage, mixed-race Omar (Omar Malik) struggles with his identity, stuck at home caring for his alcoholic, sickly father Papa (Gordon Warnecke—a nice piece of casting as he played Omar in the original film). Omar is given a chance to earn a living and some respectability at his loud, lewd uncle Nasser’s (Kammy Darweish) launderette and he becomes immersed in the macho world of his Pakistani relatives.

A chance meeting with a childhood friend Jonny (Jonny Fines) inspires him to transform the business into a moneymaking venture (with the help of some sideline drug dealing). Jonny is on the dole, sleeping rough and part of a racist gang but, as Jonny helps Omar with the launderette, the pair embark on a love affair which leads inevitably to conflict and violence.

Thirty-five years ago, this story broke many boundaries in its portrayal of the lived experience of immigrants in Britain—invited here, yet the victims of appalling racism and abuse—as well as showing homosexual relationships positively.

What’s changed since then, though? You could argue Britain is a more tolerant society, that we’ve moved on, however, whilst some themes still resonate, I was hankering for a My Beautiful Launderette re-set for today. For example, the double standards associated with the treatment of women and women’s experiences in marriage are also a key theme of the piece, yet this feels ready for further exploration rather than a somewhat two-dimensional representation from the ‘80s.

Performances are impressive: Malik and Fines’s relationship is the soft, tender heart at the centre of a world of intolerance, misogyny and prescribed futures. Hatred is chillingly personified by Hareet Deol as the ruthless Salim and Paddy Daly’s seething, swaggering racist thug Genghis. Impressive doubling also by Balvinder Sopal (as Bilquis, dutiful wife of Nasser, and National Front gang member Moose) and Cathy Tyson (as Nasser’s mistress Rachel and Cherry, Salim’s wife). The predicament of Nasser’s daughter Tania, desperate to fulfil her own dreams and escape a lifetime of servitude, is movingly portrayed by Nicole Jebeli.

My overriding impression though is of patchiness: Grace Smart’s set, whilst nicely representing the period and versatile as the actors sometimes scale its frames and fittings, also seems to clutter Curve’s Studio, leaving a limited area front and centre stage and which necessitates static delivery.

The dialogue itself is awash with exposition. Scenes work best when characters are revealed through humour and the ribald language of the whisky-fuelled male get-togethers, or poignant conversations between mother and daughter. Characterisation is also patchy; the actors do well with what they have to work with, but motivations are at times puzzling, particularly Jonny.

As a snapshot of a time past, this is an assured production, but I can’t ignore the feeling it is also an opportunity missed to explore where we are now.

Images by Ellie Kurttz

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War Horse – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

National Theatre and Handspring Puppet Company present
War Horse
based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Curve Theatre, Leicester 18 September – 12 October

Despite its première relatively recently (October 2007), this heartbreaking and heart-lifting story seems already firmly embedded in the national consciousness. Even if you’re not one of the eight million who has seen the National Theatre and Handspring Puppet Company stage co-production worldwide, there’s Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film version of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book.

Extracts of the production have also been performed during many recent occasions of remembrance of the First World War in which this story is set, and Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler’s puppet designs must now have reached iconic status. Joey and Topthorn, the two war horses, are to-scale puppets—a torso of mesh over a segmented frame, mechanical, jointed limbs and a papery mane and tail—brought immediately to life by their three puppeteers who seem melded into their frame and musculature and the horses’ voice and beating heart.

We meet Joey in the bucolic beauty of Devon in 1912 as he takes his first awkward steps in the world, jumpy and unsteady on gangly legs. Ted Narracott (Colin Connor), always up for a wager and a drink, blows the mortgage money and buys Joey at auction. Ted’s son Albert (Scott Miller) sets about training the high-spirited hunter to earn his keep and here the emotional core of War Horse is set; Joey and Albert form a tight bond, young man and horse will do anything for each other.

By now though, Britain is at war with Germany and, behind Albert’s back, Ted sells Joey to the Army to help the war effort (and pockets £100 for an officer’s horse). Joey is teamed up with the magnificent Topthorn and they experience the confusion, destruction and futility of war, as the horses are used on both sides of the trenches, making it through the horror of the Somme to spend the last years of the war pulling a German field gun. Meanwhile, Albert has volunteered, determined to find Joey and bring him home.

Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris drive the story forward unflinchingly, and you should prepare for an assault on your emotions and senses as the horrors of battle and its aftermath contrast with the love between family, friends, comrades as well as human and horse. There is humour, bathos, pathos, joy and despair (and everyone loves The Goose).

It is expected that a National Theatre production will be of a high standard, but this is something else. It is the attention to detail which really struck me: the horses’ twitching ears, nodding head and restless movement whilst standing, the perfect mimicry of the contrasts in the scope of their movements, whether a hard gallop or gentle nuzzling. This is not anthropomorphism, but a stunning representation of the dignity, power and sentience of an animal (although such as can be imagined by a human).

Rae Smith’s design is sublime; the drawing of Joey torn from a sketchbook which keeps Albert going through their separation is represented on a large scale above stage and used as the backdrop for artistic interpretations of the fields of battle and the tranquility of Devon. Paule Constable’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound design add so much to the sensory experience; we are with Joey, Topthorn and the supremely talented cast all the way from the start to the exhilarating and emotional end.

