20 February 2021

The Secret Society of Leading Ladies Review

It's fast approaching a year since the first lockdown began in March 2020 and since that time there have been a plethora of brilliant online concerts but the Barn Theatre's latest offering brings something fresh and exciting, a concert where you get to choose the setlist.

Conceived and directed by Ryan Carter this celebration of female musical theatre characters. It's really inventive and a fun way to watch a performance. There's a choice of over 150 combinations so you're compelled to watch it more than once to find out what other choices you could have made.


Kayleigh McKnight

The thing that works so well about this idea is how accessible and easy it is to use. You're simply offered 3 choices of character and song and you pick one, and you continue like this until an encore ('Big Finish' from Smash) that features all the performers. In between each number, there's a little bit of scripted interaction between the characters you've picked so far. 

The all-female line up features brilliant performers and performances. My own personal favourite performances being; Kayleigh McKnight's 'World Burn' from Mean Girls, Emma Kingston's 'Dying Aint So Bad' from Bonnie and Clyde, Natalie Kassanga's 'Out Here On My Own' from Fame, Kelly Sweeney's 'Morning Person' from Shrek The Musical, Jocasta Almgill's 'Everybody's Girl' from Steel Pier and Abbi Hodgson's 'Nothing Stops Another Day' from Ghost. There are some magnificent vocals and characterisations throughout all the performances. From Princesses, Divas, Witches and more, there's something for everyone.

Jocasta Almgill

On the production side, the numbers are well shot by videographer Jamie Scott-Smith and Leo Munby's musical work and Harry Smith's sound engineering mean the numbers sound great. Editor Ben Evans must have had a lot of work to do putting all these clips together and his hard work pays off.

I made sure I went through and watched it three times to make sure I'd seen all the performances. It's well worth making sure you purchase the 24-hour ticket option when you book so that you can check out all the performances. It's a nice bit of theatrical escapsim especially as you the viewer gets to choose the path. An inventive spin on the online streamed concert.

Rating - ⭐⭐⭐⭐ a clever interactive concept offering a unique take on the virtual musical theatre concert

The Secret Society of Leading Ladies streams from The Barn Theatre from the 22nd February to 7th March with tickets available from the Barn website

Kelly Sweeney.

19 February 2021

The Theatre Channel Episode 5 Review

Adam Blanshay Productions and The Theatre Cafe return for the latest instalment of The Theatre Channel series. This newest episode theme being The Classics of Broadway.

With current restrictions in place in England, it means the episode does expand a little from The Theatre Cafe. With delayed shooting and extra social distancing protocols in place with the added challenge of director and choreographer Bill Deamer having to shield but none of those issues affect the episode, in fact, it's probably the series best one yet.

The episode is once again shot by brilliant videographer Ben Hewis. Even with those extra challenges, there's still some great use of the space inside the Theatre Cafe as well as the next-door Duke of Yorks Theatre and the outside space around The National Theatre. It's all beautifully captured by the camera. Producer Adam Blanshay described the series as a "love letter to London and the West End" and I can't agree more. Something this series does tremendously is it's more than just a concert of put together numbers, each number is narratively driven. Something that all the creative team do really well.

Marisha Wallace. Photo by Edward Johnson

The camera also picks up the great work design team staging each individual number. Jack Weir's superb lighting design and Gregor Donnelly's costume design really add a beautiful visual layer for the viewer. Further with Michael England's musical supervision and  Keegan Curran's sound design, it all comes together really excellently in terms of the creative team. Credit must go to Thom Southerland who co-directed the episode.

Performance-wise we're treated to some real gems in this episode. The creative team talked about how they don't want to just go for the obvious numbers and it feels more refreshing that they don't. 

Freddie Fox's two numbers 'Willkommen' and 'Money' from Cabaret are a great opener. Freddie superbly captured the glamour of Emcee especially when he's draped with money from above. He's a fine fit for the role. The use of the Duke of York's Theatre for 'Money' is superb with shots from the stage, the stalls, the circle and the boxes.

