Review – Chicago, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd October 2021

ChicagoThere are few stage musicals that bring the promise of a fun night out quite as much as Chicago. I’m sure you know the story; nightclub singer Roxie Hart murders her lover, dupes her husband into taking the blame and then when he realises her guilt, she still gets him to pay top Chicago lawyer Billy Flynn to defend her. Flynn’s method is to sensationalise the crime and make murder into a top showbiz event. Cellmate Velma Kelly meanwhile resents how Roxie has hogged Flynn’s attention and imagination and has worsened her own chances of a top quality media-frenzy trial. Will Roxie be found guilty? You can bank on it that she won’t. Does it even matter?

I was checking back over my records to see how many productions of Chicago I’ve seen – and this is the fifth. As a show, it started comparatively quietly and sedately in the late 70s, but then grew in brashness over the years, encouraging star names to take the lead roles, accentuating the provocativeness of the original Fosse choreography, and now becoming a raucous celebration and triumph of bad over good, with murderers and adulterers thriving, and decent souls being trodden underfoot. That’s why, in the past, I have always had something of a personal problem with Chicago, because despite all its doubtless qualities and some smash hit tunes, I get really depressed by its moral compass!

SinittaSo how does this new production, that opened a few weeks ago in Glasgow, shape up? Like Priscilla, which smashed back onto the Derngate stage in August, this is another strong, hugely entertaining production designed not merely to dust off the cobwebs of the lockdowns but to blast them into outer space. With 80s chart topper Sinitta as Mama Morton, and stage and TV musical entertainer Darren Day as Billy Flynn, you know that you’re in very safe hands musically.

But I’m underestimating it here. Expecting, as usual, to be put off by its lack of decency, I saw the show last night through a whole new set of eyes. Primarily, it’s all about the music. Andrew Hilton’s band occupy the prime position on stage all through the show, making them its star. None of this discreet, out of the way, hiding behind the scenery band presence; they’re full on, centre stage, with Mr Hilton playing just as important a role as any of the other main characters, even ending up as the MC for the curtain call, which works delightfully well. The band put their all into beefing up those Kander and Ebb numbers, and from the opening moments with the instantly recognisable and pleasing All that Jazz, you deeply suspect you’re on to a winner. Every song is treated as though it is a showstopper, and every arrangement is dynamic and thrilling. As well as that first number, there’s the Cell Block Tango to enjoy, When You’re Good to Mama, Razzle Dazzle and my own favourite, the deeply ironic Mr Cellophane. If I was marking Kander and Ebb’s homework, I still feel that the song Roxie is way too long. It’s a great tune and routine, but it has the effect of putting the whole show on hold for several minutes, and I get exasperated by it. Just a little pet peeve of mine.

Djalenga ScottThis is, if I remember rightly, the same staging as the last time I saw it, in the very same theatre, in 2016. That time, I was dismayed by how much the orchestra “pod” juts out into the stage, bizarrely eliminating 80% of the acting and dancing space. This time I realise that it emphasises the importance of the band and the relative unimportance of most of the characters. Deep down, Roxie, Velma, Amos and so on are unremarkable people, previously living unremarkable lives, only thrown into the limelight because of the act of murder. Even Mama Morton is a mere prison officer civil servant who’s succeeded through networking and corruption. When Roxie complains to Billy Flynn that he’s treating her like a common criminal, he replies that’s what she is; minor characters united through a society that thrives on violence.

Darren DayBut there’s one character who isn’t unremarkable – Billy Flynn. He rises above all the mire in a sea of showmanship, he pays no attention to the question of guilt, he’s not interested in the truth, he’s only interested in money. He knows how to fashion a speech to elicit exactly the right response from the jury. He knows that colour and glamour, and a degree of eccentricity will get him to the top. He knows that if he gives the people the old razzle dazzle, that’s what they want. And at the end, he’s manipulated, lied, and schemed his way to even further success. Now replace Billy Flynn in your mind with Boris Johnson, and see how Chicago in the 21st century sits beautifully as a political allegory for our times.

Faye BrookesThe show is perfectly cast throughout. Faye Brookes is brilliant as Roxie; she has just the right innocent, demure air that conceals a vicious, murderous interior, which is also masked by having, I know it’s a cliché but it’s true, the voice of an angel. At our performance, Velma was played by understudy Michelle Andrews as a great portrayal of the top dog who’s on her way down, with amazing vocal and dance skills and terrific star quality. Sinitta gave us a very different Mama Morton from any other I’d seen before; quieter, more elegant and stylised, and less of a pantomime villain. She has a wonderful voice and harmonises superbly with Ms Andrews in the song Class; in fact, all the harmonies throughout the show were incredibly good.

