Friday, 9 June 2023

Unexpected Twist

 Curve, Leicester

8th June, 2023

This is my life, and I’m resigned to it

James Dacre’s tenure at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate comes to an end this season. During his decade as Artistic Director, he’s developed the theatre as a major producing house, marked by a diverse, innovative repertoire. He’s programmed stellar productions of European and regional premieres (Our Lady of Kibeho, Rules for Living), revivals of modern classics (Blue/Orange, Two Trains Running), and vibrantly theatrical adaptations of novels (The Lovely Bones). His last show before stepping down is a new stage adaptation of Michael Rosen’s 2018 novel Unexpected Twist alongside The Children’s Theatre Partnership. Inspired by Oliver Twist, Rosen transposes Dickens’ story to contemporary Britain complete with beatboxing, iPhones and county line gangs.

Following her mother’s death and her father being laid-off from work, young Shona (Drew Hylton) has moved from bedsit to bedsit, and constantly worries about debts owed and the cost of everyday necessities. When Shona arrives at her new school she is thrown into the world of Dickens’ Oliver Twist by well-meaning English teacher, Miss Cavani (Rosie Hilal). While her peers scoff at the old-fashioned language, Shona is shaken by the similarities between her life and those of Dickens’ fictional workhouse. These similarities extend to the people around her, with figures such as Shona’s Nan, her new friend Tino and the local drug kingpin, Pops, paralleling the characters of Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes. When, tempted by the promise of a state-of-the-art phone she could never normally afford, Shona gets lured into Pops’ circle of drug trafficking and money laundering she faces difficult questions relating to crime, socio-economic justice and identity.

Rory Beaton’s dramatic lighting lifts the grey school lockers and wooden climbing frames of Frankie Bradshaw’s set using colourful LEDs and well-placed spotlights. Bradshaw also excels at bringing to life the characters of Dickens’ novel, the rich Victorian-era costumes contrast nicely with the drab greyness of modern-day London. I particularly enjoyed the moments in the play where the two worlds merge together, most impressively realised in the Noah Claypole interrogation scene. The image of the ghostly Noah looming eerily over Shona/Oliver, goading them, is a menacingly dramatic moment.

While Rosen and Roy Williams draw analogies with broad strokes, one can hardly criticise them for moralising in the current political climate. Unexpected Twist is not subtle in the way it hammers home issues such as childhood poverty and domestic violence, but this is justified by the bombast and energy with which the piece is performed and directed by Dacre. Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray’s music – a mix of Grime, RnB and Soul - is impressively performed by the cast (completely acapella!) and features some really melodic tunes. A slight grapple is that the songs sometimes dominate the action, and occasionally feel like excess padding, but it’s testament to the talent involved and Rosen’s inspiration that the songs excel in advancing character. Ultimately, this production is a commendable attempt to get younger generations interested and invested in both literature and politics.

Unexpected Twist plays at Curve, Leicester until 10th June. For further information, please visit

Drew Hylton and the company of Unexpected Twist. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

42nd Street

 Curve, Leicester

23rd May 2023

Come and meet those dancing feet

In the programme notes for this new production of 42nd Street, director Jonathan Church writes about wanting to send audiences out into the night with their head in the clouds. His production, and especially Bill Deamer’s choreography and musical staging, reaches dizzying heights which do just that. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, this Tony Award-winning backstage musical (first staged in 1980) is a perfect homage to the adage ‘The show must go on’.

The show opens with Jon Driscoll’s projections which take us to 1930s New York: from the bright lights of Ziegfeld Follies in Times Square to breadlines serving food for the laid off. Another breadline is gathering onstage as a group of hoofers warm up to audition for a new Broadway musical called ‘Pretty Lady’. Despite having missed the audition because she couldn’t summon up the courage to go through the stage door, novice Peggy Sawyer wangles herself a role in her first Broadway show. At the other end of the production, things aren’t going so swimmingly. Veteran leading lady Dorothy Brock (Ruthie Henshall) has been cast despite not being in a hit for over a decade. Her jealous, millionaire beau is financing the run so what she says goes. But when Peggy accidentally knocks Dorothy to the floor, the show is put in peril. This is until director Julian Marsh (Adam Garcia) is persuaded to cast Peggy in the leading role.