Cafe Four's (Alyn Hawke, Alex Woodward, Emily Langham and Sadie-Jean Shirley) 'Coffee Break' from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is well-pitched being filmed inside the Cafe and switching them to baristas. The always classy showman Gary Wilmot follows giving a lovely performance of 'Luck Be A Lady' from Guys and Dolls.

Freddie Fox and Cafe Four. Photo by Edward Johnson.

My favourite number of the episode comes from Alyn Hawke and Emily Langham as they perform 'Put On A Happy Face' from Bye Bye Birdie. It's a delightful duet with magnificent choreography by Bill Deamer. Bill explains in the post-credit behind-the-scenes featurette that because he's been shielding at home so was unable to be there for the shoot that all the choreography work was done over Zoom, none of this though affects the quality of the work. The skill and class of Alyn and Emily's movement had me beaming with theatrical joy.

The ever divine Bonnie Langford performs 'I Get A Kick Out Of You' from Anything Goes. There are some really clever nods to some of Bonnie's previous roles and use of the artwork and posters on display within The Theatre Cafe. 

Mazz Murray brings her Mama Rose from Gypsy with a performance of 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'. Mazz excellently characterises the role so well, so much so that I had to stop and Google and check if she'd played the role yet, she's not but someone surely needs to get her that part!

Mazz Murray. Photo by Edward Johnson.

The final number sees Marisha Wallace perform 'Somewhere' from West Side Story. It's a really moving performance, shot outside The National Theatre. Marisha sings with such heart and soul that those Sondheim lyrics really land. It's a symbolic number too, "there's a place for us" and "someday there'll be a time for us" hit differently as we're nearly a year since the first lockdown began and theatre's remain closed. It reminds us that our time will come. The curtain will rise again. Marisha talks in the post-credits with so much inspiration and it's clear that inspiration comes out in her performance. 

All in all, this is another outstanding episode in this series. The whole creative team clearly love making them, it came across in a Zoom Q and A just how much they all love to be able to flex those creative muscles and that really comes across in the episodes. Even with the extra challenges in place the team manage to create 25 minutes of pure West End and Broadway magic. It makes me want to hop on a train to the West End and just be back in The Theatre Cafe and one of the amazing theatres, soon I hope.

Bonnie Langford. Photo by Edward Johnson

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - the best yet in this brilliant musical theatre series

Episode 5 of The Theatre Channel is available now from https://www.thetheatrecafe.co.uk/channel/. The first four episodes remain available to purchase with all 5 episodes available for £50

17 February 2021

The Color Purple At Home Review.

Following the hugely successful Sunset Boulevard in Concert, that ran over the Christmas period, Curve and The Birmingham Hippodrome bring audiences The Color Purple At Home. This latest offering of online streams whilst theatres are unable to open is right up there with the very best that theatre can offer. 

Tinuke Craig's award-winning production is brought back to life following its 2019 run with such skill in adapting to the social distancing guidelines. The use of the revolve that Curve had donated to them by Sir Cameron Mackintosh is tremendous. It creates a circular stage which allows the camera to get right up close to the action and capture every emotion on the actor's faces. The use of the revolve allows the actors who aren’t in the current scene to sit around the circle and in turn become an audience. 

The cast of The Color Purple at Home. Photo by Pamela Raith

Marsha Norman's adaptation, based on the original novel by Alice Walker, tells the quite brutal story of Celie in 1920s America and the struggles she must overcome. Along the way, she faces racism, incest, domestic abuse, poverty and sexism. Whilst this might sound like a tough watch, and at times it is, it's also a beautiful story of a woman finding her self worth. That message of hope and resilience is ever more so relevant as we continue in the fight against the pandemic. 

Right from the opening number, the joyously gospel 'Mysterious Ways', I was hooked. There are not many shows that sound this good, you will not find a better company of voices. The music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray mixed gospel, soul and musical theatre. Martin Higgins brilliant orchestrations and the 7 piece band under the musical direction of Alex Parker create a beautiful sound. Sound designer Tom Marshall keeps the production rooted in its American roots with a lovely undercutting soundscape.

Crosscut Media's cinematography is really top drawer. At times the characters break the fourth wall and address the camera directly, at other times the camera becomes one of the characters. That feeling when a character is looking directly into the camera delivering a line or performing a number really feels like they’re talking just to you.