Joel MontagueDarren Day’s Billy Flynn is immaculate and refined, totally calm under pressure and self-assured in every way. He portrays him as a guy to whom riches flow as naturally as the river to the sea. Again, this portrayal is no panto villain, but a very believable smooth operator who’s totally open about his methods – why wouldn’t he be, he’s not ashamed of them! Joel Montague is perfect as Amos, capturing just the right degree of credulous oafishness and winning all our support as the sole voice of decency. It’s always a marvellous moment when Amos calls for his exit music and the otherwise super-responsive band stays silent.

Divina de CampoDivina de Campo makes a fantastic Mary Sunshine, with luscious soprano skills and a warm, magnetic stage presence. As the decades pass, I’ve become less and less convinced by the necessity or, indeed, point of the “unveiling” moment; in the old days the actor playing the role would have just their initials and surname in the programme, so there might have been some surprise to discover that she was a he. But this is Divina de Campo – we all know who she is – so when Flynn whips her wig and top away, it’s no biggie. It also just comes across as cruel, numbing the audience into silence. It was the only moment of the show that I felt Just Didn’t Work.

The members of the ensemble all turn in superb singing and dancing performance. All Mama’s girls in the Cell Block Tango did a great job in explaining their criminal motivations – I particularly loved Hollie Jane Stephens’ truly pathetic Hunyak; Joel Benjamin was excellent as the obnoxious Fred Casely (he had it coming), and Theo Reece makes a terrific professional debut.

I expected to find myself actively resistant to the show’s much vaunted irresistible charms, but for the first time in five productions – I think I finally get it! This is a wonderful production that makes the wise decision to emphasise the music and the band over anything else, resulting in a hugely entertaining and exhilarating evening. It’s on a massive tour that continues all over the country into July 2022, so you’ve got no excuse not to see it! And if, like me, you have always thought Chicago was a bit….well, meh…. see this production, it will open your eyes!

Promotional photos by Matt Crockett

Five alive, let theatre thrive!


Let’s have a crack at some more theatre and dance memories! May to July 2007

  1. Ballet Boyz Encore – Milton Keynes Theatre, 2nd May 2007

Still trading under their name George Piper Dances – for perhaps their last time? – the Balletboyz returned for their Spring Tour with the show Encore. Unfortunately their dancer Oxana Panchenko sustained an injury during rehearsals and they had to change the programme substantially in order to provide a show to their paying audience – so only half of the expected programme could go ahead. So that night we saw Satie Stud, followed by Jjanke, and then Propeller (with Amy Hollingsworth dancing instead of Ms Panchenko) and then Michael and Billy had to bring back Russell Maliphant’s Torsion for the second half – but that was always a thoroughly enjoyable dance, so I don’t suppose we were particularly affected by the change!

  1. The Entertainer – The Old Vic, London, 7th May 2007

We went with our friends Paul and Pauline to see John Osborne’s famous play – the first time I’d seen it – with the huge attraction of seeing Robert Lindsay in the part of Archie Rice. Even fourteen years ago, The Entertainer was something of a period piece; let’s face it, few of us remember the Cheeky Chappie Max Miller nowadays. It’s still a landmark work though, and Mr Lindsay was as brilliant as you’d expect.

  1. Evita – Adelphi Theatre, London, 19th May 2007

This was my third visit to see a production of Evita, but there was such a vibe about how good Elena Roger was in the part that we thought we simply had to see it; and indeed she was. The evening was kind of ruined by a very noisy, drunk and fidgety couple behind us; they didn’t take any hints from the people around them that they basically needed to shut up, and at the end several punters from the nearby seats rounded on them in complaint. As a result of their behaviour, not much of the rest of the production has stayed in my head. Shame when that happens!

  1. Nederlands Dans Theater 2 – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 6th June 2007

Always a delight to see NDT2, the young company of the Nederlands Dans Theater, on one of their regular tours. The programme consisted of Jiri Kylian’s Sleepless, then Lightfoot/Leon’s Sleight of Hand, and finally Alexander Ekman’s Flockwork. I entered a competition by Dance Consortium to win a signed programme – and I won! So a couple of week’s later they sent it to me – as you can see in the pictures. Sadly this was the last time we saw NDT2 until 2016.

  1. Coppelia – Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome, 9th June 2007

I’d always wanted to see a production of Coppelia, and this new production combined the original Petipa choreography with some new moves by Enrico Cecchetti and Peter Wright. Laura Purkiss danced the title role, with Nao Sakuma as Swanilda, Chi Cao as Franz and Michael O’Hare as Dr Coppelius. Highly enjoyable!

