I Saw: White Christmas The Musical ★★★

Photos: Johan Persson

Based on the much-loved 1954 festive film, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas The Musical premiered in 2000 at the 11,000 capacity amphitheatre The Muny in St Louis. Featuring a book by David Ives and Paul Blake the musical is a celebration of Irving Berlin’s songbook and it’s ear-worm title song White Christmas. Featuring choreography from renowned Broadway choreographer Randy Skinner, after a US National Tour in 2004, the show played limited Broadway engagements at the Marquis Theatre for the Christmas seasons of 2008-2010 and has been touring the US at Christmastime every year since. It wasn’t long before White Christmas The Musical jumped over the pond and toured the Christmas seasons in the UK from 2006-2011, landing on the West End at the Dominion Theatre in 2014 again featuring Randy Skinner’s original Broadway choreography. Following a sell-out season at the Curve Theatre in Leicester during the festive season of 2018-2019, a new production of White Christmas The Musical featuring choreography by two-time Olivier Award-winning Stephen Mear and direction from acclaimed Nikolai Foster returns to the Dominion Theatre for a limited engagement this Christmas.

This new production’s starry cast includes Danny Mac (Sunset Boulevard, Strictly Come Dancing Finalist) as Bob Wallace and Olivier-nominated Dan Burton (Gypsy, Singin’ in the Rain) as Phil Davis, alongside Danielle Hope (BBC’s Over The Rainbow Winner) as Betty Haynes, Clare Halse (Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street) as Judy Haynes, Brenda Edwards (We Will Rock You, Chicago, ITV’s Loose Women) as Martha Watson and Olivier Award-nominated Michael Brandon (Dempsey and Makepeace, Jerry Springer: The Opera) as General Henry Waverly. As song and dance men Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, Danny Mac and Dan Burton were slick, confident and delivered vocals that were swoon inducing. As Betty Haynes, Danielle Hope performed with aplomb and her beautiful performance of Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me was a highlight of the evening. Clare Halse as Judy Haynes gave a fun, solid performance throughout and Michael Brandon gave an affecting performance as somewhat of a lost soul in General Henry Waverly. As Martha Watson, Brenda Edwards shone throughout and her fun number Let Me Sing And I’m Happy received a well deserved round of applause towards the end of Act One. However, the real star of this production lies in the new thrilling choreography created by Stephen Mear. Encompassing many dance styles, his steps fit the tone, setting and time of the piece perfectly and the extremely talented cast perform with flare.

Although some attempts were made to update the piece; towards the end of the show a gay kiss was featured (however it came from two unnamed ensemble characters that didn’t have their own storyline), other parts were left unaffected including a cringeworthy moment where Betty discovers she’s made a mistake but then asks a man in a position of power explain it to her. Why attempt to update any of it without playing a knowing wink to the audience throughout so we can laugh at the simple plot and characters elevating it beyond the America of 1954 in which the film was written? Instead, the show plays an innocent and nostalgic which only heightens how thin and outdated the characters and plot truly are. While Michael Taylor’s design, Diego Pitarch’s costumes and Mear’s choreography make Irving Berlin’s White Christmas The Musical a sparkly Christmas extravaganza; a vapid script, stereotypical characters and weak plot fail to make this adaptation of the holiday favourite radiate any type of festive feeling.

Currently playing at the Dominion Theatre, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas The Musical is a visual feast with fun performances and an extremely talented cast. If you love the original film or are already in the Christmas spirit, grab a mince pie, glass of mulled wine from the bar and settle into some well-intending festive frivolous fun.

Originally posted on West End Wilma, November 26, 2019

I Saw: Our House

Our HouseOur House is a musical with music and lyrics by ska/pop band Madness and a book written by Tim Firth. The show features songs from the band and was named after one of the band’s popular hit singles, “Our House”. Influenced by Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers and rom-com film Sliding Doors, Our House premiered at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End in 2002 winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 2003. Although Our House seemed an artistic success, the original production closed within ten months due to poor ticket sales after the production was telecast on BBC Three in 2003 and a DVD release followed in 2004. Taking into account criticism from the production, a re-worked revival opened featuring new Madness songs and toured the UK in 2008 and 2009. Following the success of the tour, Our House then returned to the West End for a one night only Gala performance at the Savoy Theatre in 2012. Internationally the musical has found success in Japan in 2006, Israel in 2010 and Australia in 2014 and 2015. Returning to the UK, a new production toured in 2013, a Fringe production was presented in 2015 at Union Theatre in London and a third UK Tour opened more recently in 2017. Due to the musicals well-known songs and large cast, Our House has become a favourite of amateur theatre companies, with numerous productions opening each year across the UK. London audiences can once again bob along to hits My Girl, Driving In My Car, NW5 and It Must Be Love as Our House opens at The Bob Hope Theatre presented by Bromley Players Musical Productions.

Our House follows the lives of Camden lad Joe Casey. On the night of his sixteenth birthday, Joe makes a decision that will change his life forever. Trying to impress girl of his dreams Sarah, Joe breaks into a building development attracting the attention of the local police. Joe’s life then splits into two, Good Joe who stays and gives himself up and Bad Joe who flees, leaving Sarah to deal with the police. Our House follows the two paths that Joe’s life could take after that fateful night; one path means a criminal record and social exclusion, while the other will lose him the girl that he loves. Over a period of seven years and two alternative lives, Joe deals with the consequences of that night. All this is watched over by Joe’s deceased father, who pulls the two stories together.

