Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Review: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Christmas Round Robin Letters, Hope

"Jamie stayed and explored Peterborough, which has a Waitrose. He can’t resist a good Waitrose”

From the minute you walk into the Hope for A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Christmas Round Robin Letters, you know something special is afoot. Chairs are draped with blankets and cushions, bowls of Quality Street twinkle like fairy lights, and we're heartily greeted like old friends by the couple whose front room we're entering. It's a warmly convivial beginning to a warmly convivial show.

A Curmudgeon's Guide... is based on a book by the late, lamented Guardian diarist Simon Hoggart, where he collated some of the more extreme examples of the Christmas round-up-of-the-year letter that people have received. Gently poking fun at the humblebrags and hubris they contain, Scott Le Crass has fashioned an intimate two-hander which looks lightly at that all-too-human need to share.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Review: Thirty Christmases, New Diorama

"Don't be a prick at Christmas"

As many of us lurch from swapping random Secret Santa gifts at office parties to necking eggnog at pantos (just me?!) in preparation for the culinary bliss that is my dad's Christmas dinner, it is easy to forget that the festive season is necessarily a happy one for everyone. And it is this feeling that Supporting Wall's Thirty Christmases (in association with Arts at the Old Fire Station and the New Diorama) is concerned with exploring, through this bittersweetly wry and affecting comedy.

Written by Jonny Donahoe and directed by Alice Hamilton, it's the story of siblings Jonny and Rachel who haven't spent Christmas together in nearly ten years due to a big falling out. Through the efforts of their mutual friend Paddy, they've come together to delve into their shared past to try and work out their issues, for it turns out they've never actually had a conventional Christmas at all, due to a chaotic upbringing by their single-parent socialist firebrand of a father.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Review: Little Women the Musical, Hope Mill

"Somethings are meant to be"

Finally made my first trip to the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester's fringe powerhouse which has been firing transfers down to London with quite the regularity. I wanted to experience the theatre for itself though and having heard great things about Little Women the Musical, didn't want to miss out in case this is the one that doesn't actually make its way south (although it should, it really should!).

With a book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, this musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved novel is a wonderful piece of adaptation. Streamlining plot whilst simultaneously enriching character, it translates the travails of the four March sisters into a warm and witty couple of hours and naturally makes you cry just as much it gladdens the heart.

Review: Guys and Dolls, Royal Exchange

"The passengers were bound to resist"

Michael Buffong's reinterpretation of Guys and Dolls, a co-production between the Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre, is just that, a bold re-envisioning of the classic musical that consequently comes up with something different. That's the point. So it may take a second to recalibrate, to adjust to these portrayals of familiar characters but in doing so you get to embrace something fresh and new and really rather exciting.

Moving the show from Times Square to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in 1939 allows Buffong to employ an all-black cast, infuse Frank Loesser's score with jazz and gospel (new orchestrations by Simon Hale) and introduce a vibrant choreographic vision (by Kenrick Sandy) that draws on several decades of dance history. The result is less-concept heavy than you might expect and often, explosively good fun.

Album Review: Rachel Tucker - On The Road (Deluxe)

"Will I ever be more than I've always been?"

Proving that you don't need to win the reality show that you're in to set your career, and that it's your talent that matters, Rachel Tucker's success is testament to just how far hard work and a hella big voice can take. Headlining shows in the West End and Broadway, including playing Wicked's Elphaba in both, 2017 has seen her play a series of dates on a UK tour with musical director Kris Rawlinson, which in turn produced an album - On The Road - which has recently been digitally released with some bonus tracks in a deluxe edition. 

Reflecting the diversity of a live show, the record opens with a potency and confidence that could see her take her place among the Rat Pack as she swings confidently through classics like 'Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable To Lunch Today)' and 'The Candyman'. New musical theatre gets a look in with the searching emotion of Dear Evan Hansen's 'Waving Through A Window' and then the intensity is dialled down for a moment with Randy Newman's heartbreaker 'When She Loved Me'.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Review: Daisy Pulls It Off, Park

"Buck up kiddies"

Theatres that aren't putting on pantomimes face something of a dilemma - what do you do to ensure you capture audience attention in this most lucrative of seasons? Some theatres like the Almeida programme counter-intuitively whilst others go for alternatively festive fare (see Wilton's Music Hall and the Christmas-set The Box of Delights).Or you can do what the Park have done and put in family-friendly fare like Daisy Pulls It Off.

It's a nifty move as this type of play - an Olivier winner from 1983 no less - fulfils much of the same purpose as panto, in its endearing daftness as it evokes a world of 1920s jolly-hockey-sticks adventuring and in its slyly subversive sense of humour which manages that thing of making the kids laugh on the one level and letting the parents get their giggles in a naughtier, bawdier way. It's all rather silly but good fun with it.