If the plot is rather thin, this is more than made up for by the Busby Berkeley-inspired set pieces, each one sending the audience into a frenzy more than the last. Robert Jones’ mighty set is transformed from a vast, unglamorous Broadway stage (exposed bricks, pulleys, a loading dock) to the painted sets and gilt proscenium of the 1930s musical-within. The handsome period costumes (also by Jones) evoke a world of glamour and extravagance. Whereas similar musicals of the time like Follies (1971) and A Chorus Line (1975) favour a more psychological insight into the inner workings of Broadway, 42nd Street provides tongue-in-cheek, spectacular escapism. Harry Warren’s and Al Dubin’s score contains big numbers such as ‘We’re in the Money’ which sparkle with pizzazz, while the second act’s ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ embraces the vaudeville musical comedy style.

The cast add granular detail to their characters. Henshall brings out much of the humour in Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, and adds a drollness so that all the laughs aren’t at Brock’s expense. Josefina Gabrielle and Les Dennis make a fetching double act as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry. And as Peggy Sawyer, Nicole-Lily Baisden exudes the energy and charisma of a bona fide leading lady. As Marsh says to her, “Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!” Church and company have created a 42nd Street which evokes an era of tap-dancing, high-kicking, endorphin-inducing Broadway extravaganzas. The fact that it’s touring the UK at this scale will ensure plenty more people can come and meet those dancing feet.

42nd Street plays at Curve, Leicester until 3rd June, followed by a London run at Sadler’s Wells until 2nd July. This is followed by a UK tour. For further information, please visit

Adam Garcia as Julian Marsh in 42nd Street. Credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Jersey Boys

 Curve, Leicester

26th April, 2023

After eight bars, I know I need to write for this voice

It’s strange how you can see a long-running musical for the first time and feel like you’re jumping back into a well-worn jacket. Such is the brand awareness and public appeal of the jukebox musical charting the founding, success and tribulations of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. On trips to the West End growing up, when passing the Prince Edward Theatre, seeing the backs of the four red jerseys always struck me as an iconic poster. And after 4,600 performances on Broadway, a successful London run, and multiple tours and international productions, Jersey Boys (2004) is like a well-oiled machine by now. Des McAnuff’s Tony and Olivier award winning production is now touring the UK where it’s currently enjoying a two-week run at Leicester’s Curve.

Marshall Brickman’s and Rick Elice’s book creates a documentary style story lifting the lid on the group’s rags to riches back story. On its premiere, founding member Bob Gaudio said not much was known about their story, and that they went against the squeaky-clean image of many of their contemporaries such as Frank Sinatra and Neil Sedaka. The musical goes back to the roots of the band, introducing us to four normal guys from New Jersey with mob connections, prison sentences and friendships with Joe Pesci. Brickman and Elice present short scenes which swiftly move on to the next. While this structure gives the story pace, it does compromise characters’ depth. The overall effect is that we’re given a biographical breakdown of events which sometimes lacks emotional grit or purpose. Not that this matters at all. The back stories provide context and substance but the main enjoyment comes when the group has formed and perform their polished numbers for the audience. When the four members align in their various jerseys, with broad smiles, coiffed hair and synchronised dance movements, the show really comes alive. At one point, Bob says he’s never heard a voice like Frankie Valli’s. That’s certainly true. These numbers, led by Michael Pickering’s falsetto, are captivating. The remaining cast members mostly play peripheral characters; I found Damien Winchester particularly impressive both vocally and in his multiple characterisations.

McAnuff’s staging serves the story well, and whilst its fairly traditional you can’t fault its smoothness. A drum kit roams the stage, mic stands slide on and off, swivel chairs whizz on, lit-up signs fly in and out with the efficiency you’d expect of a long-runner. Klara Zieglerova’s design of metal staircases and walkways is complemented by Michael Clark’s art deco projections and Howell Binkley’s lighting, which at the end of act one shines bright into the audience as the group recreates that iconic pose from the poster. And numbers like ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘December 1963’ and ‘My Eyes Adored You’ prove why The Four Seasons were a hit factory – and Jersey Boys, almost 20 years on from its premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, still a hit.

Jersey Boys concludes its UK tour at Curve, Leicester on 6th May. The West End production is booking at the Trafalgar Theatre into 2024. For further information, please visit

(L-R) Blair Gibson (Bob Gaudio), Michael Pickering (Frankie Valli), Dalton Wood (Tommy DeVito) and Christopher Short (Nick Massi) outside Curve, Leicester. Photography by Hitz Rao

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Sucker Punch

 Curve, Leicester

25th April, 2023

You can’t win, neither of you

In 2017, the National Theatre established the Theatre Nation Partnerships network. It strives to support the ‘long-term health of local theatre audiences’ by reaching new audiences and particularly engaging young people in priority areas across England. As part of its commitment to mid-scale touring, and in partnership with Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Roy Williams’ 2010 play Sucker Punch opened at Curve last night. Set in the 1980s, the play uses boxing as a cipher to explore social and racial division in British society. Williams’ portrayal of the boxing world and how it is entwined with identity is unflinching. But what is perhaps most striking is the play’s contemporaneity. It’s a seminal play, surely a modern classic, and crucial it’s being toured to a wider audience for the first time.

