REVIEW – Delightful new Osmonds musical – currently at the Wolverhampton Grand – is destined for the West End and Broadway

IT IS delightful when as a reviewer you go to see a show with low expectations and come out with stars in your eyes.

I was expecting a jukebox musical featuring The Osmonds catalogue and what I got was an honest-to-God musical biopic with hidden depths and more twists and turns than the big dipper at Blackpool pleasure beach.

Picture by Pamela Raith. s

The story is written by the drummer Jay Osmond – quite fittingly as drummers always have a unique rear view take on matters. Shaun Kerrison and Julian Bigg, the shows director and musical arranger, helped Jay turn his story into an outstanding book.

The Osmonds are historically not known for a ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ lifestyle associated with the genre, but more a squeaky clean Mormon family of five brothers and one sister. However, the fact they stick together through thick and thin with core values of Family, Faith and Dedication come across as something to admire not sneer at.

They did in fact influence a whole generation of girls who had to follow on the high heels of the permissive 60s. They told them through words and deeds that it is not compulsory to be a swinger and just as cool to be faithful as it was to bedhop. This is done beautifully via fan letters to Jay from Wendy in Manchester – their number one fan -a joyous little cameo from Katy Hards.

The cast is quite huge by modern standards, with two sets of Osmonds – the young (of which there has to be treble casting to comply with the laws) and the adult – plus a large ensemble of multi-role players. That makes for a massive and fabulous wardrobe of seventies flares and glam rock frocks– plus a liberal sprinkling of Elvis rhinestone. Take a bow Lucy Osborne costume and set designer.

Osborne’s set consists of five psychedelic stripes from fanning out across the floor from rear to front of the proscenium. Each of these is a mini stage for an Osmond brother wearing something that matches the colour of his stripe. Cleverly the only time they are not dancing in their own stripes is when there is disharmony in the air.

There is a huge set piece resembling a suspension bridge which swings in and out creating spaces of interest  and a raised porthole at the back of the stage through which the band can occasionally be spotted.

The show is narrated naturally enough by Jay – a wholeheartedly honest performance from Alex Lodge -the other Osmond brothers are Donny (Joseph Peacock),  Merrill (Ryan Anderson), Alan (Jamie Chatterton) and Wayne (Danny Nattrass) – all fine outings both as individuals and as team Osmond.

Charlie Allan plays the military-minded dad who is more ‘Sir-yes Sir’ than  ‘Give daddy a hug’ and Nicola Bryan plays his wife and sidekick Olive with warmth and gusto.

Completing the Osmond line-up and putting in quite a remarkable performance is Georgia Lennon as Marie – she’s half girl next door, half superstar.

Picture by Pamela Raith. s

The Osmonds started out as a tiny-tot barber shop quartet on the Andy Williams Show and went onto become the biggest boy band in the world before Donny became a solo sensation. Following that him and Marie became TV hosts of their own show.

After selling over a 100million records their downfall came through over production – the fans didn’t want Mary Poppins routines – they wanted rock ‘n’ roll. It was a squeaky clean squeeze too far. They lost everything and went on a two-year old style Osmond’s music world tour to earn enough money to pay their debts.

After the tour the Osmond’s disbanded and pursued individual careers and lives but they got back together for one final concert 20 years later. That concert is the final section of this wonderful show where we are all invited to the party.

It cannot be denied that the Osmonds created a legacy and for me two things are amazing. Firstly that this musical hasn’t been made before and secondly that it’s been made in England – Leicester to be precise; at the Curve Theatre where it premiered a few weeks ago.

As it happens there was second show going on last night at the Grand too – that was starring the 95 per cent female audience.

They sang along with everything from ‘Crazy Horses’ to ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’ – knowing every word, linking hands and waving arms in the air like they did back in the 70’s and 80’s.

To cap it all, a mighty buzz ran round the theatre at the start of Act Two – Jay Osmond was in the house everybody! He walked through the circle and took up residence in the stage left box. His fans paid homage and he waved back. What sorcery is this?