With the estimate that as many horses as men died during WWI, Michael Morpurgo determined to tell the story of the war through the eyes of a horse enlisted to serve. In the programme, Morpurgo considers how his story has developed since its adaptation for the stage and reflects that War Horse is “an anthem for peace”, and is “a universal longing for a world without war”. It is also unforgettable theatre.

Images by Brinkhoff and Mogenberg

 

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“Emu” soup plus seedy biscuits

I saw an entertaining thread on Twitter last week where people shared family names for favourite meals, usually as a result of a child’s mispronunciation. Thanks to my younger sister we had one which has stuck: peemot (pronounced “peem-ot”, a conflagration of hot and ice cream), and specifically the pudding my mum would make to follow Sunday lunch, a favourite was chocolate sponge pudding with vanilla ice cream; the name has stuck forever.

Sticking with the same sister, the name for this new soup is another nod to our childhood. We loved Rod Hull and Emu and her own Emu hand puppet was a favourite companion.  So, as this soup includes some leftover spring cabbage (Emu being a lover of cabbage water), I’ve gone with emu soup. It is essentially a coming together of leftovers and odd veg – I’ve kind of stuck to a ‘green’ theme but the coriander really gives it a fresh kick.

Emu soup

slug of oil
2 small – medium onions, chopped
1 medium leek, chopped
1 courgette, chopped
about 1/4 small cabbage, shredded
2 medium potatoes, chopped
ground cumin – a good half a teaspoon
vegetable stock – about 750ml
approx 1/4 bag mixed salad leaves
third of a bunch of fresh coriander
seasoning

Heat the oil and sweat the onions for a few minutes. Add all the veg apart from the salad leaves and coriander. Stir and cook for a few more minutes. Add the stock, stir and bring to the boil (should cover the veg plus a little more). Simmer for about 10 minutes then add the salad leaves and coriander. Cook for another 15 mins or so until all the veg are tender. Blend and season.

Seedy biscuits

This is a recipe from The Great British Bake Off Christmas book (a very welcome Secret Santa present a few years ago). The recipe is called Seedy Flatbreads for Cheese on page 59 (although not credited to anyone).

With 200g of polenta, 275g of mixed seeds, 80 ml of olive oil and some sea salt, I must issue a warning that they are extremely more-ish (note nibbled corner in picture).

I would query the testing of the recipe though as I halve the water content (bring the dough together with approx 200ml recently boiled water). Press onto a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and bake for about 50 mins to an hour at 150C.

 

 

 

 

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Grease The Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Colin Ingram for InTheatre, Donovan Mannato, William Sinclair, Hunter Arnold, Ricardo Marques and Araca and Curve present
Grease The Musical
by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
directed by Nikolai Foster
Curve Theatre, Leicester
 to 

Well, I’ve certainly got chills. Now almost at the end of its UK and Ireland tour, this production of Grease The Musical lives up to its ‘electrifyin’ billing and I’m shocked and pleasantly surprised to note I enjoyed this much more than the hugely successful 1977 film version adored by many (including me).

Originally a Made at Curve production, director Nikolai Foster first tackled Grease the Musical in 2015, has since developed it further with producer Colin Ingram, re-cast and received fresh input from new members of the creative team. This includes breathtaking choreography by Arlene Phillips: intricate and inventive in fast-paced numbers such as “Hand Jive” and “We Go Together”, as well as the stylised thrusts, tumbles and knockabout camaraderie of a group of hormonally charged teenagers.

A quick story re-cap: Danny (Dan Partridge) and Sandy (Martha Kirby) meet at the beach on holiday, fall in love but as summer ends, return to their lives thinking their romance was just a summer fling. Danny reverts back to his role of gang leader and greaser at Rydell High School, and what do you know but squeaky-clean Sandy starts at the same high school. What follows is a tug between being yourself, acting tough for your friends, or following your dreams—most of the main characters face a conflict whether it’s bullying, fighting or relationship-related, but they come through in the end to make this a feel-good, fun musical with a well-meaning heart.

This is the first time I’ve felt Sandy doesn’t let the sisterhood down by vamping up to get her man—in a supremely impressive professional debut, Kirby brings out Sandy’s strength of character and the choices she makes are on her terms. Partridge is a smokin’ hot Danny Zuko, torn between tough guy and tenderness, and the Danny / Sandy chemistry is real.

There’s not a dud song in Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s score, and some of the original stage musical numbers not given a spotlight in the film version now return (and all hail too to musical director Neil MacDonald and his band, perched high on the stage executing all the classic Grease numbers with aplomb).

These additional songs give the cast time to shine with some welcome character development. Ryan Anderson as Roger and Natalie Woods as Jan share an amusing and touching moment in “Mooning”, and Jordan Abey as Doody ably leads the cast in the charming “Those Magic Changes”.

 

Damian Buhagiar as Sonny Latieri is a tightly coiled spring of confused cocksurity, putting me in mind of a young Joe Pesci. Rhianne Louise-McCaulsky is an assured and aloof Rizzo, her vulnerabilities laid raw in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”. These are just a few high points; the whole cast combine like super-charged greased lightnin’—you really feel this gang are on the cusp of change, teetering on the brink of adulthood as rock ‘n’ roll reverberates and rebellion against the old ways takes hold.

This show is great fun: there’s grit, grind and as the title song says, it’s got groove, it’s got meaning.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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