Monday 24 December 2018

Top 10 Theatre of 2018

The inheritance of wisdom, community and self
 Matthew Lopez

Each year, around March, I think of a brilliant way to start the Best of the Year list. Each year, around December, I forget it. In the year when football nearly came home and the UK has been stuck on a political pause, theatre has been the lodestar. Ian Rickson opened up a world of subconscious and unease in Pinter’s The Birthday Party in the West End, Kate Hewitt communicated the contemporaneity of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon in Sheffield, and Polly Stenham rewrote August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (retitled Julie) for the Fleabag generation at the National. Sam Mendes brought us three hours of mansplaining in a disappointing The Lehman Trilogy at the National, Aidan Turner made his West End debut in Martin McDonagh’s hilarious The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End, and Leicester’s Curve delivered a brilliant production of Fiddler on the Roof which put community at the fore.

Other honourable mentions: the genre-defying The Girl from the North Country celebrated the lyrical intimacy of Bob Dylan's music; the irreverent and wickedly debauched The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios; and Adam Penford's production of Beth Steel's Wonderland at Nottingham Playhouse brought the play home.

And here’s the Top Ten with a snippet of each review:

10 – The Lovely Bones (Royal & Derngate, Northampton)

Stuck in a place in between the living and the dead, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design cleverly toggles these two worlds, playing with notions of what we can see and believe, what is tangible and what isn’t. An angled mirror stands at the back reflecting the stage. Some parts appear odd in the mirror such as a chair seemingly attached to the back wall. Other things only make sense in the mirror such as the cornstalks which appear the right way up only in the mirror. Jabares-Pita further distorts things with her use of two-way mirrors, affording us glimpses into a space beyond. This gives Still a space to create the effect of staging the ghostly. But, perhaps conversely, it is also a space to show the concrete and the intimate, such as sister Lindsay’s first time having sex. And again, it’s also a space for the internalised. Overall, we find ourselves occasionally watching things on stage, occasionally watching the reflections, occasionally through the glass, and often all three. It’s a complex, mesmeric design made all the more stunning by Matt Haskins’ lighting and Still’s stage images: a blur of telephone wires, the gentle falling of snow, subtle and simple puppetry, and Mike Ashcroft’s effective use of movement.

9 – Hello, Dolly! (Shubert, New York)

In the week that Bernadette Peters turned 70, we saw her storm the stage as Dolly Levi on Broadway. If Hamilton has been the musical that made Broadway cool again, appealing to a more diverse and younger audience, Hello, Dolly! is the musical which defines classic Broadway. This was certainly the case in Jerry Zaks’ production which embraced and indulged in all of the trappings of a bonafide, classic Broadway hit. From the marketing and the Shubert’s marquee to the casting and production values, Zaks pulled out the stops. Santo Loquasto’s set and costume designs were likewise elaborately sumptuous: the dresses and hats were fabulous; a whole train crossed the stage; dancers pirouetted under the weight of wobbling, proscenium-high stacks of plates; Horace’s shop filled the stage. The whole show, led by Peters, was a frothy, farcical delight.

8 – The Band’s Visit (Ethel Barrymore, New York)

Played straight through with no interval, The Band’s Visit is a fleeting but searing musical which encompasses the cravings, losses, hopes, mistakes, hits and misses of the human experience. Yazbek and Moses have beautifully and succinctly crafted a piece which never outstays its welcome and manages to say in a mere one and a half hours what many try to achieve in years of musings and toil. While it may be overlooked in favour of the flashier shows currently playing in New York, this small, intimate and unassuming musical outshines even the brightest lights on Broadway. Thankfully, it won 10 Tony Awards this summer, including Best New Musical.