‘The Osmonds’ musical is set for a long tour and then the West End and undoubtedly Broadway. You don’t have to be an aging fan to enjoy it – go and wallow in its’ bliss – it’ll put a smile on your face and joy in your heart – something we all need in these terrible times.

The Osmonds’ musical runs until Saturday, March 19. Click here for times, tickets and more information.

*****

Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Malvern Theatres’ offering fun in parts but ‘better late than never’?

THIS adaptation of ‘An Hour and a Half Late by French playwright Gerald Sibleyras was first staged in the UK back in 2006 and starred the late comedian Mel Smith.

Here we are in 2022 and this time it stars Mel Smith’s partner the iconic Griff Rhys Jones. This surely is no accident but perhaps a tribute by Rhys Jones to his late chum as I cannot really see any other compelling reason to revive it.

It’s a pleasant enough piece, directed by Belinda Lang and beautifully acted by Rhys Jones as Peter, (a London tax consultant about to retire) and Janie Dee as his ‘frustrated on many levels’, wife Laura. However, it is dated and not in a cosy ‘Noel Coward’ kind of way but in a ‘people don’t really live like this any more’ pastiche.

Certainly one of the centrepiece speeches concerns Peter’s desire to indulge in a restaurant sweet trolley – the sort that has all kinds of wobbly, gluttonous goodies squeezed elbow to elbow on its mobile tiers. I concur, but it’s been many years since I saw one of those – I think the department of food and hygiene condemned them to the ‘museum of lost indulgencies’ many years ago. Effectively this also took the plot away from modern day living.

Peter and Laura are due out to dinner with Peter’s business partner. As the curtain rises we meet him sitting downstage with a smile born of years of non-confrontational marital manners and a twitching foot where all his irritation is focused.

Laura enters and moves speedily around the sumptuously furnished large lounge and areas off – seemingly without purpose. When she finally speaks it is to tell Peter she isn’t going.

This is the cue to start a bickering session about all that is wrong with their marriage – from sex to political complacency. She has, she despairs, swapped her political feistiness for white middle class gin and arty-farty-ness. Plus – horror of horrors – she didn’t have the affair she claimed to have after all.

The early conversations are well delivered sparring but repetitive to the point of making me, for one, ready to pull Graham Norton’s handle for his red chair. Then in comes the script cavalry with an excellent sequence where loose floorboards become erotic foreplay – hilarious stuff indeed.

This is followed shortly after by a liberating trashing scene where the couple indulge in mild rock and roll antics of smashing plates, emptying waste bins and scattering – scatter cushions.

Everything moves up a gear, a truce is reached and they finally go off to dinner – albeit an hour and a half late.

We are left in the glow of two excellent performances from Rhys Jones and Dee who have given of their best. It’s worth going to see for that reason but would love to have seen them do ‘Blythe Spirit’ instead.

An Hour and a Half Late runs until Saturday, March 19. Click here for times, tickets and more information.

***

Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Disney’s ‘Once in a lifetime’ Beauty and the Beast at Birmingham’s Hippodrome has everything and more

WITH all the special magic that ‘only a Disney show can do’ Beauty and the Beast hit the Hippodrome stage on press night with a dazzling, delightful and spectacular production.

It was joyous to put the horrors that are happening in Ukraine to one side and bathe in glorious fantasy for a couple of hours – never has a show been more welcome or better received!

The magical voice of Angela Lansbury at the end of the overture, sends tingles up your spine as she takes us into ‘Once Upon A Time Land’.

Curtain up and a little French town appears before our eyes where we meet the townsfolk including Grace Swaby-Moore (standing in for Courtney Stapleton) as Belle. She looks every inch what we expect of our ‘straight off the storybook page’ – but with a feisty touch of feminism heroine.