Bromley Players Musical Productions Our House features Chris Hopkins as Joe Casey, Ellie Mulhern is Sarah, Shane King plays Joe’s Dad, Steph Gironi as Kath Casey, Steve Bradley is Emmo, George Morgan plays Lewis, Mimms Melville is Billie, Caitlin Goodman plays Angie, Michael Flanagan is Reecey, Adrian Smith is Mr Pressman, Greg Meir plays Callum all supported by talented ensemble and featured dancers playing numerous characters throughout the show. As Joe’s Dad Shane King has a commanding presence onstage. King delivers a strong vocal and dramatic performance, reminiscent of the Narrator in Blood Brothers. Steph Gironi as Kath Casey (Joe’s Mum) delivers a lovely maternal performance and I really believed the loving protection she feels for her son. As Sarah’s friends, Mimms Melville as Billie and Caitlin Goodman as Angie make a fun, cheeky girl group who are always supporting Sarah, ready to come to her defence whenever Joe steps out of line. As Joe’s “gormless” best mates, Steve Bradley and George Morgan give well-rounded performances of Emmo and Lewis, respectively. Beginning the show as young oversexed adolescents, the audience sees these characters grow throughout the show into men. In less polished hands this journey could have been ignored and the performances fall flat, however Bradley and Morgan give accomplished performances and they soon become audience favourites. As the resident bad guys, Michael Flanagan gives a menacing performance as Reecey and Adrian Smith delivers a smarmy Mr Pressman. As Sarah’s ‘other man’ Greig Mair gives a fun performance as Callum. Clad in tartan, Mair captures the audience in Act Two stealing each scene he’s in. Ellie Mulhern gives a lovely performance as Sarah, delivering a sweet vocal that is a delight. Chris Hopkins as Joe Casey gives an energetic and accomplished performance throughout. Often running backstage to change costumes between Good and Bad Joe, Casey delivers a confident performance carrying the show in his practiced hands with skill.

Directors Ian Chapman and Robin Kelly use the almost 30 person cast effectively, expanding the world of the show by effectively adding ensemble into scenes that make sense to do so while never making the stage seem overcrowded. Rochelle Bisson and Laura Whittingham’s choreography was a lot of fun and they really seem to come into their own during act one favourite Baggy Trousers.

Performed well by the talented cast, Bromley Players Musical Productions Our House is a fun romp through the well-known hits of Madness. With limited tickets available for each performance, make sure you catch this production playing until Saturday at The Bob Hope Theatre in Eltham.

Our House is playing The Bob Hope Theatre in Eltham until Saturday 19th October 2019. Click here for tickets!

I Saw: Ghost Stories ★★★★

Ghost Stories Lecturer 44872Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories opened at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2010 before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith and Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End, where it ran for over a year. The play was so successful, it was re-mounted at the Arts Theatre in February of 2014 running until January 2015. The show then enjoyed international success when it opened at the Sydney Opera House, the Shangahi Modern Theatre and the Pirandello Theatre in Lima in in 2015. In 2017 Dyson and Nyman adapted their play into a feature film starring Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman. Able to reach a whole new audience, Ghost Stories the film received positive reviews. In April of this year, the original creative team reunited to mount the show in its third West End run, once again at the Lyric Hammersmith. Just in time for Halloween, London audiences once again have the chance to be scared-stiff and #keepthesecrets as Ghost Stories transfers to the Ambassadors Theatre, playing until January 2020 before embarking on the shows first UK Tour.

Described as the ultimate twisted love-letter to horror, Ghost Stories revolves around Dr Goodman, a Professor of Parapsychology delivering a lecture on ghost stories. Goodman has collated recorded interviews with three people who claim to have had supernatural experiences and each story is then re-enacted on stage!

In this run, Ghost Stories stars Simon Lipkin (Ghost Stories, Nativity! The Musical, The Wind In The Willows, Miss Atomic Bomb, Assassins, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, I Can’t Sing, Rock of Ages, Spamalot and Avenue Q) as Professor Goodman, Garry Cooper (Ghost Stories , The White Devil, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry VI trilogy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Last Days of Troy and Brassed Off) as Tony Matthews, Preston Nyman (Ghost Stories , George’s Marvellous Medicine and Agatha Christie’s Crooked House) as Simon Rifkind and Richard Sutton (Ghost Stories, The Cow Play , Transmissions, Tall Phoenix, Confusions, Romeo & Juliet and Albert Make Us Laugh) as Mike Priddle.

Ghost Stories Caretaker 44844When entering the theatre, press were given a note form authors Dyson and Nyman welcoming us and asking that we not divulge plot or secrets of the show when reviewing so future audiences can attend Ghost Stories ‘spoiler-free’. In this spirit, I’m able to say the small cast give energetic performances of quite physically demanding parts throughout. With each story more nightmarish than the last, the genius of Ghost Stories lays in the cleverly constructed and written script, design by Jon Baysor, well produced, simple effects by Scott Penrose and frights by Jonathan Holby accompanied by a loud and pumping sound design by Nick Manning, combining to scare the life out of you!

At 80 minutes played through, Ghost Stories is the perfect length so you can retreat to the nearest bar afterwards for a stiff drink to settle your nerves. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Physco’, a disclaimer accompanies the production, “Please be advised that Ghost Stories contains moments of extreme shock and tension. The show is unsuitable for anyone under the age of 15. We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending.” While a clever marketing campaign, I can attest this disclaimer should not be taken lightly! With enough jump scares to keep the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, the Olivier Award-nominated Ghost Stories really is the scariest show playing in the West End. With Halloween fast approaching, make sure you book to see Ghost Stories at the Ambassadors Theatre now!

Originally posted on West End Wilma, October 11, 2019
Photos by Chris Payne

I Saw: Noises Off ★★★★★

Noises-Off-Artwork-PortraitAfter watching a performance of his 1970 farce ‘The Two of Us’ from backstage at the Garrick Theatre, celebrated playwright Michael Frayn commented “It was funnier from behind than in front and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind.” His “farce from behind” started as the short one-act play ‘Exits’ in 1977 before being expanded into what is now ‘Noises Off‘.

This multi-award winning play premiered at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in London to rapturous reviews in 1982 starring Patricia Routledge, Paul Eddington, and Nicky Henson before transferring to the Savoy Theatre where it ran until 1987, with five successive casts. Returning to the West End for the fourth time, the recent Lyric Hammersmith Theatre production transfers to the Garrick Theatre for a limited season and London audiences can see Michael Frayn’s side-splitting backstage comedy once again.