  1. Chicago – Milton Keynes Theatre, 13th June 2007

This was only my second time of seeing Chicago (and Mrs Chrisparkle’s first) and I knew it had undergone a huge structural revamp from its original 1970s production – so I wanted to see what the fuss was for myself. I don’t have much recollection of it – but we didn’t know any of the performers, and my guess was that it was about now that I started to realise that (shock horror!) I don’t really like Chicago as a show much – I dislike the way it celebrates the bad and mocks the good. But that’s just me!

  1. Kismet – English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 7th July 2007

I had been looking forward to seeing this show so much – I had seen Kismet only once before as a teenager and I loved it, and it was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite shows too. The production was beset by problems with key personnel walking out and what we saw was an under-rehearsed, under-presented mess that rightly received shockingly bad reviews. Nevertheless, it was Kismet, and I still loved it! Michael Ball was Hajj the poet and Alfie Boe the Caliph.

  1. The Drowsy Chaperone – Novello Theatre, London, 21st July 2007

More shock bad reviews for a show that had done so well on Broadway and should have set the capital alight – but we really enjoyed The Drowsy Chaperone, a clever, well-presented show with an excellent cast, lots of humour and surprises. Elaine Paige was the Chaperone herself, with Steve Pemberton giving a terrific central performance as the Man in Chair, plus performers of the likes of John Partridge, Nickolas Grace and Summer Strallen.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 28th July 2007

A two-show visit to the gardens of Wadham College – fortunately the weather was perfect – first to see the OSC’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed with all their usual brightness and humour; I particularly remember a lovely moment when Hermia is hauling her suitcases over the rough terrain and Demetrius is simply carrying his toothbrush. Great stuff as always.


  1. Romeo and Juliet – Globe Touring Productions at Wadham College, Oxford, 28th July 2007

In another part of the gardens, for the evening we saw the Globe Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet; and I’m afraid we didn’t like it much. Modernised but in a rather brutal and distancing way, we couldn’t get into it. A good cast nonetheless, including a young Richard Madden as Romeo… I wonder what became of him?!

And There’s More Theatre Memories – November 1978 to July 1979

Lots of Student productions here so I’ve doubled up this selection to twenty shows!

  1. Vandaleur’s Folly – 7:84 Theatre Company at the Oxford Playhouse, 17th November 1978.

image(598)7:84 was an influential and creative socialist theatre company whose name derived from the fact that 7% of the population owned 84% of its worth – or at least did in 1966, I expect it’s even less evenly distributed today. This touring production came under the 7:84 England banner, the company ceasing in 1984 after it lost its Arts Council grant, although 7:84 Scotland continued for another 20 odd years. Vandaleur’s Folly was written by John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy and was based on the Ralahine Co-operative Commune set up in Ireland in the 1830s, but also propounded arguments for the British withdrawal from Ireland. I can remember very little about it, apart from the fact that it made me feel very trendy and studenty.


  1. Night and Day – Phoenix Theatre, London, 25th November 1978.

image(601)During that first university term, my friend Rob and I decided to take some of our new friends, Mike, Kevin and Doug, into London for the weekend, and part of the treat was to see this new play by Tom Stoppard. image(602)It was a satire on the British News Media (some things never go away) mixed with the concerns of a post-colonial era. I remember it being very clever, very funny and very erudite – Stoppard at his best. It starred Diana Rigg and John Thaw, who were both superb; the cast also included Upstairs Downstairs’ very own Lord Bellamy, David Langton. I’d like to revisit this play some time when the theatres are allowed to reopen!

  1. The Death of Cuchulain and Shadowy Waters – St Hugh’s Players, Oxford, 26th November 1978.

image(617)image(614)Included in my list here because a) I’m still very friendly with some of the production team and b) this was the one and only time that I’ve seen a production that used Japanese Noh masks. One of these cast members is currently the UK Ambassador to Turkey! I never did get on with W B Yeats and this was all very difficult to fathom.


  1. Aubrey’s Brief Lives – Oxford Playhouse, 28th November 1978.

image(616)Aubrey’s Brief Lives is a wonderful opportunity for a character image(615)actor to indulge in some Elizabethan gossip, and this was a superb one-man performance from a young chap who I knew would go on to greater things – and so he did. Nigel le Vaillant was in the year above me at university and we met on the night I went up for interview the previous December – and what a charismatic and fascinating chap he was (and I’m sure still is). He’s primarily known for his TV appearances as Dangerfield.


  1. The Skin of our Teeth – Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford, December 1978.

image(591)image(592)I’m including this OUDS (Oxford University Dramatic Society) production in my list because I’m still close friends with one of the cast! But it’s not a play I particularly relished if I’m honest. A few members of this cast have gone on to do amazing things with their lives!



