REVIEW! Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical @ Waterloo East Theatre

Created and directed by Andrew Norris
Set design by Amy Mitchell
Performed by Julie Clare, Simon Snashall, Myke Cotton, and Sarah-Louise Young
13 May – 2 June, 2019

Writing a new musical is a very difficult and brave thing to do. Concept, story, script, libretto, music; all are essential to the creation of a new smash hit such as any budding creative would hope to add to their resumé. Summer Street is a new tilt at those windmills, robing itself in the campy, melodramatic world of the Australian soap-opera glory days of the 1990s to spin a story about love, obsession, addiction and betrayal; pretty much the topics you’d expect, really.

Summer Street is a deeply self-aware and self-deprecating portrayal of a world that never really existed. The writer’s self-professed obsession with Australian soaps oozes out of every second of the production, and though the Australian-ness of the show is little more than aesthetic, to quote a true Australian classic, “it’s the vibe of it” that sells the theme, grounded in a uniquely British view of Australia dominated by sunny days, washboard abs and optimistic alcoholism.

The world of Summer Street is brought to life by a tight cast of four, each portraying a former actor (washed-up to varying degrees) in the titular soap, as well as the several characters they play in a reunion special years after the show’s conclusion. Over two acts and over a dozen original songs we follow the cast of Summer Street as they struggle with what the show did to them and what they do to each other.

Summer Street’s original incarnation was as a juke-box musical constructed of pop hits of the 80s and 90s, which has since has had its unlicensed soundtrack replaced with original numbers, and unfortunately it shows. The juke-box musical is a peculiar beast which, with few exceptions, is fuelled mainly by nostalgia for old familiar tunes and the comedy value of seeing them in an unfamiliar, often surprising, context. Without those familiar classics – the Kylie, the AC/DC – the core of Summer Street feels somewhat hollow. Andrew Norris’ music and lyrics would be adequate in a show with a stronger book and meatier subject matter; they’re lightly amusing, provide a lot of over-the-top melodrama for the cast to work with, and showcase the singers’ abilities. However, they’re not strong or subversive enough to stand in for the pop canon they’re trying to replace. It’s telling that the standout songs, to me, were the ones that were most musical theatre-esque and least poppy (Take The Knife and Dear Mr Drew).

I have the feeling that the cast watched a lot of Home & Away and/or Neighbours to prepare for these roles, and that self-sacrifice shows. As I and my companion were both actual fair-dinkum Australians, I can say that their accents were absolutely bang-on (or appropriately exaggerated for the medium), and the only slip-ups I really caught were a couple of sentences which wandered over to Johannesburg, and a tendency to slip into loftier vowel sounds during the musical numbers (chance rhymes with ants Down Under, not aunts).

Speaking of aunts, Julie Clare as Steph/Mrs Mingle/Marlene’s accent was so uncannily good that, blindfolded, I would’ve sworn she was my gossipy Aunt Anne. With her self-assured air, she commanded every scene she was in, and could definitely give Kath and/or Kim a run for their money. Simon Snashall was similarly superb as the comically-but-tragically alcoholic Aussie male archetype, despite bravely battling a laryngitis that left him almost voiceless by the show’s end (it was truly impressive that he managed not only to stay on key, but also to put in a hilarious improvised but in-character line referencing his affliction). Myke Cotton as Paul had less to work with than his co-stars, but he did convincingly fill the role of a tanned toned hippy straight out of Byron Bay. The final cast member, Sarah-Louise Young, had the best singing voice, and the strength to make up for Snashall’s handicap. Her acting was just as strong: she was heart-breakingly compelling as Angie, adorably plucky as Bobbi, and absolutely side-splittingly hilarious as Sheila. I wished she had had more time in this final role, as her rollercoaster accent was a work of parody art, and true evidence that she had her ears open the three times she performed at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (thanks, programme bio). I hope I can see her perform again in the near future.