Noises Off‘ is a play within a play, presented in three acts as the actors attempt to stage a production of a sex farce called ‘Nothing On’. Act One is set at the technical rehearsal of ‘Nothing On’ and it’s the night before the first performance and the cast are hopelessly unready. Act Two shows a Wednesday matinée performance a month after opening from backstage and follows the deteriorating relationships of the actors as they try and battle on through the performance. In Act Three, we’re at a performance near the end of the ten-week run. Relationships between the cast have soured considerably, the set is breaking down and props are winding up all over the place. The actors remain determined at all costs to cover up the mounting chaos and begin ad-libbing trying to recover the performance and come to some sort of an end!

This West End cast consists of BAFTA Television Award nominee Meera Syal (Beautiful Thing, Absolutely Anything and The Kumars at No. 42) as Dotty Otley portraying Mrs Clackett, Lloyd Owen (Cleaning Up, Monarch of the Glen and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) as ‘Nothing On’s director Lloyd Dallas, BAFTA winning Daniel Rigby (BBC Two’s Eric & Ernie and One Man, Two Guvnor) as Garry Lejeune playing Roger Tramplemain, Simon Rouse (Hangmen, Local Hero, The Bill) is Selsdon Mowbray as the Burglar, Sarah Hadland (Miranda, Horrible Histories, Admissions) as Belinda Blair, starring as Flavia Brent, Richard Henders (Company, The Beaux Stratagem, The White Guard) as Frederick Fellowes portraying Philip Brent, Lisa McGrillis (Mum, This House, The Pitmen Painters) as Brooke Ashton and Vicki, with Anjli Mohindra (Bodyguard, Wild Bill, Legends of Tomorrow) playing Poppy Norton Taylor and Adrian Richards (The Actor’s Nightmare, Eden, The Winter’s Tale) as Tim Allgood.

Merra Syal is hilarious. Opening the play, her cockney voiced Mrs Clackett just trying to make a plate of sardines is a stark contrast to the actor underneath, matriarchal Dotty Otley speaking the Queens English. Syal encompasses both physically giving an energetic performance throughout. Wandering around the auditorium instructing his actors and calling rehearsal, director Lloyd Dallas is expertly played by Lloyd Owen. Exasperated by his actors inability to get through technical rehearsal without stopping, an uproarious moment ensues as director is forced to coddle a recently heart-broken actor through stage direction giving him something to hold onto (literally) in order to continue rehearsal. Every directors worst nightmare! Owen’s strong performance made it easy to believe the director had a celebrated history and was somehow tricked into directing ‘Nothing On’ for Otstar Productions Ltd.

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Daniel Rigby is brilliant. He delivers a strong leading man in Roger Tramplemain trying in vain to bed sexpot Vicki and a seemingly typical drama school trained “serious” actor in Garry Lejeune. Running all over the set and eventually crashing through it, Rigby delivers an athletic performance and one of the most animated of the evening. Rigby’s ‘Nothing On’ character Garry has a habit of spewing out words without actually saying anything of meaning. In this spirit, I’d have to say Rigby’s performance is just… y’know? Simon Rouse is priceless and delivers a solid performance throughout. More Selsdon than Burglar, he’s hard of hearing and prone to drink, which makes for a rollicking performance as he forgets lines, entrances and cannot hear prompts. Sarah Hadland is sensational. Attempting to save the show in the third act and adopting the adage ‘the show must go on’, Belinda Blair does her best at keeping it together while directing everyone to the end of the show. Hadland does an excellent job and you can sense the horror and almost see the tears of Belinda Blair behind the Stepford-smile of character Flavia Brent. Her speech, physicality, characterisation and comic timing throughout is a perfect combination of a seasoned actor having the time of her life. Richard Henders is a lot of fun. With physical comedy, Henders portrays ‘Nothing On’s Philip Brent with aplomb and his Frederick Fellowes is a hilariously broken man. Lisa McGrillis gave a fantastic performance. Her Vicki was the perfect sexpot and we saw a full range of emotion as actor Brooke Ashton from vaguely listening to her fellow actors throughout technical rehearsal to a rampaging scorned lover. Anjli Mohindra and Adrian Richards, our stage manager and scene master respectively, give there all as the long-suffering crew behind the scenes of ‘Nothing On’. Having to understudy, erect the set and run personal errands Poppy and Adrian prove the show could not go on without them as they are played with energy and pizazz by Mohindra and Richards.

Recently celebrating his 86th birthday, it was a real treat to have Michael Frayn in the audience who rightly received a standing ovation for his iconic play. Premiering in 1982, the show hasn’t dated and is just as side-splitting as when it first opened. As the original play that goes wrong, ‘Noises Off‘ is a brilliant farce and this top notch production enjoys a welcome return to the West End. Bringing the house down at the Garrick Theatre, make sure you see ‘Noises Off‘ during it’s limited run until January 2020.

Originally posted on West End Wilma, October 6, 2019

I Saw: Calendar Girls The Musical ★★★★

Cal GirlsGary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls The Musical began life at the Grand Theatre in Leeds at the end of 2015 before transferring to The Lowry, Salford in January of 2016. This production entitled simply The Girls then transferred to West End opening at the Phoenix Theatre in January of 2017 and ran until July of that year. Shortly after the West End run, it was announced the musical would embark on a UK Tour in 2018 and changed its named to the more widely recognised Calendar Girls The Musical. As the UK tour continues through November 2019, London audiences are able to visit the Knapely Women’s Institute once again and see the award-winning Calendar Girls The Musical as it visits the New Wimbledon Theatre.