Swaby-Moore has big shoes to fill as Stapleton has received rave reviews on earlier legs of this national tour; but she does so with confidence, we take her into our hearts from the get-go as we set off on her timeless journey.

Tom Senior is Gaston – the arrogant, beefcake pin-up-boy of the town where Belle lives along with her eccentric father Maurice – a suitably endearing, mad professor-like outing from Martin Ball.

Photo by Johan Persson © Disney

Gaston and his acrobatic sidekick Le Fou played by Louis Stockil make merry as a knock-about Laurel and Hardy duo, but with menacing undertones.

When Maurice seeks refuge in a castle in the wild woods to escape a pack of hungry wolves, it’s enter the beast – a stunning and all-engaging performance from Shaq Taylor. Every movement tells a tale as we feel his passion and his pain.

Belle goes on search of her dad and swaps places with him to obtain his release from the dungeons.

The Beast may have got her as his captive but he can’t force her to make chums.

The castle humans who have been changed into objects by a spell from an old hag, all deliver clever and funny performances.

That’s X-factor winner Sam Bailey as the teapot Mrs Potts – an outstanding Gavin Lee as human candelabra Lumiere, Nigel Richards as Cogsworth the clock, Samantha Bingley as Madame and Emma Caffrey as Babette.

Together they conspire to get Belle and the Beast to fall in love and lift the curse put on them all by the hag before the last petal falls from a rose encased in a glass display box.

It is a testimony to the brilliance of the all-round cast performances and wonderful direction and choreography from Matt West that they rise up to complement the most outstanding technicals I have ever seen on a stage.

Scenery zooms in and out in all directions, animations bring gasps, illusions and effects merge into a kaleidoscopic cacophony of brilliance.

Stanley A. Meyer is the scenic designer responsible for this theatrical miracle, which took an army of skilled mechanics and craftspeople to bring to life.

This constantly moving spectacular is simply breath-taking right up to and including the final illusion as the beast transforms above our heads into a handsome prince.

Wondrous stuff too is lighting from designer Natasha Katz and costumes from Ann Hould-Ward.

There are some fabulous songs and outstanding routines including a stunning Busby Berkley version of ‘Be My Guest’, which deserves a first act standing ovation in itself.

With lyrics from the master wordsmiths Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, a new book from Linda Woolverton that reflects 21st century gender equality, sumptuous music from composer Alan Menken and musical direction from Jonathan Gill this new version is a five star trip all the way to the Olivier’s and the Tony’s in my opinion.

On opening night, Thursday, as well as lighting up the stage, the Hippodrome will be illuminating the outside of the theatre in the colours of the Ukrainian flag sending out a message from Beautiful Birmingham to the beast in the Kremlin.

Book a seat if you can get one– shows like this come along once in a lifetime. The Hippodrome is back at the top of its game.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

 ***** 

Review by Euan RoseEuan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Spring Awakening at Solihull’s Dovehouse made for very thought-provoking theatre

IT IS always good to welcome new musical theatre companies to the Midlands arena, especially one that seeks to break the mould of just performing standard crowd pleasers.

Enter OBSIDIAN, the child born during Covid from the combined theatrical and entrepreneurial talents of actor/director Robert Bateman and musical director Phil Ypres-Smith.

Bateman and Ypres-Smith’s plan is to air edgy and lesser-known musicals with a message and to link that into raising awareness and funds for charities that support themes associated with the shows.

That is all well and good if what goes on stage lives up to the mantra and is not simply a fund-raiser – however worthy the cause. Any fears of that were allayed when the opening heralded a moment of breath-taking originality, to which I shall return.

Obsidian’s first choice of show is ‘Spring Awakening,’ the German classic ‘coming of age’ musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik based on the original 1891 play by Frank Wedekind,  which opened last night at the Dovehouse Theatre,

The storyline covers sexual discovery in its many guises – its beauty and its consequences. There is bullying, self-harm, abortion and suicide all set to a song book that jigs around from punk rock to classical aria.

