Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th December 2022

Jack and the BeanstalkIt’s Panto Time again! Oh no it isn’t… oh for Heaven’s sake, grow up. The first of four pantos for us this season – and three of them are Jack and the Beanstalk. Typical isn’t it. Like the old joke about London buses, you wait ages for a Jack and the Beanstalk and then three turn up at once. The production that will be gracing the stage of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton for the festive season stars Keala Settle as Fairy Sugarsnap. That’s right! The Greatest Showman’s Keala Settle. Trouble is, I’ve never seen The Greatest Showman, and I confess I’d never heard of Ms Settle until hearing about this show. But does that matter? Oh no it doesn’t!

Billy, Dame and JessBut I’m getting ahead of myself. Jack and the Beanstalk is a traditional family panto produced by that expert Maison de Panto, Evolution Pantomimes. Evolution’s fingerprints are all over this show, from having the band in one of the boxes, opening with the boys and girls of the chorus singing Bring Me Sunshine, having the dame as a self-confessed fat bloke in a dress, and including the bench scene with something scary looming behind whilst our heroes sing Always Look On the Bright Side of Life. And why not? This is a winning formula, guaranteed to make you laugh and smile. And let’s face it, Evolution produce better pantos than Qdos. There, I’ve said it.

Luke and ZombiesAll the required elements are there in abundance. It’s a lovely, colourful, dynamic set; terrific costumes; a three piece band under Uncle Garry Jerry that punches way above its height, and – for the most part – an extremely funny script. The songs are superbly chosen and integrated into the story, and with an appropriate musical theatre leaning considering the presence of Ms Settle. I spotted musical references to Hair, Hamilton and Les Miserables; it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more. The story ends with a lovely spot of redemption, reminding us that there is always a time when the hatred has to stop –  good lesson for the kids, that. Added to which, the plotline incorporates a relevant dig at climate change concerns, which is going to appeal to your more intelligent children; and there’s a cute doggy for everyone else. There are – perhaps – a couple of scenes that haven’t quite bedded in properly yet – I don’t think the dog training scene worked particularly well, for example; but to counterbalance that there is brilliant use of new technology with the Drone of Love, which is used to find Dame Trott’s future husband in the audience; and a projection screen that enhances a couple of the scenes – and which works especially well in the boyband finale, I’ll say no more.

DameBob Golding returns as Dame Trott – he’s rapidly becoming a Northampton Town Fixture, if I’m not talking Cobblers; but this is the first time I’ve seen him, and he’s a delight. Self-assured and a barrel of laughs, he has great interaction with the audience and with the rest of the cast, and he’s given some brilliant costumes to play with – none funnier than his unexpected appearance as Sir Elton John. There’s also a fantastically funny scene where he is trapped inside the weather-making machine and becomes victim to the worst the weather can do. Obvious, but hilarious.

Jack, Dame, Billy, JessI really liked Cara Dudgeon as Jess, our young heroine – full of pluck and attack and a terrific voice; she was ably matched by Ben Thornton’s Billy, in whose gang we all wanted to be, and Alex Lodge’s Jack, an interesting characterisation of a reluctant hero who knows he has to climb the beanstalk to save the world but is too scared to do so. The Villager boys and girls are excellent, with some great song and dance routines – I particularly liked them when they were the henchman’s zombies.

FairyAnd so to Keala Settle, who has taken on what must be a very alien role – the vegetable fairy in a pantomime – with tremendous gusto and embraced it fully. She has an amazing singing voice which is given plenty of opportunity to let rip, and she’s full of fun and vigour. It must feel bizarre for a Broadway star to rock the stage of the R&D as a fairy with an artichoke wand, but she does a terrific job.

LukeHowever, stealing every scene is the brilliant Richard David-Caine as the baddie, Luke Backinanger – he announces his name and says “let that sink in” – yes, I got the joke. Camping it up something rotten, he delivers his punchlines with a wonderful blend of knowing devilry and faux-innocence. It’s not often that the stage lights up when the baddie comes on – but it sure does here. He had us absolutely in the palm of his hand.

