Review – Crazy For You, Festival Theatre Chichester, 23rd July 2022

Crazy For YouJust as the ecstatic applause at the end of the first act was dying down, Mrs Chrisparkle turned to me and said This is the kind of show you usually hate – and she’s totally right. I like my musicals to be meaty. To pose problems. To issue challenges. To delve deep into the heart of humanity and winkle out nuggets of truth so that you come out of the show a different person from the one you went in as. Crazy For You does absolutely none of those things. And it is, quite simply, a glorious delight from start to finish.

Bobby and the GirlsDirector and choreographer Susan Stroman, who had worked on the original 1992 production, was already making plans for a revival of this Gershwin extravaganza way back when none of us had ever heard of Covid. Then, with all the theatres shut, and not much hope for the future on the horizon, it naturally retreated to her back-burner. That is, until the fickle hand of fate prompted Chichester Artistic Director Daniel Evans to ask her if she would bring the show back to Sussex. And, with a superbly talented cast and production team to bring it to reality, this early juke-box musical (it feels like it should be from the 1930s but it isn’t) is gracing the stage of the Festival Theatre, and sending its audiences on their merry way home with a spring in their step and pretend tap-shoes on their feet.

Irene, Bobby and LottieAs I indicated at the beginning, the plot is very simple. Theatre-mad Bobby Child is sent by his bank-owning Mamma to Nevada to foreclose the mortgage on an inactive little theatre way out west. But it’s not in Bobby’s nature to ever close a theatre down, especially when it’s owned by the father of the only girl in the town, the feisty Polly, with whom Bobby instantly falls head over heels in love. The rest of the show revolves around his attempts to both woo Polly and also impersonate Bela Zangler, the impresario, in a last-ditch attempt to stage a show so that audiences can return and the theatre can become financially solvent again. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the plot. It’s really not important.

Bobby and the BoysThe show takes Gershwin songs from a number of their Greatest Hits, including I Got Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Nice Work if You can Get it, Embraceable You, and plenty of other showtoonz. Musical Director Alan Williams leads a fantastic 16-person band – which is a pretty big quantity of musicians – and you can instantly tell how full and rich the sound is. Before any action takes place, during the overture, Ken Billington’s lighting design puts the shimmering front curtain through its paces with a range of warm exciting colours, preparing you for the visual feast to follow. All these visual and audio cues really gee you up in expectation of a great show, so the audience is truly buzzing even before the performance truly gets underway.

Slap That BassAnd it’s a show of sheer enjoyment. Ken Ludwig’s book is full of fun; silly jokes that hit perfectly, rewarding routines, such as the two Zanglers mimicking each other in a mirror, cartoon effects like the tweety-bird sound when a character hits their head, and there’s an early contender for the Best Performance in a Musical by a piece of tumbleweed award, as the aforementioned stage contraption merrily makes its way across the Deadrock landscape. Each piece of comic business, each interactive musical moment, each comic characterisation goes towards making the show a thing of total bliss. And, to be fair, yes, the substance of the show is lightweight and fluffy and doesn’t make you think again about the Human Condition. However, unlike some juke-box musicals, the structure actually works, and the choice of songs does largely make sense, with many of them either forwarding the plot or giving us a further insight into the singer’s character. And there are plenty of reputable musicals that don’t achieve that.

The FodorsAs you would expect from Susan Stroman, the choreography throughout is dynamic, thrilling, inventive, comical, and passionate, and makes big demands on the star performers who rise to the occasion superbly. Chichester had already taken Charlie Stemp to its heart after his rise to fame and fortune in Rachel Kavanaugh’s Half a Sixpence six years ago, so it was no surprise that he received a star round of applause on his typically ebullient first entry on stage. Mr Stemp is a master (if not THE master) of song-and-dance on stage, and responds to Ms Stroman’s demands with all the brilliance you’d expect. But he is more than matched by a fantastic performance by Carly Anderson as Polly, who has a dream of a voice and wonderful comic timing, and together they are pretty much matchless.