7 – Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

Words have power. And just as Hamilton himself did, Miranda has used all the power in his lexicon to move the world – yes, a musical isn’t going to create the same political upheaval as the forming of a constitutional government - but I guarantee that following this, the social and cultural orbits that unite within the arts will shift slightly from their once too predictable axes. So many of Miranda’s songs have already become standards (‘Burn’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Wait For It’, ‘Helpless’, ‘Satisfied’, ‘My Shot’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘You’ll Be Back’, to name but a few) that it’s difficult to think of a contemporary composer that has had as great an impact at such a young age. Rich in theme, aesthetic, language, and context I hope and expect Hamilton to find its way onto many an English Literature syllabus where it can take its place amongst the classics of old. In fact, to further the Shakespeare comparison, while we Brits can claim Richard III and Henry V etc. then in Hamilton America has found its History Play and ushers in a new era of creative political commentary. This is a production that merits watching again and again and is sure to reveal new delights with each viewing.

6 – An Octoroon (Dorfman, National Theatre)

‘In clumpy folds, the paint oozed over the left half of his face and down the length of that side of the body, until one eye, one nostril, one shirtsleeve, one pant leg, and one Patek Philippe watch were washed completely white’ (259-260). This is from Paul Beatty’s wickedly funny and wildly subversive 2015 novel The Sellout, a satire about a black Los Angelino who reintroduces racial segregation and takes on a voluntary slave in order to put the town of Dickens back on the map. It’s hard not to see the publicity image for this production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and not think of that part, one vivid bit of imagery of many, from Beatty’s novel. But as well as both making such brutal points about racism in America it also makes you think about how such things are discussed. Rereading bits of The Sellout as preparation for this review (these things aren’t just thrown together, surprisingly!) I came across another line: ‘“Problematic,” someone muttered, invoking the code word black thinkers use to characterise anything or anybody that makes them feel uncomfortable… and painfully aware that they don’t have the answers to questions and assholes like me’ (98). ‘Problematic’ is too often an easy get-out word to avoid the heart of something. An Octoroon is problematic but this only strengthens it, provoking us to continuously question its characters’ representations.

But it’s worth probing what is problematic and why that matters. There is a definite uneasiness about seeing minstrelsy, something enhanced by Bennett’s decision to use thick greasepaint or shoe polish to create block colours (black, red and white). This is much more startling when comparing it to production photos from some American productions. And the blackface would be troubling enough if it was simply there as part of a post-modern critique of racial representation but it is compounded with melodrama and stage spectacles such as fire, straight out of Boucicault’s theatre, soAn Octoroon can’t simply be written off as as an easy criticism of the original when at times it feels like a celebration of Boucicault’s theatre as much as a blistering play in its own right. There’s also the interest in stereotypes, from the character of old Pete (an echo of the slave Hominy in Beatty’s work) and the relentless modern stereotypes in the dialogue of Minnie and Dido. But Beatty and Jacobs-Jenkins share an irreverence that is refreshing and shows that serious ideas can be explored as effectively – perhaps more so – through subversion and humour.

5 – Company (Gielgud)

Believe the hype. Elliott’s production is defining a new era of musical theatre. Fantastic performances, lush music, hilarity tinged with poignancy, Company has it all. Above all, Elliott emphasises the ecstatic truths in Sondheim’s lyrics (the skill that, for me, is what sets him apart from his contemporaries – yes he’s incredibly witty, but the real beauty of his music is his unique way of clarifying what is thought to be inexpressible), and by the time Bobbie sings ‘Being Alive’ we have journeyed with her to that point of raw recognition. ‘Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive’ – we all want company, but, thanks to Elliott and Craig’s Bobbie, it is evident that company no longer has to be in the form of conventional marriage, or even conventional relationships. The longing for companionship may be universal, but there is no universal way of obtaining it. And the realisation of that is painful, life-affirming bliss.

4 – Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual (Curve, Leicester)

Throughout the play, Riaz asks ‘Who am I?’. It’s a question Leicester has had to ask itself over the years, with sometimes uneasy answers. Khan’s time in the Baby Squad precedes my birth and yet it still resonates with this changing and vibrant city. Thirty years on, Brucciani’s is still here and the clock tower remains a beacon of the city. But it’s also changed considerably in the last decade, with the monopolising of the king in the car park, the LCFC murals dotted about town, and indeed the opening of Curve itself. In its tenth year, Curve’s two biggest productions have been a new musical that has attracted audiences in their droves up and down the country, and this very local play about a very specific and pertinent part of Leicester’s lifeblood. These are the highlights of a richly diverse programme made for its city. And in Memoirs, they’ve made a pulsating bit of theatre which is simultaneously sensitively staged with stimulating ambivalence, while remaining jubilant about the making of a man and a city.