The whole creative team have done a sterling job. Visually in terms of design, there are minimal props, so it turns to the Alex Lowde's costumes and Ben Cracknell's majestic lighting to bring the world of the show to life and it's gorgeous to look at. Mark Smith's choreography packs a real punch. I don't think this production could have been staged or captured in a better way in these difficult circumstances.

T'Shan Williams (Celie), Ako Mitchell (Mister) and Danielle Fiamanya (Nettie). Photo by Pamela Raith

T'Shan Williams is the linchpin of the production as Celie and what a star she is. Vocally she's outstanding, boy she can belt out when it's required but it's also her fragile moments that are just as stunning. Her characterisation is tremendous, you feel every word. I watched on in stunned silence as she sang 'I'm Here'. There's another star turn in Danielle Fiamanya's portrayal of Celie's sister Nettie. She is fantastic to watch. Together T'Shan's and Danielle's voices and harmonies blend together perfectly. 

Carly Mercedes Dyer is in her best form as Shug Avery, a club singer and love interest for Celie. Her arrival around 45 minutes into the first act really adds a lovely new dynamic. Carly has such a rare skill of capturing a character so well. There are strong performances throughout the company but  Ako Mitchell as Mister, Karen Mavundukure as Sofia and Simon-Anthony Rhoden as Harpo all stand out. A special mention should go to Anelisa Lamola for her astonishing vocals. 

T'Shan Williams (Celie) and Carly Mercedes Dyer (Shug Avery). Photo by Pamela Raith

The only thing missing from this production is the audience. That pin drop silence at the end of some of the musical numbers is deafening. A reminder that we're not able to the thing we love. I, unfortunately, didn't get to see the production live so I can only imagine how much the audience must have roared with appreciation. I always find seeing empty theatre's moving but something about this piece, especially the final sequence as you can see and feel the raw emotion of the actors and seeing the Curve's spaces captured so well deeply moved me.

Sometimes theatre stirs the right emotions inside you and this production of The Color Purple reminded me of everything I love about theatre. Powerful storytelling, delightful soul-filling music and a top-notch cast. I was taking notes for this review as I watched and I got to the end and simply wrote WOW in capital letters. I'm certainly going to book to watch it again before the run ends. 

Rating - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - a powerful and perfect production for these current times. Unmissable.

The Color Purple at Home streams from Curve online until Sunday 7th March. Tickets can be purchased from www.curveonline.co.uk

The cast of The Color Purple at Home. Photo by Pamela Raith

4 January 2021

The Gift That Keeps Giving - Episode One Review.

British sitcoms have for years been beloved and adored, from Dads Army, Only Fools and Horses to Gavin and Stacey, Britain has created many TV classics down the years. With the Arts still facing uncertainty during the pandemic, the work continues to be virtual. Here Pink Pig Productions launch their first episode of The Gift that Keeps Giving series.

The episode centres around a couple of friends Karis and Ellie, who have arranged a chat on the online video service Mooz to watch the film The Gift that Keeps Giving together. The films begin but instantly they pause to discussing dating. The discussions lead to other girlfriends arriving on the call to discuss their recent dates - all of which turn out to be with the same guy. 

It's a really fun concept and it's brilliantly written by Reece Kerridge and Jenna Boyd. In an episode that's just under 15 minutes, you get to know these quirky likeable characters really well. You get a real sense of the bond these friends have and the banter they share. So good is the script that you almost forget that you're not spying in on a real video call yourself.

The assembled cast is strong and all have a warm on-screen presence. Tori Hargreaves (Ellie), Molly McGuire (Becky) and Chloe Gentles (Lucy-Mae) all bring a touch of class and quality to their characters. Jen Caldwell particularly stands out as Karis, she's somewhere in between Alice Tinker from The Vicar of Dibley and Stacey in Gavin and Stacey and is a delight to watch as she eats everything in sight. Claire Learie only joins about halfway but instantly her wide-eyed long rambles as Sophie are superb. Jed Berry fantastically arrives for the final scene as Tom, who drops in his own revelation too.