PollyThere’s also an impressive physical comedy performance from Tom Edden (you’d expect nothing less from him) as Bela Zangler, Merryl Ansah is a delightfully tricky Irene, with a terrific surprise up her sleeve that comes later in the second act; Gay Soper is wonderful as Bobby’s frosty mother Lottie, and there’s excellent support from Mathew Craig as the grumpy Lank Hawkins, Don Gallagher as Polly’s living-in-the-past father Everett, and from Adrian Grove and Jacquie Dubois as the frightfully British Fodors, unexpectedly arrived to review Lank’s Hotel. The boys and girls of the ensemble are also fantastic, Belawith many hilarious and endearing vignettes, as well as brilliant singing and dancing skills. Sadie-Jean Shirley, Kate Parr, Mark Akinfolarin and Joshua Nkemdilim in particular stand out, but everyone pours their hearts and souls into delivering a magnificent performance.

Like The Unfriend a few weeks ago, Chichester have come up with another tremendous triumph that is totally West End-ready. We went as part of a group of eight and every single one of us adored every minute of it. That’s got to be a good sign!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Oliver! Sheffield Crucible, 4th January 2014

Oliver!“Oliver!” is another of those shows that’s been with me since I was a kid, although mainly in the film version, until 10th November 1977 when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle insisted I accompanied her to Cameron Mackintosh’s pre-West End production at the New Theatre Oxford starring Roy Hudd as Fagin. I remember him being pretty good in a funny, avuncular way. Looking over that old cast list, not many names stand out as being active today, although we did enjoy the performance of Marilyn Cutts, who played the Sowerberrys’ daughter Charlotte, in High Society last year. Tom EddenThe late Michael Attwell was Bill Sikes, Mr Sowerberry was played by Graham Hamilton (Equity president 2008-2010); and I also remember Robert Bridges and Joan Turner being a formidable Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, alas neither of them are with us anymore. Many years later in 2009, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see the Rowan Atkinson version at Drury Lane, primarily because we had all fallen in love with The Nation’s Nancy, Jodie Prenger. For Daniel Evans’ new production at the Crucible Theatre we were joined by Lady Duncansby and her butler William, who beat us all in terms of history with this show, having seen the original 1960 production in London, when he was but a mere trainee footman.

Hayley GallivanThis show comes as a worthy successor to the previous fin d’année spectaculars we’ve seen at the Crucible, last year’s My Fair Lady and 2011’s Company. One of the most enjoyable aspects of My Fair Lady was Alistair David’s superb group choreography and once again his skill at filling the Crucible stage with a huge ensemble of cavorting street traders and urchins is used to magnificent effect. The big feel-good numbers work incredibly well, especially “Consider Yourself”, led by a fantastically confident Dodger (Jack Armstrong in our performance) and “Oom-Pah-Pah”, which allows the character of Nancy to shine like the happy carefree girl she ought to be. Ben RichardsOliver! is of course, one of the country’s (maybe the world’s?) favourite shows and every production seems to run and run; it’s as though we the public can’t get enough of it. But, like Chicago, I do have some reservations about the show as a whole. For me, the first act is almost entirely scene-setting and episodic, the pace and structure slightly ploddy. You go from the workhouse, to the undertakers, to Fagin’s den, but I never get a sense of genuine plot development. That’s not a criticism of this production – I blame Lionel Bart. The second act, however, feels completely different. The story really takes over and each scene or song seems to grow organically out of the scene before.

