The Wizard of Oz Review

Grand Opera House York –  until 5th May 2018

Reviewed by Catherine McWilliams


As the excellent orchestra struck up the overture with all the familiar song themes, I settled into my seat ready to be entertained and the Pick Me Up Theatre Company delivered just what I wanted. This production is true to the film (being the adaption by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company), a very traditional tale of good prevailing over evil with all the songs you would expect. In some ways this is a very gentle and nostalgic production (complete with a real Toto), it has none of the sharpness that modern musicals sometimes have, but it does not suffer for that.

The story starts in Kansas as Dorothy (Emily Chattle) runs away having fallen out with her Aunt Em (Alexandra Mather) and Uncle Henry (Finn East), she then gets caught up in the tornado and lands in Oz, where her troubles begin, she defeats the wicked witch and she realises that “there is no place like home”.

Emily Chattle is very believable as Dorothy with just the right amount of wide- eyed innocence and enthusiasm and she delivers all her songs beautifully, particularly Over The Rainbow.

Adam Sowter plays an excellent baddie as Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West, my young companion described him as slightly goofy and like a cartoon witch and I have to say I preferred this to the witch in the film, far more suitable for the family audience.

Dorothy’s companions Scarecrow (Stuart Rae), Tin Man (Joe McNeice)and Lion (Nick Lewis) were perfect in their roles, adding fun and gelling beautifully with Dorothy as they followed the yellow brick road.

Alexandra Mather’s Glenda was beautifully saccharine, Finn East’s Guard suitably silly and Ian Giles an excellent Wizard of Oz.

The production fairly zips along with slick scene changes and numerous costume changes for the supporting cast. The scenery and lighting were excellent, although I think someone may have got a little carried away with the smoke and I wonder if this interfered with the view from the stalls, it was fine in the Dress Circle. The costumes were fabulous, I particularly liked the flying monkeys and the hipster guys in Oz. The nod to Busby Berkeley in the poppy scene was inspired.

Pick Me Up Theatre are an amateur company but this was a truly professional performance, an excellent night out for all the family.

Finally the poster and back drop for the stage were wonderful, very 30s, but sadly I cannot find who to credit. Oh and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t ask for a poster for my wall!

Don Juan Review

Hoxton Hall – until 12 May

Reviewed by Claire Roderick


Molière’s Don Juan was scandalous and censored when it was first published. Nowadays, the exploration of egotism, hedonism, sexual freedom, religion and hypocrisy in theatre are all so familiar that it takes a very special production of Don Juan to make an impact. Sadly, Theatre Lab Company’s production is solid enough, but more pleasantly diverting then ground-breaking.

The play follows the last days in the life of lothario Don Juan (Peter Rae), newlywed but already planning his next amorous conquest. Followed by his faithful servant Sgannarelle (David Furlong), Don Juan does his best to avoid Donna Elvira (Emmanuela Lia), her vengeance-seeking brothers, debtors and his God-fearing father, all the while wooing any female with a pulse that passes by. Superstitious Sgannarelle constantly tries to convert Don Juan to believe in something – anything – but Don Juan has an argument and snarky comment against everything Sgannarelle discusses.

Transplanting the action to Venice in Carnival season is one of director Anastasia Revi’s more inspired choices, with masks, costumes, dance and music creating a heady atmosphere at certain times and enhancing the idea of hypocrites hiding behind their masks. Unfortunately, these devices are also the production’s downfall. The music is overloud and plays at the oddest moments, drowning out pivotal dialogue. I was in the third row and I could barely hear the cast at times. The music, though evoking a carnival feel, was also performed in a muzak style, evoking the feeling of being trapped in a lift. Putting the speaking character of Charlotte in a full-face mask also backfired – Benoît Gouttenoire was sweet and funny, but extremely muffled, in huge contrast to the exaggerated stylings of Samuel Lawrence as Pierrot. Emmanuela Riva

Revi ensures that as much of the beautiful Hoxton Hall space are utilised in a physical show, but the pace lags at every dance break, even though Signe Preston is a very talented dancer. There are shades of Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent in Peter Rae’s early scenes, but he grows into a funny, steely, self-obsessed performance, with his monologue on hypocrisy very impressive (in the parts that I could hear over the music). David Furlong’s energetic Sgannarelle is a wonderful foil for Rae’s spiky Don Juan. By turns boastful, aggressive, pious and glutton – Furlong keeps the audience’s interest with his physical clowning and steals every scene. The highlight of the evening is Furlong eating a chocolate éclair during a scene change, demonstrating exactly how much this production relies on his charisma.