This is a hugely promising first episode from Reece and Jenna and everyone at Pink Pig Productions. Sitcoms can either fly or flop and this one hits the heights from the get-go. Wonderful humour, likeable characters and a great concept - what's not to like. Start 2021 with a bit of fun. Here's to more episodes.

You can stream episode one of The Gift that Keep Giving on Pink Pig Productions YouTube page

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

23 December 2020

Sunset Boulevard In Concert At Home - Review

With the COVID pandemic, meaning Curve hasn't been able to welcome audiences into their theatre spaces for over 9 months and their re-opening plans delayed by further restrictions and the Curve team having already adapted the two performances spaces (The Main Stage and The Studio) and created a stunning in the round auditoria, the decision was taken to film and stream the planned concert production of Sunset Boulevard. The result is a remarkable hybrid of theatre and film. 

Danny Mac as Joe Gillis. Photo by Marc Brenner

Huge credit must go to Nikolai Foster and all the Curve crew who transformed the space in the first place, and with the help of a stage revolve that was kindly donated to the theatre by Cameron Mackintosh. Without the audience in the space, the use of the whole auditoria is fantastic and really shows what a great space Curve is. 

Right from the Hollywood-esque opening credits and the striking up of the orchestra this concert staging is a joy to behold. That 16 piece orchestra under the musical direction of Chris Mundy is the largest used by any production in the UK since the pandemic began. The sound they make is breathtaking, breathing new life into the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and into the largely empty theatre. The songs with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton are a joy for the ears.

Visually this production is faultless. The camera adds a new dimension to the drama especially in the scenes between Norma and Joe. The team at Crosscut Media have captured the show exquisitely. Taking the action all around the theatre auditoria is a genius idea. It creates striking visuals of the socially distanced adapted space. There are some great shots of Norma from the Circle, particularly ones at the end of both acts.

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond. Photo by Marc Brenner

Nikolai Foster's direction really lets the drama play out well and he's backed by a brilliant creative team. Colin Richmond's design is stunning. There's no set as such but the costumes are gorgeous, especially the gown's worn by Norma. Ben Cracknell's lighting design is fantastic, adding another layer of dimension that is captured really well through the lens. Tom Marshall's sound design is strong. Lee Proud's clever choreography is performed well.

The production reunites the cast of the 2017 Award-winning production. Ria Jones returns as Norma Desmond and she captures every single emotion of the character perfectly. Her maddening eyes and ultimate sad demise really hits home with Ria giving a masterclass in performance in every moment. Her renditions of 'With One Look' and 'As If We Never Said Goodbye' are deeply moving. Danny Mac oozes charm as Joe Gillis, he is at real ease with the role and interacts brilliantly with Ria's Norma. His strong vocals pack a punch too especially in the title number. 

Adam Pearce does a fine job in the role of Max Von Mayerling. His deep booming vocals are great to hear. He is a looming figure with a really likeable presence. Adam brings out the character warmth really well especially when Max tries to keep Norma believing her fans are still there for her by forging fan mail letters. Molly Lynch's gives a beautiful turn as Betty Schaefer who ultimately is shafted by Joe. 

Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer and Danny Mac as Joe Gillis. Photo by Marc Brenner

There are good supporting performances by Carl Sanderson as Cecil B. DeMille, Dougie Carter as Artie Green and Kristoffer Hellstrรถm as Sheldrake but the entire cast give their all to the production. Lovely voices and great movement mean the ensemble numbers hit all the right notes. 

The story is somewhat poetic with the sad demise of theatre this tough year but unlike Norma's ultimate fate theatres WILL rise again. This at-home concert version of Sunset Boulevard has the potential to be a real game-changer of how filmed theatre is captured. It's a technical marvel in how to capture a show. This is right up there with the best theatre of the year.

Let's hope it's not long till audiences are back in the Curve auditorium (and auditoriums up and down the country) and themselves feeling like it's 'As If We Never Said Goodbye'. Powerful, breathtaking and astonishing theatre. Unmissable.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Sunset Boulevard in Concert streams from Curve until Saturday 9th January with various performance times. For more details and to book tickets visit www.curveonline.co.uk/

The company of Sunset Boulevard. Photo by Marc Brenner

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