(07) Myke Cotton and Sarah-Louise Young, courtesy Simon Snashall.jpg

All in all, this was a strong cast in a show with some funny gags but just not quite enough substance to properly fill out its two-hour (including interval) run time. Perhaps as actual Australians, we just didn’t have the nostalgia for Aussie soaps which so many Brits seem to harbour, or perhaps experiencing a whole play in fluent ‘Strayan just doesn’t have the novelty value for us that it does for our English cousins. However, I can’t help but feel that the only way Summer Street could be a real hit would be to return to its jukebox roots, and songs that you just can’t get out of your head.

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Previous review: Drawing The Line by Hidden Track @ Deptford Lounge

REVIEW! H.M.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

Music and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by John Savournin
Music directed by David Eaton
Produced by Michelle Barnette for Charles Court Opera
10 April – 11 May 2019

One must approach a Gilbert and Sullivan production with a keen understanding of exactly what one is in for. In many ways, their operettas bridge the gap between a comic opera and what we think of as “modern” musical theatre. Often the principle reserve of the amateur theatrical society, the student musical ensemble, or unambitious independent theatre group, it is very easy to do a G&S production very poorly. Fortunately, Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the King’s Head Theatre is not an example of this.

(c) Robert Workman. From left to right_ Alys Roberts, Philip Lee.jpg

Image credit: Robert Workman

Subtitled ‘the lass who loved a sailor’, H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story of the star-crossed lovers Ralph Rackstraw (Philip Lee), able seaman, and Josephine Corcoran (Alys Roberts), captain’s daughter. As with all Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the core themes revolve around class, duty, love and the comedy to be found in the intersection and conflict between the three. The narrative is familiar, unthreatening and concludes ludicrously. There is a sameness to many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas that leads me to forget which beginnings go with which endings, and which songs are present in which, and I have seen my fair share over the years. But every time I heard a familiar refrain strike up at the start of a song I was reminded of how enjoyable these productions can be when done as well as they are here, and I spent a vast majority of this show beaming widely at the ridiculous antics of the crew of the Pinafore and all they came into contact with.

Gaily rendered in bright, 1960s tones, replete with an interpretation of the Pinafore as nothing less than a yellow submarine, the set and costumes created by designer Rachel Szmukler were charming and effective. Clever use was made of the small space, and the low ceilings of the King’s Head make for a believably claustrophobic submarine, setting the stage for some truly excellent performances.

With a tight cast of eight and gender parity, it is hard to fault any of the performances given by the cast on the night. Particular mention must go to Joseph Shovelton’s Sir Joseph Porter, the perfect embodiment of the bombastic, patriarchal, British twit so familiar across Gilbert and Sullivan’s opuses, commanding attention in every scene in which he was present, and consistently eliciting laughs from the entire audience. Matthew Palmer’s Captain Corcoran (also played on alternating weeks by Matthew Siveter) was endearing and feckless as he was carried along by the nonsensical story and Jennie Jacobs doubling as Little Buttercup and Sir Joseph’s Sister was the master of the sideways glance to the audience and always a highlight. As excellent as all the performances were, the bravest and most effective choice was undoubtedly the casting of Sir Joseph’s Aunt, who was an absolute scene-stealer whenever she was present.

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Image credit: Robert Workman

Accompanied only by musical director David Eaton on the keys, the music was tight and the harmonies flawless, as the cast fully embraced the operatic style that the show was written in, with no invasion of a more typical contemporary or “musical theatre” tone to the vocals.

Of course there are certain cringe-worthy moments that are borne of the dated mores of Gilbert and Sullivan’s era (though, admittedly, far fewer than are present in their other shows), particularly in reference to Little Buttercup’s “gypsy blood” and the apparent oracular abilities it gives her. The question must be asked whether anything would be lost from the original script for these references to be changed or omitted, and I don’t pretend to have the answer, though we are prepared to suffer much worse in other forms of historical popular culture.

For fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore is unmissable, and for anyone who has never seen a G&S show, it is hard to imagine a more accessible introduction to the form. The production runs at the King’s Head Theatre until the 11th of May, and tickets are selling fast, so grab them before it ships out for good.