Loads to love in this panto – it’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd January. You’d be a fool not to. Oh yes you would!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Osmonds, A New Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th May 2022

The Osmonds musicalIt wasn’t cool to like The Osmonds when I was growing up – not if you were a boy. And whilst I could recognise their style and panache, their talent and their commitment to hard work, I did find the majority of their songs insufferably slushy. They were at their best when they went rocky; Crazy Horses remains an iconic track of the 70s to this day. My own personal favourite was Goin’ Home – and I’m pleased to say it gets an airing in The Osmonds A New Musical, because when we saw the Real Osmonds (well, Jay, Merrill and Jimmy at any rate) at the Royal and Derngate a little over ten years ago it only got a shortened, perfunctory performance. My other favourite Osmonds rocky track is I Can’t Stop; that didn’t get a play in either show.

Jay leads the castBut it’s hard to underestimate how huge they were; and many of the crowd in last night’s audience were clearly teenyboppers of old, prepared to throw themselves into every routine. There’ll always be a space for something Osmondy on a stage for many years to come; and this new musical, penned by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison after an original story by group member and middle brother Jay, isn’t a bad vehicle for bringing their old songs back and reviewing their career.

Donny and Andy WilliamsThe show is at its best when confronting the divisions between the family members and revealing the strictures that father George’s parenting inflicted on the young boys. The Osmonds themselves are portrayed both as adults – during the main years of their chart success – but also as children, taking their first steps on the Andy Williams Show, submitting to and/or bristling under the military discipline installed in them by George. Mother Olive is a kindly, comforting figure, but has no authority over her husband. Telling moments from their childhoods are re-enacted with the adult actor and child actor side by side, effectively emphasising how what happens in childhood sticks with you all through your life. At one point, Jay refers to the family as the Mormon von Trapps – a good line; it made me think that a lot of their later problems might have been solved if only Olive had sewn them play clothes from some old curtains.

All the OsmondsThe conflicts that arose from Donny and Marie’s separate successful career are also nicely observed; I enjoyed the four brothers’ bored and uninterested recording of the backing vocals to Donny and Marie’s Morning Side of the Mountain as a very nice encapsulation of what must have felt like a huge reduction in their influence and stake in the group. Alan and Merrill’s ambitious business venture to run their own studio is shown in its ascendance but more interestingly when it collapses. There are petty arguments stemming from Alan’s ruthless running of the group – a trait inherited from his father, from Merrill’s not being allowed to marry, and the mental stresses it caused him, and from Jay’s perception that no one listened to him. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, given the pressures they must have had from being at the top of their performing tree, they didn’t argue more.

Trying a new styleThe scenes and the songs run in a chronological sequence (apart from The Proud One appearing too early and Crazy Horses too late) and are linked by an additional thread, that of Number One Fan Wendy from Manchester, who continues to send Jay fan mail throughout the years, never knowing if he saw her letters. She has an undiminishable love for Jay from afar; that special, unaccountable, irrational love that only a deep deep fan can have. Wendy’s dream to meet the great man finally comes true in a rather charming scene; I’ve no idea if this is truth, fiction, or if Wendy is simply symbolic of thousands of other girls who spilled their teenage angsts to their heroes. It would be rather rewarding if it were 100% true.

In full flowLucy Osborne’s set is bright, relatively simple and functional; her costume designs are excellent, from the classic barbershop outfits of the young boys, through the glam rock shirts and the subtle colour co-ordination of the brothers’ performing clothes – Alan is always basically in blue, Jay in Green, etc – including their latter-day (no pun intended) drift towards country music. Bill Deamer’s choreography accurately reflects the synchronised flamboyance of the group’s original moves, and on the whole the group and the band make a pretty good stab at recreating the definitive Osmond sound.

Jamming TogetherAlex Lodge takes the central role of Jay and conveys his essential wholesome kindness and likeability, occasionally tending towards an overly cutesy and trying “niceness” that may well be an accurate portrayal of the real Jay. Ryan Anderson’s Merrill is a good portrayal of a decent man pushed to the edge by circumstance and frustration; I thought the show could have made more of his clear mental distress, but it didn’t choose to take that route. For our performance Alex Cardall played Alan, and he nailed that “older sibling” natural authority and tendency towards bossiness. Danny Nattrass is solid as the relatively uninteresting Wayne, and Tristan Whincup was our understudy in the role of Donny; good in the singing department, but I felt he sometimes looked lost in the choreography.