3 – Summer and Smoke (Duke of York’s)

This is a play and production of binaries which come together as one. There’s the supposed doppelgänger in Alma which John talks about. There is Forbes Masson as both the Preacher and the Doctor. There is the earthy stage on which the actors play barefoot and the ethereal music and staging all performed in one space. There is the 1948 text by Tennessee Williams and the contemporary direction by Rebecca Frecknall. And, indeed, there is summer and smoke, both suffocating and liberating in certain ways. All harmonise to make a stellar piece of theatre, exquisite not least because of the chemistry between Patsy Ferran (always interesting and thoughtful in her performances) and Matthew Needham. Above all, this production of Summer and Smoke is more than the sum of its parts. Text, direction, voice, movement, lighting come together to show that theatre is truly the most collaborative of art forms.

2 – Fun Home (Young Vic)

Like most memory plays, we are aware that Alison’s version of events is patchy, unfinished and coloured by hindsight and personal feeling. This is beautifully conveyed in Kron’s book as Alison frequently stumbles over her choice of words, tries out and discards new expressions, and generally thinks out loud. As a basic insight into the approach artists take towards creation, it feels, at once, organic and intimate, a technique embraced by David Zinn’s set. From jumbled heaps of furniture, to semi-populated spaces, to the white expanse that echoes a blank canvass, to the fully realised ornate house on Maple Avenue, Zinn’s design mimics the collage of images our memories create while also evoking Bechdel’s original illustrative work.

One of the aspects I found most moving was Kron and Tesori’s faith in silence. As a graphic novel tells a story through images, words and, perhaps most importantly, the spaces in between, Fun Home’s creators similarly embrace multimodal techniques to enhance the joy and tragedy of the piece. Rarely have I seen a ‘loss for words’ so appropriately and satisfyingly portrayed. It may be somewhat incongruous to say, but within ‘Ring of Keys’, the musical’s breakthrough number, the most eloquent expressions of self-discovery are found in Small Alison’s moments of halting inarticulation, there are no words to express the joy and recognition she feels. Alternately, if ‘Ring of Keys’ is a blazing and triumphant epiphany, then ‘Telephone Wire’ is it’s melancholic, transient cousin. Alison’s final car ride with Bruce is brimming with thoughts unspoken and missed milestones, the fact that Big Alison chooses to relive this memory, physically transposing her younger self, is revelatory enough.

1 – The Inheritance (Young Vic)

There’s so much going on in terms of plot, characters, narrative frames and scale that it would be easy to assume that the writing is merely good in the face of the play’s sheer ambition. But, as well as being a damn clever meditation on the creative process, the writing is also emotionally searing, nuanced and consistent, never glib or rushed. There are numerous standout scenes, monologues and instances of dazzling visual imagery so I want to home in on some specifics to at least try to convey Lopez’s skill. At the end of the first act, Walter has a long monologue about the pain of seeing his friends ravaged by AIDS. When talking about their upstate house which he - against Henry's will - used as a refuge for the dying, Walter contrasts images of the city burning around him with the burning reds and oranges of the cherry blossom tree in the garden. One is a picture of death and desolation, the other of growth and birth. Much later, when Toby disappears, he realises that ‘I can’t rewind my story. I can only go forward’, and we are prompted to think of that imagery again when Toby weighs up his options: ‘Heal or burn?’

Real estate plays a key but peripheral role in The Inheritance. Henry is a real estate billionaire, owning an apartment in Manhattan, a place in the Hamptons and a house upstate which we learn he gave to Walter in the late eighties/early nineties. Meanwhile, Eric, at the start of the play at least, lives in the rent-controlled apartment that his grandmother lived and died in. It was there that she watched Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation and Obama’s election victory. Essentially it was in that apartment that she became an American. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy (2015) is similarly set in rent-controlled ‘prime Manhattan real estate’ that would easily fetch ten times its current rate if deregulated. We’re reminded in The Inheritance that partners of the ill were also affected by often losing their homes. Both Lopez and Adly Guirgis, then, paint New York as a city to which people flee and offers the opportunity to form safe communities, only to be threatened, whether by disease, City Hall, or rises in prejudice.

