Super Saunders a natural as Madame Arcati in Malvern

NOEL Coward is quite rightly referred to as ‘the master’ when it comes to flamboyant comedy.

Coward was loved for his wit and personal sense of chic as much as writing.

Blithe Spirit, his 1941 comedy about ghosts and the afterlife, has made many a generation chuckle.

I confess to having a personal affinity, as it was the first lead role I played on stage nigh on half a century ago. It’s so true what they say about long-term memory as I remembered every word.

In truth, it is a little dated which is probably why director Richard Eyre has changed the tone somewhat away from the classic ‘Rex Harrison’ film version. Rather than ‘chaps’ being dominant and women more decorative, here Charles is portrayed as petulant and the ‘weaker’ party.

For anyone that doesn’t know the plot, Condomine is a playwright who is planning a new work about a fake medium.

As part of his research, he ropes in his second wife Ruth and friends Dr and Mrs Bradman in order to hold a séance with local a medium attempting to call up the dead in the Condomine’s sprawling country house.

Unfortunately it works all too well and back from beyond comes Charles’s very beautiful but impish first wife Elvira.

What follows is a huge back-story of mid-life male crisis where Charles’s misogynistic menopauses are sorely tested by the agendas of both wives living and dead.

Here, Jennifer Saunders holds court as the medium in question, Madam Arcati.  Saunders makes the part very much her own, with her frumpy, dumpy, legs akimbo, TV cop ‘Vera’ meets (sadly deceased) fat lady chef Clarissa Dickson Wright approach.  She is absolutely fabulous in the role and I defy anyone not to chuckle at her antics.

The verbal husband-bashing does become a little dull at times and more of a support act for the scenes of supernatural hilarity.

Geoffrey Streatfeild is convincing as the playwright husband, as is Lisa Dillon as his second wife Ruth – Emma Naomi brings a Jean Harlow quality to spectral first wife Elvira – resplendent in translucent blue flouncy frock, Simon Coates plays Dr Bradman like a doctor of that bygone era, who will come to your bedside if you can’t get to him. Lucy Robinson plays Mrs Bradman, his dutiful wife, with just the right air of class superiority.

With the exception of Saunders’ triumphant Arcati, Rose Wardlaw stands out as Edith the maid. She is immensely watchable and makes the most of her every moment on stage.

Anthony Ward’s lavish, double-storey set complete with a huge library looming over the lounge, works perfectly and provides the ideal space for Paul Kieve’s illusions. Elvira pops up all over the place – out of thin air – clever stuff indeed as is the show ending where the ex-wives conjure up a tornado.

To me, as good as this Blithe Spirit is (and it is very good indeed) it could be even better – maybe the talented Mr Eyre will add a few tweaks and cuts to some of the wordiness before it opens in the West End.

Hope so, but regardless the ‘house full’ signs are up in Malvern and no doubt the same will happen in London.


Review by Euan Rose.

Excellent ecclesiastical comedy as the Vicar of Dibley comes to Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre

THE VICAR of Dibley remains one of the most loved TV sitcoms of all time even though, apart from a few Christmas specials, it ceased running on the BBC as a series back in 1998.

At the time it was conceived by Richard Curtis and Paul Meyhew-Archer, it was highly topical, following hot on the heels of the first ordination of women vicars into the Church of England.

Picture by Graeme Braidwood Photography. s

It was written for Dawn French who became synonymous with the role and also starred the late Emma Chambers who won best TV comedy actress for her portrayal as French’s assistant verger, Alice Tinker.

Add to these two a cast of characters as clearly defined and much loved as those in ‘Dad’s Army,’ following in these hallowed footsteps in a stage version is indeed a very hard act to follow.

Picture by Graeme Braidwood Photography. s

I am delighted to say director and script adapter Kevin Middleton pulls it off quite admirably – paying homage by making all the characters copies of the original, piecing together a script of the best loved moments and creating a one-ness with it all by linking it with a whacky choir.

Keith Harris’ set design of two distinct acting areas – the parish hall meeting room stage right and the vicars home stage left – works quite beautifully and linking them with a third area created by flying in the tab and a stained glass window on the apron ensures that the action is seamless.

On the acting front, into those giant ecclesiastical shoes steps Katie Merriman as said female Dibley vicar Geraldine Granger. Happily they fit like Cinderella’s glass stilettos – she is chirpy, quirky, cuddly and comforting from the moment she walks on stage through to the final curtain.

A stellar cast supports Merriman, Katie Goldhawk brings naivety and buffoonery in bucket loads to the eccentric Alice making her the perfect comedic foil, John Whittell struts pompous parish power as chairperson David Horton whilst Joseph Harper is mannerism- precise as his downtrodden son Hugo.

Completing the principals are Tony Daniels who plays Jim no-no-no- no-yes Trott with infectious mumbling, Alan Bull as the amiable minute – taker Frank Pickle, Simon King is splendidly naughty as the sex-mad local farmer Owen Newitt, Janet Cunningham endearing as hippy happy knitter Letitia Cropley and Angela Daniels puts in a nice cameo as parishioner Mrs Bartlett.

