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

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