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Previous review: Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story @ The Hope Theatre

REVIEW! Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story @ The Hope Theatre

Performed by Bart Lambert and Richard Loeb
Book, music, and lyrics by Stephen Dolginofff
Directed by Matthew Parker
Music directed by Tim Shaw
Produced by Benjamin Alborough for The Hope Theatre
2 – 20 April
Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass
On May 21, 1924, two young college students in Chicago committed what the press of the time would go on to call the crime of the century; this story is told across eighty gripping minutes in Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story.
The musical’s framing device is Leopold’s parole hearing, decades after events, as he recounts the crime to the parole board in the hope of earning his freedom. Leopold tells of his early relationship with Loeb and the lead-up to their crime. He paints his younger self as an impressionable young man, utterly enthralled and entwined with his friend-cum-lover-cum-rival, the dangerous and manipulative Loeb. Obssessed with themselves and each other, the young men are convinced of their own brilliance, and Loeb in particular with the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche. He envisions himself the Übermensch, above society and its laws. When a slew of petty crimes fails to satisfy this superiority complex, Loeb decides to hunt the ultimate thrill: murder.
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Intense and intimate, Thrill Me is an inventive two-handed show that lives and dies on the considerable talents of its two leads. Nathan Leopold is brought to life by the expressive Bart Lambert, who juggles well the role of unreliable narrator, ably affecting the manner of a much older man when addressing the parole board, and seamlessly slipping back into the frenetic energy of the younger Leopold. Jack Reitman’s Richard Loeb is seductive and serpentine, a linen-suited Mephistopheles who cracks just enough to let the uncertainty and fear show through when needed.
The book itself is adequate to the task, with enough interesting numbers never to lag, but don’t expect to see any of its songs topping the charts. Cursory research into the true Leopold and Loeb story shows that there is little in the way of consensus regarding the two men’s characters or the exact nature of their crimes and relationship, waters muddied by almost a century of rumour, hearsay and pop-cultural obfuscation.
The fixation on the sexual relationship between the two men is an unfortunate feature of the musical. Although it provides an engrossing anchor for the narrative, there is little enough queer representation in modern media, that telling such a grim, twisted story in such an overtly homoerotic way seems in bad taste, if not tone-deaf and salacious.
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Designer Rachael Taylor has ensured that, visually, the production is at the upper end of what can be expected of pub theatre. A wood-paneled set evokes the basement of a bygone era, walls papered with newspaper clippings pertaining to the murder, all joined by web of red string stretching across the walls and overhead, cleverly suggesting the classic “conspiracy wall”.
With the rise and rise of the true-crime genre across pop culture, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb story is of the moment, engaging throughout, and executes a surprising and satisfying twist in the eleventh hour. Fans of unusual, modern musical theatre, or those with a penchant for the macabre are advised to catch it at the Hope Theatre before it escapes on April 20.
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REVIEW! Oliver With A Twist, Sh!t-Faced Showtime @ Leicester Square Theatre

Director and Writer: Katy Baker
Producer: Issy Wroe Wright
A Magnificent Bastards Production
27 March – 12 April, 2019

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

The company which lurched into success – and the impressive Leicester Square Theatre – with Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare has expanded from the Bard to Dickens, with this tipsy twisty version of Oliver!. For the uninitiated, the gimmick of Shit-Faced Showtime is that they take classical, mainly serious theatre, and get one of the cast members outrageously drunk before the show. The result is somewhere between parody, improvisational comedy, and your most attention-seeking mate getting a bit sloppy on a night out.

The chosen drunkard on press night was Issy Wroe Wright, who was playing Oliver and is, incidentally, the producer of the theatre company. When I’ve seen Sh!t-Faced plays in the past, the afflicted actor was always instantly obvious – but in Wroe Wright’s case, it took me a little while to be sure. While I’m staunchly against alcohol abuse as well as abuse of actors, I couldn’t help but feel that she wasn’t quite soused enough to live up to the production’s central concept. The very first dance numbers were absolutely hilarious, as she scrambled after her co-stars, always a comedic, stumbling beat behind, completely failing to do hand claps or knee slaps – but as the show progressed, she seemed to sober up, and her numbers were increasingly just mediocre performances rather than bad enough to be funny. This was despite the beers handed to her by both the MC and audience members when she was deemed to need another; she never actually drank from these, instead just disposing of them offstage. Now, I can’t take my drink very well myself, and usually would absolutely be on the side of someone who’s decided they want to stop and move on to water, but… being willing to get a bit shit-faced is literally in the job description, in this case.

