Monday 22 October 2018


Gielgud Theatre, London

20th October, 2018, matinee

‘Blow out the candles. Make a wish’

Marianne Elliott goes from strength to strength. Her productions of War Horse and Curious Incident are some of the most imaginative and successful page-to-stage adaptations, and last year her Angels in America was event theatre at its finest. Once again, Elliott has triumphed in bringing a well-known and well-loved story to the stage with a freshness, vibrancy and relevance rarely seen in the West End. In Elliott’s hands, Stephen Sondheim’s ground breaking 1970’s musical about single life, love and commitment in New York is made over and delivers a bang up-to-date reflection on both the freedoms and pressures faced by the modern woman.

The re-gendered Bobbie (Rosalie Craig) is a breath of fresh air. How encouraging it is to see a portrayal of a mid-thirties woman that is comfortable in her own skin, likeable, and relatable. Bobbie isn’t ‘troubled’, she isn’t ‘eccentric’, she’s a normal, down-to-earth, essentially ‘good’ person. And the fact that this is enough, more than enough, to be an interesting, entertaining and empathetic protagonist of a major musical is cause for celebration! Bobbie is an everywoman, and her experiences will resonate with so many.

Living free and single in New York, she has a comfortable lifestyle; doting friends, a solid career, and plenty of parties and trysts. What more could she want? Yet Bobbie is aware that her biological clock is ticking, and on her 35th birthday she takes stock of her life, inspired, and in some cases, repelled by her posse of clucking married friends. The idea that a woman ‘must’ marry, ‘must’ have children in order to be fulfilled is one that, outdated as it sounds, remains rife in modern society. In response, Elliott (and Sondheim) presents a sensitive case that revels in feminine independence while also acknowledging the complexity of relationships, desire and freedom.

No more is this apparent than in the pitch-perfectly reimagined ‘Poor Baby’ - ‘Tick Tock’ – ‘Barcelona’ sequence. As her male friends coo their laments of the ‘poor baby, all alone’ with ‘nothing left to do but sit and wash her hair’, Bobbie gets down and dirty with her latest fling, Andy (Richard Fleeshman), in a delicious moment of juxtaposition that exposes the ignorance (and arrogance) of the male-psyche. Following this, Bobbie experiences a dream (or nightmare) in which she and Andy stay together, marry and have kids. Elliott’s use of multiple Bobbies and Andys creates a tangible sense of biological eventuality, cut through with the mundane repetition and hectic nature of ‘settled’ domesticity which is as dizzying for us as it is for Bobbie. This results in the droll ‘Barcelona’ which epitomises the conflict between Bobbie’s sexual appetite and her reluctance to remain lumbered with a ‘nice but dim’ airline host.

Elliott’s reimagining also creates interesting consequences for the Joanne/Bobbie relationship. Joanne’s scathing wit and bitter drunkenness often make her appear harsh, but here Patti LuPone affords the character a softer side and she seems almost maternal towards Bobbie. ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ implicates Bobbie in the narrative, who, like Joanne ‘just watch(es)’ and the song becomes a caution – be comfortable and confident in who you are, whoever you are; don’t conceal yourself (even if you hide behind the pithiest one-liners and immaculate glamour) or you’ll end up unhappy, ungrateful and alone, even in the most crowded of rooms. Subsequently, Joanne’s offer of an affair with her husband Larry comes across as poignant, rather than desperate. I felt that she is reaching out, through Bobbie – a younger version of herself - as a way to rectify her own misgivings and missed opportunities.

Bunny Christie’s set, like the production as a whole, is full of delightful surprises. Series of sliding rooms form and re-form throughout, chambers pop up from beneath the stage and characters appear seemingly from nowhere. Bobbie’s dining room, the location of the birthday party, is suitably cramped. The ingenious decision to play with dimensions heightens the suffocation Bobbie sometimes feels when surrounded by her friends – in one instance she is dwarfed by the oversized balloons and cake, another time she towers over everything, drowning her sorrows in a dolls-house-sized bottle of bourbon. In all, I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland, with Bobbie our intrepid Alice (or should that be the White Rabbit, or the Queen of Hearts, even) navigating the absurdities of New York society.