  1. The Millionairess – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, January 1979.

image(593)image(594)image(595)I saw this with my friend Rob as we were both Penelope Keith fans (see Donkeys Years a couple of years previously) and she played the central character with natural authority and charm. Better known as the film where Peter Sellers played the Indian Doctor alongside Sophia Loren, this production also featured Nigel Hawthorne, Ian Ogilvy, Angharad Rees and Charles Kay as the Doctor – this time, Egyptian, as Shaw had intended. Enjoyable and traditional, as everything at the Haymarket always was!


  1. A Night with Dame Edna – Piccadilly Theatre, London, 15th January 1979.

image(585)Again I went with Rob and also our friend Wayne (see Oh Calcutta a few years previously) to see Barry Humphries in his most inimitable role, as the irrepressible Dame Edna Everage. He/she was at the height of the character’s prowess, and it was a memorable night of non-stop near-the-knuckle laughter. The first half started with Sir Les Patterson, Australian cultural attaché, at his most repulsively hilarious. I do remember him spotting a couple of latecomers, welcoming them in, getting their names and saying, “I must tell my friend Dame Edna Everage about you” to an audience that exploded half in hysterics and half in sheer sympathy. It was a great show, and I caught Dame Edna again later in the year when she visited Oxford. A comedy legend at his best.

  1. Class Enemy – Oxford Playhouse, 3rd February 1979.

image(587)Anvil Productions’ version of Nigel Williams’ Class Enemy, that had recently enjoyed a successful run at the Royal Court Theatre. Six students in search of a teacher, I remember this as being a fascinating image(574)and strong play given an excellent performance by some very talented young actors. The cast included Peter Lovstrom, who has continued to have a solid acting career, Keith Jayne, who entered financial services, Gary Shail, who has combined acting with a recording career, and Mark Wingett who appeared in The Bill for twelve years. Interesting to note that this play was adapted much later in Bosnia and set in Sarajevo in 2007, with the young adults emerging from the horrors of war.

  1. Bedroom Farce – Oxford Playhouse, February 1979.

image(575)I’d only seen the National Theatre production a little over a year image(576)earlier, but it’s a fun play and it was on locally, so why not? This production was directed by Richard (I don’t believe it) Wilson. I note that among the talented cast was John Alkin, who left acting in the 1980s to set up a spiritual healing centre with his wife Lee Everett Alkin (Kenny Everett’s former wife).

  1. Measure for Measure/Occupations – Oxford Playhouse, 7th & 8th March 1979.

image(577)These two plays, produced by OUDS, ran in repertory for the week, and very strong productions they were too. It was my first time seeing Measure for Measure and I found it really engrossing, and Occupations is the Trevor Griffiths’ play about the Fiat factory occupations in 1920s Italy. I’m sure the works of Griffiths are due a retrospective. Measure for Measure was the first production that I ever officially reviewed; I was working for student newspaper Tributary at the time.

Nigel le Vaillant led both casts. But I was really impressed by a young chap from Wadham who played the foppish Lucio, and I gave him a glowing review. His name was Tim McInnerny – and his Lucio was the forerunner of his characterisation of Lord Percy in Blackadder II. Also in the cast was Radio Active’s very own Helen Atkinson-Wood, Mark Saban (now a psychologist, but for many years a successful actor), Martin Hatfull (one time UK Ambassador to Indonesia), Neal Swettenham (lecturer in Drama at Loughborough University), and a young Helen Fielding, without whom none of us would have heard of Bridget Jones and her diary.


  1. A Chorus Line – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 31st March 1979.

image(581)OK I admit I wasn’t going to write about any more of the Chorus Line productions I saw, but this was the last night of the production’s two-and-three-quarter years’ run and it was my 8th time of seeing it, this time with some friends from university. A very moving experience, as the audience was full of ACL aficionados, and we gave it a stonking reception. My main memory is of Miss Diane Langton unable to leave the stage at the end of What I Did for Love because of its huge reception, her standing there with grateful tears in her eyes. An unforgettable night. However, I have to say, we were very reserved in comparison with the last night of A Chorus Line at the Palladium in 2014. Now THAT was a humdinger!


  1. Deathtrap – Garrick Theatre, London, 5th April 1979.

image(568)Now always known as Ira Levin’s Deathtrap for copyright reasons, this comedy thriller had been packing them in for a few months and it was a show you either loved or you hated. Personally, I loved it, with its awkward twists, image(569)false ending, lies and scoundrelly behaviours; one of those plays where almost nothing is as it seems. A fantastic central performance by Denis Quilley as Sidney Bruhl, but with terrific support from everyone else. Very enjoyable.