In truth it’s never going to be laugh-a-minute-a-stuff – after all, German’s aren’t exactly renowned for their sense of humour and as for music – think Wagner but this is a show with a voice that cries out to be heard!

The opening I referred to is an imaginative creation by a hugely talented lighting designer Dermot Finnegan.

Wendla Bergman, the young girl whose short story is about to unfold is shrouded in an ethereal blue haze – a silent vignette in itself. The first of many memorable set lighting pieces which added titanic layers to the bare, utilitarian platform set.

Wendla is played by the extremely capable Lucy Covell, who I note has also appeared with the excellent Stratford based ‘Tread the Boards’ company and is in her final year at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire of Acting. Covell took her character on a journey that was both well signposted and endearing.

A young man burdened with problems is Moritz Stiefel –  bullied by his father, his teacher and his fellow students as the class scapegoat. His is a sad life with just one redeeming opportunity, which eludes him.

Moritz is played to perfection by Oli Keeling who draws us in like a waif from a Dicken’s novel.

Robert Bateman has set himself a daunting task by directing and choreographing the show in addition to playing a leading character – a trilogy of roles with danger lurking at every turn. To his credit, like Daisy in the show of the same name ‘Bateman pulls it off!’.

He can put a tick by every box. His Melchior Gabor, is an empathetic and compelling outing, his direction pacey and his choreography imaginative – so Bravo Mr B – your pioneering has paid off.

Co-Obsidian pioneer Phil Ypres-Smith has put together a band of excellence. To watch the two rows of musicians in vertical columns either side of the stage was quite unique.

One headed by Ypres-Smith MDing from behind his keyboards and the other by his co-conductor Jonathan Clarke on a harmonium. Guitars and drums stage right – strings and things stage left.

Ypres-Smith has directed passionate solos and some excellent choral work from the company that were always in keeping with the story; never once straying over into concert – a sure sign of director and musical director togetherness.

The entire cast deserves credit; they work in synergy as a well-drilled team exuding vigor. Especially noteworthy are Bethany Waller-Scott as Martha Bessell, Richard Bateman as Georg Zirschnitz and Tony Faughnan as the adult male.

For those of you who like me were wondering about the company name – OBSIDIAN is a black volcanic natural glass, which is supposedly extremely lucky – often used for making arrowheads. Well those arrows certainly struck home – this is an excellent night’s theatre that I highly recommend.

****

Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Only Fools’ Marlene adds to already excellent ‘The Play What I Wrote’ at Malvern

THE CLEVERNESS of this show – and it is there in abundance – is that it is not written and performed as just another Morecambe and Wise tribute, but is an entity in its own right.

The plot concerns a troubled double-act, Thom and Dennis. Thom has set his heart on being a serious dramatic playwright whilst Dennis wants them to continue with their partnership. Thom’s new play is an epic set in the French Revolution entitled ‘A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple’ and Dennis sets himself a mission to persuade a big guest star to appear in the ‘play what Thom wrote’ in a bid to keep them together.

This approach salutes the genius of our beloved heroes Eric and Ernie more than any straightforward impression could do.

Dennis Herdman plays Dennis and Thom Tuck plays Thom. Mitesh Soni joins them as Arthur the stagehand and a host of other characters. You couldn’t drive a hair’s breadth between the talents of these three players.

Picture by Manuel Harlan. s

This 20-year update on the original show is directed and co-written by the Birmingham Rep’s current artistic director, Sean Foley.

Foley shares the writing credits with Hamish McColl and ‘of course’ Eddie Braben. Foley also appeared alongside McColl in the original production at Liverpool’s ‘Everyman’ where it was directed by Kenneth Branagh and won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy.

Classic Morecambe and Wise shows always had a surprise mystery guest to play the scapegoat in Ernie’s plays. Not unnaturally, this is also a highlight of this show as we eagerly await to see who is Thom’s unknown star.