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

Negativity aside, the rest of the cast – despite their sobriety – provided enough comedic relief to distract from Oliver’s straightness, and play up what boozy behaviour there was. Writer/director Katy Baker was wonderful as the MC, strutting about the stage with wit and wickedness, bantering with the audience and directing the action. Nick Moore (I think? both actors who alternate nights as Fagin are tall, fair Australians, according to the programme!) is excellent in his many roles, from orphan master to criminal master to court master. Alan McHale’s Dodger was as charming a cockney sidekick as Oliver could have asked, and Beth Rowe as Nancy impressed with a sped-up version of I Dreamed A Dream out of absolutely nowhere (as, I assume, they couldn’t afford Lionel Bart’s music, most of the production’s songs were cobbled together from various other sources, in bite-sized chunks small enough not to trip the rights wire). The cast was obviously having a lot of fun together on stage, and there was enough wittiness and silliness that I did find myself guffawing and snorting at points in the show.

Unfortunately, without delivering on the central premise and promise of a raucously sloshed actor, there wasn’t much else to the show. It ended up occupying that awkward window of being too facetious to be good theatre, but not bad enough to be funny theatre. As stated, I have seen other Sh!t-Faced productions in which the drunken actors were either better actors or drunks, and the concept really did work in a “dumb but harmless fun, and hey it’s making the classics more accessible” kind of way. I’m hoping that this time was an outlier, and that next time I catch one of their shows, the inebriated actor will be one who’s more willing to say “please sir, I want some more.”

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Previous review: Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

REVIEW! Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

Music and Lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Alun Owen
Director: Matthew Iliffe
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Choreographer: Sam Spencer-Lane
Review by Peter Hoekstra-Bass and Sophia Halpin

James Darch and Kara Lily Hayworth in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright) (4).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

When one hears of a revival of a musical that hasn’t seen the London stage for over fifty years, it is understandable to respond with a measure of scepticism. The stage is always hungry for vibrant musical productions, whether old or new, and five decades of West End silence do not speak well to a show’s calibre. The production at the Finborough Theatre proudly touts their season of Maggie May as the first professional UK production in over fifty years. I went in with moderated expectations.

Inspired by the folk ballad of the same name, Maggie May tells the story of two young lovers: Pat Casey, son and heir apparent of the once-and-future king of the docklands unionists, and Pat’s sweetheart – the titular heroine, a Liverpudlian sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold. The show is unrepentantly political and working class, as most of the action is given over to the struggles of Casey and his friends against the establishment, personified in their corrupt union leader Willie Morgan.

While the refrains of “Solidarity Forever” seem to echo over almost every scene, the political backdrop of the story is rarely more than that, as the broad beats of the story could be put over any narrative aesthetic and work just as well. Indeed, in his role as the son of a union organiser murdered by the police and heir presumptive to his father’s position, Patrick Casey has more of Aragorn about him than he does Enjolras. And while the themes of social stratification, exploitation of workers, and economic hardship may still ring true today, the piece shows its age in its one-note depictions of women. It’s certainly the sort of mid-twentieth century musical in which the boys sing about politics, social change, identity, and personal destiny, and the girls sing about… boys.

Joshua Barton, Kara Lily Hayworth and Michael Nelson in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

By a significant margin, the weakest element of this revival of Maggie May is the book itself, which is to say that this is an excellent production of some mediocre material.

The cast (seemingly impossibly large for the pub-theatre scale of the production) is uniformly excellent, and it was hard to believe they had only been performing together for a few days. Whether in their roles as friends or foes, lovers or rivals, the chemistry was always vivid and convincing between all the characters, and the obvious comfort the cast had with each other was keenly felt by the audience.