  1. Joking Apart – Globe Theatre, London, 11th April 1979.

image(573)image(562)Alan Ayckbourn’s latest comedy had been open for just a month or so, and had a formidable cast including Alison Steadman, Christopher Cazenove, Julian Fellowes and that master (mistress) of the befuddled old lady act, Marcia Warren. It centres on a happy couple who unwittingly cause havoc amongst their friends and relatives. Every bit as enjoyable as you would have expected it to be.

  1. Chicago – Cambridge Theatre, London, 14th April 1979.

image(564)image(565)Yes indeed, this was the West End premiere of that musical that refuses to die and just keeps on coming. I went with my friends Sue and Nigel because she had heard it was sensational. If you see a production of Chicago today, it’s full of showbiz and glamour, all that Fosse choreography and vicious manipulation. But the original Chicago, which had transferred from Sheffield, was a much quieter affair, with choreography by Gillian Gregory and a thoroughly British cast including Jenny Logan as Velma, Antonia Ellis as Roxie, Don Fellows as Amos and Ben Cross (indeed) as Billy Flynn. I’ve always had a problem with Chicago – I hate how it celebrates cruelty and crime; from that point of view it’s the complete opposite of A Chorus Line which celebrates everything that’s good about people. It ran for 600 performances, but when it came back next time round, it was a much more erotic and scintillating affair.

  1. The Observer Oxford Festival of Theatre 1979 at the Oxford Playhouse, 1st, 7th, 8th and 11th May 1979.

image(566)I saw four of the productions in this festival; one is on the shortlist for the worst thing I’ve ever seen, one was absolutely brilliant, and the other two I can’t remember at all. Alas I have no recollection of The Fool’s Theatre Company’s production of The Fall of the House of Atreus, or of the Experimental Theatre Club (of which I was a member)’s Princess Ivona. I loved – and reviewed – the Fool’s Company’s double bill of Salome and Steven Berkoff’s East (I had dropped into a rehearsal a couple of weeks previously and interviewed the director) – I think East is one of the funniest and most inventive plays ever. Kim Wall and Mark Heap have gone on to have sterling acting careers.

image(552) Vying for the biggest disaster ever was the Sherman Theatre Company’s production of Othello, with Edwin Kandiwiya Manda, Artistic Director of the National Dance Theatre of Zambia, in the title role. Mr Manda enunciated the part beautifully throughout, but with exactly the same intonation and expression for every line. When Othello sends Desdemona off so that he can agonise over her fidelity, he says the line: “Farewell, my Desdemona. I’ll come to thee straight.” With Mr Manda’s execution (and I use the word advisedly) of this line, it became “I’ll COME to thee…… STRAIGHT” as if explaining the direction and velocity with which his private parts will invade hers. One of those plays were you were literally shaking with suppressed hilarity from the start but you had to leave at the interval in order to protect your own self-esteem.

  1. Hamlet – Oxford Playhouse, 24th May 1979.

image(554)image(555)Another student production, Claudius was played by Dougal Lee, from my college, and who is still a mainstay of the Pitlochry Theatre Company, Hamlet was Simon Taylor, that chap Tim McInnerny was First Gravedigger and Fortinbras, and there are other names there I recognise from other student productions.


  1. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – Oxford Playhouse, 31st May 1979.

image(556)image(557)A different production from the show I’d seen the previous year in London, directed by Gordon McDougall, amongst whose claims to fame is co-selecting the children in the long-running TV documentary Seven Up. The cast included John Bown, Graham Lines and Mark Penfold, all of whom frequently appeared in TV plays.

  1. Songbook – Oxford Playhouse, 4th June 1979.

image(558)On its pre-West End tryout tour, this fantastic musical lives on in my mind as one of the best shows I’ve seen. Written by Monty Norman (yes the man who wrote the James Bond theme) and Julian More, this show acts as a kind of Side by Side by Sondheim about the songwriting genius, and totally fictional, Moony Shapiro. It traces his career from his early days of East River Rhapsody, through the Second World War where he wrote Bumpity Bump for the very posh-voiced Cicely Courtneidge (although she’s never mentioned), plus the musical Happy Hickory (Finian’s Rainbow by any other name) and various other musical gems.image(550) One of my favourite songs is the extremely unPC Nazi Party Pooper sung by a furious Hitler at his piano, annoyed that his Berlin Olympics have been ruined by the success of Jesse Owens. Inappropriate for today for all sorts of reasons, but it’s a very clever song. The cast of Anton Rodgers, Gemma Craven, Bob Hoskins, Diane Langton and Andrew C Wadsworth (whom I told 25 years later that I had enjoyed this show so much) were all on brilliant form. I’d love this to be revived.