There is a lot of history here – previous guest stars have included Ralph Fiennes (who did the original opening night back in 2001), Ewan McGregor, Bob Geldof, Joanna Lumley, Daniel Radcliffe, Kylie Minogue, Nigel Havers, Denise Welch, Sir Ian McKellen, Dawn French, Tom Hiddleston, Sting and not forgetting the late Roger Moore who actually suffered a real heart attack whilst taking part.

Hallowed footsteps indeed, Thom’s mystery star at Malvern turned out to be Only Fools and Horses favourite lady ‘Marlene’, the lovely Sue Holderness, who joined in the madness with great aplomb.

The clever set design is by Alice Power, which Tim Mitchell lights equally cleverly. Ian West’s choreography is slick and there is cheerful music under the direction of Steve Parry.

In truth there were a few teething problems on first night which meant the curtain was late going up on both acts – maybe it was the ghost of Eric Morecambe playing tricks?

Was he twitching his glasses in some celestial home for pranksters as our patience was stretched?

That is of course the magic of live theatre and I’m sure all will be running smoothly for the rest of the week.

It was joyous to see the wonderful Malvern Theatre packed and buzzing and a welcome tonic to hear audiences roaring with laughter again. Grab a ticket and bring a little sunshine into your life while you can.

The Play What I Wrote runs at Malvern Theatres until Saturday, February 19. Click here for times, tickets and more information.

****

Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Phenomenal show rocks Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber style’

If you were perchance nearby the Alexandra Theatre last night then you couldn’t help but feel the streets pulsating as the ‘School of Rock’ hit Birmingham.

The packed audience comprised an awful lot of excited, dressed-to-boogie scholars, who were there to rock along to this jolly tale of how prim-and-proper private school students end up performing at the ‘Battle of the Bands.’

It’s actually all down to a ‘down but not out’ rock musician by the name of Dewey Finn. Sacked from his band, Dewey sponges free digs at his best friend Ned’s house much to the chagrin of Ned’s nag-bag fiancée Patty.

Patty wants Dewey to pay rent or get out; but luckily for Dewy, he takes a phone call intended for Ned offering him a substitute teacher’s job at the ‘Horace Green’ school. The lure of the American green back is too much of a temptation and Dewey passes himself off as Mr Schneebly, aka Ned.

The kids in his class are all classical music playing academic swats who he changes into his rocklets on a rocky road of discovery. As the song goes ‘Don’t know much trigonometry but what a wonderful world this can be!’

They say actors should never work with kids or animals – well, Jake Sharp as Dewy has to work with a dozen of them – and three different dozens on a circulating rota to boot.  Wouldn’t be a school without kids of course and it wouldn’t be a school of rock without these dirty dozens.

Sharp feeds off them and they take inspiration from him – it’s a lovely merry go round.  He rarely pauses for breath and his performance is  – in a word – phenomenal.

The line-up of ‘Horace Green Kids’ in the band on press night was Eva McGrath as Freddy on drums (and boy, could she pound those skins!), Chloe Marler as Katie booming it out on bass, Joseph Sheppard as cool dude Zack on lead guitar and Angus McDougall as Lawrence, the keyboard player who could give Rick Wakeman a run for his money. These young heroes do actually play the instruments – there is no miming.

They were joined in the classroom by Logan Matthews as Billy the band’s dresser, Keira Laver as Summer, the band manager and Angel Lucero as Tomika, the quiet girl who finds an Aretha Franklin voice and becomes the band’s lead singer

Completing the magnificently far from  dirty dozen as head bangers and backing singers were Riotafari Gardner as   James, Ava Masters as Sophie, Alex Shotton  as Mason, Lily Rose Martin as Marcy and Elisha Kerai as Shonelle.

There is also a large adult company multi–role playing and multi-tasking. Stand-out performances for me were Rebecca Locke as head teacher (and secret Stevie Nicks wannabe) Rosalie Mullins, Annell O’Dartey as the super efficient Mrs Hathaway and Mathew Rowland as Dowey’s hand bagged ex-rock chum Ned Schneebly.