Calendar Girls The Musical follows a group of ladies from the Knapley Woman’s Institute. After one of their members husbands passes away from leukaemia, the branch hit upon the idea of printing a calendar in order to purchase a comfortable settee for hospital where he was treated. To ensure the Calendar sells, one member suggests they pose nude while engaging in traditional Women’s Institute activities, such as baking and knitting. This outrageous idea is met with great scepticism, but eventually the women participate in the project and their calendar is born. Calendar Girls The Musical shows life in their Yorkshire village, the effect the project has on husbands, sons and daughters and how a group of seemingly ordinary ladies achieved something extraordinary.

Sarah Jane Buckley gives an affecting performance. Losing her husband to cancer early on in the story, the actor playing Annie needs a subtle power in order to portray the characters journey, making her human and easily relatable. Buckley achieves this almost immediately and the audience is drawn into the story, feeling for her character throughout. As single mother Cora, Sue Devaney shines. Devaney’s energetic performance is equal parts hilarious as it is touching and the relationship she has with hormonal son Tommo, played with rigor by Tyler Dobbs, is moving and believable. Julia Hills as the apprehensive Ruth gives a rollicking performance. Ruth is only able to join the ladies cause after meeting her “Russian friend”, at the bottom of a bottle and Hills enjoys her song My Russian Friend and I explaining her plight.

Judy Holt as Marie, the conservative chair of the Women’s Institute, is the perfect authoritative figure. Giving her daughter Jenny, played with defiant cheek by Isabel Caswell, many reasons to revolt, Holt doesn’t take the character too seriously and the audience is able to disagree with her reasoning while also understanding it. Lisa Maxwell gives a fun performance as Celia. Admitting I’ve Had A Little Work Done, ex-air hostess Celia has her own reasons for considering the calendar and Maxwell explores these in a refreshingly human way. Ruth Madoc as Jessie is a triumph. Quietly stealing every scene and having some of the best one liners in the show “No front bottom!”, retiree Jessie proves she never does What Age Expects and Madoc relishes a character for a women of a certain age with nuance and substance.

Rebecca Storm gives a dynamic performance as Chris. Having the initial idea for the calendar, Chris deals directly with the effect the calendar has on her husband Rod played with affection by Ian Mercer and son Danny played brilliantly by Danny Howker and finds a stronger relationship with both as a result. As Annie’s friend of 40 years, the relationship between Annie and Chris is at the heart of the story and Storms does an excellent job exploring this relationship to create a Chris that is defiant, loyal, loving and a true and believable friend, mother and wife. Brava!

Calendar Girls The Musical is a lovely night out. With sincere and brave performances, the cast portray this empowering true story with reverence and I left the theatre inspired and elated.

Originally posted on West End Wilma, October 3, 2019

I Saw: Mamma Mia! The Party ★★★★★

Photo: Dewynters

Created by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, Mamma Mia! The Party is a new and unique entertainment experience that puts guests in the heart of the action. Over the course of about four hours, the audience enjoys a spectacular show, a four-course gourmet Mediterranean meal and an ABBA disco, all in one unforgettable evening. Mamma Mia! The Party opened in Stockholm in 2016 and is now in it’s fourth sold out year. Now it’s London’s turn to dine, wine and have the time of their lives as Mamma Mia! The Party opens in a specially designed building inside the O2.

Set in a taverna on the island of Skopelos (where most exteriors of the first Mamma Mia! film were shot) Mamma Mia! The Party is an immersive theatrical dinning experience. As you walk in, you’re immediately transported to Skopelos with greeters, wait and bar staff all playing along and welcoming you to the island. After being shown to your table, you can make a start on a lovely selection of Mediterranean mezes as your wait staff explains how the set menu works, asks of dietary requirements and sets you up with the all-important drinks. Would it be a Greek island without friendly locals and shots of ouzo to begin your stay?

As you get to know the other people at your table, you can take in the atmosphere and Bengt Fröderberg’s incredibly detailed and beautiful set. This multileveled taverna encompasses the entire space offering multiple bars, overhanging trees, religious iconography with tables and seating for approximately 500 diners all revolving around a lovely fountain. Soon after it’s time for starters of a bright Greek salad, spanakopita and charred octopus with ouzo and wild oregano dressing. As were coming to the end of our starters, it was time for the first act of the show to begin!

The plot of Mamma Mia! The Party is a warm, romantic and funny story revolving around the love of a young English lad Adam (staying with his Aunt Kate and her Greek husband Nikos in their restaurant on Skopelos) and his beautiful Greek girlfriend, Konstantina. Thinking Adam is trouble, Nikos doesn’t agree with the union between Adam and Konstantina so intends to send Adam back to the UK which causes a rift between the lovers and his wife. As drama unfolds, the audience meets the family and friends who keep the restaurant running including accident prone chef Debbie, Niko’s tempestuous Grandma, couple Bella and Nina and the aptly named Fernando, who’s come to fix the oven and then just kind of stays for the rest of the show- with no complaints from anyone in the audience.

The London cast at this performance included Fed Zanni (The 12 Tenors European Tour, Delicious for SkyOne and Being Human, Never Better, Hotel Babylon for BBC) as Nikos, Steph Parry (Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, Donna in Mamma Mia! Mrs Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie) as Kate, Linda John-Pierre (The Empress in Aladdin, Ensemble / First Cover Queenie Show Boat) as Debbie, AJ Bentley (BBC’s talent search Let It Shine, The Band Musical) as Adam, Julia Imbach (Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, The Little Princess) as Kostantina, Elin König Andersson (Sweden’s Got Talent, Inferno, Mamma Mia! The Party in Stockholm) as Bella, Kimberly Powell (Doris in Doris in Mrs Henderson Presents, Miss Dinsmore in Singin’ in the Rain, ensemble U/S Sophie in Mamma Mia!) as Nina, Pauline Stringer (Pippin, Man Of La Mancha, The Sound Of Music, Anita in West Side Story) as Grandma and Gregor Stewart (Munkustrap in Cats, Barbara Cook and Friends, Ensemble/Cover Troy Bolton in High School Musical) as Fernando.