  1. She Would if She Could – Oxford Playhouse, 15th June 1979.

image(608)image(607)George Etherege’s Restoration Comedy was given a masterful production directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Paul Eddington and David Firth. Crammed with brilliant performances and marvellous comic business this was a top class show from start to finish. I absolutely loved it.


  1. Flowers for Algernon – Queen’s Theatre, London, 5th July 1979.

image(613)image(612)image(609)For the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s birthday, we went to see this short-lived show (the introduction of VAT to the price of theatre tickets knocked a few productions into financial chaos) but it was sensational, and is probably still my second favourite production of all time after A Chorus Line. Daniel Keyes’ famous story about the young man treated with a drug to bring him out of his learning difficulties into the realms of a high achiever, only for the drug to fail and for him to revert to his previous state, was turned into a most moving musical by David Rogers and Charles Strouse, and gave Michael Crawford his (in my humble opinion) best role ever as Charlie. Cheryl Kennedy was also magnificent as the doctor who enters into a relationship with him. I defy you to listen to the song Whatever Time There Is and not blurt out into uncontrollable tears. But the whole score is terrific. This is another fantastic show that I’d love to see again.

Thanks for accompanying me on this rather lengthy theatrical reminiscence. Tomorrow it’s back to the holiday snaps, and I is for Iceland and a chilly trip in March 1998. Stay safe!

Review – Chicago, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd May 2016

ChicagoSpeaking as the ultimate A Chorus Line fan, I’m not entirely certain why I keep going to see Chicago. Whilst, on the face of it, you might think the two have a lot in common, being 1970s American musicals featuring the expertise of the top two choreographers of the age, well… yes, but that’s about it. A Chorus Line wears its heart on its sleeve as it exposes the reality of the dancers’ lives and cuts away the crap from people to reveal their true souls; Chicago, on the other hand, aggrandises sham. It relishes the glitzy, show-offy facades of its characters in the quest for ultimate celebrity. A Chorus Line strives to present you good, decent, real people in real time auditioning in the same theatre where you are sitting; Chicago celebrates law-breakers who attempt to get off scot-free by fluttering their manipulative, sexually provocative eyelashes at the court and (more importantly) the media. A Chorus Line asserts that everyone is special; Chicago pokes fun at failures.

Lindsey TierneyYou’ve also got that massive difference in choreographic and costume style. Michael Bennett gave his dancers subtlety and style; exhilaration for sure, but happy, tasteful exhilaration; and, above all, artistry. Bob Fosse gave his Chicagoans open legs and bending over backwards to satisfy. Bennett’s dancers wore audition gear and then silver and gold spangles for their finale; Fosse’s wear black chiffon and fishnets, somewhere in the Cabaret/Rocky Horror spectrum. Chicago seems to represent almost everything that A Chorus Line isn’t. It kind of therefore follows that, as a huge lover of Chorus Line, I really don’t like Chicago – the show – at all. Its saving grace is its songs – particularly the tunes – which are punchy and fun and memorable.

Sophie Carmen-JonesNevertheless, I went to the Royal and Derngate full of enthusiasm and expectation because I was hoping for a top quality production that would emphasise all the good things about the show. I know I’m a Bennett boy and not a Fosse follower but, at the end of the day, you have to admit it, Bob Fosse was a creative genius. Sadly, I thought the show overall was – as the young people of today might say – a bit meh. IMHO there’s a big problem with the orchestra pod jutting too far out into the stage to provide a satisfactory dance space. With no depth to the stage, everything has to be wide and shallow; and when this causes actors and dancers with this level of talent to bump into each other – something’s not right.

Sam BaileySecondly there is – dare I say it – the choreography. There were two elements to my disappointment. The first problem stares at you from the programme: “Original Choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse; Re-creation of Original Choreography by Gary Chryst”. It’s as though Fosse’s vision has been passed down the line in a series of Chinese Whispers – I felt what I saw was a very watered down version of how good it could have been; Fosse-lite. Secondly, we’ve now been spoilt by that splendid young dancemaster Drew McOnie having seen his Leicester Curve Chicago in 2013. You don’t need to have a contest between the two about who’s the best choreographer – but what you did get from the Leicester production was the first-hand vision of what the presentation should be like, not third- or fourth-hand. And it shows.