In truth Andrew Lloyd Webber isn’t a rock writer but a musical theatre writer who has applied his genius to taking what was a highly successful film with some classic established numbers and completely turned it on it’s head. Yes it rocks, but Lloyd-Webber style.

The book is by the legendary pen of Julian Fellowes with lyrics by Glenn Slater. The Musical Director of the grown-up band is Michael Riley and the overall director of this happy show is Laurence Connor.

School of Rock runs at the Alex until Saturday. Click here for times, tickets and more information.

*****

Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Re-imagined Animal Farm at the Birmingham Rep makes for extraordinary and powerful theatre

Picture by Manuel Harlan

THE WORLD premiere of a re-imagining of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – a joint production between the Birmingham REP and the Children’s Theatre Partnership – opened last night to a packed auditorium.

It is indeed an extraordinary and powerful piece of theatre – one which narrows the line between puppetry and flesh-and-bone actors to nigh infinity – the term ‘Warhorse on Steroids’ comes to mind.

From the chickens to the giant plough horse these ‘created by master crafters’ and ‘operated by masterful puppeteers’ are real – right from the dramatic opening chords heralding the animal assembly to the ‘Pigs on two legs’ final conversion.

This is also a far more demonic outing than the original 1945 novel. Here, the farmer and his chums have Range Rovers and guns and there are gory scenes of torture, mutilation and death. There’s even a screen heralding the body count with animal names, breed and means of death.

Orwell’s message is the same though – that despite revolution to bring about a classless society, equality is a myth that never happens.

Someone will always want to be more equal than the others.

A hugely talented cast do the voices and bond with the puppets and includes Matthew Churcher, Darcy Collins, Enrico D Wey, Ailsa Dalling, Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Elisa De Grey, Edie Edmundson, Michael Jean-Marain, Rayo Patel, Yana Penrose, Markus Schabbing, Sharon Sze, Ben Thompson and Matt Tait.

It is directed and adapted by the multi award-winning Robert Icke. Icke’s other Orwell adaption of 1984 was a sensation on both Broadway and in the West End.

The production team also consists of some of UK theatre’s most talented creatives, including four-time Olivier Award-winning designer Bunny Christie and puppetry by Toby Olié – the genius who gave us the original Warhorse.

This ‘Animal Farm’ is a dynamic and contemporary take on a timeless story which I’d say will appeal to audiences aged over 12 as  it goes from the REP onto  a national tour and then beyond.

It is also another huge enticement to get audiences back into our premier, city-centre producing theatre – where – oh joy – the new bar is open!

Animal Farm runs at the Birmingham Rep until next Saturday, February 5.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

****

Review by Euan RoseEuan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Malvern Theatres the perfect setting for the ‘warm and welcoming’ Same Time Next Year

LONDON Classic Theatre rarely disappoint as a touring company – they take much-loved plays which could do with a dust off, direct and cast them well and head off on the high road.

It’s good to see them back after the Covid lockdowns of the past two years with a 2022 tour of the Tony-winning ‘Same Time Next Year’ by Bernard Slade.  It is a splendid choice and a beautifully crafted production, which opened last night at Malvern.

This is a ‘rom-com with a bite’ two-hander, concerning an affair, which starts one February day in 1951 and as far as we can glean, continues in perpetuity. The twist is that our star-crossed lovers, Doris and George, are actually in love with their real life spouses but in lust with each other.

They meet by chance whilst both staying at a country inn somewhere in northern California, several hundred miles in opposite directions from their respective homes. We first meet them in bed the morning after they have committed adultery three times in one night.

There are no guilty repercussions – just a wallow in the magic of the encounter. They make a pact to come back the same time the following year for a rematch. In between time there is to be no contact between them.