The KidsCharlie Allen gives a very good performance as the unyielding, monolithic George, never betraying the smallest degree of warmth; and Nicola Bryan is the perfect antidote as Olive, a soothing source of kindness who, no matter what she might privately think, knows her place is to back up anything her husband says. I really liked Georgia Lennon as Marie – her performance of Paper Roses was probably the best rendition of any of the songs in the show. It’s a song I always hated as a teenager, seeing it as the epitome of drippiness; but Ms Lennon made me see it in a different light. Great work! And then we had our supporting cast of child Osmonds, who were all terrific, with excellent interaction with the adult actors and brilliant harmonies together.

MarieSo there were many good elements to the show, but, for some reason, a lot of it left me rather cold. Many of the song performances felt a little underwhelming; that said, Let Me In built to great finale to Act One, and they absolutely nailed Crazy Horses at Curtain Call. But even my favourite, Goin’ Home, felt slightly underpowered. Some of the characterisations felt a little threadbare. Comparisons are odious, but this is no Sunny Afternoon. It lacks an essential power and spark that should be driving through the whole show; instead it moves at a sedate pace, never quite reaching top gear. But it’s genuinely not a bad night out, and if you’re inclined towards a bit of clean-living Osmond nostalgia, the show should prompt some good memories. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until Saturday 7th, and then continues its tour of the UK all the way through to December.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Saturday Night Fever, Milton Keynes Theatre, 24th February 2015

Saturday Night FeverDid you see the film of Saturday Night Fever? I loved it. I was exactly the right age for it, being 18 when I was taken for a night out in Toronto by my cousins for a meal, some drinks and a movie. Originally I’d wanted to go to the USA as part of my gap year, but staying with relatives in Canada was so much cheaper and easier, and I had a whale of a time. And at least Canada was on the right side of the Atlantic to watch Saturday Night Fever. It felt remarkably cosmopolitan to see it surrounded by genuine North American accents.

Danny BayneI’d already taken the songs to my heart. I especially liked Stayin’ Alive, with that John Travolta video of the arrogant Tony Manero walking down the street, in the opening sequence of the film. It was strangely aspirational to be like him, even though, for the most part, the character is a complete toe-rag. Cool, trendy, successful with girls. What’s not to like? I actually learned the dance steps to the song Night Fever so that I could be a wow at the disco. Not that I hardly ever went to discos. I can still remember some of it – twisting the torso left and right with your arms spinning into claps whilst your feet traced out the letter N on the floor. If I did it now I’d need an immediate appointment with the chiropractor. I remember how the story of the film turned dark, with the tragic suicide of Bobby falling off the bridge and the rape of Annette whilst she’s stoned. That all brought a lump to my throat first time round. I couldn’t remember how it ended – which is with Tony and Stephanie, his dance partner, sharing a quiet moment where he tries to make good all the bad things he’d done. Cue end credits.

Naomi SlightsYou can’t deny that the current touring production of Saturday Night Fever, produced by the Theatre Royal Bath, and this week at Milton Keynes, isn’t true to the original, apart from two rather odd inclusions. When Bobby sings about his troubled existence the song they use is Tragedy, not an inappropriate choice by any means, but which is from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown album, which came out in 1979, two years after the film of Saturday Night Fever. Not that anachronisms seem to be a problem here. The show starts with President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 TV address to the nation as a result of the current “crisis of confidence”, whilst New Yorkers queue up to buy gasoline, even though that’s again out by two years. The programme notes show that was a deliberate decision to change the setting to 1979; but with Saturday Night Fever being so definitely part of the 1977/78 me, it jarred. And anyway, why would all these trendy young disco-goers be dancing to songs two years out of date? They’d have moved on to Chic and Shalamar by now.