Jack Skilbeck-DunnWhat makes this production stand out from the previous two I have seen, is the way it presents the genuine hardship and violence of the Oliver Twist story, and refrains from straying into loveable caricature. Sometimes I think Fagin can be portrayed like that – a villain, yes, but more sinned against than sinning, and with a heart of gold. Ron Moody, Roy Hudd, Rowan Atkinson are all thoroughly loveable performers. Tom Edden’s Fagin is very different from that, a very realistic creation; a manipulative, wheedling, sinister creature whose interest is pure self. You sense any affection he shows for the boys is just for profit, and his heart is made of stone. Jack ArmstrongMr Edden’s amazing ability for physical comedy, as shown supreme in One Man Two Guvnors, is still evident in this production but turned down a little to create a Fagin devoid of caricature. The highlight of Mr Edden’s performance is his performance of Reviewing the Situation; a showstopper combining comedy and egoism in equal measure.

David Phipps-DavisBut the most hard-hitting realistic presentation comes in the form of Hayley Gallivan’s Nancy, the tragedy victim supreme, singing a song of love and loyalty about Bill Sikes whilst still wiping the blood away from her mouth where he has socked her one. There’s nothing sentimental or sympathetic about this relationship; and when he finally murders her (sorry if that spoils it for you) it’s simply the inevitable outcome of domestic violence – not so much a horrific shock, more a blessed relief.Liza Sadovy and Chris Vincent Miss Gallivan gives a stunning performance (two in fact) of As Long As He Needs Me which absolutely raises the roof, and which contrasts beautifully with her enjoyably light-hearted Oom-Pah-Pah. Ben Richards’ Bill Sikes is a terrifyingly dark demon; quietly vicious, intimidatingly overbearing, totally pathological. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mr Richards on stage before, and I understand this is something of an unusual role for him. Well, he’s very convincing!

Rebecca LockThere are a couple of excellent partnerships – David Phipps-Davis and Rebecca Lock make a wonderfully squabbling Bumble and Corney, and their disintegrating relationship in Act Two is extremely funny to watch. They are both in very fine voice and sing “Oliver” with suitable vindictiveness. We loved the selfish and insensitive way Miss Lock sat on the recently deceased Old Sally; just one sit-down speaks volumes about the character. Equally fun are Chris Vincent and Liza Sadovy (brilliant in Alice in Wonderland a couple of years ago) as the ghoulish Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, Mr Vincent in particular conveying a really creepy demeanour, with a pallid face that looks like it’s never been within a mile of a vein. Their lovey-dovey routine provides a briliant comic juxtaposition with their ghostly otherworldliness. Georgie AshfordAndrew Bryant is an amusingly phlegmatic scouser Noah Claypole, and Bob Harms (superb in the Menier’s Pippin) is a cynically dour Dr Grimwig. The ensemble, who are bright and energetic and revel in inhabiting their various characters, include A Chorus Line’s Georgie Ashford and Barnum’s James O’Connell, both of whom are surely destined for Much Greater Things.

James O'ConnellBut Oliver! wouldn’t be Oliver! without a pure, vulnerable Oliver, and we certainly had one of these in the form of Jack Skilbeck-Dunn. Not knowing that asking for more was asking for trouble, and too honest to pick a pocket perfectly, he is the embodiment of innocence and sings like a dream. The whole staging of “Who Will Buy”, with his clear, optimistic voice and the wonderful accompaniment of the street traders, was sheer theatrical magic. The other workhouse and gang children are all incredibly gifted and blend seamlessly with the adult cast members, which must be an amazing feat of both rehearsal and performance. I don’t know if we saw the Red Team or the Blue Team, but the tall chap who played Charlie was full of attitude, and the two smallest boys in Fagin’s gang, dancing arm in arm, had us all in hysterics – hats off to you lads!

This is a really enjoyable production, with some great performances, lively choreography, a super band and a timeless story, all blended together with Daniel Evans’ master touch. Another triumph at the Crucible!

PS. Not sure what happened to Bullseye, but Daisy, Lola and Patches (as credited in the programme) must all have been washing their hair that night.

PPS. What do you do when you cast boys in a musical, they suddenly turn into men before your very eyes and their voices break? I think they got round it very nicely in this performance.