A special shout to the magnificent ensemble choir featuring a rare, reluctant singing stage appearance for Crescent’s resident musical director Gary Spruce – two child soloists raising a smile in Anastasia Bridgewater and Brady Honeyghan and a doff of the cap to the show-stealing cameo from Christopher Arnold as the baton-waving drag-race-perfect guide to coarse acting choirmaster.

I am sure the company will make allowances for laughter pauses having witnessed their first night response and also raise their rehearsal room audibility to hit the back row of the main house as performance confidence kicks in.

This is a fine company, another great Crescent show, VoD devotees get what they hope for and newbees will be instant converts. Tickets for this production at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre are scarce  – chase them with haste.

The show runs until next Saturday, February 1.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.


Review by Euan Rose.

Today’s climate crisis enables Earthquakes in London to have its intended impact

MIKE Bartlett’s ‘Earthquakes in London’ premiered at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre  back in 2010.

This was of course pre-teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunburg’s apocalyptic tidings – for which Bartlett must be immensely grateful in giving his epic tale more relevance and a new theatrical lease of life today.

James Lees directs this Birmingham Ormiston Academy Year 13 production with great gusto and uses the script that moves from 1968 to 2525 as a blank canvas to throw everything at it from the physical to the surreal, embracing ballet and buffoonery along the way.

If Lees had budget to match his ambitions, then the technical effects would probably have huge carbon footprints all over it, making Greta gnash her molars. As it is, he has to be content to work with basic staging and properties and rely on the talents of his cast to join up the dots. They don’t let him down!

The plot follows three sisters Sarah, Freya, and Jasmine played by Daniella Burridge, Abby Doubtfire, and Megan (No not that one) Murphy respectively, as they attempt to navigate their dislocated lives and loves.

Their back stories are played out alongside that of their dysfunctional father (Matthew Rousseau), a brilliant scientist, predicts global catastrophe through environmental disaster but takes corporate bucks rather than spilling the beans.- therein lays the path to personal self destruction.

Elder sister Sarah is a Cabinet Minister in a coalition government and a convert advocate of ‘environment before economy’ policy, middle sister Freya is heavily pregnant and growing increasingly depressed about the uncertain future her child is being born into, whilst Jasmine the youngest sibling, is a rebellious teenager who likes to shock.

Bartlett’s script is not without flaws; it is more than a tad over complicated, long, bitty and flitty – moving as it does back and forth in time and story lines.  On the plus side outside of the main theme of climate change the play admirably offers interesting takes on other difficult topics, including suicide.

‘Earthquakes in London’ is though, very much a play for today, which is tackled commendably in this production. The company work as one – maintaining the pace throughout and being mindful of fellow actors, always sharing not dominating the space.

Whilst there were no weak links, special shout outs from me go to the very watchable Daniella Burridge  for her complete believability as Sarah and to Bella Christon for her engaging and charismatic portrayal of tomboy Peter.

I read that there is a national professional tour production due to take off within weeks – I hope the director got to see this excellent BOA show and took some notes.

Review by Euan Rose.

Brum’s Alexandra set alight by charismatic Bodyguard

DESPITE it being around for many years, this is the first time I have seen the stage musical of ‘The Bodyguard’.

The fact this new version reunites Alexandra Burke with the role that launched her stage career back in 2014 was another reason for catching this tour whilst her amazing voice is in it.

Picture by Paul Coltas. s

I was not disappointed – quite the opposite – this is one wild ride of a show with a bit of everything woven into it like a theatrical tapestry.

The score offers up some terrific numbers including such classics as ‘Greatest Love Of All’, I’m Every Woman’, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ and of course the legend that is ‘I Will Always Love You’.

The book is a very clever adaptation by Alexander Dinelaris of Lawrence Kasdan’s original screenplay for the 1992 movie – starring the late great Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner.

Picture by Paul Coltas. s

Kasdan also wrote screenplays for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ and is known for writing challenging special effects moments. Dinelaris has carried this into the stage show with a multitude of effects from the first moment when a gunshot reverberates around the auditorium demanding attention.

The set moves in and out and up and down, with fire, smoke and lighting effects to grace the biggest rock concert arena. There are film effects on a giant gauze and settings that move from Beverly Hills mansions to the Oscars by way recording studios, log cabins, karaoke bars and more; all effected smoothly and in the blink of an eye.

This show demands a huge technical crew and a masterful stage manager.

Take a bow, Jamie Capewell! On press night when there was a fire cannon left burning on stage after the opening number, our hero didn’t clear the auditorium and send us out to wait in the cold, but made the right call. He stopped the scene, sent on crew member with a hand held extinguisher, sorted the problem and restarted the scene from the beginning to rapturous applause. Capewell by name and cope well by nature.

