Review – The Addams Family, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th May 2017

The Addams FamilyWhen you think back to The Addams Family, in what year, would you say, did they first appear? No Googling now. No, you’re wrong. They actually first appeared in print cartoon form way back in 1938. The TV series started in 1964 – the very same week that “rivals” The Munsters started; The Addams Family beat them by six days. Since then, we’ve all more or less forgotten about the Munsters. But The Addams Family has been kept alive by a series of films, and in 2010 this stage musical appeared on Broadway, where it did pretty well, running for twenty months. Since then it’s toured all over the world, but this production, by those nice people at Music and Lyrics, is the first time it’s hit the UK.

The castIt’s a fairly simple, and maybe surprisingly moral, story. The Addams Family, who delight in the ghoulish, and wear the macabre on their sleeve as though it were from Tiffany’s, are having their annual meeting of their ghostly ancestors because that’s what happens when you’re an Addams. Young Wednesday Addams has been seeing a “normal” boy – Lucas – and they want to get married, but Wednesday knows her parents are going to be a problem. Lucas and his parents are coming around for dinner, in the hope that they all get along swimmingly so that Wednesday and Lucas can announce their engagement. Unknown to the rest of the family, Uncle Fester has refused to let the ghostly ancestors (remember them?) depart back into their own world until they help him ensure that Wednesday and Lucas get married. Lucas’ dad is an intolerant Conservative (with a Large C) and his mum is a mousey little thing and they’re both way out of their comfort zone at the Addams Family estate. Gomez really only wants to see Wednesday happy, but will Morticia come to terms with a) her daughter marrying a “normal” boy and b) the family withholding secrets from her?

Gomez and MorticiaNo question, this is a terrific production. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. The costumes, the lighting, the set are all totally spot on. The way the cast have been dressed and made up to look like the original characters is absolutely extraordinary. It’s like the 60s never went away. Alistair David’s choreography is slick and evocative; Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book (they also wrote Jersey Boys) is funny and smart – although I thought our audience on Wednesday evening responded fairly feebly to it, at times I thought it was only Mrs Chrisparkle and me who were understanding the jokes! Andrew Hilton and his eight-piece orchestra filled the theatre with rich, solid, lively sounds. Andrew Lippa’s score includes a few great show toons – Full Disclosure, Just Around the Corner, Happy Sad, and (my favourite) Crazier Than You.

Morticia and the spiritsAbove all, every member of the cast absolutely gives it everything they’ve got. Cameron Blakely’s Gomez is riveting throughout. Chucking every Flamenco/Spanish idiosyncrasy at it that he can, his physical comedy is brilliant and his range of vocal expressions are just hilarious. He’s a perfect blend of caring family man and total smartarse. I’ve seen Mr Blakely a couple of times before and he has rather specialised in being the best thing in some iffy productions, so it’s great to see him leading a total success for a change! Samantha Womack is also brilliant as Morticia, absolutely capturing that elegant but mournful look, delivering all the comic material with a knowing charm, and of course she absolutely excels in the musical numbers. I’m still upset that she doesn’t include her Eurovision appearance in her programme bio, though; you really shouldn’t be ashamed of being chosen to represent your country. Carrie Hope Fletcher is superb as the lovelorn Wednesday, coming to terms with becoming a woman yet still wanting to torture your kid brother; and Les Dennis is totally unrecognisable – and extremely convincing – as Uncle Fester, part narrator, part moral guide, part weirdo.

Grandma and FesterDale Rapley – the excellent Horace Vandergelder to Janie Dee’s Hello Dolly a few years ago – is delightfully pigheaded as the very Ohio Mal Beineke, and Charlotte Page’s Alice Beineke is a wonderful creation; the talking Hallmark greeting card who regains her mojo in a subplot that owes a lot to Rocky Horror. Dickon Gough cuts an immaculately gloomy figure as the grunting Lurch (one of the best curtain call moments for a long time), Grant McIntyre conveys a splendidly spoilt Pugsley, Valda Aviks a suitably batty Grandma and Oliver Ormson stands out as the one and only uncomplicated character as the somewhat hopeless and hapless Lucas.

Fester, Morticia, Pugsley and WednesdayCriticisms? If you think about it, the ghostly ancestors play absolutely no dramatic role at all, although they do serve as a background chorus line to pad out the big numbers. And I really didn’t understand Fester’s obsession with the Moon. I sensed that I should have enjoyed his romantic number with this celestial being much more than I did, and that his final departure was probably meant to be hysterical – it passed me by, I’m afraid. Still, none of that gets in the way of a very enjoyable night out. We’re not talking serious messages here; there are no social issues to get your teeth into on the way back home. Just straightforward entertainment, expertly done. The tour visits every part of the UK between now and November, and it’s a fun, family show you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy.

Production photos by Matt Martin

Review – She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, 29th January 2017

She Loves MeI’m probably as guilty as anyone else in thinking that Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof and probably not much else. Wrong! Together they wrote nine other shows, including She Loves Me, an adaptation of the 1937 play Illatszertár, by Hungarian dramatist Miklos Laszlo, with whose works I am sure we are all highly familiar. Surprisingly perhaps, the play was also the original basis for three films, including the (relatively) recent You’ve Got Mail. She Loves Me was moderately successful artistically, but didn’t make any money, with a run of 302 performances on Broadway and 189 in the West End. A film, that was to star Julie Andrews, failed to materialise. Nevertheless, a revival in London in 1994 ran for a year and won many awards, and a revival on Broadway in 2016 was very successful – so now we see it back in London at the Menier.

slm5The scene is mainly set in Mr Maraczek’s perfume shop in Budapest, where diligent and respectful sales clerks bend over backwards to satisfy the demanding hoity-toity ladies of the Hungarian capital. Miss Ritter and Mr Kodaly have an on-off relationship which seems to be more off than on as they argue and then spoon despite Maraczek’s disapproval. The second-in-command, Mr Nowack, has been writing love letters to a “dear friend” whom he has never met and he’s getting very agitated about the prospect of finally meeting her. One day a new face appears at the shop – Miss Balash – who impresses Maraczek enough to give her a job. However, she and Nowack start off on the wrong foot and before long they can’t stand the sight of each other. Yes, you’ve guessed it; she’s the recipient of his love letters and neither of them realise it. What happens when the two pen pals finally decide to meet for dinner? Well, you’ll just have to see the show to find out.

slm4It’s a really beautiful, charming, funny and exquisitely musical musical. Paul Farnsworth’s set, which utilises four small revolving stages to transform a Budapest street into an upper class haven of retail delights, is stunning – although I did find the acting space provided for first two scenes of the second act – the hospital and Amalia’s bedroom – a little cramped. Catherine Jayes’ band plays Jerry Bock’s entertaining and beautiful melodies with loads of fun and character, and Sheldon Harnick’s witty and thoughtful lyrics are in very safe hands with a fine cast and sensitive direction by Matthew White. There are a lot of musical numbers in the show, and I appreciated how well each song either progressed the plot or gave us valuable character insights. It’s not a stop-start musical, but rather the book and the songs join seamlessly to create a satisfyingly well-structured piece.

slm3Scarlett Strallen leads the cast in the role of Amalia Balash, with a fine portrayal of both the enthusiastic shop girl head over heels in love and the feisty, obstinate colleague from hell. She sings immaculately – well you knew that already from her appearances in A Chorus Line and Candide. She really nails the humour of the role too – her tear-stained slumping around the bedroom was hilarious, and of course she expresses Harnick’s superb observations with telling accuracy. She’s perfectly matched by Menier favourite Mark Umbers, whom we loved in Sweet Charity and Merrily We Roll Along, with his essential earnestness and hilarious portrayal of Nowack deviously wriggling out of a difficult situation. He sings with great tone and warmth and has a great stage presence.

slm2There are plenty of other show-stealing performances on offer – Katherine Kingsley is officially fabulous as Ilona Ritter, characterising her as a working-class girl whose head is turned – eventually – by the lure of books; the downtrodden voice she gives Miss Ritter is simply brilliant. Dominic Tighe confidently expresses Kodaly’s superiority and smugness, and I’m always impressed by how nifty he is on his feet for a big chap. Alastair Brookshaw’s Sipos is an entertainingly humble everyday guy, with a little more of the wheeler-dealer about him than you might expect; Callum Howells’ delivery boy Arpad is bright as a button and keen as mustard, and Les Dennis plays Maraczek with avuncular generosity until he has cause to doubt the world around him. But for scene-stealing, you only have to look to Norman Pace’s hilarious head waiter at the Café Imperiale, managing his bumbling staff and his unsuspecting customers alike with ruthless authority.

slm1Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in complete agreement that this is a beautiful and classy production that absolutely brings the best out of the cast and the music. But we also agreed that the show itself is extraordinarily lightweight. It’s pure, insignificant light entertainment with absolutely no substance whatsoever. Given the fact that its subjects include adultery, a suicide attempt and broken relationships, there’s not an ounce of gravitas or a provocative moment in the whole two-and-a-half hours. It’s truly a soufflé in an art form where you have the potential to be a Chateaubriand. Depending on your point of view, this may be the perfect escapism from a world of Trump and Brexit. For me, however, it makes the show borderline irrelevant. There’s no doubting the talent that brings all this together, but on the whole I’d prefer to take home memories of something a little more substantial. One year later Harnick and Bock would give the world Fiddler on the Roof, with all its important observations and superb character creativity. Perhaps this show just came one year too early.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Review – Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, Milton Keynes Theatre, 5th April 2014

Perfect MurderI love a murder mystery – Poirot, Miss Marple, Dalgleish, Morse (to include Lewis and Endeavour, of course) – it’s pure escapism, a challenge to the little grey cells, and, when done with aplomb, can also be scary, or funny, or both. Mrs Chrisparkle is very fond of the books of Peter James; in fact she and Lady Duncansby swap them during coffees and shopping trips. I haven’t discovered them yet, but I am assured that “Not Dead Yet” is a riveting read.

Simona Armstrong and Steven MillerSo I thought it would be a popular choice to see this touring production of Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, his 2010 novella (160 pages long according to Amazon). I thought it might become a springboard for me to start reading his books and spur Mrs C on to reading some more. Well I can’t compare it with his written work (and Mrs C hasn’t read this particular book yet) but her comment after the play was – “if he was hoping to sell a lot of books on the strength of this show he might have to think again”.

Les Dennis and Claire GooseThat sounds quite harsh to me – it’s not that bad a play at all; but I guess if you rate the books really highly and have quite precise and demanding expectations of how his plots might translate onto the stage – as well as how his detective Roy Grace might appear in the flesh (so to speak) – the result is likely to be a disappointment; and that, I think, is what Mrs C experienced. OK, this is no masterpiece, but it’s a lightly amusing, cleverly structured, frothy piece of nonsense with more twists than a plate of fusilli.

Gray O'Brien and Claire GooseIt’s hard to tell you much about the plot without giving the whole game away – and in a murder mystery that’s unforgiveable. Suffice to say, Victor Smiley, a middle-aged IT manager with an ironic surname, is going to seed, with his only enjoyment coming from regular visits to an eastern European hooker. He and his wife are trapped in a loveless, bitter marriage where the only pleasure they get comes from taunting each other. Victor confesses to his prostitute that the only way out of his miserable existence is to bump his (well-insured) wife off, and then he (and the prostitute if she wants) can live happily ever after. He says he has devised the perfect murder – nothing can go wrong. But do such plans ever really succeed? That’s basically all I knew about the story before I saw it, and it’s just enough to whet your appetite without spoiling Scene Two onwards.

Simona Armstrong and Les DennisI did have a couple of problems with the play – firstly the characters are all either slightly or very unlikeable (well maybe not the policeman) so you don’t in any way identify with any of them. There’s a major twist in the story that is so unlikely as to be quite ludicrous, although one does have to concede that I suppose it might, just might, possibly, at a push, conceivably, happen. The plot includes elements of the supernatural, which seemed a bit out of place in the suburban setting of Saltdean – although to be fair the dénouement takes care of them. But there’s one brief moment in Act Two where a character appears at a door, then seems to disappear, and then another character appears a second later at the same door without apparently bumping into the first character at the same time. It’s quite an essential moment to the plot – but I don’t think in real life it could happen. Maybe I think too much.

Claire Goose and Gray O'BrienNevertheless the cast work well together to create these rather bleak relationships and bungled solutions. Les Dennis is perfect as the slightly past-his-best, completely selfish, occasionally mischievous, occasionally devious Victor, a man set in his miserable ways and resentful of everything that goes on around him. He is nicely matched by Claire Goose as his spiteful wife Joan, never missing an opportunity to belittle Victor, and rather good at spooked-out screaming when things go awry. Together they provide a credible insight into this self-centred, unkind marriage; they absolutely deserve each other – if you were married to either one of them they would drive you insane. They have very good support from Gray O’Brien as the “plumber” Don, whose bare chest got a small round of elderly whoops of approval (I don’t know, these matinee pensioners have no idea how to behave at a theatre); Simona Armstrong as psychic hooker Kamila (I enjoyed her when she was “Romanian” Maria in “How do you solve a problem like…” a few years ago) and Steven Miller as a quietly determined D. C. Roy Grace, even though he was absolutely nothing like how Mrs C had envisaged the character. He isn’t actually in the original book, but has been letrasetted-in for the play adaptation, with the intention of showing what the young Grace might have been like in his early days. Maybe, for Grace aficionados, this was a mistake.

Steven MillerWhilst you knew that the storyline as it stood at the end of Act One was never going to be the end result, it was still impossible to predict which way the plot would turn, and I certainly didn’t guess the final outcome until it was actually happening before my eyes. The play went down very well with the audience, and within the limits of a murder mystery written purely for fun and entertainment, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Mrs C was still not overly impressed though – but she did enjoy it more than The Mousetrap.