Review – Waitress, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th January 2022

WaitressYou don’t need me to tell you how damaging Covid restrictions and lockdowns have been to the Arts, gentle reader. A case in point came a couple of weeks ago when the Toronto production of Come From Away decided it wouldn’t reopen after Christmas, thus prematurely ending a record-breaking run of 855 performances. And here in the UK, the West End production of Waitress was permanently closed in March 2020 after 13 successful months at the Adelphi Theatre due to the darned pandy. The UK tour had been scheduled to start in November 2020 but didn’t finally get started until last September. If anything proves that The Show Must Go On, I guess the tour of Waitress is a pretty good example!

JennaI’d never heard of the 2007 film on which the musical is based, but the show’s plot seems pretty much to follow the original story. Jenna is one of three waitresses at Joe’s Diner. Each brings her own individual personality to her job, but Jenna’s particular speciality is baking fantastically delicious and inventive pies. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage and longs to break free; and when she discovers there’s a big cash prize for a pie-baking contest, she sees that as a way of getting out of Earl’s clutches and back into freedom. However, she unexpectedly falls pregnant; and on meeting her new obstetrician, Dr Pomatter, they both realise there is an attraction. Do they have an affair? Will she leave her rotten husband? Does she win the pie-baking contest? You’ll have to see the show to find out!

Or alternatively, read on, as there are a lot of spoilers here! Scott Pask’s design beautifully recreates one of those timeless American Diners, all sass and over-eating, and any minute you expect Ritchie Cunningham to walk through the doors accompanied by Potsie and Ralph Malph. You sense this is not only the world of Happy Days, but also Grease, Footloose, or Hairspray, or any place where an ordinary kid can think big and make it to The American Dream. And what could be more wholesome than sweet homemade pies, crammed full of sugar, cream and all those delicious things we know we shouldn’t eat? OK, as she’s been told many times, Jenna may be no Sara Lee, but she sure does know how to create sweet comfort food. As wholesome as apple pie, just like Grandma used to make.

Dawn waitressBut it isn’t. That’s the façade. Sure, there are homemade pies, but there’s also domestic abuse, coercive control, medical malpractice and multiple adulteries. And for Waitress to tell its story to its fullest effect, this juxtaposition of sweet homeliness versus grim reality needs to be brought into the sharpest possible focus. And whilst there are telling moments, primarily in the scenes where husband Earl abuses Jenna, both physically and financially, for the most part the bittersweetness is blurred and sacrificed on the altar of musical comedy.

PomatterTake, for example, the role of Dr Pomatter. His character is presented as a tentative, inept, neurotic clown; medically he knows his stuff, but when it comes to personal contact he’s almost irresistibly childlike, and when Jenna plants a whopper of a kiss on his chops, he doesn’t say what about your husband and what about my wife and what about medical ethics, he just responds in that time-honoured tradition of thinking with his d*ck. And that always leads to trouble. Interestingly, almost the first thing that Jenna says to him is that she’s not happy being pregnant and she’d prefer not to be. Pomatter offers to refer her to someone who will perform a termination. Oh no, she says, semi-affronted, I’m going to have the baby, affirming traditional American Christian apple pie family values. But what’s key here is that Pomatter himself is not prepared to perform an abortion, but he is perfectly happy carry on an affair with one of his married patients. Curious morality where you can pick and choose at will.

Jenna is not the only character in an unfulfilled marriage. Her married colleague Becky ends up having an affair with married Diner manager Cal (because of his strong hands, apparently). As we’ve seen, Pomatter gets tempted elsewhere, and when we meet his charming and helpful wife who helps deliver Jenna’s baby, he seems even more of a scoundrel than before. In another juxtaposition – and this one much more successful – we see the partnering up of third waitress Dawn with nerdy geek Ogie, and they are a perfect match, with their complementary eccentricities and outlandish interests. Ogie’s quirky song Never Ever Getting Rid of Me is the only example in the show where the whole true musical comedy genre actually works.

SugarOtherwise, the musical content is functional if a little bland. Ellen Campbell’s band takes a back seat tucked in a far corner of the stage in more ways than one, in that although they are featured as part of the diner’s seating capacity, they never really make their presence felt. However, the big number, She Used to be Mine, is a stand-out moment where Jenna reflects on the disappointment of her life and is the emotional turning point for her finally to take responsibility for her future.

The production sports some great performances. I’m always excited to see Sandra Marvin, one of my favourite performers, and here she’s perfect as the larger-than-life Becky, with her infectious sarcastic laugh and extraordinary ability to inject life into any song. She’s matched with a delightfully kookie performance by Evelyn Hoskins as the offbeat Dawn, tentatively but creatively picking her way through the world of online dating, her wide-eyed amazement and thrill at the tiniest task (like filling up the mustard and ketchup bottles) coming over as a total joy.

OgieI really enjoyed George Crawford as over-enthusiastic weirdo Ogie, ruthless in his determination to secure Dawn for himself, despite her initial horror at the prospect. No one pulls the wool over the eyes of Scarlet Gabriel’s Nurse Norma, and she very nicely conveys the character’s growing contempt for Pomatter’s indiscretions. And there’s a superb performance from Tamlyn Henderson as the abusive Earl; neither pantomime villain nor overtly vicious, but subtly undermining and a very credibly self-centred louse. Keeping all his wife’s earnings to waste in the bar without the slightest guilt, wheedling selfish affection out of her with a promise that she’ll love him more than she will the baby, whilst still congratulating himself on the prospect of being a father – the legend lives on, he tells himself, with misplaced arrogance. It’s all about him, and Mr Henderson conveys that perfectly.

BeckyThe first night in Northampton was pivotal in many ways; not only was it the local press night, but it marked the new casting of Chelsea Halfpenny as Jenna, instead of Lucie Jones who had played it in the West End and on tour and is now going to perform in Wicked. But Ms Halfpenny didn’t play the role on the first night; instead, Jenna was played by ensemble performer Aimée Fisher, who has an excellent voice and gave a very strong and likeable performance. Busted’s Matt Jay-Willis plays Dr Pomatter with a convincing blend of fumbling fool and medical expert, but with the addition of chancing his arm to keep his secret affair alive. It’s an odd characterisation and I could never quite decide whether we were meant to find him lovable or despicable. Both, probably.

waitressesThere were a couple of moments that put me in mind of Avenue Q at its most comical excesses; Dawn and Ogi romping away to Civil War sex, and Pomatter indulging in what can only be described as cake cunnilingus. But somehow the production doesn’t quite balance the frothy light musical comedy element with the more disturbing dark content. I think this is one of those shows that you either get or you don’t get – and on the whole we didn’t get it. As a scrummy delicious fruity pie, it was nice enough, but it didn’t leave me wanting more. I’ve heard from more than one source that this a show that’s primarily targeted at women, and indeed, famously the creative team is exclusively female, so maybe I’m not the target demographic. I also know that many people see this show several times, so it must be doing something right for somebody! The tour continues all the way through to August.

Production photos by Johan Persson and Matt Crockett3-starsNice and three-sy does it!

Review – Cinderella, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 4th January 2020

81793069_472196653727224_2577297917417095168_nHaving been spoilt with a fantastic Guys and Dolls in the afternoon, eight of us came out again in the evening to relive our childhood with our annual visit to the Sheffield panto – this year, Cinderella. There is nothing quite like the Sheffield panto to cast off your worries for a couple of hours – and let’s face it, the country’s facing more than enough troubles at the moment, so we really need a stressbuster! Legend (it says so in the programme so it must be true) Damian Williams has returned for his twelfth season (we’ve seen nine of them) and I wondered how well it would work with him as an Ugly Sister, sharing the stage with another fat bloke in a frock.

Matt Daines and Damian WilliamsAnswer: it worked like a dream, because his partner in crime, Matt Daines, isn’t a fat bloke in a frock at all. Whilst he (she) was also vile and grotesque, his Melania was a very different kettle of fish from Mr Williams’ Donaldina, and they played off each other beautifully, leaving Mr Williams to do more of the interaction with the audience and Mr Daines to do more of the plot progression (such as it is.) He truly came into his own in the Strictly Come Dancing scene as Twice Daly – a very funny but obviously affectionate parody of The Great Tess. And we also had a very vibrant Buttons, in the form of children’s tv presenter Phil Gallagher, terrific with the kids and the adults alike, and a beautiful and extremely talented Fairy in the form of Joanne Clifton, who gave a display of dancing that’s rarely been seen at the Sheffield panto. As a result, there was hardly a moment to catch your breath between each hilarious or exhilarating scene.

CastAll the usual Lyceum Panto elements were there – the patter sketch, the Lyceum bench ghost singalong sketch, as well as some first-rate jokes – my favourite involved a photo taken in an Indian restaurant with the group REM, with the punchline: “that’s me in the korma”. There’s also a decent Baron Hardup (great work by Mark Faith), a proper “you can’t get your foot in the Crystal Palace” (I always miss it if that line’s not used) and a stunning aerial display act – Duo Fusion UK (Qdos take note, they were more magical and exciting than the aerial act in their highly expensive Goldilocks).

E HoskinsEvelyn Hoskins was superb as Cinderella, making the role slightly less wishy-washy than usual, a girl with gumption who could put her foot down if she wanted to. She had great duets with the gently self-effacing Prince Charming played by Oliver Watton, and Ben Thornton was a spirited Dandini, helping to keep everything moving along at the sharpest of paces.

Phil GallagherPlus over-enthusiastic dancer Lewis who kept having to be reined in, and the hilarious creation of Mildred, the extremely confident 8 year old, who kept stopping the show with her feminist observations about the plot – terrifically performed on our night by Darcy Beech (I think) of the Blue Team. And the poor chap in the third row who was nominated as Most Handsome Man in the Audience and had to wear a T-shirt bearing that same epithet for the rest of the evening. All enhanced by the fantastic musical support from the side boxes led by wildman James Harrison.

M Daines and D WilliamsBut as always, the evening belonged to Damian Williams, whose energy, irreverence, and willingness to make himself look as ridiculous as possible makes the Sheffield panto what it is. Already booked for Sleeping Beauty next year!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

Review – Peter and the Starcatcher, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th December 2016

Peter and the StarcatcherWhen they announced many months ago, that the Christmas play in the Royal this year would be Peter and the Starcatcher, my little heart was filled with joy because I had heard super things about this from its New York run a few years back. Huge kudos, of course, to the Royal and Derngate for producing its UK premiere. Not the first time they’ve done such a thing and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

evelyn-hoskinsEveryone knows the story of Peter Pan, but do you know how it was that Peter became Peter, and how he ended up with the lost boys? Or how Captain Hook lost his hand? Or how Tinkerbell was created? Or why there is a crocodile and how it swallowed a clock? Wonder no more. In this very cleverly created and imaginative story all is revealed.

michael-sheaYou arrive at the theatre to see the Royal stage exposed in all its backstage rawness – ropes, bricks, painted signs – as well as an intriguing band layout fronted by a beautiful grand xylophone. All of a rush, the cast assemble on stage, Nicholas Nickleby-like, to begin the intricate exposition of the story of two associated ships, The Neverland and the Wasp, on a mission to take the Queen (God bless her)’s treasures to the distant country of Rundoon. The good Lord Aster is on board the Wasp to ensure the safe delivery of the trunk of jewels; he is father to young Molly, who is also sailing with her nana, the very alliterative Mrs Bumbrake. Subterfuge causes the precious cargo and a dummy cargo filled with sand to get mixed up; orphan boys are sold to one of the ship’s captains; Molly escapes her nana’s clutches and discovers one of the boys – named Boy, because he hasn’t a name – and after that, things start to get complicated. If I tried to write more of a synopsis we’d be here for hours.

peter-upside-downThough linguistically brilliant, it’s a very densely written script and you really have to concentrate hard to understand everything that’s going on. In all honesty, I don’t think either Mrs Chrisparkle or I followed every twist or appreciated every nuance. For the most part, that’s not a problem, because you have a hugely committed cast who can carry you through any gaps in your understanding simply by their bright characterisation and lively ensemble work. It’s quirky, creative, and at times very surreal – as in the opening scene of the second act, where “starstuff” has done its magic and created a music hall act of mermaids; or on Fighting Prawn’s tropical island where every command or insult is an item of Italian food or drink. And I’d love to say that the show is a total success. Really I would, because the effort and commitment that’s put into this production is tangible. But, sadly, I can’t.

peter-umbrellasIt’s one of those occasions where you find yourself really enjoying a play, engaged by the characters and their activities, tuned into their sense of humour, and laughing at all the jokes – but then you realise that no one else is laughing. Because, for whatever reason, the spirit and humour of this play just doesn’t transmit itself into the auditorium. It’s like someone has erected an invisible Brechtian barrier and it won’t get any farther. The cast are working their socks off for comic – and indeed emotional – effect, but for 90% of the audience (as it seemed to me) they may as well have been in another room. This must be so hard for the cast to keep going with all their enthusiastic on-stage shenanigans to get so little response back. There are a few adult-only lines (to be fair, probably fewer than in most pantos nowadays) for example where Mrs Bumbrake asks Alf, who has just admired her beauty, to accompany her to the ship’s lower decks with the words “take me below”. Mrs C and I sniggered with our best schoolboy smut-appreciation, but no one else did. And I think that’s the problem – most pantos/Christmas plays try to cater for both children and adults so that it is accessible to both, with enough fun and games to keep the youngsters entertained and enough wink-wink to keep the adults on song. But I think that of all the Christmas plays we’ve seen at the Royal this is the one that treads the most uneasy balance between its two target demographics. The publicity states it is suitable for 7+ but I think you would have to be considerably older to appreciate (and assimiliate) the adventures of the story. It simply falls between two stools.

peter-stache-and-smeeWe last saw Greg Haiste as a wonderfully warm Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol four years ago. This time he gives us a marvellous central comedy performance as Black Stache, channelling his inner Lord Flash-Heart. How tempting it must have been for him to come up with some Rik Mayallisms – there are a few opportunities for off-the-wall script adjustments so I really was expecting one. His comic gems flow so freely at times that it’s almost impossible to keep up with him. But we thought he was brilliant.

miles-yekenniMolly is played by the spirited Evelyn Hoskins, once again portraying a thirteen-year-old, like she did in This Is My Family three years ago in Sheffield. She absolutely gets that girlish quality of boastful bossiness without ever becoming a stereotype or a Violet Bott-type pain in the rectum, and it’s a great performance. She is excellently matched by Michael Shea’s Boy – later to become Peter – with his brilliantly observed naïve other-worldliness, that conveyed possibilities of both heroism and “just wanting to be a boy”. Given this is his first professional stage engagement since leaving LAMDA I reckon he could be One To Watch. Together he and Ms Hoskins give us a touching insight into first love that is genuinely moving; I very nearly had something in my eye at one point.

molly-and-the-lost-boysIt’s a brilliant piece of ensemble acting, although other stand-out performers (for me) were Marc Akinfolarin as the sometimes kindly, sometimes villainous Alf; Tendayi Jembere (whose strong performance we remembered in the riveting Mogadishu) playing a very as the pork-dreaming Ted; and Miles Yekinni as the whip-cracking Bill Slank; never has an actor looked as though he will corpse at any moment as Mr Yekinni does when he is cavorting in a mermaid’s outfit.

peter-and-the-stageDespite the hard work that the audience has to put in to get the best out of the play, we both really enjoyed it; but were also fully aware that large numbers of our colleagues in the stalls didn’t seem too impressed. It wasn’t the warmest of receptions at curtain call, but I’d definitely recommend it, because you might, like us, find its quirkiness and surrealism irresistible. Even better, leave the kids at home and learn about young Peter without worrying whether they’re understanding any of it. It’s on at the Royal until 31st December.

P. S. We witnessed an unfortunate example of theatre rage being played out in the bar during the interval. A man was taking a couple to task because their children were flashing their light sabres during the performance and ruining his enjoyment of the play. I can understand his point. I can also understand theirs – in that the toys were bought at the theatre with the implicit understanding that they will be played with during the show. It’s an interesting question of theatre etiquette; the flashing toys wouldn’t have been half so noticeable in a proper pantomime. That said, the kids probably needed them to divert their attention from what they couldn’t understand was happening on the stage. I’d like to say that their discussion was polite and reasoned; I’d like to…; sorry about that.

Review – This Is My Family, Studio at the Crucible, Sheffield, 13th July 2013

This Is My FamilyThe last time we saw Calendar Girls (the play), I didn’t like it much. I liked the film and the original stage production at Chichester a lot, but by the time it had toured and toured and toured it had got a bit tired. However, fresh as a daisy and brightly emotional comes a new work from the pen of Tim Firth, This Is My Family – a rather pedestrian title for an intricately woven little musical of a “typical” family – bonkers Grandma, well-meaning and inept dad, overworked mum, promiscuous auntie, Goth teenage son, cheeky teenage daughter. It’s full of charm, comic insights and affectionate characterisation.

Evelyn HoskinsThe whole story is seen from the point of view of Nicky, the aforementioned cheeky daughter, who successfully enters a competition to win a family holiday anywhere in the world. Whilst everyone else finds it hard enough just to get through a normal day, Nicky imagines all sorts of holiday scenarios in every continent, but, being a typical 13 year old, ends up opting for the only place she can think of that the rest of the family will like – a place her parents used to take them when they were younger, and which she knew had a special meaning to them. However, when they get there it’s not quite as they remember it! It’s become a hideous campsite in a godforsaken corner of England where they “enjoy” typical English weather and arguments and bickerings ensue. But despite everything, the holiday brings the family together in a way that none of them could have foreseen. I won’t tell you how; suffice it to say that the second act is at times extremely moving and very tender – enough to bring a tiny tear to Mrs Chrisparkle’s eye.

Terence KeeleyIt’s a very effective set; the Studio doesn’t have a huge acting space, but this tall, shallow backdrop against one wall depicts the many rooms of a busy cluttered house, enabling scenes to take place in different rooms whilst not encroaching on the main acting area. The small band led by Caroline Humphris whack out some engaging tunes and quite complex musical sequences too where all the cast sing some multipart harmonies immensely skilfully.

Bill ChampionThe strength of the show is in its structure. On the one hand, it’s instantly appealing as we all recognise the characters. Even if you don’t personally have one of those six types in your family (and I bet you do), you will still personally know someone closely who fills the bill. The underlying message of the show is that there is nothing new under the sun. As the holiday develops, we realise that Steve and Yvonne had precisely the same kind of ritualistic communion experience that they have scorned Matt for (a Druidic wedding to the unseen Rachel), and that May and her “Ralphie” also had some similar arrangement long in the past. Each generation, whether they realise it or not, becomes the blueprint for the next generation, and if the current family is a bunch of crazies, no doubt so were the forebears. When Matt decides to keep the letter Steve wrote to Yvonne as a teenager, you can see that the future generations are likely to continue that family tradition. It’s a real affirmation of love.

Clare BurtAt the heart of the show is a great performance from Evelyn Hoskins as Nicky, a cheerful, precocious but never caricatured portrayal of a young teenage girl with lots to look forward to. She has a great stage presence, a charming voice and is, in the words of T S Eliot, “the still point in the turning world” (I don’t think I have yet recovered from seeing Cats last week). Alongside her is another excellent performance from Terence Keeley as her older brother Matt, who has the mumbling speech of a disrespectful teenager to a tee, is a frankly terrifying Goth, is very convincing in striding the gap between being a stupid boy and nearly a man; and who absolutely comes into his own at the end as he matures into a proper university student. He has a great singing voice, terrific comic timing and I think he could become A Name To Watch For.

Rachel LumbergBill Champion plays Steve, the much criticised, helpful and wannabe practical dad who is never happier than when making things, despite a total lack of skill, and much to the dismay of his family. Their lives are littered with the evidence of his hopeless attempts – an old bath becomes a spa, night vision head torches are constructed out of old bike lamps; fortunately, Matt puts his foot down early enough to prevent Steve from destroying his new university rooms. It’s a great performance of humour tinged with some pathos. Clare Burt makes an excellent Yvonne, the mother torn between practicality and romantic ideals, and Rachel Lumberg, last seen here in the Full Monty, gives a brilliantly funny performance as Yvonne’s slightly more wayward sister with a new man for every occasion.

Sian PhillipsLast, and certainly not least, comes a superbly controlled performance from Sian Phillips as May, Steve’s mother, which shows a decline into dementia in a most affectionate and gentle way. Losses of memory, misunderstandings and the occasionally bizarre act are contrasted with some insightful speeches of great wit and understanding too. I’ve seen Sian Phillips in many productions over the years (going back to Pal Joey in 1980) and she still has a marvellous presence and gives a great performance. She hasn’t lost her singing voice either.

It’s a reflective, feel good show, which can make you both laugh and cry, and you certainly come away from the theatre feeling a little bit wiser about what makes us all tick. It really ought to have a life after this short Sheffield run!