Musical – ‘Chess’, London Coliseum, Monday 30th April 2018

‘It’s got Alexandra Burke in it?!!’ was the main comment (of surprise) in my theatre Whatsapp group when we started discussing the revival of ‘Chess’ at ENO’s London Coliseum. I had seen ‘Chess’ in Sheffield in 2010, and thought it was OK but fell into the category of ‘forgettable musicals’. I expected much the same this time around. The truth is that, while Alexandra Burke was far better than expected, there were so many unbelievable moments in this production that she was the very least of my surprises.

What unbelievable moments? Where to even start. The huge screens bordering the stage which were used both to add in scene settings (a plane landing…) and to magnify the performers’ faces like rock stars (very useful for those of us who were up at the back in the cheap seats!). The chorus who managed to make both Russian dancing and Thai acrobatics look easy (the acrobatics on aerial silks had me mesmerised). The fantastic music, with the lovely little nods to Benny and Bjorn’s ABBA history (yes, we spotted the little snippet of ‘Take a Chance on Me’!). And, of course, THOSE big name performances.

Michael Ball has been one of my greatest heroes of musical theatre since I was tiny. When he performed in ‘Aspects of Love’, I was sadly a little too young to see it but my parents went and brought the soundtrack home with them, so I grew up listening to his voice on CD in my parents’ living room. People always warn you that heroes can disappoint you in person but I’m happy to say that on this occasion they are completely wrong. His powerful, emotional voice completely dominated the stage.

I’d never heard of Tim Howar but I loved his performance as Freddie Trumper- just the right balance of humour, belligerence and sadness. Another artist who was stunning was Cassidy Janson who brought so much depth to Florence. Listening to her and Alexandra Burke singing ‘I Know Him So Well’ more or less brought me to tears- something that rarely happens for me even as a frequent theatregoer!

And Alexandra herself? Yep. A much better Svetlana than I expected. She’s come a long way since The X Factor… Just as this production of ‘Chess’ has come a long way from the one I saw in 2010. It is many things, but ‘forgettable’ isn’t one of them.

Overall: Well worth 3 hours of your time. Stunning.

Musical – ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, Apollo Theatre, 30th January 2018

IMG_8070.jpg

Before I moved to London about 6 years ago, I lived in Sheffield for 11 years. Now obviously Sheffield can’t compete with London, but it does have quite a nice little theatre scene of it’s own. And that is where ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ started out last year; at the very lovely Crucible Theatre, which I know well. Several of my friends in Sheffield saw it, and their reactions were so overwhelmingly positive that when I heard it was moving to London it was, of course, high on my list of shows to see.

It’s got a slightly similar storyline to ‘Billy Elliott’ – boy from working class background wants an unconventional career and encounters some unsympathetic attitudes from those around him. There are, however, some differences. Unlike poor motherless Billy, Jamie has a very sympathetic mum, along with mum’s best friend (played by the absolutely brilliant Mina Anwar – always a pleasure to watch). And while Billy tries his hardest to conform (at least externally), Jamie never has the slightest intention of doing so. And of course one could reasonably argue, why should he?- and that’s quite true. It does however, make the rapid change in attitude of his classmates a little hard to swallow.

The music is upbeat and the cast mostly very good (and I LOVED the character of Pritti, Jamie’s bookish Asian best friend who reminded me so much of me!) and while it certainly is an entertaining and undemanding evening’s theatre, I somehow expected just a little more…

Overall: fun, but fell a tiny bit flat for me.

Musical – ‘Hamilton’, Victoria Palace Theatre, 13th January 2018

IMG_7638.jpg

First things first – yes, it IS every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Shamefacedly I must admit that I only heard about this show via a recommendation from a friend of a friend who saw it in New York- but luckily it was still early enough for me to register for priority booking and so as soon as tickets went on sale a year ago I booked tickets for January (I specifically didn’t book for the opening in December as I wanted to give the tickets to my other half as his Christmas present… fortunately the booking was linked to my credit card so he couldn’t go with anyone else!)

I listened to the soundtrack quite a bit in the intervening months so I was already familiar with some of the music and I’d recommend doing the same; it’s lovely knowing a few of the songs before you go (I challenge you not to sing along to ‘My Shot’ and ‘In the Room Where It Happened’) and I can assure you that there’s still so much to see and take in that it doesn’t in any way diminish your enjoyment of the show.

The cast in London are all British, not that you’d realise it from their accents. Everyone hits the nail on the head and newcomer Jamael Westman (playing Hamilton himself) is a revelation. The only odd note was having Hamilton’s eldest son being played by the same (adult) actor the whole way through- which is perfectly fine when he’s 19 but seemed very strange when he’s supposedly 9 years old and having a scene with his ‘dad’ (who he looked considerably older than…) but that was the only slip up in the whole flawless production.

I could write much, much more (how you’d never have been so bored in history lessons at school if everything was delivered in fast, punchy rap songs, how the comedy moments really will make you LOL, and also about how you shouldn’t neglect to notice how beautifully the Victoria Palace Theatre has been revamped for this production- if, like me, you visited it in its previous, slightly tatty, incarnation as the home of ‘Billy Elliott’, the change is remarkable) but you hardly need me to, surely?