We rejoin them five years later in the same guest cottage in the same country inn. Both were amazed that the other turned up on the first anniversary but from that point on it really is ‘Same Time Next Year’. Five years in and it seems the spark has turned to an Olympic flame.

There are two acts and six chronological scenes, each one self-contained and refreshed as we share Doris and George’s once-a-year journey over 25 years of their anniversaries.

We learn not only about their families and lives outside of this annual carnal pleasure trip, but also how America society and attitudes are changing.

Sarah Kempton and Kieran Buckeridge play Doris and George  – and a joyous couple of performances they dish up.  Both are believable and immensely watchable – they’re a hardworking duo too, performing all their own set and costume changes in addition to treading the boards.

Director Michael Cabot has done an excellent job in taking his cast on a near faultless journey.

A 25-year ageing process is a big ask but it never jars and is in fact a welcome little voyage of discovery to see how Doris and George are dressed each time the lights come up.

Bek Palmer’s set is perfect as the timeless hotel cottage – inviting bed, spacious lounge and it even has its own piano – I’d happily stay there.

This production of ‘Same Time Next Year’ is a warm and comfortable watch – it doesn’t set out to challenge, but rather to entertain. With its holiday feel about it, Malvern is an ideal venue to kick off the tour. It is always welcoming and so is this production.

You’re guaranteed to leave with a smile.

Same Time Next Year runs at Malvern Theatre until Saturday, January 29.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

****

Review by Euan RoseEuan Rose Reviews

REVIEW – Great show with much to love as Chicago comes to Birmingham

WHEN I went to see this very same Chicago at the Grand in Wolverhampton last year on an earlier part of the tour, I started my review with ‘The magic of theatre is that, because it’s live – you can expect the unexpected’.

That was because understudy Billie Hardy got to stand in for an indisposed Faye Brookes, to play the lead role of Roxie Hart – and very well she did too.

Last night at The Alex I got to see Ms Brookes herself do it, whilst Billie Hardy went back to playing June. In such a demanding musical, this made a significant difference to the company and the routines all seemed to be that much slicker and energetic.

That is until a moment after the ‘suicide scene’ in act two when the curtain had to come in for some technical reason and we lost our heads and hearts in Chicago to talking amongst ourselves in Birmingham.

When the show eventually restarted it never quite got back into top gear – once again the magic of live theatre had cast its spell.

That incident aside, this is an excellent show.

Directed by Tony award winner, Walter Bobbie, it is in fact a revival of the original 1996 Broadway production from the legendary trio of Fred Ebb, John Kander and the one and only Bob Fosse.

The set is cleverly centred around the fabulous ten-piece band, who are sited within a gold framed, steeply raked podium. Andrew Hilton ably conducts and MCs the proceedings with character introductions, a bit of storytelling and the occasional quip.

This ‘Chicago’ is packed full of raunchy dancing, cool jazz, glitz, glamour and a liberal sprinkling of raw emotion.

It even has a ‘strictly diversity’ – two males dancing routine amongst the stockings and suspenders.

It’s set in the days of 1920s, when Prohibition brought huge profits for Chicago gangsters and the word ‘speakeasy’ was added to the dictionary. There were hundreds of speakeasies (aka illegal drinking clubs) in Chicago and Roxy Hart was a dancer at one of them. She murders her lover when he decides to leave her then hires top defence lawyer Billy Flynn to save her from the gallows.

Flynn is played by Darren Day who brings just the right amount of flamboyance and arrogance to the role, with Flynn’s courtroom antics being much more about show biz than justice. Day’s ‘All I Care About’ when Flynn sings surrounded by feather floating girls in iconic Busby Berkley formation is spot on.

Joel Montague gives an almost show-stealing performance as Roxy’s cuckolded husband Amos. His rendition of the self-deprecating ‘Mister Cellophane’ brought a lump to the throat. He is certainly not invisible

The sexiest number in the show has to be the classic ‘Cell Block Tango’ where the death row girls dressed in black lingerie and sitting aside bentwood chairs, sing how their male victims ‘Had it Coming.’ I guarantee you’d find it difficult to find a male audience member who wouldn’t let them off with a caution.