The link between real estate and AIDS is interesting. In 2016, Alexandra Schwartz wrote for The New Yorker that the epidemic occurred simultaneously with the real estate market ‘turn[ing] relentlessly bullish’, with the boroughs that had the highest rate of infection also having the fastest rate of gentrification in the following years. Later she reflects that ‘Whether consciously or not, we build our homes on the graves of others.’ The line seems to have added pertinence in light of this play. Henry gains his billions from the development and exploitation of legacy and its effects on the next generation. Conversely, regarding the duties of community, Walter’s altruism in opening up the doors of his house is a rallying cry for a more socialist approach. In a moving and startling end to part one, the ghosts of a generation of men who died there reconvene to welcome Eric; a reminder of the community lost and what a community can aspire to be.
Clockwise from Top Left: Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey in The Inheritance (Credit: Simon Annand); Hareet Deol, Riaz Khan and Jay Varsani in Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual (Credit: Ellie Kurttz); Charlotte Beaumont in The Lovely Bones (Credit: Sheila Burnett); The cast of The Band's Visit (Credit: Ahron R. Foster).

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Treasure Island

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester

18th December, 2018

Is it pretend?

Yes, but the feeling’s real

Leicester’s Haymarket played a formative part in my early exposure to theatre. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I came to the Haymarket with school and my family to see Pinocchio (in the studio), Peter Pan, The Witches, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The same with my girlfriend who also saw Singin’ in the Rain, Charlotte’s Web and The Borrowers. I was also acutely aware of the theatre’s history as a producing rep and pre-London tryout house from the seventies onwards: Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl, Anthony Hopkins in M Butterfly, and Peter Bowles in The Entertainer. And then in January 2007, it closed after a final Christmas show of The Wizard of Oz (which featured a jazz club singing lion from what I remember). Since then, we’ve been lucky to have Curve in Leicester, but the Haymarket has been going to waste sitting as an empty shell above a shopping centre.

This year, after a reported £3.6 million refurbishment, it has reopened. Sandi Toksvig’s new version of Treasure Island, directed by Matthew Forbes, is its first major production. Toksvig’s self-referential adaptation is superb: she has a pragmatic approach to adapting a challenging text for the stage, one which strips theatre of any reverence and makes it immediately accessible. She has a direct approach to cutting out the long-winded bits of the novel and is not afraid to question some of the more problematic parts:

“Is it OK that only the bad guys are disabled?”

“No, but it’s an old book.”

This playful and engaging approach is where the whole production excels. Forbes embraces the idea of a new theatre, building the foundations of what an ideal theatre should be: a place for stories, make-believe, and magic.

A girl walks on a bare stage whistling. A single light shines and an old Wizard of Oz front cloth flies in. Rather cleverly, Toksvig instantly makes us aware of the links between theatre and a ship, from the ropes and rigging to the whistling and terminology. Simultaneously, we are in a disused theatre with leftover props and an old Cowardly Lion costume (which nicely appears later on to save the day), and at the start of imagining Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. Rebecca Brower’s resourceful design sees backstage scaffolding become part of the pirate ship and wooden crates create a tropical island. Theatricality is embraced even further through the addition of Dominic Rye’s excellent put-upon stage manager, a role which sees him running around the stage and live designing the sound.

Samuel Parker’s puppets are ingenious, both in terms of their design (especially the parrot) and how they’re brought to life by the cast and Forbes - his expertise on War Horse comes to the fore here. In particular, an islander in act two has a full song and dance routine, in which he is hilariously given his own personality by a team of three manipulating him. Elsewhere, Kat Engall plays Jim with a convincing balance of naivety and adventure; Joyce Greenaway leads the audience through the story and songs; and  Tanveer Devgun and Andrew Cullum get the most laughs, the former as the hapless Captain Smollett, first appearing wearing a ‘I went to RADA’ T-shirt, and the latter as a foppish ham of an actor.

As the treasure is returned, and Jim discovers his identity (involving a crisp projected cameo from Gary Linekar), after all of the dancing, a wedding and a happy ending, the stage manager clears everyone and we are back on the bare stage. The actress playing Jim looks disheartened that it’s all over. But the narrator reassures us that we can do it all again tomorrow - there will always be new tales of adventure to be told. Leicester has a blossoming theatre ecology this festive season. It was a pleasure to be back at the Haymarket to see this revelatory and ambitious production. We must make sure it doesn’t close its doors again.

Treasure Island plays at the Haymarket Theatre until 6th January.

Jules Brown in Treasure Island. Credit: Pamela Raith

Monday 17 December 2018

The Cat in the Hat

Curve, Leicester

15th December, 2018, morning

“When we’re old a grey,

We’ll remember this day”

A cold, frosty morning, Curve abuzz for this treat,

With families and Scout groups, popcorn and sweets.

‘Tis the season for introducing kids to the arts,

Festive and excited, we’re thrilled to take part.


Next door, Irving Berlin and a whole lot of snow,

Here, Dr Seuss rules over Curve’s studio.

Boy and Sally are stuck indoors from the rain,

But soon The Cat in the Hat’s mayhem will reign.


They started as foes did Sally and Boy,

Siblings warring and having no joy,

Then came the Cat and his box full of tricks,

With acrobatic magic, their boredom he fixed.


A cup and a boat, a fishbowl and cake,

The cat balanced them all atop of a rake.

But the feline did fall and cause a great mess,

The house was a wreck, to the siblings’ distress.


Encased in her bowl and enforcing the law,

The Fish on the mantel brings bubbles galore.

The fireplace bursts open, Charley Magalit pops out,

Wrapped in gold scales and rolling about.


Thing 1 and Thing 2 spring forth from their case,

To fly kites in the lounge and partake in a race.

Cartwheels and backflips, all part of the game,

Their chaotic mayhem nobody could tame.


Suba Das’ direction is packed with rebellious glee,

While Isla Shaw’s set is a faithful Seuss spree.

Black and white sketches, devoid of the sun,

A blank canvas upon which the Cat has his fun.


Tasha Taylor Johnson’s music is brought to life by the cast.

And audience participation was a fun-filled blast.

Stamping our feet and waving our arms,

No one could fail to fall for its charms.


From catchy tunes and magical turns,

To a solid moral lesson for kiddies to learn,

Suba Das has created a joyous show,

I urge, families, friends and theatre-lovers to go.



The Cat in the Hat plays at Curve, Leicester until 12th January and then tours.

It completes its run at Rose Theatre, Kingston 10th-21st April.

The cast of The Cat in the Hat at Curve, Leicester. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Sunday 16 December 2018

White Christmas

Curve, Leicester

14th December, 2018


Happy Holiday!

Following on from last year’s suitably festive offering, Scrooge: the Musical, with White Christmas Curve have yet again produced a classy production filled with yuletide magic and enough fluffy escapism to warm hearts on these cold winter nights. Showstopping routines and the rich classics of Irving Berlin, performed by a pitch-perfect cast, ensure Nikolai Foster’s production is a treat for the eyes and ears.

As with many ‘Golden Age’ musicals, David Ives and Paul Blake’s book (based on the 1954 film) is pretty inconsequential. Essentially a juke-box musical, White Christmas loosely weaves a tale of screwball romance and tenuous threat amid the festive cheer that pales in comparison to Berlin’s toe-tapping numbers. In a plot reminiscent of Gershwin vehicle, Crazy For You, ex-servicemen turned big-shot variety entertainers, Bob and Phil, determine to organise a Christmas Broadway revue to drive business and save the failing small-town inn of their old army General. Very few complications arise and we’re left in no doubt that our team of intrepid stageys will save the day; the General’s business will boom and the unseasonal heatwave in Vermont will pass and, yes, the lovers will experience that ‘white Christmas’ they’ve been longing for. Ives and Blake don’t hold back on the sentiment.