We first meet Leon and Troy arguing over the chores they’ve been assigned as punishment for breaking into a local boxing club. They soon catch the attention of Charlie, a bigoted, washed-up gym owner who trains them to fight. The play follows the two boys as they progress down different paths: Leon grows in stature as a serious UK boxing contender, while Troy compromises his talent as he rails against the police, eventually leaving London for a new life in the US. The boys also embody diverse attitudes towards the prejudice and injustice they encounter on a daily basis. Troy is angry, lashing out against institutionalised racism, while Leon takes a more fatalistic view, seeking acceptance from his white, working class trainer/father figure Charlie. There is a sense that Charlie is genuinely affectionate and proud of Leon, yet he cannot hide his bigotry when he discovers the relationship between his daughter Becky and Leon.

Williams scrutinises aspects of racial and masculine identity amidst Thatcherite Britain against the backdrop of the Brixton Riots. However, the play highlights how these issues are just as pertinent in 21st century Britain. Sucker Punch premiered just one year before the London riots in 2011, ignited by the police shooting of Mark Duggan. In 2023, we see it through the lens of the ongoing Black Lives Matter campaign against institutionalised racism which came more into prominence following the death of George Floyd in the USA. The themes explored in Sucker Punch echo through the decades. It becomes increasingly obvious that the boys have little control over their own lives. The imposing Ray gets into Troy’s face, telling him ‘I made you […] You are mine’, and Charlie manipulates his bigoted relationship with Leon for his own gain. He presents him with an ultimatum; he will become Leon’s manager, but only if he stops seeing Becky.

While excelling in sport, Williams highlights the inevitable contradictions in the boxers’ roles. At the end of Act 1, Leon fights Charlie’s ex-pupil. The ‘white, pale faces […] cheering Tommy on, telling him to bury me’, demonstrate the way boxing, in its legitimised violence, can, in the worst cases, become a vicarious outlet for racial hatred. Despite the two protagonists being set up as opposites in attitude and philosophy, in one of the most elucidating passages, Leon’s father offers some home truths ahead of the climactic match: ‘You can’t win, neither of you […] they love nothing better than to see two black men beat up on each other. They too afraid to do it themselves, so they get you to do it’.


Nathan Powell’s production is more literal than the original Royal Court staging. Whereas that production turned the entire space into a boxing ring, Sandra Falase’s design plunges us into a grotty gym: a shipping container is used as a makeshift office, and sentimentalised photos of fights from years gone by adorn the walls. From this, we get a fuller sense of the world the characters inhabit, and it also allows Powell to bring out some of the lighter moments in the play. The production is fleshed out by some engaging performances. Shem Hamilton traces Leon’s arc extremely impressively. He goes from displaying Leon’s scrappy energy, doing tricks with the skipping rope and bouncing around the ring, to focusing his performance as the play progresses to show Leon becoming more disciplined. Liam Smith plays the older East End trainer very well. In the first act, he embodies Charlie’s masculine performativity and beagle-eyed focus which slips away to something more desperate in the second act. As well as attitudes to race, Powell also highlights the play’s emphasis on toxic masculinity particularly in how the teenagers talk to Becky. Portrayed by Poppy Winter as fierce and strong-willed, we’re reminded that she’s really the strongest character in the play.

In his earlier play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002), and in his later blistering Death of England trilogy (2020-2021, co-written with Clint Dyer), Williams uses football to explore English national identity in relation to race and class. Through the more confrontational metaphor and concentrated space of a boxing ring, Sucker Punch presents us with the bleak reality that racism and violence are even more a pressing issue now than they ever were.

Sucker Punch plays at Curve, Leicester until 29th April. It then tours until 24th June. For further information please visit

Shem Hamilton as Leon in Sucker Punch. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday, 18 April 2023

The Bodyguard

 Curve, Leicester

17th April, 2023

Because I've got you to protect me, right?