The audience started singing along almost immediately as the first act began and Fed Zanni as Nikos and Steph Parry as Kate led us in a rousing rendition of Thank You For The Music. Zanni’s beautiful classical tenor voice and Parry’s powerful belt let the audience know we were in good hands for the evening. Next up, we met accident prone chef Debbie played by Linda John-Pierre as she sang of her recently blown-up oven in Bang A Bomerang, again proving John-Pierre has the vocal agility to lead the audience through an infectious number. AJ Bentley as Adam has a sweet stage presence and a strong voice, proving he’s the perfect leading man as he pleaded with his girlfriend Kostantina in the tongue and cheek number Take A Chance On Me, which the audience loved. After fun performances of hits When I Kissed The Teacher and a hilarious Money Money led by Fed Zanni, we were introduced to Kimberly Powell as Nina and Elin König Andersson as Bella as the cast performed a joyous Nina Pretty Ballerina. As the first act began a number of the audience started to take pictures and videos of the performance. Usually bad theatre etiquette, the newly introduced Nina encouraged our audience to take pictures (without flash photography) of the Instagramable party atmopshere and post them to social media using #mammamiatheparty. Another fun way of immersing the audience and setting out the rules and expectations. To close the first act, we were treated to Honey Honey and Ring Ring which included large lyric cards so the audience could gleefully sing along and our chef Debbie told us the oven was fixed and mains could now be severed.

And what a main course it was! A succulent perfectly cooked Lamb Kleftiko, beef flank in Mediterranean sauce and sides of courgette briam, potatoes yiachni and cracked wheat with pomegranate and herbs. We were given sufficient time to eat, talk about the fantastic first act, have more wine and ouzo before the story continued with act two and we were treated to an audience sing along of Waterloo (for anyone that didn’t know the ABBA hit by heart, lyrics were provided in the menus on our tables). Earlier in the performance the audience was told to tell Debbie not to smoke, she resisted so far but Linda John-Pierre’s Debbie gave in as she sang to her cigarette “Mamma Mia! Here I go again. My, my, how can I resist you?” After this fun number, Nikos continued his quest to send Adam back to the UK, falling out with wife Kate and Julia Imbach’s Konstantina sang a beautifully powerful The Winner Takes It All, to rival queen Meryl herself!

As act two came to a close we’re greeted with dessert which was a lovely Portokalpita orange cake with confit orange and yoghurt. After tea, coffee and some moreish baklava, it’s time for the third and final act of the show as Pauline Stringer’s Grandma brings the show to an end.

Packed with a whopping 35 ABBA hits, the show is performed to wonderful effect around diners in three acts and utilises the entire space. The story mainly occurs in the first two acts and ends with the third act magically transforming the main floor into a 1970s disco, with the cast performing a medley of songs and audience members encouraged to stay to sing and dance to original ABBA recordings after the show has finished.

As immersive theatrical dinning experiences go, Mamma Mia! The Party sets the standard extremely high. With ticket prices starting at £151, with £218 for premium seating, it can seem expensive at first glance. However, considering what Mamma Mia! The Party offers; a beautifully cooked traditional Mediterranean four course meal, an immersive setting, top West End talent in a full musical with 35 songs performed live and entry into a nightclub that plays exclusively ABBA to dance the night away after the show, these ticket prices seem reasonable. Mamma Mia! The Party really is a once in a life time experience for anyone that loves the films, the musical, good food and a party!

Originally posted on West End Wilma, September 27, 2019 

I Interviewed: AJ Bentley (Mamma Mia! The Party)

TWW-AJ-Bentley-for-Tea-With-Wilma-e1568808442425AJ Bentley plays Adam in Mamma Mia The Party. AJ won Gary Barlow’s BBC’s talent search Let It Shine, with his band Five to Five. From this, he embarked on an 18-month UK tour in The Band Musical, including an eight-week run in London’s West End. We caught up for him for a natter about the show over a cuppa.

AJ, you’re known for BBC’s talent search Let It Shine and Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s The Band Musical. How did you get involved with Mamma Mia! The Party?
Funnily enough this story starts exactly the same way as ‘Let It Shine’… my Mum sends me an advertisement for the show, and I go to audition. For ‘Mamma Mia The Party’ they were looking for someone to play the character of ‘Adam’ which I thought I’d be great for. So I went to an audition in front of producers Björn Ulvaeus and Ingrid Sutej, directors Stacey Haynes and Roine Söderlundh, and casting director David Grindrod. I got an offer later that week!

Were you a fan of the original Mamma Mia! musical and film starring Meryl Streep before starting work on Mamma Mia! The Party?
I was indeed! I’d been to see both of the movies in the cinema and loved the ABBA music (and of course love Meryl). I actually think I prefer the second film if I had to choose. The West End show I went to see last year for the first time!

Mamma Mia! The Party is set in a taverna on the island of Skopelos and has an entirely new plot. Can you tell us a bit about your character and what the shows about?
I play Adam, who is a cheeky barman with a free spirit and not the best reputation. Adam is Kate’s nephew and has fallen in love with the owner’s daughter Konstantina!

‘Mamma Mia! The Party’ is an immersive theatrical dining experience. It’s an action packed evening in ‘Nikos Taverna’ – run by Nikos and his wife Kate.

Nikos’ daughter Konstantina and Kate’s nephew Adam, (who both work in the restaurant) have fallen for each other – much to the dismay of Nikos and Grandma who think Adam is just trouble. During your evening you will enjoy a three course Greek meal, a three act show, written by Sandi Toksvig, featuring the music of ABBA, and an ABBA disco at the end.

As the evening goes on, tensions rise and the story evolves whilst everyone frantically attempts to keep the restaurant running smoothly for the guests. The show happens around you… You’re not just coming to see this show, you are IN this show, and that’s what adds to the magic!

The songs in Mamma Mia! are infectious. Are you an ABBA Fan? What’s your favourite song to perform in Mamma Mia! The Party?
They’re very infectious. To the point where I’ve been singing them all day, and I seem to come home and am still singing them in the evening.