Picture by Paul Coltas. s

Back to the review and the magnificent presence that is Alexandra Burke as superstar Rachel Marron. She simply oozes charisma, makes you dizzy with those high notes and thanks to that ‘Strictly’ training, now taps her toes and kicks her legs with the best in the business.

Burke is well supported by Ben Lewis as the bodyguard himself, Frank Farmer. Lewis looks and moves like someone you’d really want in your corner if the chips were down. He is convincing and draws you in to what he is thinking.

Craig Berry makes a splendid job of Rachel Marron’s security man, Tony Scibelli, Emmy Willow adds much as the Diva’s PA and sister Nicki Marron (complete with awesome vocals) and young Riotafari Gardner was totally captivating in his turn out of the six youngsters playing the part of Rachel’s son Fletcher.

Picture by Paul Coltas. s

Phil Atkinson is magnificently deadly as the stalker, giving us many a moment of chills down the spine.

The production is directed by Tracy Lane who has joined up all the artistic dots admirably and the superbly tight orchestra is under the baton of its keyboard playing MD, Michael Riley.

This is a big, bold, brash show that makes no apologies for being totally in your face from the get-go. It also has the bonus of a walkdown that is a mini-show in itself.

I loved it! Tickets are like gold dust apparently – my suggestion is to go prospecting for them.

The Bodyguard is at the Alexandra Theatre until next Saturday, February 1.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

*****Review by Euan Rose.

Disappointing script fails to bring Frankenstein to life in Malvern

AT A TIME when the artistic world is crying out for more acclaim for women in the arts, a new version of a classic written by a woman and directed and designed by women should be welcomed. Especially when the plot concerns a female writer tackling the male dominated arena of gothic drama.

I refer to the latest rewrite of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Rona Munro. Unfortunately the monster, which has scared us for decades, has got somewhat murdered rather than lost in translation.

Munro has Mary Shelley writing her monster mash on stage – and there in lays the rub. There is confliction between the tale of her writing and the tale itself so that what starts off as an interesting concept with a few humorous asides descends all too quickly into tediousness.

Not that Eilidh Loan isn’t good as Mary Shelley, she puts in a fine performane; no, the fault is in the pretentious over-writing.

Picture by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan. s

Loan is supported by a cast that do as they have been directed by Patricia Benecke and it is not their fault that it is hard to care about their individual or collective journeys.

The set and costumes by Becky Minto are stark black and white. A double-storey building where the actors climb white trees to reach the upper level is clever but confining. Everything is done in small spaces. It’s like looking into an open dolls house, but without the wonderment.

Coming on the heels of some excellent stage Frankenstein’s in recent years sadly this version pales into insignificance. Theatre should make us suspend belief and leave us screaming for more, not begging for mercy.

Storm Brendon, which raged as we left the theatre was far more scary.

Tickets range from £17.92 to £34.72.

Call the box office on 01684 892277 or click here for more information and tickets.


Review by Euan Rose.

Things go Brum-p in the night as Ghost Stories comes to the Second City

FOR TEN years, reviewers and audiences have been asked to keep the secrets of the uniquely spine tingling show ‘Ghost Stories’ – and so you’re certainly not going to get any major spoilers from me!

Since its original West End run the show has toured the world, been made into a movie and is now back here at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham to start a UK tour with an all new cast.

Ghost Stories was conceived as a concept and written by ‘League of Gentlemen’ originator Jeremy Dyson along with Andy Nyman, (who devises many of the Derren Brown experiences), so it is little wonder that audiences expect to go home ashen-faced and seeking solace in the company of others. ‘Best avoid dark roads and solitary railway carriages if we can’ is the communal thinking, nervous laughter hitting the night sky as we exit and wander the streets together for as long as possible. A voice unseen tells you to ‘Look straight ahead, ignore dark alleyways and corners’.

The cast is a four-hander comprising Joshua Higgott as the ghost-debunking narrator Professor Goodman, Gus Gordon as Simon Rifkind, Paul Hawkyard as Tony Matthews and Richard Sutton (who trained at Birmingham School of Acting) as Mike Priddle. Together the quartet act out a series of tales to make you literally jump out of your seat or – as in my case – for your companion to soak you in red wine.

Note I said four-hander and indeed the walkdown starts that way then in the blink of an eye there is an interloper.

That of course may not happen every night – depends what mood the spirits are in I suppose….

Ghoulies, demons, stuff of nightmares, apocalyptic chappies, headless homages to things that go thump in the night – this is a full-on haunting experience like I’ve never encountered before in the theatre.

It obviously has a huge following as it was rammed to capacity.

Congratulations to directors Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman and Sean Holmes,  set designer Jon Bausor, James Farncombe and Nick Manning for amazing light and sound and Scott Penrose for the effects.

I’ve kept the secrets so I’m sure they’ll let me live and I would definitely encourage you all to catch the tour and do the same – but best wear an extra pair of pants.  Oh and it’s 90 minutes straight through and strictly no readmission if you have to use the rest room – hence the loo-queues before curtain up.

And it’s OK to scream by the way.

****Review by Euan Rose.