Once the sound issues are resolved, and the audience can hear the funny lines, Don Juan will be a treat for Moliere fans. Worth the ticket price for Furlong alone.

Sunshine on Leith, the Musical Review

West Yorkshire Playhouse – until Saturday 19th May 2018

Reviewed By Dawn Smallwood


Sunshine on Leith was conceived 11 years ago when James Brining, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Artistic Director, was Dundee Rep’s equivalent and the production had won the TMA Award for Best Musical. The musical, written by Stephen Greenhorn, is probably better known for the film, released in 2013, and reached a wider audience. The many film viewers can relate to the social themes explored and the familiar songs from The Proclaimers. This probably led to grounds as to why Brining and his creative team decide to bring Sunshine on Leith on stage again.

The story is about two friends, Davy (Steven Miller) and Ally (Paul-James Corrigan), who return to Leith after serving in the army and they are reunited with their family, friends and loved ones. On their journeys they et al. explore what home really is and define the meaning of life and love. Davy’s family and girlfriend, Yvonne (Jocasta Almgill), play a pivotal role in the story and how Rab (Phil McKee), Jean (Hilary Maclean) and Liz (Neshka Caplan) relate their life journeys with its ups and downs.

The musical is set to well known songs of The Proclaimers with the musical numbers fitting to each of the story’s scenes. The audience is familiar with the songs and is entertained from beginning to end including the purposeful I’m On My Way, entertaining Over and Done With and Oh Jean and the emotive Hate My Love For You.

The memorable numbers must be the final three hits; the title song Sunshine on Leith is sung movingly by Maclean (Jean) with deep felt conviction, Gill’s (Caplan) departure abroad in Letter from America, and the show stopping finale, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) which guarantees maximum participation from the audience with cast’s enthused encouragement.

The excellent live band on stage, some doubling up as the ensemble, compliments the down to earth staging, courtesy of Colin Richmond, where the space is well used for the different scenes and in between the smooth transitions. Tim Mitchell’s colour theme lighting must be admired and compliments the staging and costumes.

Sunshine on Leith is such a heartfelt and memorable performance. It is delivered from a very talented and exciting cast who sings and dance in synchronisation under the guidance of Emily-Jane Boyle whose first class choreography makes this show tick to perfection throughout. It is authentically Scottish with its performance, local references and identity embedded in.

The musical could not be more realistic and Brining confirms this musical is realistic not fantastical – it focuses on real lives of people, their joy and hardships, everyday life and how they define themselves relating to home, love, and family life. The songs from The Proclaimers echo the depth of this and humanity in general.

This production is unmissable and won’t probably ever be forgotten. It’s worth walking 500 Miles for a must see. Sunshine on Leith tours to six other cities including Scottish ones after its current run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

For King and Country Review

Colab Factory – until 10th June
Review by Heather Chalkley
What an experience! It began on arrival with a soldier outside the entrance, on guard and waiting to let you in. The bar is dressed for wartime, snug with lots of draped flags. You are greeted with 1940’s music and hosts in role, from the get go. Each audience member is handed ID papers. 
Before you go down to the war room, an MP briefs you in that jovial, stiff upper lip way only the gentrified English can. We, the audience, are the designated survivors and are being taken to safety to a secret bunker just south of the Thames.
The attention to the historical context was exceptional. You are guided through a series of decisions as an emergency war time government, including electing a prime minister and cabinet. I am pleased to say the group of about 24 people all got total into it, taking on roles and playing their parts. Lots of humour was injected. However, the actors stayed true to the serious nature of the situation, delivering news and updates that swung the participants from one scene to the next. It was a truly immersive experience.
Talking afterwards with the director Owen Kingston, he explained that he and his colleague are both historians and have an array of different plots that they can use and are upstairs responding to actions the war cabinet take, adding a good handful of drama with it, phoning through results and updates of the battles happening almost over head. There are a few twists in the tale that I cannot divulge for fear of spoiling the experience for future audiences.
Go back to ancient Greeks and you will see that theatre was used as a way of debating and involving everyone in important decisions. Owen and his team have taken this method and used it to immerse you in a historical piece, evoking real reactions true to the times. It was not hard to identify the relevance to what is happening today, triggering debate about current social issues in an historical context. You are willingly pushed out of your comfort zone, in a safe and fun environment. 
If you have not experienced immersive theatre before, I would thoroughly recommend For King and Country as a first foray – you may find yourself having fun before you realise it!