In his role as the pauper prince Pat Casey, James Darch was charming and endlessly watchable; twinkle-eyed when he needed to be, but effortlessly powerful when he assumed his father’s mantle. Similarly, Kara Lily Hayworth inhabited the admittedly thin role of Maggie May with ease and made more of her Bechdel-Test-failing scenes than should have been possible. David Keller as the elder statesman and unionist true believer was always entertaining, and Mark Pearce’s slimy union leader brought just the right amount of Fagin and Thénardier to his scenes. Indeed, there is almost no member of the cast who does not deserve singling out, and some of the strongest scenes in the production were when the small, pub-theatre stage was filled to bursting with singing, dancing Liverpudlians.

Which brings me to one of the highlights of the production, namely: the dancing. Choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane has worked magic with this production, as her dance numbers, executed ever-so-tightly by the cast, seemed to grow the small venue to that of a West End theatre. This masterful use of the space, combined with Jonathan Simpson’s bold but effective lighting, made it easy to forget I was in a cosy attic upstairs of a pub – although, sat as I was in the front row, I did sometimes feel that I could catch a high kick to the face at any moment!

Michael Nelson, Kara Lily Hayworth and Joshua Barton in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

Before summarising my overall impression of this production of Maggie May, I must preface with a reiteration that the original text is not strong. There is certainly charm and linguistic interest in the language used – an appealing if often unintelligible docklands mixture of Scouser, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh – but the plot often felt as grey and grimy as Liverpool bilge water. What really brought this show to life was the superb skill and energy of the creatives involved, most especially the director, choreographer, and actors. While emotional investment in Liverpool and/or trade union politics of the 60s would probably enhance the experience, all you really need is a love of musical theatre to enjoy this show. But hurry, Maggie will be gone by May!

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Previous review: Sick @ Kings Head Theatre

REVIEW! Seussical the Musical, Immersion Theatre @ Southwark Playhouse

Directed by James Tobias
Choreography by Chris Wittaker
Musical direction by James Doughty
Music & Book by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics & Book by Lynn Ahrens
Co-conceived by Eric Idle
22 November – 29 December 2018

This stage adaptation of Dr Seuss’ work brings to life a host of loveable character with a smile, whilst lightly touching on some serious issues.

Scott Paige and the cast of Seussical The Musical, Southwark Playhouse - courtesy of Adam Trigg

Marc Pickering does a wonderful job as the Cat in the Hat (and a host of other kooky characters), leading a cast of kaleidoscopically colourful creatures. The cast of 12 burst with an energy that is barely contained by the stage, and frequently spills out into the audience.

The musical elements are particularly impressive, even if they do take a little from the more classic Seussical rhyme schemes. Harmonies are struck with casual ease, although at times lyrics were lost under the band. Nonetheless, I found my toes tapping along, and the title song has been playfully plaguing me ever since.

The cast of Seussical The Musical, Southwark Playhouse - courtesy of Adam Trigg_2

Amongst all the fun, there are serious themes that, I was surprised to find, seem to be even more relevant to the adult modern landscape than to the Jungle of Nool. In a mere 70 minutes, issues of judgement, otherness, bullying, unrequited love and even body image are dealt with and – get this – resolved with childish simplicity. I left wishing that everyone on Twitter had to affirm that “a person’s a person no matter how small” before being able to type. As a family show, it’s not only delightful entertainment but also, perhaps, an opportunity to open conversations about acceptance and self-belief.

Amongst a talented cast, special mentions must go to Scott Paige (Horton) and Amy Perry (Gertrude) for bringing sincerity to their roles and a bit of depth to the production. Where at times the whole-cast numbers were overwhelming,

Scott Paige and Amy Perry (Seussical The Musical, Southwark Playhouse) - courtesy of Adam Trigg

My main criticism of this family-friendly fun-fest is that it lacks it lacks some of the genuinely creative imagination that make Dr Seuss’ works so brilliant. Despite being about imagination, it played too close to imitation for me to be inspired by it. Perhaps a risk or two would give it a little more to remember it by for those of us who grew up on the original.

Putting that aside, this is a lovely holiday-period experience. Grab the closest child to you if you need an excuse, or head down with anyone who needs reminding that even Sour Kangaroos can be nice.