Rachel Marron asks her bodyguard this question as she looks into his eyes, seeking reassurance that she’ll be safe at the Academy Awards ceremony. By this point in the show, a stalker has broken into her house, had the opportunity to kidnap her son, and murdered her sister all under his watch. The fact she still trusts her bodyguard says something of her love for him. The 1992 movie The Bodyguard was Whitney Houston’s acting debut and, despite its poor critical reception, one of the highest-grossing movies of its time. Its single ‘I Will Always Love You’ created one of the most iconic pop power ballads of the 90s and ever since. The 2012 Olivier-nominated musical adaptation, now touring the UK, hasn’t solved the flimsiness of the story but does deliver a dose of nostalgia and ensures that Whitney Houston’s artistry and songs are the enduring stars of the show.

Rachel Marron, an Oscar-nominated actress and singing superstar, has a face and voice everyone recognises. At the peril of a crazed stalker, her management hires a new bodyguard Frank Farmer (Ayden Callaghan) to protect her at home and work, day and night much to the dismay of her publicist. He has a say on all aspects of her life from limiting which venues she plays to where she can have brunch. Rachel’s freedom is fairly restricted, unlike the comparative invisibility of her sister Nicki, also a singer-songwriter. This is until Frank takes Rachel to a Karaoke bar filled with fans badly singing her songs (are they bating the audience?!). By the end of the first act, the stalker is closer to Rachel than he’s ever been and both sisters are in love with Frank.

It strikes me that Marron is a challenging role to play. It requires diva star quality, the ability to pull off dance numbers and big songs, as well the need to elicit empathy. At this performance, Marron was played by Samantha Mbolekwa who does a fine job. Although she may not yet have the experience of other actresses in the role, she exudes confidence in the concert numbers and highlights the character’s vulnerability and desire to occasionally blend into the background. Emily-Mae as Nicki delivers a stand-out performance. She has a confident grasp on the songs’ vocal demands whilst imbuing them with a sense of character.

As expected with Thea Sharrock’s staging, the production gives the audience what they want. Usually with jukebox musicals, the songs are reworked to find an inner meaning which can help to advance song or story. Whilst this is true of some of the songs, many are simply performed as concert numbers. Whilst these louder numbers involving scissor lifts and flames may provide a rush of excitement, the more effective moments are where Sharrock allows the music and the voices to take centre stage. The duet ‘Run to You’ between Rachel and Nicki where they both realise their feelings for Frank is a particular highlight.

Tim Hatley’s design works well to create multiple spaces. Brickwork prosceniums evoke large performance spaces, on top of which more detailed places are layered: from the white drapes of Rachel’s mansion to the lakeside lodges of Frank’s so-called safehouse. What the show lacks overall is a sense of specificity which makes it feel a bit hollow. Back stories, if there at all, often come too late in the second act. But it’s the iconic moments from the movie and numbers like 'I Will Always Love You' that I imagine audiences want to hear and they won’t be disappointed.

The Bodyguard plays at Curve, Leicester until 22nd April as part of a UK tour until 30th December. For further information, please visit

Ayden Callaghan and Samantha Mbolekwa in The Bodyguard. Credit: Paul Coltas

Wednesday, 5 April 2023

Steel Magnolias

 Curve, Leicester

4th April, 2023

That's what my mind says. I wish somebody would explain that to my heart

Robert Harling’s 1987 play (made famous by the 1989 film starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field) enjoyed a three-year run Off-Broadway. There’s a moment in its second act where the sarcastic Ouiser Boudreaux (‘I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!’) takes pride in not being exposed to culture. Why should she broaden her horizons at the theatre or cinema when she can watch a mini-series at home? It’s a line full of knowing irony considering the play’s success on stage and screen. But for the women of Chinquapin, Louisiana, it’s the local hair salon that provides the biggest form of escape and company. Steel Magnolias, which opened at Curve last night as part of a UK tour, may provide a small slice of southern domestic life, but this drama of familial love and friendship has an enduring and universal appeal.

We are in Truvy’s: a carport-turned-hair salon which provides a home away from home for other women in the neighbourhood. Laura Hopkins’ set design feels authentic and feels like an American salon well worn by its staff and clients: hair on the floor, wooden panels on the wall and strip lights overhead. In the first scene, Shelby (Diana Vickers) is having her wedding hair done. Young and pretty, she appears to have it all and her whole life ahead of her. After we see her have a hypoglycaemic attack brought on by Diabetes, we understand why her mother M’Lynn (Laura Main) is so over-protective. Over the course of two years, we see Shelby grow up. From getting married and insisting she wants a baby of her own despite the possible health implications to becoming a mother and then needing a kidney transplant. And in the final scene (*spoilers follow*) we see M’Lynn prepare for her daughter’s funeral. Remarkably, this was Harling's first play (he also wrote the screenplay), and he has a strong understanding of female friendships and how to craft stage drama. Heartbreak and comedy, as in life, sit alongside each other and there are some genuinely funny one liners. As a domestic drama, it may seem a bit slight 35 years on, but it has an ingratiating quality which still warms the audience. The standing ovation last night certainly accounts for that.