Lennon’s Banjo

The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool – until Saturday 5th May 2018

Reviewed by Julie Noller


It’s totally fitting that Lennon’s Banjo should receive it’s world premier in the theatre saved from dereliction, refurbished just a few short years ago and renamed after one of histories most prolific musical managers; Brian Epstein. Liverpool a proud city full of history, music and memories. The Epstein may be a small theatre up many stairs (there is a lift for those needing assistance) but it has character and charm in abundance. I felt like I was stepping back into a time of music halls, what a welcome indeed what a delight it was. Before the performance and during the interval break it was perfectly apt that those little touches such as banjo music playing Beatles songs was helping to set the mood. It’s also 60 years since John Lennon’s Mother Julia was tragically killed.

Originally written as a novel by Rob Fennah and Helen A Jones, Julia’s Banjo has been adapted by Rob Fennah himself in fact as co producer with Bill Elms it’s been a labour of love. It’s a story that has you questioning, full of what if’s. The question I’ve been asked most ‘is it a true story?’ isn’t an easy one to answer, well yes and no. And that’s where this play is clever, it’s set in present day Liverpool. Using all the knowledge of Beatlemania, the hype and somewhat disdain of others. It’s full of typically scouse humour, fast paced and many one liners. There’s also a love story typically British, boy loves girl, girl loves boy but will they actually get their acts together?

The play has been described as the Liverpudlian Da Vinci code, in fact our hero Barry played as an utter anorak of Beatles knowledge, the tour guide who lives and breathes all things Beatles, by Eric Potts, uses the phrase himself. The audience love Barry he is well, just Barry uncomfortable dealing with life that doesn’t involve talking about The Beatles. All our characters are far from the sophisticated personas introduced in the afore mentioned novel. But they are all average Brits, characters you could recognise walking down the street, you feel comfortable instantly knowing them. The costumes may not have us all rushing to copy, but look round and I believe if you’re not wearing jeans then someone close by will be.

The stage and audience were littered with many well known names and well deserved to be sold out. Most of our actors took on multiple parts and it wasn’t without hilarious consequences. You’re probably wondering what about the banjo? It’s called the Holy Grail of pop memorabilia, the first instrument that John Lennon played, taught by his mother Julia. Without that banjo it’s said there would be no Beatles and without The Beatles then where would we be? This is where fact and fiction collide, we are taken on a fast paced ride, slightly farcical at times but had us laughing nonetheless. Barry is seen as many as boring, without a life, is told by his driver Sid (Alan Stocks) to stop talking to women (namely Brenda) about The Beatles, giving advice to talk about normal things like cars and football. Joe and Steve (Mark Moraghan and Jake Abraham) own the Beatles Memorabilia Shop, Barry bores them. Despite hiding from him and failing. They don’t escape and ultimately have to listen to him albeit halfheartedly whilst he drones on about a letter he found unopened, written by John Lennon to Stuart Sutcliffe – the fifth Beatle. Cue one of the many off track topics of conversation and main arguments over who was actually the fifth Beatle! The letter written in code Jabberwocky, if broken will give the whereabouts of Lennon’s Banjo. It could be worth millions, everyones dreams could come true, it’s a total only fools and horse’s moment. Joe and Steve could leave cold dreary Liverpool for Tenerife and finally own their own bar, Barry, you just know his life won’t change for Barry is happy with his life in contrast to all the other characters.