The entire cast are splendid. Mel Giedroyc is a master of comic timing, and that fact she can elicit hilarity merely by eating a brownie, shows that she must have been born with funny bones. Her chemistry and banter with Gavin Spokes ensures Sarah and Harry’s relationship is as endearing as it is cringeworthy. Boyfriend PJ is the epitome of hipster pretension, and George Blagden relishes the role, playing him as the quintessential, smarmy git. His faux philosophising rings all too true, the recognition making the character even funnier. Jonathan Bailey is a shoe-in for best supporting actor come awards season with his show-stopping ‘(Not) Getting Married Today’, a scene that treads the line between jaw-dropping wit (thankyou, Sondheim) and utter farce. Bailey is a recognised name, but this may just be his break out role. LuPone was born to play Joanne. So effortless is her performance it almost defies critique; she simply is. But, of course, the show belongs to Rosalie Craig, who is so endearing, funny, empathetic and human that I can’t imagine Bobbie being played by anyone else (let alone A MAN?!?).

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.

Company plays at the Gielgud until 30th March, 2019.


The cast of Company.
Credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Calendar Girls: the Musical

De Montfort Hall, Leicester

16th October, 2018

‘It’s Wednesday, I’m grieving!’

It’s a story that’s captured the hearts and minds of the nation; that of a small WI group that came up with a most risqué scheme to raise money in memory of a beloved husband and community member. Tasteful, humorous and brimming with good will, the famed ‘nude calendar’ (currant buns, knitting, teapots covering all the essentials) spawned a multitude of copycats and has become as iconically British as jam, ‘Jerusalem’ and Victoria Sponge. Tim Firth first breached the subject back in 2003 with the hugely successful film, followed by an even more successful play version, beloved on national stages and am-dram town halls alike. Now Firth has teamed up with Gary Barlow for a musical adaptation (initially premiering as The Girls, but now renamed after its more famous sister show). The result is a crowd pleasing, rousing and fun evening of theatre that’s not without its oddities.

Barlow’s music is as melodious and inoffensive as you’d expect, pulling off soaring leitmotifs and bouncy character numbers with a breeze afforded by nearly 30 years in the pop industry. Yet the greatest surprise in Calendar Girls is Barlow’s droll and often poignant lyrics. He writes in a way that illuminates the beauty, comfort, fear and joy of a distinctly British type of mundanity. Think bus stops, crossword puzzles and cups of tea. This is no more apparent than in the touching songs, ‘Scarborough’ and ‘Kilimanjaro’, in which protagonist, Annie (Anna-Jane Casey), contemplates life without her husband John, who is diagnosed with cancer early on in the musical. Barlow has a talent for simple honesty (no jokes about tax-evasion, now!), focusing on the small things that we perhaps don’t appreciate until they’re gone. Annie misses John most when thinking about shopping at Tesco, fishing by the seaside, making dinner for one, and the unbearable pain of climbing the stairs to bed alone. Firth and Barlow manage to portray the grieving process in a manner that avoids mawkishness, but is never flippant, despite the humour elsewhere in the show.

While I appreciate this exploration of loss and love in Calendar Girls the show is nevertheless full of padding and underdeveloped subplots. Each ‘girl’ gets her moment in the spotlight in a series of oddly truncated songs that either fail to move the plot along, or come completely out of the blue – a Christmas scene seems shoehorned into the narrative in order for Barlow to showcase a catchy tune he’s had earworming round his brain for the last decade, while ‘My Russian Friend and I’ is a puzzling eleventh hour interlude in an otherwise feel-good production (are we supposed to find Ruth’s alcoholism funny? Empowering? Tragic? The tone and lack of precedence is confusing to say the least). Conversely, I would question whether single mothers and plastic surgery are nowadays the controvercial subjects they’re presented as here. While the real ‘girls’ story took place in the late nineties, Firth’s decision to update the setting (selfies, Bake Off references) seems unnecessary and only emphasises the slightly outdated themes. I also could have done without the teenage subplot, which is a bit of a nonentity.