I feel like I’ve always loved ABBA music and it’s always been a part of my life, without me consciously knowing it (if that makes sense?). They’re just classic songs that everyone knows! A couple of songs from the many I enjoy in MM!TP are ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’ and ‘Why Does It Have To Be Me.’

After two movie musicals, the original musical in it’s 21st year on the West End and now Mamma Mia! The Party, what do you think makes Mamma Mia so popular?
I think it’s so popular because Benny and Björn, being the geniuses that they are, have managed to deliver hit after hit. They have both pop and theatrical influences that just move people in every way possible. ABBA music is timeless and that why all of these years on shows and films are still being made, and tickets are being sold!

I saw on Twitter you broke your hand in a dress rehearsal recently. That must have been horrible! How did it happen and do you know when you’ll be returning to the show?
It wasn’t ideal, especially as we’d been rehearsing for 7 weeks building up to having our audiences in, and then I broke my hand on the first dress rehearsal. I’ve had an operation and am now recovering, but will be back in time for our press night on September 19th!

Here at West End Wilma we love to champion understudies and standbys. Until you can return to the show, do you have an understudy you’d like to do a shout out for?
Absolutely! Well first of all, a shout out to my cover (Jonny Bentley) who was thrown straight on for Act 3 on the night on my injury and who has been doing a superb job as Adam over the past couple of weeks!! Secondly, I’d like to do a shout out to ‘West End Understudies’ on Twitter… Who are hot on updating the theatre world about when covers are going on. I’m relatively new to this industry, but I have seen on occasions understudies being overlooked and undervalued, where all company members should be getting the recognition they deserve. We are a company and a team!

Like Mamma Mia, do you have any favourite films you think would make fantastic musicals?
I do! But I’m going to keep my ideas for new musicals under wraps for the time being… Who knows what the future may hold! Wink wink.

There’s been lots of talk recently about Lara Spencer from GMA laughing on air at Prince George doing Ballet. As a trained dancer, did you ever get bullied for dancing as a child? Do you have advice for young boys who want to follow in your footsteps?
Yes this is infuriating. We should be encouraging boys and girls to do what they love, and not feel pressure from what society historically says they ‘should be doing’. Dancing is a skill, and a fun one at that!! It’s a shame that a woman who has been given a platform to address millions of people, is spreading this sexist opinion. It seems the response has been largely against her, but I just hope that there aren’t any young boys listening to her words and feel like they shouldn’t dance because of it.

I wouldn’t say I was bullied, but growing up I was called names because I danced, but most people have been called names because of something. Some kids just like to be unkind!

To any young boys or girls who are reading this, do what you want to do and follow what you love and enjoy. I understand it’s easier said than done sometimes, but you only live once and nasty/negative people aren’t worth your time.

Be kind, spread love and enjoy life.

In your own words, why should audiences come and see Mamma Mia! The Party?
Because with all the bad things that are going on in the world right now, we will provide an evening of escapism, utter joy and entertainment… Oh and ouzo!

Thanks for having Tea With Wilma
Questions by Stuart James

Originally posted on West End Wilma, September 23, 2019

I Saw: Big The Musical ★★★

Photo: Alastair Muir

Based on the 1988 film starring a young Tom Hanks, Big The Musical features music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Opening on Broadway in 1996, the show closed after 193 performances having not been received well and is known as one of Broadway’s costliest flops. The show then went through an overhaul with extensive re-writes from the authors for a 1997 US tour and Big The Musical became a hit! On this side of the pond, the show had it’s UK premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in 2016. Transferring to the West End, it’s now London’s turn to see Big The Musical as the show opens at the Dominion Theatre for a strictly limited season.

Just like the iconic film, Big The Musical is a joyous, heart-warming show about 12 year-old Josh Baskin who longs to be big. When a mysterious Zoltar machine grants his wish, he finds himself trapped inside an adult’s body and he is forced to live and work in a grown-up world and his childlike innocence has a transforming effect on the adults he encounters.

In this Theatre Royal Plymouth production Jay McGuiness (The Wanted) plays Josh, Kimberly Walsh (Girls Aloud, Strictly Come Dancing, Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical, Elf the Musical, Sweet Charity at Cadogan Hall) as Susan, Wendi Peters (Cilla Battersby Brown in Coronation Street) as Mrs Baskin and Matthew Kelly (Funny Peculiar, Waiting For Godot, Sign of the Times, Lend Me A Tenor!, Of Mice and Men) as George MacMillan.

As Josh’s Mum Mrs Baskin, Wendi Peters has some lovely moments as the confused, scared mother searching for her lost child. Delivering a solid performance throughout, Peters act two solo was extremely striking as she beautifully sang of her concern for her lost child and her longing to turn back the clock in Stop, Time. As Susan, Kimberly Walsh was a delight. Giving her all to each scene and song, Walsh delivered a strong performance proving the once Girls Aloud singer is extremely at home on the West End stage. As Josh, Jay McGuiness looked every bit the leading man and he danced exceptionally well throughout the production. His characterisation however seemed laboured, lacking a youthful exuberance other than his own boyish charm that didn’t project into the large Dominion Theatre space sufficiently. Delivering a somewhat thin pop vocal, McGuiness seemed to be disconnected and unaware of the audience and as a result his Josh was hard to connect or emphasize with. Matthew Kelly as George MacMillan was a lot of fun. While the songs he was given seemed low for his voice, his scenes were some of the most welcome reprises of the evening. Kelly’s confident performance as the head of MacMillan Toys delivered a likeable, exuberant and believable character who the audience could identify with.