The conversation is overheard by brash and desperate for his fortune Texan Travis (Danny O’Brien) who enlists his wife Cheryl (Stephanie Dooley) to seduce Barry and get hold of that letter. Travis doesn’t have the heart that Barry does or deep down Cheryl, she goes along to please her husband and we are introduced to some wonderful characters who are so stereotypical but you know those actors on stage are having a great time playing. Alan Stocks in one of my favourite bits plays Billy a manc parker wearer, shuffling along singing Oasis songs. Steals the museum banjo for Travis but stashes his drugs inside in the process. Thus leading Travis to set up Roy Carruthers who as DeVito is a ruthless Texan millionaire. You sense that the lovely Brenda (Lynn Francis) may hold the key for both unlocking Barry’s heart and solving the riddle. Indeed she does and all ends with a flourish as our hero gets his lady, Cheryl gets her romantic European vacation in Paris not Liverpool, Steve and Joe head off to sunnier climates. You can see how fast paced this play is, packing lots of laughs and a huge story line.

Of course they say save the Best for last…. They didn’t but halfway through I am now lucky and chuffed to say at my tender age I have seen a member of the Beatles up on stage, to coin that phrase the fifth Beatle, the original drummer Pete Best. He lapped up the cheers and applause and will only be appearing on select dates. He plays himself and in a typically humorous twist they believe he has the banjo. You sense the doom descend as dreams are shattered. Fear not for Pete Bests cheery face will not keep the mood low for long. It was a fabulous performance and enjoyed by all, I even had the opportunity to discover about how the cast and producers are supporting the Salvation Army and their Strawberry Fields project.

Strictly Ballroom The Musical Review

 Piccadilly Theatre Booking to 20 October

Reviewed by Claire Roderick


Love is in the air at the Piccadilly Theatre, as the cutthroat world of amateur dance sport has arrived in a whirlwind of frills, fake tans and sequins – so many sequins!

Baz Luhrmann’s iconic and much-loved film is a hard act to follow, but this gloriously camp production is an explosion of exuberance and joy. With Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s book ensuring that the distinctive Aussie humour and cattiness survives, director Drew McOnie’s vision remains true to the film, with added theatrical flair.

The addition of Wally Strand as the show’s compere and narrator roots the production firmly on the stage, with Will Young a natural at this kind of gig after his fantastic Emcee in Cabaret. The plot is unchanged – Scott Hastings’ rebellion just weeks before the Pan Pacific dance competition sends tremors through the world of ballroom dancing, with Federation bigwig Barry Fife incandescent at the idea of a dancer introducing new steps. As Scott loses his partner, he begins to dance with Fran, a beginner at his dance school who encourages him to dance his own steps. But Barry Fife will go to any lengths of backstabbing and skulduggery to keep to the Federation’s mantra of tradition and repetition. The theme of rebellion and anti-authoritarianism is much more overt in this show, with some fantastic, and funny, dance sequences to highlight the gulf between the dancers and the Federation.

McOnie’s choreography is stunning, from the cheesy and ridiculously OTT ballroom sequences to the freedom dances. My only gripe is that they need a much bigger stage – the production does well in the tight space available, but it would be fantastic to see the company able to sweep around the dancefloor. Exactly like the film, the Spanish dancing in Fran’s yard heightens the emotion and builds into a high energy and uplifting crescendo to Habanera. Fernando Miras is perfection as Fran’s dad – his dancing is magnificent and mesmerising.

Will Young, sashays around the stage full of camp mannerisms and playing to the audience for all he’s worth. He takes on all the iconic songs from the film, with his rendition of Time After Time simply breath-taking. He sings all the emotions the characters cannot express, making the moments when he gently touches characters during Love Is In The Air, giving them a voice to finally sing their love, even more moving. Zizzi Strallen continues her family’s takeover of the British stage with style. She has a great instinct for physical comedy, and her transformation during the film is handled subtly. Jonny Labey impresses as Scott, but the show is stolen by Anna Francolini as Scott’s mum, Shirley. Her facial and vocal reactions to stress are hysterical, and she is matched by Stephen Matthews as Scott’s dad Doug – nailing the pathos and getting huge laughs. The pivotal scene at the Pan Pacific is staged beautifully, with Doug’s contribution guaranteed to send a shiver through the audience.

If this show doesn’t get your feet tapping, then nothing will. Jam-packed with fabulous tunes, Strictly Ballroom is bold, brash and brassy with a heart of gold that beats to an irresistible rhythm.

Hairspray Review

Hull New Theatre until 28th April 2018

Reviewed by Catherine McWilliams


Wow just wow! I was totally blown away by this production of Hairspray at Hull New Theatre, what a hugely talented cast, richly deserving of their standing ovation from the audience. From the start the energy levels were incredible and at the interval I thought to myself that it couldn’t get any better, wrong oh so wrong!

Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Mendoza) is desperate to dance on the Corny Collins Show, but she doesn’t really fit the profile of the dancers, add in that she desperately wants anyone to be able to dance on the show and to end segregation and you have the recipe for fun and mayhem, with plenty of stunning dancing and singing. On the surface this is a lighthearted musical but it packs a punch in the underlying message and the very witty but sharp lyrics of Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman.

Rebecca Mendoza was outstanding as Tracy and it is hard to believe that this is her professional debut, a true star and one to watch in the future. She held the audience from start to finish and we were willing Tracy on and reveled in her success. I particularly loved her rendition of “I can hear the bells”, pure comedy genius, I had tears of laughter rolling down my face.

Brenda Edwards was superb as Motormouth Maybelle, and she has the most amazing voice, such power and emotion. “I know where I’ve been” blew me away with its poignancy and beauty, I think I held my breath for the entire song and I was not alone in loving it as the Theatre erupted with applause at the end of the song.

Matt Rixon as Edna Turnblad and Norman Pace as Wilbur Turnblad added more humour to the story as Tracy’s parents. They played their parts to perfection, clearly relishing every minute of the show. Their duet of “You’re timeless to me” was wonderfully played, true to the tradition of the old music hall double act.

This is a young cast whose sheer talent shone through at all times as they sang and danced their way through the performance. The band, the colourful costumes, the scenery and the lighting all enhanced the performance. It was a privilege to witness such talent.

Vibrant, colourful and heartwarming, pulsing with sheer joy – “you can’t stop the beat”

Henry James’ Turn of the Screw Review

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – until 28 April

Reviewed by Heather Chalkley


Many debates and articles have been written about Turn of the Screw. Are the apparitions real or imagined? Has the children’s isolation from society caused a seemingly unhealthy balance in relationships, between brother and sister, upper and lower classes? This is a ghost mystery with a difference, employing Freudian concepts of psychoanalysis to twist your mind. James’ original story had complex layers of narration within narration. Tim Luscombe has stripped it back to the first person, inviting the audience to make their own decisions.

This is the tale of a young and vulnerable woman with an overactive imagination and ambitions to prove and improve herself. The sexually repressed Governess, played by Carli Norris, gave a believable performance, flipping between her young self and present day (1897). The decline into neurosis and hysteria was well conveyed, bringing the story to an inevitable climax in the revealed death of the boy.

Maggie McCarthy’s Mrs Grose, provided the perfect susceptible, stooge for the Governess that injected a much needed element of humour at times. Michael Hanratty has to be commended for his transition between the three male characters, including the apparition of Quint! In the same way Annabel Smith provided clear distinctions between Flora as the woman and child. Smith’s adult Flora smoothly developed the story in the first scene, bearing an oppressive and insistent pressure down on to The Governess.

Director Daniel Buckroyd has expertly used every nook and cranny of the small stage to eek out maximum dramatic impact, encouraging the audience to visualise lakeside, country house and London all in the same space.

Adam Hall created a twisted and dark atmosphere before the play even started, with an asymmetrical frame to the set, white dust sheets and long shadows. Matt Leventhall and John Chambers, use lighting, music and dramatic sound effects to produce classic, eerie ghostly effects, making people jump out of their seats more than once!

I would say this is more a lesson in psychoanalysis than a ghost story to enthral! I believe Henry James would be surprised and pleased with this adaptation, probably still smiling to himself at how much it leaves people to debate whether there are hidden messages in his story.

An Officer and a Gentleman, the Musical Review

The Grand Theatre, Leeds – until Saturday 28th April 2018

Reviewed By Dawn Smallwood


An Officer and a Gentleman, the Musical is based on the 1982 film starring Richard Gere and written by Douglas Day Stewart. The musical had an Australian premiere back in 2012 but received mixed reviews. Nikolai Foster, Artistic Director at Leicester’s Curve Theatre, directs this new production and along with Kate Prince’s choreography. The world premiere of this new production began its current UK tour in Leicester and will finish in Glasgow later in the year.

The story is based on Zack Mayo (Jonny Fines) who trains to become a pilot in the US Navy and faces obstacles along the way. With a turbulent family background he is determined to become resilient and successful. During his training he falls in love with Paula Pokrifki (Emma Williams), a local girl who has dreams in bettering herself, and there are the struggles when he deals with the tragedy of his friend and training candidate, Sid Worley (Ian McIntosh).

The musical is set to well known familiar hits of the 1980s such as the very memorable Up, Where We Belong and also other hits including Heart of Glass, Alone, Material Girl, I Was Made for Lovin’ You and The Final Countdown.

An Officer and a Gentleman, the Musical contains themes of an adult nature and looks further into individuals and their societal backgrounds. Their circumstances give them impetus to better themselves and prove others wrong that anything is possible if one puts their mind and heart to it. The role of women is looked into and how Casey Seegar (Keisha Atwell) becomes the first women ever to become a Navy officer and how Mayo (Fines) defies odds to eventually be given an assignment in the Navy. The musical numbers link well to the story and the characters.

The musical certainly entertains but offers the audience to think beyond the themes raised with the feelings of pessimism and reality but also optimism and hope. Foster has certainly put this production creativity well with familiar hits and a story which parallels can be drawn in today’s society. There are longer pauses between some of the scenes/musical numbers in the production which could be minimised and flow smoother. One must remember that the production is very young and such technicalities will no doubt be continuously reviewed. It is a feel good show with stunning sets with visual backdrops and the talented cast and creative team have put on such an enjoyable show. One of the highlights is certainly the fantastic finale which is received very well by the audience – evident with the standing ovations at the very end.

An Officer and a Gentleman, the Musical is a show for a good night out and certainly a must for a 1980s music fan

Moormaid Review

Arcola Theatre – until 19 May

Reviewed by Claire Roderick


Art professor Melissa’s (Sarah Alles) life is stagnating. She cannot paint and seems to survive on a diet of whisky and walnuts. On the night that she decides to end it all, she is interrupted by the arrival of former student Mehdi (Moe Bar-El). They had a tentative relationship before he disappeared for two years. Since then she has married, but Mehdi makes himself at home when he hears that her husband is away on business.

Mehdi is followed by his best friend Khan (Ali Azhar) whose odd behaviour is mystifying until it becomes clear that he is dead and can only be seen by Mehdi. He is caught in the in-between, and the promised virgins are nowhere to be seen.

Marion Bott’s clever writing slowly reveals, amongst Khan’s more mystical meditations, hints about what exactly the two men were doing, revealing the camaraderie they felt as they were recruited and trained by the caliphate, and eventually the horrific weight of guilt the Mehdi is carrying. As Khan talks about the day he died, Mehdi’s mantra of “I choose to forget” becomes weaker and weaker. As he asks Melissa to teach him to paint again, it is unclear if he is seeking redemption or revenge, and his vicious reaction when she discovers his past is both terrifying and the pitiable defensive aggression of a frightened and trapped child.

Bott hasn’t written the men as monsters, recognising the fact that any disenfranchised person is vulnerable to radicalisation, and the danger of Mehdi continuing terrorist acts after his return to Berlin seems very real for most of the play. Melissa’s numbness enables her to look at Mehdi’s choices without judgement, but the deep musings they share can at times feel a little like a Dr Phil/Oprah Winfrey self-help special, although the couple both seem to be on the right path to finding truth and freedom through art by the end of the play. The language can sometimes feel a little correct and overwrought, but that may be down to Bott’s French-German background – every German schoolchild I’ve ever met can form more intricate and grammatically correct sentences than native English speakers – and you soon get into the rhythm of Bott’s writing.

Director Zois Pigadas brings the best out of the talented cast, and with movement coach Jess Tucker Boyd has created beautiful sequences with Alles and Bar-El performing balletic synchronised actions to great effect. The impressive cast all deliver memorable performances and maintain the intensity throughout the play.

A play about returning ISIS fighters may not sound like a barrel of laughs, but Moormaid has many lovely light moments and is an intriguing tale about faith, friendship and moving on.