Sinitta Malone plays the prison boss lady ‘Mama Morton’ with a smile and an entrepreneurial swagger as she acts as part-mother hen and part-manager to the girls.

As to the two leads – there is no denying Faye Brookes is a triumph and oozes charisma as Roxie Hart and Djalenga Scott makes for an equally captivating, Velma Kelly. Their closing duet of ‘Nowadays’ and ‘Hot Honey Rag’ did much to lift the temperature again towards the final curtain.

A great show with much to love including all the classic songs like, Razzle Dazzle, When You’re Good to Mama, My Own Best friend and of course Mister Cellophane.

The choreography is slick, the band is hot and this is a fun, highly recommended night out – and all that jazz!

Chicago runs at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre until Saturday, January 29.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

****

Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews.

REVIEW – The beautiful game makes for outstanding theatre as The Red Lion comes to Brum’s Crescent

YOU CAN be forgiven for thinking ‘The Red Lion’ is going to be a play about pub life – I did from the title but it is in fact a simply bitingly fearsome piece about club land – football club land that is and we’re not talking anti-vax pampered Premier League footballers with seven figure managers who need interpreters to talk to their players.

No – the Red Lion here is the logol of a nameless, struggling, semi-professional non-league football club. One where like the big cheeses of the beautiful game, passion may be all consuming but corruption hisses on its underbelly. When boiling point is reached it’s time to ring the changes.

Like Marber’s masterpiece ‘Closer’, The Red Lion requires a ‘big ask’ of a small cast to excel individually and feed off each other collectively in order to do justice to his helter-skelter storyline with its beautifully crafted text and subtext.

It also needs a director with a meticulous eye for detail who knows how to make his sheriffs tin star shine when leading his posse into the fray and a designer who can provide a believable canvas.

Director Graeme Braidwood combines with Designer Graeme Braidwood to create a triumph, which is set to become one of those landmark Crescent productions, remembered for years to come.

The cast of three makes for a herculean combo who almost transcend from acting to believing. Even though we may not share their passion, we share their journey and feel their pain.

As we enter the club dressing room, or rather auditorium, we meet Brendan Stanley as Yates the club’s kit man who is meticulously ironing the team shirts.

Stanley gives us the  ‘complete’ performance – he has a grimace for every occasion and wears his life story of faded glory like an open book. He is simply masterful with a telling grimace for every occasion, acting with everything from his eyebrows to his hands.

That’s not to take anything away from the other two. Yates is joined by fresh-out-of-the-shower, seedy low level with big aspirations club manager Kidd – another powerful performance from Mark Thompson.

Francis Quinn completes the trio as Tom, the boy wonder who proclaims himself a fervent Christian. Quinn broods and bubbles beautifully in a menacing and haunting portrayal.

There are so many memorable moments in this play it’s difficult to single them out but for me there is a point in act two where the three protagonists strike poses in a pause from dialogue that I found breathtaking. They showed and shared their thoughts by body language – not words. The late great movement coach from Birmingham Acting Conservatoire David Vann taught me that all characterisation comes from a single point on the body. Once you’ve found it, you’ve found your character. It is apparent that Braidwood knows this too and has employed it brilliantly with his company.

There is much to admire technically too – from the powerful musical underscore, through the clever use of the space to effective, spot-on-cue lighting from James Booth.

This play deserves full houses! Big name productions are struggling for audiences as we come out of this ghastly lockdown and my fear is that ‘The Red Lion’ will pass with a whimper rather than a roar. I implore all theatre lovers not to let this happen.

Theatre isn’t like a film it’s a magical experience that happens but once and you remember the good stuff for a lifetime. This isn’t just good, it’s outstanding!

The Red Lion runs at the Crescent until Saturday, January 29.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

*****

Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews