Play – ‘A Monster Calls’, The Old Vic, Thursday 12th July 2018

One of the risks when you are part of a group of keen theatre-goers is that someone will message saying ‘do you fancy seeing X?’ and you immediately reply saying ‘yes’ without properly checking what X is (particularly if you generally like the theatre or if you generally agree with your friends’ taste). I’ve made this mistake before, particularly with opera (I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m not really an opera person, I’ve tried and tried but I’m not). Anyway, so that is how come I found myself on my way to the Old Vic with absolutely no idea what ‘A Monster Calls’ is about; because I like the Old Vic and my friend K (whose taste I generally trust) is similar to mine.

And in the end, it’s probably a good thing I knew nothing about ‘A Monster Calls’ because had I known it’s the story of a teenage boy losing his mother to cancer, I might well not have gone (for those of you who don’t know, I lost my mother to cancer, not as a teenager but 6 painful years ago). While it was sad to watch, I didn’t find it anything like as hard as ‘Calendar Girls Musical’ which I sat through in tears… And this stunning production had much to recommend it, from the performance of Matthew Tennyson as a wonderful Conor to the clever acrobatics and rope skills. The music really added to the overall ambience and gave a real feel of magic.

Overall: don’t be put off by the slightly sad subject matter; this is a beautiful piece of theatre.

Play – ‘Genesis Inc’, Hampstead Theatre, Thursday 5th July 2018

I’ve mentioned before that I see pretty much everything that’s on at the Hampstead Theatre because it’s my local (never underestimate the appeal of having a theatre 5 minutes from your home). But oddly I hadn’t made any specific plans to see their latest play, ‘Genesis Inc’ – so when I spotted a special offer for last minute tickets on sale on their Instagram last week, I snapped one up quickly for that very evening.

And it’s a good job I did… because it meant I didn’t pay full price for what I can only describe as a disjointed, disappointing and just plain weird piece of theatre. I was excited to realise Harry Enfield was in it (yes that’s right, I hadn’t realised that was who the man was on the posters I walk past every day) but he was woefully underused and oddly cast as the fertility clinic director who was analogised to God. The same applies to the very talented Ritu Arya playing Serina. The basic storyline (of a fertility clinic director making parenthood possible for those who have been unlucky enough not to manage it naturally) is quite a good one, but was cluttered with too many undeveloped and extraneous subplots -the woman in a violent relationship, the gay man trying to buy a flat… why were they there and how were they relevant? I never figured it out.

Overall: Pared down (because it was also too long for my liking at 2h40, you know how I dislike long plays) and without all the subplots, it could have been great, but this version definitely is not.

Musical – ‘Chicago’, Phoenix Theatre, Monday 25th June 2018

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I will admit that, while I try not to be swayed by a celebrity name, sometimes I can’t help being so. But of course a rollicking good musical is always persuasive too, and I have loved ‘Chicago’ for years – since I saw the stage version in London in the early 2000s with Denise van Outen playing Roxie, through the stunning film version which won Oscars for best picture and for Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, to the present day version which just so happens to have Cuba Gooding Jr playing Billy Flynn… so of course it was only a matter of time before I succumbed, despite the ticket prices being considerably more than I would usually pay.

Sadly, a show that didn’t quite deliver in the end. The band were placed right in the centre of the stage (indeed the highlight is when there are a few solos from the brass section) which meant there was almost no set; disappointing when you’re expecting the dramatic jailhouse backdrop with the bars and railings which the girls dance on in every production I’ve seen before. Cuba Gooding Jr certainly has mesmeric stage presence, but his singing falls far below par. The only really outstanding performance came from brilliant veteran Ruthie Henshall as Mama Morton, who really owned ‘When You’re Good to Mama’.

Overall: Music great, but still could have been so much better (and for the price we paid, should have been).

Play – ‘The Strange Death of John Doe’, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, Monday 18th June 2018

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If I had to use just one word to describe ‘The Strange Death of John Doe’, it would be ‘divisive’. I am not sure I’ve ever been at a theatre where so many people left at the interval (well, possibly I have, but it’s much more noticeable in a small theatre). And I can only presume that this is because the majority of the first half involved an autopsy taking place. So yeah- not for you if you’re squeamish. Luckily myself and my friends R and J couldn’t be less so, and hence we loved it.

The play is based on the true story of the man, known as ‘John Doe’, who fell from a plane into Mortlake, South-West London, in September 2012. No one knows his true story, but playwright Fiona Doyle has woven a fascinating backstory about his possible life in Africa and what led him to try and stow away on a plane to London. The action flips back and forth between the present day (autopsy room) and the preceding events in Africa.

I don’t want to say too much as I don’t want to give the story away. But it’s a fascinating and different story, well worth a try.

Overall: caution if you’re squeamish, but otherwise, definitely try and catch it.

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

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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.