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REVIEW! How To Catch A Krampus, Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

Writer, Director, Designer: Ginger Johnson
Musical Direction: Sarah Bodalbhai
Produced by Glyn Fussell for Sink The Pink and Nic Connaughton for Pleasance
Featuring: Ginger Johnson, Lavinia Co-op, David Cumming, Mairi Houston, Mahatma Khandi, and Maxi More
13 Nov – 23 Dec 2018

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Ginger Johnson in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

I was instantly drawn to this show when I read its title: the figure of the Krampus, a devilish Central European counterweight to Saint Nicholas, has always held a particular dark fascination to me. The image of a dark, cold, snowy land, inhabited by sinister figures and child-punishing monsters, forms the very antithesis to the jolly, magical, family-friendly wonderland which we in the West associate with Christmas. I was not disappointed by this production, which used exactly this creepy Gothic horror setting (kudos to sound and lighting designers, Alicia Jane Turner and Clancy Flynn) to tell a panto story that was both fabulously dark and silly – featuring history’s campest Krampus!

Ginger Johnson, a veteran London drag queen, wrote and stars in this story about a charlatan spirit medium who embarks on a quest to return a stolen child to his grieving and impoverished family. In the process, Ginger is forced to confront her own past and its associated demons – she may have lost her son to the Krampus, but she is the only person who can stop history from repeating itself. Along the way we meet a motley assortment of characters, encompassing a crew of highly comic Morris dancers, a coven of genuinely chilling demonic witches, an Italian opera diva and her questionable translator, an elderly prostitute with a colourful history, a Rocky Horror-esque German mad scientist, and many many more.

As you can probably imagine, many of these skits did not link up with each other in any sort of narrative sense, and at times this could be disorienting as your brain tried to fit together pieces drawn from different puzzles. However, all fit perfectly with theme of a deliciously dark and naughty Christmas panto, showcasing the performers’ skills at spoof and spook, dance and drama, slapstick and soprano. Musical highlights included:

  • 67-year-old Lavinia Co-op blending class and crass in a slowed-down parody of Rihanna’s S&M;
  • An all-cast a capella (I think?) and actually goosebump-raising rendition of MJ’s Thriller;
  • Dancing from Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, and Susan;
  • A side-splittingly chaotic version of The Twelve Days of Christmas;
  • Houston sweetly singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd whilst attempting patricide;
  • Look, basically every other moment of the show…
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Lavinia Co-op and Mairi Houstin in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

While each performer got their time in the spotlight, much of this show’s charm came from the chemistry between its characters. Mairi Houston as the token non-drag actor had a wonderful dynamic with Ginger Johnson, acting as a perfectly contrasting counterpart to the flamboyant larger-than-life queen. How To Catch A Krampus is bookended by comedic collaboration/confrontation between Ginger Johnson and David Cumming, whose relationship sparks with friction and hidden tensions – when they revealed the twist ending to the fable, the theatre erupted with shocked gasps.

A warning: this production is not for the faint-hearted, prudes, traditionalists, or children. Expect jump scares (the very first moment of the performance had me violently spilling my red wine over my neighbour’s yellow jacket, ooops), partial nudity, jokes about swords being semi-sexually inserted into various orifices, and all sorts of outrageous stunts. But a riot is rarely a safe event, and How To Catch A Krampus is certainly a riotously good time for the open-minded.

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

The Distance You Have Come by Scott Alan @ The Cockpit

Book, Music, Lyrics, and Direction: Scott Alan
Arrangements, Orchestrations, and Musical Direction: Scott Morgan
Producers: Sevans Productions & Krystal Lee
Cast: Andy Coxon, Adrian Hansel, Emma Hatton, Jodie Jacobs, Dean John-Wilson, Alexia Khadime
Set and Costume Design: Simon Daw
16-28 October, 2018

Scott Alan's The Distance You Have Come, The Cockpit (courtesy Darren Bell) (12).jpg

Alexia Khadime as Laura and Dean John-Wilson as Joe. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

The Distance You Have Come is a song cycle by proficient and beloved songwriter Scott Alan, featuring a star-studded cast of talented West Enders. Running at an hour forty-five minutes plus interval, the piece follows the lives of six characters as they navigate love, heartbreak, inner demons, ambition, insecurity, parenthood, and the perils of modern dating. There is very little in the way of dialogue or real plot (which is why it is billed as a “song cycle” rather than a “musical”), and the characters usually inhabit the minimalistic central stage as a sort of unreal reality, a dreamscape or place of memories. Live musical scoring floats down from an elevated bandspace above the performance space, and the actors are miked such that the music and vocals swell throughout the entire theatre, enveloping the audience.