These niggles, however, melt away with the hearty triumph of the photoshoot scene. The abandonment felt and displayed by the women on stage ripples throughout the auditorium as the audience cheers them on. Here, director Matt Ryan comes into his own, as the sequence of tableaus materialise with precision, only to be subverted with the sheer fervour of the women.

The cast clearly love what they do, and with the uproarious reception they get, who can blame them? Ruth Madoc nearly blew the roof off with her ‘What Age Expects’, while Sara Crowe gets the majority of the laughs as the stiffly coy busybody, Ruth. Yet the outstanding moments belong to Casey as the grieving Annie, and Rebecca Storm as her brash best friend, Chris. Storm is a deft hand at both comedy and pathos and has a likeable phlegmatic air. Her chemistry with Casey ensures the women’s friendship is believable, while the duo’s singing showcases Barlow’s music splendidly.

It’s easy to be snobby about musicals such as this – film adaptation, pop star score – and, as I mentioned, the production isn’t without its problems, however, as a piece of enjoyable, light-hearted theatre, Firth and Barlow’s show is certainly a crowd pleaser. What’s more, to say the show is celebratory seems cliché, yet there’s no better description; Calendar Girls is an unashamed celebration of love, life, and community (and cake!).

Calendar Girls plays at De Montfort Hall, Leicester until 20th October, and continues to tour the UK.
For more details please visit:

Tim Firth, Gary Barlow and the cast of Calendar Girls.
Credit: John Swanell.

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Cilla the Musical

Curve, Leicester

9th October, 2018


I am not the target audience for Cilla the Musical. Let me start by saying this as the possible reason why swathes of the audience were stood up around me – dancing, cheering, booking minibreaks to Liverpool – before the night was out whilst I stayed seated.  I admire Bill Kenwright’s instinct for a hit, here carved out of his love of 60s’ music set in the Midas days of Cavern Club era Liverpool, and the rags-to-riches story of Cilla Black (born White). And although there were some entertaining moments (including that he and co-producer Laurie Mansfield have invested a lot into the production values, which is good to see), I remained cynical of the story, bored by the direction, and deafened by the sound levels.

Daughter of a docker and living in a flat with no front door above a barber’s, Cilla is an ordinary working class northern girl. In the eyes of her mum, her career prospects are exciting because she’s been deemed ‘suitable for office work’. I’m not doubting the humble beginnings of her life, but in Jeff Pope’s book (adapted from the ITV mini-series starring Sheridan Smith) this life is about as ordinary as a bad sitcom: a dotty mum, an irate dad, and a crowbarred physical joke featuring a hairdryer. I understand that dramatised life stories necessitate elements of fiction. Years of struggle may be truncated down to scenes and edges are rounded in order to create an archness to the narrative that fits into a nearly three hour show (although surely there could be some trimming here!). But I wonder where the line was drawn between the reality and the fiction. For me, there is a disconnect between the Cilla Black we see in Cilla the Musical and the Cilla Black I saw on TV when growing up, presenting game shows, and seeming to overcompensate her Liverpudlian accent. There is even a disconnect in the book between act one Cilla and act two Cilla, denying her road manager and eventual husband to take a record deal. The effects of fame, the need to have a voice in a male-dominated era and industry, and the move away from working class roots are all interesting underlying issues that never fully get explored. I’m convinced, therefore, we are left with an ultimately flattering and partly fictionalised rags to riches story that in reality probably wasn’t so (surprise surprise) Black or White.

Designer Gary McCann turns the stage into the legendary Cavern Club, its bands providing a through-way that links the story.  We go from here to Liverpool terraces, Abbey Road studios, the London Palladium and The Ed Sullivan Show in New York and so on. It’s not an innovative set – simply lighting rigs, flats, back cloths and huge ‘Cilla’ lights – but it’s quite attractive and does the job. Less effective in creating a sense of place and atmosphere is Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s direction. A chorus of dancers in the Cavern Club dance in the same spot in each scene and one scene set on way to a football match is completed by a steady stream of background actors crossing the stage shaking their scarves to hammer home the point of what they’re doing. They pad the show out with hit after mediocre hit from the 60s catalogue and there are occasionally uneasy transitions from book to song.