But if there’s one time of year you can get away with overdosing on sugar and corny cracker jokes, it’s Christmas. Foster has assembled a crowd-pleasing cast of triple-threats that embody Berlin’s ethos of cosy crooning, mellifluous melodies, and lyrics that are by turns impish and heart melting. Dan Burton is perfectly cast as charming ladies’ man, Phil, demonstrating the cheeky likeability that wowed audiences in The Pajama Game and Gypsy. His chemistry with Monique Young is a joy, their duets, ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’ and ‘I Love A Piano’, are pure Broadway bliss. Meanwhile, Danny Mac and Emma Williams excel as the reluctant but kind Bob and waspish ingénue Betty, sharing dreamy ballads, most enchanting of which is the yearning counterpoint of ‘Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me/How Deep Is The Ocean’.

Once again, Curve has pulled out all the stops with Michael Taylor’s expansive set, Diego Pitarch’s lustrous costumes and Stephen Mear’s outstanding choreography. Combined, the stage is ablaze with theatrical spectacle that dazzles and shines as bright at the baubles in the magnificently Christmassy finale. Tap dancing chorus lines, 1950’s glamour and the enduring appeal of The Great White Way make for a slice of idealistic Americana that proves to be just the tonic to the troubling realities of the world right now. By the final curtain, only the most miserly of Scrooges could fail to be heartened by the magical snowfall of White Christmas.

White Christmas plays at Curve until 13th January, 2019.

The Cast of White Christmas. Photography by Catherine Ashmore.

Friday 16 November 2018

Les Misérables

Curve, Leicester

14th November, 2018

Who am I?

Les Misérables is arguably the kingpin in producer Cameron Mackintosh’s career. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s and Alain Boublil’s musical, based on Victor Hugo’s novel (1862), has had a long history: Paris in 1980; Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning movie in 2012; and Trevor Nunn’s and John Caird’s RSC production which opened in 1985 and is still running at the Queen’s Theatre in the West End. Now, Laurence Connor and James Powell’s new production (seen on Broadway a few years ago) gives Les Mis a fresh look which will assure its longevity.

Matt Kinley’s design is perhaps the most startling change from the London version: the famous turntable is gone but a stunning series of projections keep the action fluid and add a cinematic layer. Kinley has designed these (expertly realised by 59 Productions) based on Victor Hugo’s original paintings, paying tribute to the original material, and adding authenticity and character. The move underground into the sewers of Paris is particular effective. Kinley’s design also gives Connor and Powell the opportunity and resources to reimagine some of the musical’s most iconic moments to create those of their own. Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt’s musical staging, Kinley’s set, Paule Constable’s lighting and John Cameron’s original orchestrations come together to make multiple spectacular moments. For instance, Javert’s death is uber-theatrical; the barricade scenes are excellently choreographed (and appear to be as much of the mechanical marvel as the original); and the use of candles scattered around the stage in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is an effective touch.

But some of the most effective moments are those where Connor and Powell excellent let individual characters’ stories to shine through all the impressive set pieces. They’ve also assembled a first rate cast. Killian Donnelly brings all his experience to Jean Valjean, allowing us to follow and invest in every stage of his story: from convict, to run-away, to mayor, to elderly man. It’s a story of retribution, rehabilitation, love and cruelty. Opposite him, Nic Greenshields’ Javert lets us feel for his piety and commitment to duty. Will Richardson is notable as Enjolras, leading a young revolution with hair flicking and trill-singing naivety and gallantry, leading up to his memorable final moments. This subplot is sometimes easy to forget, but he and his fellow fighters show the bravery, hope and perhaps foolishness of their cause. Martin Ball and Sophie-Louse Dann provide great comic relief as the Thénardiers. Tegan Bannister’s Eponine is another stand-out performer. She shows her love and the character’s ‘street smart’, singing a powerful ‘On My Own’. The ensemble are all committed to their roles and this show but I should give mention to former Curve company member Mary-Jean Caldwell; having seen her shine in community productions such as Oliver! and Sweeney Todd it's lovely to see her successful move into professional theatre.

The score is a masterpiece, living up to the epic proportions set by Hugo, with rousing ballads made up of sweeping strings, and pummelling percussion to keep the stakes high and story moving. And like all great musicals, perhaps even more so, it tackles immense themes of the human condition and explores these through fully-realised characters.This is a superlative production which I’m sure will be seen in London itself one day. Popular theatre at its best.

Les Misérables plays at Curve, Leicester until 24th November before touring the UK and Ireland.
Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.Credit: Matt Crockett.

Thursday 15 November 2018

Rock Of Ages

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

14th November, 2018, matinee

“I just wanna Rock!”

Having come to Rock of Ages with no prior reference other than the 2012 film version (mostly memorable for featuring a surprisingly entertaining performance from Tom Cruise) I was… let’s say unprepared for the stage show. It’s an altogether louder, more unsavoury affair.

Lightyears away from the sun-dappled romance of La La Land, the LA of Rock of Ages’ mid-to-late 1980’s is a grimy cesspit of drugs, booze and other sticky substances that don’t bear contemplating. All that dare enter the backstreet bars in search of fame and fortune are doomed to failure. The show opens to the slamming riffs of David Lee Roth’s ‘Just Like Paradise’. Quite.

Emceeing our journey into the world of pleather, hair-crimping and screaming guitar solos is ex-drummer turned sound guy, Lonny (Lucas Rush). Lonny’s role is to simultaneously take the piss out of musical theatre and 80’s hair-rock, as his frequent pirouetting, jazz hands and jokes about White Snake and ‘serious theatre’ demonstrate. Rush builds up a rapport with the audience and plays Lonny with enough tongue-in-cheek humour to just about get away with the more questionable aspects of the narrative.

Drew (Luke Walsh) is a cleaner at the Bourbon Room bar but dreams of rocking the world as his superstar musician alter-ego, Wolfgang von Colt. There he meets Sherrie (Danielle Hope), a wannabe actress and the girl of his dreams. After a series of misunderstandings and one-night-stands the two are separated; Drew is signed to a record label and Sherrie is forced to work as a stripper in the Venus Gentleman’s Club. Add into the mix rock frontman and serial perv, Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday), a couple of camp Germen business men, and a ‘right on’ activist named Regina (rhymes with vagina) and you’ve got a musical that leaps from oddity to oddity.

Post-#MeToo, Rock of Ages seems borderline offensive in its objectification of women and presents a world in which sexual assault and exploitation is a just a joke and results in no ramifications. Knowing that Strictly Come Dancing’s Kevin Clifton is due to take over the role of Jaxx next year one does wonder how his squeaky-clean image will be affected by blasé jokes about statutory rape… (yes, I know it’s only ‘acting’, but it seems an odd role with which to make his stage debut). Chris D’Arienzo’s book also features ‘jokes’ about Nazis, the LGBT community, bestiality, mental illness and more. It’s fair to say the lack of irony means most of them don’t exactly have the audience rolling in their seats. The best gags are the cleaner ones, believe it or not. Rush’s general mickey-taking is amusing, and there are some good gags at the expense of the film and the casting of Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy as Dennis.

The second act certainly shows more heart with its celebration of friendship (‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’) – although the feelings that Lonny and Dennis admit they have for each other are decidedly non-explicit, a weird contrast to the endless tit and cock gags that precede it – and expressions of regret (‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ is a musical highlight). The finale featuring karaoke classic, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is a rousing high to end on, although I still begrudge being told to ‘get up and join in’.

Danielle Hope is as watchable as ever in a role that is quite a departure from her Dorothy days. She makes the audience care about Sherrie, a role which is otherwise underwritten, playing her with a characteristic warmth and honesty. As Drew, Walsh is an undeniably excellent singer, reaching high notes most can only dream of, and his relative innocence is a nice contrast to the other male characters’ sleaziness.

My bewilderment is perhaps influenced by seeing Rock of Ages at a midweek matinee; with a half-full auditorium of less-than-enthused retired couples it must have been a chore for the cast to raise a party atmosphere. Yet, for what should be an uplifting piece of escapism, the show is ponderously pessimistic. My prescription: less grime, more glitter and female empowerment.

Rock of Ages is touring the UK, currently booking up until July 2019. For more information please visit:

The cast of Rock of Ages.
Credit: Richard Davenport.