It must be said that the stars of its show are its music and, well, its stars. Each actor is offered and capitalises on the opportunity to shine in multiple solo pieces, as well as duets and ensemble pieces. All are possessed of a strong and beautiful voice, however my personal favourites in terms of vocals were Andy Coxon as Brian and Alexia Khadime as Laura, with performances so nuanced and exquisite that they made my heart vibrate in key. Dean John-Wilson demonstrates devastating emotional depth as Joe, a lost boy battling to overcome alcoholism, the loss of love, and the trauma of childhood abuse. His character’s story reaches its nadir with the heart-rending song “Quicksand”, his anguish and hopelessness accentuated by evocative lighting design (by Andrew Ellis) and creepy costuming (Simon Daw). Daw’s set design also complemented the production perfectly, covering the theatre-in-the-round stage space with the intricate veins of a battered leaf, balanced by a beautiful cascade of leafy branches interwoven with bare lightbulbs suspended from the high ceiling. The only items of set were a swing and a park bench (doubling as a sort of water trough), which were put to flexible use throughout both acts.

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Emma Hatton as Maisey. Set design by Simon Daw. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

Unfortunately, despite the aural and visual feast provided by this production, there was very little substance to it in terms of content, and equally little variation in tone. Scott Alan is renowned as a songwriter whose works are staples in musical theatre audition rooms everywhere, however a show close to two hours long which consists mainly of generically emotional power ballads is quite exhausting and becomes monotonous at times. There are some respites, largely provided by Jodie Jacobs as fickle, lascivious, maybe-lesbian-maybe-bisexual Anna; Jacobs’ excellent comedic abilities perfectly accentuate Alan’s lighter pieces and even provide a welcome layer of irony to some of his more earnest ones. But we needed more comic pieces like these, and fewer of the heavier ones. I feel that the show could benefit from being condensed and streamlined – a number of the songs simply did not make sense in the context of their characters’ storylines, and felt like they had been shoehorned in on very thin pretexts.

Adrian Hansel and Andy Coxon are largely spared angsty material as sugar-sweat lovebird couple Samuel and Brian, and it is wonderful to see two gay characters given such a pain-free storyline, culminating in a healthy, happy, loving family. Indeed, the representation in The Distance You Have Come is refreshingly diverse, with straight characters numbering only two of six, fifty-fifty white/POC actors, and gender parity. However, it is a shame that the “sad lesbians” trope was perpetuated, as was the implication that self-realisation and happiness are only achievable through marriage and child-raising, and the portrayal of Anna’s sexuality flirted with the border between funny and problematic. Despite the diversity of orientations and races onstage, there was very little diversity of perspective or personality: all characters (with the possible exception of Jacobs’ Anna) seemed to speak with the voice of writer and director Scott Alan.

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Andy Coxon and Adrian Hansel as Brian and Samuel. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

Overall, The Distance You Have Come was a treat for the ears and the eyes, boasting top-quality acting, design, music, and technical execution; where it fell down was in the writing of the book, and in pacing and tone. It functions well as a showcase of its individual actors’ talents, but does not quite have the coherency or substance to make a whole as great as the sum of its parts.

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Elephant and Castle, Tom Adams and Lillian Henley @ Camden People’s Theatre

9th – 20th October 2018

Presented by Tom Adams and Lillian Henley

Elephant and Castle is a haunting, experimental piece of gig-theatre presented by husband and wife Tom Adams and Lillian Henley exploring the science and romantic impact of Adam’s parasomnia – sleep talking/walking.