John PartridgeAs for the performances – let’s start high and recognise that, in the show we saw, Roxie was played by the understudy Lindsey Tierney and she was absolutely magnificent. Cool as a cucumber, choreographically spot on, a great vocal performance, and completely looking the part. We both thought she was terrific. I also really enjoyed Sophie Carmen-Jones as Velma, full of attitude and spirit, a great singer and dancer, nice comic delivery and, what’s the point of denying it, she’s pretty cute too. Much has been made of X-Factor winner Sam Bailey appearing as Mama Morton. I’m afraid we don’t watch that so I hadn’t a clue who she was. She has a strong stage presence and can certainly belt out a song, but I don’t think she conveyed enough of the character’s deviousness or financial greed. In the past I have felt that Mama Morton might have a certain sexual curiosity about her girls too, which gives the character a bit of extra depth; but there was no suggestion of that here.

Neil DittI’m a great admirer of John Partridge, who plays the lawyer Billy Flynn, but I had heard conflicting reports about his performance. Billy Flynn is one of those characters that you can interpret in many ways. When I saw Chicago in 1979 the role was taken by Ben Cross and he played it (if I remember rightly) fairly serious and arrogant on stage. In the Leicester version David Leonard played Flynn as a completely lascivious sleazebag. Here, Mr Partridge portrays him absolutely true to the spirit of this production – the height of façade, of celebrity pretence; of total amorality. He plays up to the crowd, he adopts a smarmy grin, he calls out for applause for his long sustained note, he milks the showbizziness of the role for all it’s worth. It’s all show-off and look-at-me. But when you get right to the heart of the character – which, if he has one, is money – if you come between him and his $5000, he’ll cut you dead and no sympathy. When Roxie clearly becomes a more lucrative client than Velma, this Flynn delights in squishing the latter’s courtroom appeal chances. If you were going to try to tap into this Flynn’s generous nature – you’d spend a long time tapping. Of course, Mr Partridge is a song and dance man par excellence, and his vocals and stage presence are great as always. It’s a shame he doesn’t have any remotely challenging or artistic dancing to do until the second act – but Razzle Dazzle is definitely worth waiting for.

A D RichardsonNeil Ditt makes a good Amos, although (and I know comparisons are odious) he’s much more a figure of fun than in previous productions I’ve seen, where the pathos of Mr Cellophane could bring a tear to your eye. A D Richardson sang the Mary Sunshine role absolutely splendidly and in many respects this was the most realistic performance of this role I’ve ever seen; but I was surprised how flat and undramatic her “reveal” scene turned out to be. Maybe a little rushed? Ben Atkinson’s orchestra throw themselves into John Kander’s fantastic tunes with immense gusto and appropriate irreverence – I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed supine conducting before.

So despite some very good aspects, I still left feeling slightly deflated. I think it’s the amorality that depresses me. What can I say? If amorality is your spice of life, you’ll love it! The tour continues throughout the country right through to December.

P. S. Theatre etiquette observation #341a. The gentleman behind me decided that Miss Carmen-Jones’ voice was not sufficient for the task so sang along – without inhibition – to the song All That Jazz. Every so often he forgot the words and allowed the professional to take charge, but then he would remember them again and join in. I did three of my glares – each getting steadily more aggressive – but to no avail. I decided that if he also chose to sing along to the next song I would turn around and tell him to shut up (and suffer the consequences, if he then chose to harangue me for the rest of the evening.) Fortunately he wasn’t that well rehearsed with the rest of the show. Moral: if you’re in a show and one of your favourite songs comes on, remember that miming to it retains the mystery of your voice and we’ll never know quite how good you are at singing. Otherwise, shut the **** up.

Review – Chicago, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 31st December 2013

Chicago Confession time: I have a problem with the show Chicago. I first saw it on 14th April 1979 (look, there’s my programme and ticket stub in the picture below! Such a trend-setting teenager I was, just four days after opening night), and three weeks after the original production of A Chorus Line closed at Drury Lane, a show I’d seen eight times by that stage and which was, and remains, my favourite show of all time. To put it in context, I was missing my Chorus Line, and I hoped Chicago might fill its void. Chicago 1979But I was wrong. Chicago is no Chorus Line. Chorus Line is highly moral; good gets rewarded, respect is given to everyone, and everyone is special, there are no celebrities. The songs and book are about talent, personal development, and being true to yourself. The costumes are either work-functional or showbiz pizazz. Michael Bennett’s choreography was optimistic, cheeky and bright.

Gemma SuttonChicago, on the other hand, is highly amoral. Murderers and corrupt officials get rewarded, celebrity status is king, the good get downtrodden. The songs and book are about crime, cynicism and putting on an act. The costumes are sleazy. The Bob Fosse-inspired choreography was flashy, sexual and lurid. Why did I want to see this Leicester revival then? In fact I very nearly didn’t book for this show, but in the end I decided to “keep the faith” with the recent London A Chorus Line, as three impressive members of its cast are in it. History repeating itself in fact; the original London cast of Chicago featured five members of the Chorus Line cast who had lost their jobs three weeks earlier.

Sandra Marvin and Verity RushworthAs a Chorus Line fan, I was always a Michael Bennett boy, never a Bob Fosse boy. But now, after seeing the Curve’s new production of Chicago, I think I could become a Drew McOnie boy. For one of this show’s chief highlights is the completely new set of routines by this young choreographer who we enjoyed watching a few years back on “So You Think You Can Dance”. You can’t classify his style by any one term, as every song,David Leonard every routine has its own different flavour. I had no sense of repetition, but I did get a great sense of inventiveness, showbiz, sexiness and some mystery too. I particularly loved the transformation of “Razzle Dazzle” into a circus presentation. Above all, the choreography throughout was enjoyable and communicative, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Sandra Marvin, Gemma Sutton and Verity RushworthIn case you don’t know, but may have surmised from my first paragraph anyway, Chicago is set in the 1920s and is based on the true stories of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner who got away with the murders of their lovers through their courtroom glamour and pretend vulnerability that made their all-male juries go weak at the knees. On stage in this show they become Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, who live a celebrity lifestyle whilst on remand and are represented by the dashing lawyer Billy FlynnBilly Flynn, whose interest in solely financial. The structure of the show is key to how the audience reacts to it, as each scene is introduced by a member of the cast addressing the audience directly and telling them what to expect in 100% Bertolt Brecht style. Brecht’s original vision was deliberately to distance the audience from the action, and it’s absolutely true, it’s an incredibly effective device to take you one step further away in each scene from either identifying with the characters or from getting lost and involved in the action. I think that’s one of the reasons I have reservations about the show. It’s intriguing without being all-involving.

Mr CellophaneI also found the some of the costumes rather off-putting too. With the original Fosse choreography, a sense of sleaziness felt very appropriate, but in this production I don’t think the choreography requires it. In fact I thought some of the “boys-in-a-basque” costumes bordered on the Rocky Horror instead, which I’m sure is not what was intended. After all, I follow some of these chaps on twitter, it doesn’t feel entirely decent to see them clad so dubiously. I’m also not entirely sure I like the “unveiling” of the character of Mary Sunshine at the end either; in the other productions I’ve seen, the performer’s details in the programme feature an androgynous face and their first name is in initials so you can’t be entirely sure if it’s a man or a woman; but at the Curve, we know straight away that the character is played by Adam Bailey, so revealing his bare chest at the end is I feel both prurient and redundant.

Harry FrancisHowever, what is beyond doubt is that Paul Kerryson has assembled a cast of great talent who work together fantastically well, and who sing and dance with superb skill. The double act of Verity Rushworth and Gemma Sutton as the wicked Velma and Roxie works brilliantly. Miss Sutton’s Roxie is a harsh heartless bitch who transforms herself into a glamourpuss-de-luxe at the flash of an instamatic; and Miss Rushworth’s Velma is a world-weary siren who can knock out a song with ultimate conviction and appeal. Sandra Marvin is un-take-your-eyes-off-able as the devious Mama Morton, the “matron” of the convicts who will look after her girls as long as they look after Mama.Simon Hardwick That Curve stage always strikes me as being massive but she completely fills it with her show-stopping performance. David Leonard is a superb sleazebag as the arrogant Billy Flynn, and Matthew Barrow turns in a great performance as Roxie’s ineffectual husband Amos. His “Mister Cellophane” number was terrific stuff – again with clever use of circus elements – and his so-called “exit music” drew a huge sigh of sympathy from the audience. The chorus who fill the minor roles are all excellent; I would expect no less from Harry Francis, Simon Hardwick and Katy Hards (the ex-Chorus Line contingent) but also Zizi Strallen was a beguiling Mona and Anabel Kutay a tragic Hunyak.

Zizi StrallenBen Atkinson’s band were sensational and brought the best out of John Kander’s jazzy and exciting tunes. Al Parkinson’s set is cunningly gloomy for the prison scenes – the low hung light bulbs over the front few rows of the stalls at the beginning almost makes us feel part of the set – but then is minimalist enough accurately to suggest all the locations without getting in the way of the dancing. It’s very rewarding to see such a committed performance from everyone involved and I’m pretty sure (from memory) that this is a more fulfilling production than the original London one or the touring show we saw at Milton Keynes in 2007. The combination of vocal and dance skills with the new choreography and fabulous band make this a really excellent show. It’s still on for a couple more weeks so if you prefer your murderesses sassy, you’ve come to the right place!