Simon Higlett’s design was the real star of this production. A detailed, 80s, high octane extravaganza that combined a revolving stage, two large two-storied houses and large moving screens. Higlett’s amped-up design encompassed the Dominion’s stage from footlights to proscenium often extending effects into the audience. However, the most famous scene in which Josh and George MacMillan really connect while playing Heart and Soul on a floor piano was disappointingly achieved through a lighting and screen effect rather than having the actors perform the number live. Chris Fisher’s illusions were sparse but extremely effective. Transformations from young to old Josh and a surprising disappearing young Josh effect at the top of the second act, were simple but achieved exceptionally well really adding a welcome aspect of magic to the show.

Big The Musical is an adaption of a well-known and much loved film soaked with nostalgia. While the film is a lot of fun and a thirteen-year-old boys dream, it suffers as a product of it’s time and despite revisions doesn’t seem to be translated well to the stage. John Weidman’s book has many holes with characters we meet once and never see again (Josh’s Dad and Josh’s sister/brother/baby that cries… and that’s really it), sub-plot that fizzles out to nothing and literal dialogue that is tedious and at times cringe-worthy. David Shire’s music is mostly unmemorable and Richard Maltby Jr’s lyrics seem simplistic. The score includes unnecessary multiple reprises of songs giving no new information or moving the story or characters along and songs about characters we never meet, evident in Susan’s reflective My Secretary’s In Love. Big The Musical seems to have songs shoe-horned in, so many that the audience doesn’t get the chance to get to know the characters through scenes and as a result becomes restless easily. I believe a heavy-handed and talented dramaturg is needed to turn Big The Musical into the nostalgic, exuberant, magical show it should be and I hope we have the opportunity to see another re-worked production in the future.

If you’re keen to see some of your favourite moments from the film live on stage then this production is for you. However, while Big The Musical at the Dominion Theatre is an impressive spectacle, the show itself lacks heart, substance and any real standout performances.

Originally posted on West End Wilma, September 23, 2019

I Saw: The Play That Goes Wrong ★★★★★

playMischief Theatre’s hilarious The Play That Goes Wrong premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London in 2012, before moving to Trafalgar Studios shortly after in 2013. After a successful run at Trafalgar Studios the show went out on tour throughout 2014 before settling at the Duchess Theatre in London where it remains today. Extremely well received by critics and audiences alike, a second UK tour ran from 2017-2018, a Broadway production opened in 2017 at the Lyceum Theatre, an Australian production opened at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne in 2017 and a US Tour ran in 2018 before the Broadway production moved form the Lyceum theatre Off-Broadway to New World Stages in February of this year. Back on this side of the pond, The Play That Goes Wrong is celebrating its fifth birthday this year at the Duchess Theatre. Cracking out candles, birthday cake and balloons, the show held a Birthday Party this week in honour it’s five years in the West End.

The Play That Goes Wrong concerns the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. In the wake of hits such as The Lion and The Wardrobe, family friendly dance-based musical Cat and James and the Peach or James, Where’s your Peach?, the society receives a substantial bequest and decides to stage a performance of The Murder at Haversham Manor- a 1920s murder mystery play, similar to The Moustrap. However, as the title of the show suggests, everything that can go wrong… does and the calamity stricken drama society try their best to perform The Murder at Haversham Manor through a myriad of mishaps, with hilarious consequences!

As The Murder at Haversham Manor’s passionate director Chris, Jake Curran does an excellent job thanking the audience for coming at the beginning and for (surprisingly) coming back after the interval. His performance in The Murder at Haversham Manor as Inspector Carter is utterly hilarious, especially when one of the many mishaps occur and he breaks character to chastise his fellow cast members as the all-powerful director. Catherine Dryden delivers a fun performance as Sandra. In Haversham Manor she plays damsel Florance Colleymoore and her physical comedy moments provide some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Steven Rostance’s Jonathan has a lot of fun in The Murder at Haversham Manor as the first murder victim Charles Haversham and due to multiple early line delivery mishaps receives a big round of applause when he does finally deliver the line in the correct scene towards the end of the play. Benjamin McMahon as Dennis is a delight throughout. As a younger member of Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, Dennis has been mis-cast as the aged butler of Haversham Manor Perkins. In addition to his already nervous disposition, Dennis forgets to amend lines referring to his characters age and is reprimanded each time by director Chris. Reading larger harder words of dialogue from the back of his hand throughout the performance mispronouncing all of them results in a wonderfully pathetic performance that’s a credit to McMahon’s talent.

Kazeem Tosin Amore ‘s Robert comes across as one of the troupes more serious actors and as tragedy befalls their production, the audience see’s Robert fall gradually deeper into an entertaining type of horrified despair. Amore has a lot of fun with Robert and Haversham Manor character Thomas Colleymoore, really shining in a nightmarish moment where Dennis forgets a line and it throws the group into a never-ending cycle of repeating dialogue. Catherine Dryden gives an uproarious performance throughout as Annie, the jack of all trades backstager of the troupe. As the show progresses Annie assumes many roles, including a mantle piece, and replaces original actor Sandra when injury transpires and she can’t continue her performance of Florence Colleymoore. Starting nervously and reading the lines from the script Valentine comes alive with audience encouragement to a become fully fledged member of the acting troupe. Now a confident actor, Annie refuses to give up her role in the play when Sandra appears back onstage ready to continue and a high-spirited battle ensues between the two. As sound engineer Trevor, Gabriel Paul is boisterously charming. Missing cues due to being on his phone or tying his shoe, Paul’s performance delivers some rib-tickling moments and his turn on stage as Florence Colleymoore when both Annie and Sandra are indisposed was a show-stopping moment. One of the most hilarious performances of the evening came from Bobby Hirston as Max. As the male love interest Cecil Haversham in The Murder at Haversham Manor, Hirston gives a ridiculously energetic performance hand-acting his way through scenes. Breaking character throughout and reverting to actor Max, Hirston gleefully breaks into a dopey smile whenever the audience enthusiastically applauses his onstage antics.

Upon arrival at the press desk I was greeted with a red party bag, like you would receive when leaving a five year olds birthday party. Exploring the contents in my seat it was amusing to see I was now the proud owner of some chattering teeth, small playing cards, the magic hovering fish trick, a whoopy cushion, some whiz fizz and a small bottle of white spirit. Cute! The ensemble cast of The Play That Goes Wrong are extremely tight, giving wonderful performances in technically challenging and non-stop show. Deserving of their standing ovation at the end of the show, it was a real treat at the fifth birthday performance to see the original writers take the stage and previous actors stand and be celebrated with the current cast.

Sans Tom Cruise and a lost dog, The Play That Goes Wrong is still as side-splittingly funny as ever, performed by a cast of loveable hilarious bumbling idiots it’s easy to see why audiences (that didn’t choose to see Mamma Mia! instead) continue to love the show as it celebrates five years at the Duchess Theatre. Remaining one of the best nights out in London, I urge you to support the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s latest endeavour and book to see The Murder at Haversham Manor today!

Originally posted on West End Wilma, September 16, 2019

I Saw: Torch Song ★★★★★

Photos: Mark Senior

Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy is a collection of three one-act plays International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! The first of his trilogy, International Stud opened in 1978 at Off-Broadway’s Players Theatre, followed by Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First! at Off-Off-Broadway’s La Mama in 1979. All three plays were then combined and presented as Torch Song Trilogy which opened on Broadway at the Little Theatre in 1982. Running for 1222 performances, Torch Song Trilogy won Firestein two Tony Awards for Best play and Best Actor in a Play, two Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play and the Theatre World Award. The first UK production opened in 1985 at Albery Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane where it ran for just over seven months and a feature film of Torch Song Trilogy was released in 1988, starring Fierstein and Matthew Broderick. Since then, numerous revivals have taken place before Firestein revised the play for a new Off-Broadway production in 2017. Titled simply Torch Song, this revival was shortened from it’s original four-hour long Trilogy and stared Michael Urie of Ugly Betty fame. Returning Fiersten’s work to the UK, the newly revised Torch Song is having it’s London premiere as the inaugural production launching Paul Taylor Mills’s new Turbine Theatre at Battersea Power Station.

Hilarious and heart-wrenching, Torch Song follows Arnold Beckoff’s search for love and acceptance, but as a gay man working as drag queen in 1970s New York City, neither seem to come easily. After a series of heartaches, Arnold believes he has found the love of his life in Alan and the couple make plans to adopt. But when tragedy strikes, Arnold’s life is shaken to its very core, leading to a confrontation with his overbearing mother. This dizzyingly funny and deeply touching landmark play is a portrait about the families we’re born into, the families we choose and the battles to bring them all home.

Directed by Drew McOnieTurbine Theatre’s Torch Song features Matthew Needham (John Buchannan in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, HBO’s Chernobyl, ITV’s Sandition) as Arnold, Daisy Boulton (Trouble In Mind, Present laughter, Shakespeare in Love, A View From the Bridge) as Laurel, Dino Fetscher (As Is, Ghost Stories, BBC’s Years and Years, Channel 4’s Humans, E4’s Banana) as Ed, Jay Lycurgo (BFI Network’s Farther of the Bride, BBC’s Doctors) as David, Rish Shah (Prank Me, Doctors, BBC’s Years and Years) as Alan and Bernice Stegers (Lost In Yonkers, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Eight Women, Four Weddings and a Funeral, BBC’s Tipping The Velvet, Netflix’s Last of the Tsars) as Ma.

As Laurel, Daisy Boulton performed the conflicted wife to bi-sexual Ed with aplomb and was easily able to explore the character fully bringing affection, jealousy and a sense of false courage to the character the audience could really feel for. As Alan, Rish Shah performed well with a subtle innocence in a world that forced him to grow up to quickly. This innocence and sense of fun easily made the audience fall for him which resulted in the final act of the play, Widows And Children First!, all the more tragic. Jay Lycurgo brings an intelligence to the character of David. Equal parts child-like and worldly, Lycurgo’s David fits into the world of the play effortlessly and is very believable as the reformed young son of Arnold. Bernice Stegers’ Ma is an affecting performance. With so much dialogue to deliver in the final act of the play, the audience needs to learn all about her in a short space of time and I feel Stegers rose to this challenge exquisitely. The chemistry between Stegers’ Ma and Matthew Needham’s Arnold was palpable and I found myself exasperated by and pitiful of Ma’s stubbornness and unwillingness to process grief in a healthy way. Dino Fetscher performed beautifully as Ed. Conflicted between what he thought was ‘right’, his love for wife Laurel and his love for Arnold, Fetscher portrayed a roller coast of emotion throughout in a very powerful performance. As Arnold, Matthew Needham was exquisite. Needham gave a brave, heart-felt, hilarious performance of a larger than life character who grows considerably throughout the course of the play. Making Arnold his own, Needham led the audience through the three sections of the play effortlessly and held the audience in his hand with a fully formed and very human portrayal.

Drew McOnie’s (King Kong, Strictly Ballroom, On The Town, The Wild Party) direction saw a smoothly running play with fast paced, snappy dialogue and clever use of the new Turbine Theatre space. Ryan Dawson Laight’s design used the small space very effectively, with neon signs displaying the three sections of the play International Stud, Fugue In A Nursery and Widows And Children First! and a small adaptable set which suited each act perfectly. Set above the rail line in an archway, the new Turbine Theatre is an intimate space with a small bar at the front, plenty of loos and a lovely mezzanine space to relax in before, at interval or after the show. Set right beside the river at the developing Battersea Power Station, the new Turbine Theatre is a lovely little venue I hope to re-visit a lot more in the future.

Torch Song is one of those must-see plays and I’m extremely happy Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills chose it as the inaugural production at the new Turbine Theatre. Beautifully staged and performed by an extremely talented cast, this production of Torch Song is a hilarious and heart breaking portrait of love, loss, sexual identity and the deep longing for family approval that drives us all forward and drives us all crazy.

Originally posted on West End Wilma, September 8, 2019