A mattress propped up at the back of the stage begins to shake before creeping forward towards the audience – we hear a recording of someone whimpering, crying out layered with sounds of electrocution. It’s unsettling, to say the least. But then the mattress flips down and Henley and Adams bounce onto the bed in match-clash paisley pyjamas, find us with their eyes, and begin to sing their story, regaling us with when they first met and their later struggles with Adam’s parasomnia.

Henley’s hauntingly beautiful voice heightens the domestic tragedy of the songs, indicative of the show’s off-beat, quirky humour. This is a show that is not afraid to sit in its authored awkwardness. Elephant and Castle is equally generous and odd – cocooned by a Lynchian atmosphere. Recordings made over 3 years sample the strangeness of Adam’s night time ramblings, and are played in the darkness between transitions.

Henley plays her own long-sufferance to the cheek of Adam’s parasomnia – luminous, still, her voice transcendent, both eerie and beautiful. Adam’s mischief offers an appealing counterpoint, and they have a distinct chemistry that makes the spirit of this work unique. It delves into some darker territory, questioning what parasomnia can reveal, the threat it offers, never losing its idiosyncratic charm.

I especially enjoyed the use of a hand-held projector, projecting what looked like go-pro sleepwalk footage onto the back of the again upturned bed. It was immersive, lulling me into the logic of a dream-like state. The show’s composition and design converged in a fully realised atmosphere. As I sat, trying to grasp at shapes in the figurative footage, slipping out of definition, I happily gave myself over to its flow.

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Tickets

Thor And Loki, by Harry Blake @ Assembly Roxy

Directed by Eleanor Rhode
Created with House of Blakewell
Produced by Vicki Graham Productions with HighTide and Something For The Weekend
1 – 26 August 2018, 7:15pm at the Assembly Roxy Upstairs Theatre

Thor and Loki

Photo by Geraint Lewis

I went into this show knowing absolutely nothing about it other than what the silly/kitschy poster proclaimed – THOR + LOKI, A COMEDY MUSICAL – and it is only now, as I begin the necessary research to write this glowing review, that this ridiculously, gloriously camp creation boasted the same director as Boudica (on last year at the Globe) and the same producer as today’s earlier show The Song of LunchHats off to Eleanor Rhode and SFTW respectively as I loved both these more “serious” productions of theirs, however the figurative cake was well and truly taken by this ridiculously, unapologetically silly comedy musical.

Thor and Loki, growing up amongst gods and giants respectively, have always known that they don’t fit in with the expectations of what they should be. Thor writes poetry and isn’t outdoorsy, and pacifist Loki would rather have a vegan picnic in the park than join the giants’ army. Neither is particularly interested in the businesses of heroism or havoc. However, when both are reluctantly press-ganged by destiny to fight in the great war of Ragnarok, they must choose between being the people they are, or who they are told they must be…

Photo by Geraint Lewis

Honestly there’s not much I can say about this show except that it is a giant-sized amount of fun with a warm heart and a hilarious, talented cast (which, despite singing a number about not having to use a talent just because you have it, manage to shoehorn an amazing number of talents into the show, often on little to no pretext – tap-dancing trolls??). Alice Keedwell is magnetic as Loki, in a role reminiscent of (but more fun than) Elphaba in Wicked, and with a similarly soaring soprano. Bob Harm’s Odin is a commanding presence with a strong old rocker vibe, and while Harry Blake’s wet blanket Thor underwhelmed me at first, his journey throughout the piece changed my mind and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying his whole schtick. However, the stage-stealer of this show was Laurie Jamieson as the giants’ scheming, horse-riding general (and assorted other bit roles) – side-splittingly funny, with just enough of a touch of real human warmth to have me invested in his fate (and I was not disappointed!).

Did Thor + Loki have a huge budget to spend on slick sets and fancy costumes? No! Were the political references and moral themes a little heavy-handed? Yes! Did they play hard and fast with Norse mythology to the point of unrecognisability? Definitely! But was this the hardest I’ve laughed at the Fringe, and the most uplifted I’ve felt by any theatre in a long time? Well, let’s just say:

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Photo by Geraint Lewis