Midlife Crooner Crisis Album Reviews

With Top of the Pops cruelly taken away from us, I've rarely much of a clue as to what in the charts. But I doubt even the most knowledgable of experts could have predicted that one of 2016's biggest albums would come from the presenter of The Chase. Chasing Dreams ended the year as the second biggest UK debut and perhaps unsurprisingly given his key demographic, achieved that with predominantly physical sales.

So the arrival of a follow-up was never in doubt but it brings with it competition, from a whole raft of middle-aged white male presenters seeking to tap into those CD sales. And me being the kind soul that I am, I've listened to some of them, mainly so that you don't have to...as it's not a field overflowing with the kind of music that floats my boat. Each to their own though. 

Album Review: Anton Du Beke - From The Top

"Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?"

There doesn't seem to be anything that can stop the dead-eyed determination of Anton Du Beke to try and become the kind of all-round entertainer that his website proclaims him to be. Best known for his regular mid-season finishes on Strictly, he's dipped his toes into the world of presenting (whatever happened to Hole in the Wall...) and now it is the record industry that has to avert its eyes politely for a wee while.

Released in time for Christmas, From The Top contains zero surprises. If you were thinking of getting for someone who likes him, then they are going to be satisfied. Du Beke has an inoffensive smooth tone that suits the more undemanding choices of standards here ('Beyond The Sea', 'More', 'It Had To Be You'), Strictly singers Lance Ellington and Hayley Sanderson make guest appearances as does Connie Fisher, and there's bags of that inimitable charisma of his.

Album Review: Alexander Armstrong - In A Winter Light

"I was following the pack"

Alexander Armstrong has many a string to his bow - actor, comedian, presenter and singer - and following a couple of albums that have hit the Top 10, he now makes the move that seem de rigeur for the middle-aged male entertainer this year, in releasing his first Christmas album In A Winter Light

The album is nearly completely stymied by its song selection, misguidedly mishmashing its genres so that we're taken from traditional carols to easy listening to the Fleet Foxes to original compositions pastiching them all. A different kind of performer might have been able to tie such a collection together but there's a stiff formality to Armstrong's singing that means he is not the one.

Album Review: Bradley Walsh - When You're Smiling

"I'm living in a kind of daydream"

No-one could accuse Bradley Walsh of resting on his laurels. Between hosting The Chase, appearing in his regular Peter Pan panto and preparing to become one of the 13th Doctor's new companion, it's a wonder he's managed to find time to record a new album. But such was the success of his first that you could guarantee this was a trick not to be missed and so When You're Smiling is now selling well in the few places that still actually sell CDs.

And it is a perfectly serviceable album that is as enjoyable to listen to as these things get. Walsh has a richly strong voice but more importantly, a keen sense of what is suited to it. So we get an album full of standards from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, plus a smattering of hits from musicals such as Cabaret, The King and I, and Guys And Dolls.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Review: The Box of Delights, Wilton's Music Hall

"The wolves are running, Kay Harker"

There'
s a wonderfully rough magic to Justin Audibert's production of The Box of Delights that makes it the perfect choice for Wilton's Music Hall's festive show. And it is one that will have extra resonance for those of a generation similar to my own, whose childhood TV watching centred on a VHS copy of the 1984 TV adaptation, whose use of graphics and green screen hasn't necessarily aged all that well (see around 14.30)...

The nods to the occasional naffness of that design (a car that turns into an aeroplane!) were much appreciated but such is the warmth and wit of the theatrical invention here, that it is hard not to be won over by Piers Torday's adaptation of John Masefield's 1935 fantasy novel whether you're familiar with it or not. And though it flirts with the odd sinister undertone, the abiding feel is one of adventurous derring-do and festive cheer, fit for whatever family you have around you.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Review: Dear Brutus, Southwark Playhouse

"I am not the man I thought myself"


There's a knack to finding the kind of long-neglected plays that respond well to a revival, as opposed to the ones that are deservedly collecting dust, and Ashley Cook's Troupe seem to have nailed it. Making a name for themselves with the likes of Rodney Ackland's After October and James Shirley's The Cardinal, Troupe has now turned to JM Barrie - best known of course for sharing the same birthday as me, oh, and Peter Pan - to shine a light on the little-performed 1917 play Dear Brutus.

It is undoubtedly a curious thing. It is set in a country house where the Puckish figure of its owner - Robin Hooper's Lob - has invited a group of strangers for the weekend, with the intention of luring them into the enchanted wood that appears every midsummer to explore the lives that they might have led. A piece of magic-infused escapism that shifts tonally between whimsical frivolity and real psychological acuity, tear-jerking drama and comic romps and as such, can feel hard to pin down.