PPPS. Apparently it’s only Oliver! (the musical) if you put an exclamation mark after it. Otherwise it’s just a first name. Who knew?

Review – One Man Two Guvnors, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, 22nd October 2011

One Man Two GuvnorsWe booked this on 26th May because the word coming out of the National Theatre was that this was a smasheroony. Five months on and you don’t need me to tell you this is a fantastically funny show with some extraordinary feats of physical comedy. It already boasts a great reputation, and its West End transfer is assured of success. It’s not perfect – but so refreshingly laugh inducing that it doesn’t matter.

Written by Richard Bean (whose The Big Fellah I thought was the best new play of last year), it’s an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Commedia dell’Arte based “Servant of Two Masters”. It’s now set in Brighton in 1963, amongst a criminal underworld of petty thieves and villains getting bumped off. The plot is highly silly but highly entertaining, totally incredible and so enjoyable that you’re completely happy to suspend all reasonable disbelief. It’s a script full of character, chock full with hilarious happenings and good jokes, and I reckon it deserves to earn Mr Bean enough to retire on (although let’s hope he doesn’t).

James CordenJames Corden’s central performance is astonishingly athletic for a big chap. He plays Francis Hensall, who blunders his way into working for two guvnors who must remain a secret from each other; but of course he confuses their jobs and this leads him up all sorts of farcical garden paths. With terrific comic timing, and a super rapport with the audience whom he both takes into his confidence but also hoodwinks too, he’s simply a joy to watch. At times he appears to come out of character and address the audience directly as himself, in a manner I haven’t seen since the good old days of Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse (if you go back that far). This is very nicely subversive of standard theatrical practice, and feels very refreshing.

Oliver ChrisThe final scene before the interval will probably go down in history as one of the most hilarious ever seen on stage. Suffice it to say, not everything is at seems, but it culminates in one of the most astonishing coups de theatre you’re ever likely to witness. Of the three apparent interactions with members of the audience, throughout the whole play, I’m pretty sure only one is 100% genuine, If You Get My Drift. But it’s all carried off with amazing aplomb, that you only admire James Corden’s performance the more for it.

Daniel RigbyHe has excellent support from a gifted company of comic actors. Oliver Chris is excellent as one of his guvnors, Stanley, an ineffectual toff using posh expletives but who can be a thug when he wants. I also loved the performance of Daniel Rigby as Alan, the wannabe actor fiancé of Claire Lams’ Pauline, the thick daughter of local gangland boss Charlie. Claire LamsHis pompous posing makes such an effective contrast with the cockney vagabonds around him, and her innocent stupidity is another great comic element. And then you have the scene stealing performance of Tom Edden as Alfie, the ancient waiter, whose hands seem to have become detached from his arms and whose entire physical presence is a ridiculous delight. If you thought Julie Walters’ “two soups” waitress was past it, you’ve seen nothing yet!

Tom EddenTo be honest, the whole cast puts heart and soul into it and there isn’t a weak link. On the matinee performance we saw, Fred Ridgeway, as Charlie, seemed to corpse in almost every scene, so that when other actors came on stage to join in they tended to be thrown of course by his apparent inability to stay calm! Naturally, this only added to the general hilarity.

Fred RidgewayMy only gripe – and it’s minor – is that the music that runs through the show slightly puts the brakes on the activity. The performance starts with the (very enjoyable) skiffle group doing four songs, concert style. Whilst I appreciate it can take a while for everyone to settle down (and it takes an inordinate amount of time at the Alex in Birmingham to get from street to seat) I did feel it was too much. When the fourth song started I asked Mrs Chrisparkle if she thought the show was ever going to get going. The group also sings while the staging is getting changed between scenes. Sometimes, cast members join the group for eccentric solos, which is very funny, but I still felt it made the whole thing a little less fluid than it could be. Very minor gripe though.

This is definitely, as they used to say, going to run and run. A top notch comedy performed by a dream team. I don’t envy the producers’ problem of recasting once this lot have had enough.