Overall: Book now. Yes, you probably will be waiting several months to go… but I guarantee it is worth the wait.

Play – ‘Belleville’, Donmar Warehouse, 6th January 2018

 

IMG_7532.jpg

Myself and my friends R and J are big Donmar Warehouse fans (we are lucky enough to be Friends of the theatre, so get priority booking- very useful for a tiny theatre which usually sells out quickly). ‘Belleville’ was exactly the kind of play we like- a romcom-type set up where things slowly start to unravel. The beautiful young American couple seemingly living the expat dream in Paris… but of course, they aren’t.

I enjoyed the buildup of the story, the gradual development of the characters and the slow realisation that all was not as it first seemed… I would have liked a bit more of the background story but the Donmar generally goes for short punchy plays and this was no exception.

The only thing that upset us was – in the final scene, there’s a short conversation in French of which we could only understand snippets. I daresay it wasn’t crucial to the play, but it would have been nice to know what was being said!

Overall: An enjoyable evening’s theatre; but if you’re not a fluent French speaker, take one with you or be prepared not to understand the final scene!

Musical – ‘An American in Paris’, Dominion Theatre, 4th January 2018

Big ‘cheesy’ musicals are one of my favourite things. I was raised listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Gershwins and even now I am pretty much word-perfect on ‘Cats’, ‘Starlight Express’, ‘Crazy for You’, ‘Grease’* and most of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (*I know ‘Grease’ isn’t Lloyd Webber or Gershwin!)

So ‘An American in Paris’ was always on my list to ‘get around to’. With so many shows to see and so little time, however, it had slipped down the priority list somewhat -until I discovered that the rest of the world clearly doesn’t value big musicals as much as I do and, in fact, the show was closing in early January. Cue much panicked messaging to try and coordinate dates and, luckily, my friend P and I managed to get this date in our diaries and book tickets just in time.

Unsurprisingly, I LOVED it. It had everything I like best – jazzy dance routines, uplifting songs, sparkly bright sets. If you don’t leave this musical singing ‘I Got Rhythm’, I don’t really know how to respond to you.

Overall: great uplifting easy-to-watch show. If you have nothing to do tonight or tomorrow, try and get a return!!

Play – ‘A Christmas Carol’, The Old Vic, 14th December 2017

Once again, my friend K deserves much credit for her organisation. We booked tickets to this in August and I suspect that if we hadn’t we wouldn’t have got to go. Much buzz around Rhys Ifans playing Scrooge; spoiler alert -he was great but not by any means the best thing about this production.

So first things first -the set. I’m a sucker for a good quirky/interesting set and this is definitely one of those- the stage is in a ‘cross’ shape with the stalls seats around it and action happens on all parts of the stage. Lots of old Victorian-style lanterns hang over the stage casting moody light. Doorways cleverly pop in and out of the set.

The best thing by far however, is the music. There’s a live orchestra and Christmas carols are beautifully interspersed with the story. The cast also ring handbells which is a lovely atmospheric touch.

All of the cast were superb; the only thing I didn’t love was when it descended ever so slightly into pantomime territory with giant food items being thrown/passed around the theatre, but I suppose after all it is a Christmas show which is meant to appeal to children too. Anyway, it didn’t in any way dim the appeal of this fantastic show.

Overall: as Christmassy as Christmas can be, yet also great theatre. Do your best to go!

Exhibition – ‘Harry Potter – A History of Magic’, British Library, 25th November 2017

IMG_6819.jpg

I cannot deny that I am a HUGE Harry Potter fan. I didn’t get into the books as soon as they were published -I’m one of those contrary folks who hates hype and I was working in a bookshop the summer of 1997 when the first book came out, so we heard a lot about this AMAZING new book and I made my mind up I absolutely wouldn’t read it (stupid, I know). Sometime during my gap year in 1999 I decided to read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, and that was it, I was sold for life.

Luckily I have quite a number of friends who are also big fans and one of them, my friend K, is also super-organised, so she booked tickets for several of us to go to the British Library exhibition a few months ago. I knew the exhibition was to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the books being published but I still hadn’t really got much of an idea of what to expect. It was, in fact, FAR better than I expected.

The exhibition has an intro with some background about the series (and some of JKR’s original illustrations -fascinating) and then goes through all the subjects taught at Hogwarts – Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination (boo), Defence against the Dark Arts and Care of Magical Creatures. Each section looks at what JKR wrote in the books and how it relates to history (did you know Mandrakes have their roots in Greek mythology?!), to evidence and to language- I was astonished by how much historical derivation there was.

However the BEST bits of the exhibition, by far, were the original manuscripts and illustrations which were scattered throughout the exhibition. I had no idea JKR had done so many illustrations herself, nor how many changes there were between her original version and what eventually got published (no spoilers here, but you HAVE to read the original draft of the first chapter of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, it will take your breath away!)

Overall: if you’re a HP fan, a genuine must-visit.