This is aided by Anthony Banks’ production and in particular some excellent performances which bring out the steeliness of the characters’ title description. Lucy Speed keeps the play moving forward as Truvy: big Dolly Parton-esque hair, droll observations, and heaps of southern charm. She also has a nice double act with Elizabeth Ayodele as her evangelical new assistant Annelle. But it’s the touching mother-daughter relationship of Main and Vickers which provides the heart of the story and they both deliver fully-rounded performances. In the first scene, there’s still a child-like goofiness to Shelby as Vickers enjoys drawing out those long southern vowel sounds and rolling her eyes talking about the men in their lives. She then matures through the play along with Main’s realisation that her daughter is no longer a little girl. And in the final scene, M’Lynn’s fury at the injustice of her daughter’s death is excellently-wrought. The fact that one of the most tender points in the play is immediately followed by its biggest laugh is a testament to the cast’s efforts and Harling's writing.

Steel Magnolias plays at Curve, Leicester until 8th April as part of a UK tour until 22nd April. For further information, please visit

Lucy Speed and Diana Vickers in Steel Magnolias. Credit: Pamela Raith

Thursday, 30 March 2023

Noughts and Crosses


Curve, Leicester
Wednesday 29th March, 2023

‘With new life there’s new hope, right?’


Malorie Blackman was a seminal figure in my adolescence and a huge influence on my love of literature. I first read her Noughts and Crosses series aged 13. To my maturing mind the books were revelatory; they dealt with adult themes such as race, politics, sex and class, with striking confidence, a gripping plot and without ever talking down to the reader. These were grown-up novels and I ate them up with relish. In the 20 years since publication Blackman’s story has gone from strength to strength, becoming a set text for schools, spawning a hit BBC tv series, and now inspiring it’s second stage adaptation. Sabrina Mahfouz’s version highlights the prescience and urgency of Blackman’s story, conveying both the universality of the themes while emphasising their pertinence in contemporary society.

Sephy and Callum have known each other all their lives, their bond is seemingly unshakeable, yet the society they live in places them worlds apart in terms of wealth, liberty, education and class. Sephy Hadley is a Cross, the daughter of a top politician, living in an expensive house with its own private beach, and all the material riches she could ever want. Callum McGregor is a Nought, the son of the Hadleys’ maid, a lower-class citizen within a racially segregated state built on oppression and capital punishment. A new government policy permitting the integration of Noughts into Cross schools, along with the increasing violence and unrest brought about by the extremist paramilitary group, the Liberation Militia, forces Sephy and Callum to confront their differences and question their place in social history. Political and personal clashes ultimately end in tragedy in Blackman’s modern parable, which still holds the power to shock.

Mahfouz stays true to the source material in her adaptation, while adding her own linguistic flourishes that lift the piece into the realm of drama. I particularly enjoyed Mahfouz’s sections of verse which portray the inner thoughts of our protagonists. Internal rhymes and a striking use of mirroring/repetition are earthily poetic while demonstrating both the confluence of the characters and the incongruous, duplicitous systems which dictate their lives.

Simon Kenny’s deceptively simple design makes great use of blocky, urban set pieces which occasionally melt into gauzy windows or burst into pops of violence – whether rhetorical or physical – via Ian William Galloway’s vast video projections that flood the stage. We are in a familiar world of rolling news channels, shopping malls and mobile phones (although only Crosses are permitted to own them), which hammers home the similarities with the increased racial tensions in our own society over recent years.

If Esther Richardson’s production is a little rough around the edges at times this does not detract from the narrative punch. In fact, the lack of gloss and intimacy of the piece draws the audience into this world, relying not on high tech theatrical wizardry, but old-fashioned story-telling charm. Yes, Blackman and Mahfouz’s social commentary is painted in broad strokes, but this plays well with the mainly teenaged audience, who were rapt and enthusiastic throughout. Long may Noughts and Crosses inspire and fire up generations to come.

 Noughts and Crosses plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April 2023.

The cast of Noughts and Crosses
Credit: Robert Day