Bethany LinsdellThis is a good show but not a great one. There are plenty of positives: for example, the lighting is superb. All the way through, the use of colour and dazzling light, as well as subtle shadows, gives you all the sensations of those disco days. The pulsating lights on the dance floor, vivid projections, and gloriously colourfully beautiful scenes evoke disco memories from way back when. The lighting enhances the all-round excitement and entertainment factor of the show, and it really contributes to show-stoppers like the performance of You Should Be Dancing just before the interval. This is another of those productions where the performers play the instruments on stage, and the music they create is amazing. For me it’s the brass that really stands out, and gives extra drive and power to all those famous songs. The choreography is faithful to the original style but is new for this production, and is probably the best I’ve ever seen from choreographer Andrew Wright; and the performers dance with style, attack and conviction. This is evident not only in the classic disco numbers, but also the Latin American sequences danced by Cesar and Maria in the dance contest (Michael Stewart and Alishia-Marie Blake on stonking good form). Simon Kenny’s set adapts and blends constantly, recreating the disco, the bridge, the rehearsal studio, and various cafes and restaurants with apparently effortless ease. We particularly liked how it created those intimate booths you get at restaurants and bars – really inventive.

Matthew QuinnSome of the set piece drama moments worked extremely well. I thought the return of Frank Jnr, Tony’s ex-priest brother, was very convincing – with the chillingly cold response from his parents compared to the warm brotherly relationship he would continue to enjoy with Tony. Matthew Quinn played Frank Jnr with sincerity and anguish, almost tongue-tied at his inability to really explain his decision to leave the priesthood, and amusingly out of place in the New York discos. Rhona McGregor was their deeply religious mother Flo, extracting all the catholic guilt and intolerance she could out of her few angry and pious scenes; and Mike Lloyd was also excellent as their hypocritically idle father, quick to criticise but slow to set an example. The death of Bobby and the rape of Annette were moving and uncomfortable to watch. And I really liked the scene were Tony, Bobby and their other two hoodlum mates Joey and Double J were complaining about how dead-end their existence is, then creating the rhythms to their performance of Jive Talkin’ by banging on the side of boxes and bouncing their basketball – very dramatic and effective (and it had to be played with very deft use of props or else it would have been a disaster!)

Rhona McGregorThe main problem with the whole show is that felt to me very unbalanced. I went into the interval feeling quite exhilarated, and appreciative of the great songs, dance routines and general technical prowess of the whole thing. By comparison the second act seemed really quite dull. Unfortunately, by then they’ve used up most of the best songs, the pace seems to drag, the party feel dies away as the story gets darker, and the whole show seems to run out of puff. When Tony and Stephanie sing How Deep is Your Love on the steps to her apartment, I had no idea at all that was going to be the final scene. Suddenly various dancers are appearing front stage and taking their bows and I actually said out loud, “Wow, is that it? Has it finished?” Indeed it had finished, bar a party style finale where some of the best songs are reprised but by then we were largely too sapped to care, too down to be up. The cast did their best to get us dancing but they didn’t succeed. I felt rather sorry for them really.

Mike LloydDanny Bayne who plays Tony is an excellent song and dance man and comes close to encompassing the character’s vanity and essential cruelty, but both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt that the combination of him, Rory Phelan as Joey and Llandyll Gove as Double J just somehow lacked a certain oomph. The characters seemed almost interchangeable; they didn’t (for me) establish much of an individuality. Not so with Alex Lodge as Bobby, because his character is so different from his mates and he does a good job of conveying Bobby’s anxieties and fears, as well as his frustration at not being understood.

Alex LodgeNaomi Slights’ Stephanie is a no-nonsense smarty-pants with her sights set firmly on climbing the social ladder, which reveals itself as she shows off in front of Tony’s pals without any sense of self-awareness. She’s a great dancer and looks terrific, and handles the tense relationship between her and Tony with admirable assertiveness. I also really liked Bethany Linsdell’s performance as Annette, desperate for some affection, faithful to Tony like a spanked puppy that keeps coming back to its master – she’s also a superb dancer. I was also impressed with CiCi Howells as the Club Singer – a great voice and stage presence, I rather think she might be Someone To Watch.

CiCi HowellsAll in all, an enjoyable night out, with some great singing and dancing, and a visually stunning stage show to watch. In the final analysis though, it just left me a bit cold. Brighton, Bradford, Birmingham, Richmond and Cardiff are the last places on its tour still to come; but I’m sure there will continue to be revivals after revivals.