Kara Lily Hayworth is undoubtedly unmatchable in the title role. She is vocally excellent, funny and (I think) perfectly imitates Black. Andrew Lancel fills the role of manager Brian Epstein, an underwritten role in a weak subplot, and Alexander Patmore plays Cilla’s beloved Bobby with a likeable charm. The rest of the cast spend half of their time auditioning for Blood Brothers and the other half nicely imitating 60s celebrities, from Danny La Rue to Burt Bacharach. And what a right bunch of dicks The Beatles are written as!

Overall, Cilla the Musical is a watchable and well-produced show. On the other hand, I think there’s possibly a more interesting story in there. At the end of the show, in front of 12 foot high letters of her name, Cilla and the band sing a number of hits at an unbearably high volume. But a strong 95% of the audience were dancing and won over by the Cilla enigma.

Cilla the Musical plays at Curve, Leicester until 13th October as part of its UK tour.

Kara Lily Hayworth in Cilla the Musical. Credit: Matt Martin

Thursday 4 October 2018

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual

Curve, Leicester

3rd October, 2018

I hate skinheads, but it’s clear they’re part of something.

What am I part of?

There’s been a recent trend of regional theatres looking closer to home to stage their cities’ stories: Songs from the Seven Hills in Sheffield, We’ll Live and Die in these Towns in Coventry, Shebeen in Nottingham. Now, Curve has adapted former Baby Squad firm member Riaz Khan’s memoirs about his time as a 1980s football hooligan. The result is an unsentimental, highly charged, immersive production that is fearlessly performed by Jay Varsani and Hareet Deol. And although its focus is a niche and troubled bit of Leicester history, Khan and director Nikolai Foster emphasise themes regarding race, religion, class and identity in Riaz’s story which resonate on a national (and international) scale.

Grace Smart has transformed the studio space into the Filbert Street terraces, complete with graffiti tags, De Montfort Hall posters, and football flags, our protagonists pitched (no pun intended) between the onlookers. The story begins in 1987, with Riaz preparing for the Baby Squad’s biggest brawl yet; encamped on the banks of New Walk he waits for his rival firm to depart the train station. How did he get here? The next two hours traverse Riaz’s upbringing, his ancestral roots, and his gradual intoxication with the camaraderie and violence of gang culture.

One of Memoirs’ major successes is that Khan (and adaptor, Dougal Irvine) never falls into hackneyed traps of sentimentality or, adversely, patronising didactism. The piece is contextually solid; we understand and even empathise with the allure of the Baby Squad and the football casual way of life through Riaz’s perspective as the son of Pakistani immigrants. Neo-Nazi, Enoch Powell-inspired bigotry is encountered everywhere – from the bus, to the shopping centre, and even primary school playgrounds and Humanities debate classes – meaning Riaz doesn’t feel welcome in his hometown. But we also hear how he doesn’t fully ‘belong’ at home. He and his brother can’t share their mum’s enthusiasm for watching three hour long Bollywood movies on a Sunday with the gas fire on full. Nor can they understand their dad’s appreciation of lazy and xenophobic 70s sitcoms such as Mind Your Language. This sense of displacement is extended to the motherland, as a trip to Pakistan leaves Riaz and Suf overwhelmed and entirely disconnected with their family’s social and cultural heritage. So when Riaz encounters the stylish, multi-cultural Baby Squad he sees an opportunity for integration by joining the co-founders of a new, ultra-contemporary subculture.

Irvine’s adaptation is thoughtful and never overshadows Khan’s story. The structure of the piece echoes epic theatre techniques by having Riaz and Suf address the audience directly and even discuss how they’re going to play certain scenes. This outline allows for some interesting language play, as Irvine strikingly assimilates language with violence. Early on in the play Riaz and Suf step away from the narrative to debate the appropriation and re-appropriation of offensive language. Language and race is a hot topic of late, and Khan and Irvine take a refreshingly post-modern approach by acknowledging the fact that in re-appropriating the language of the oppressor Riaz and Suf are themselves degrading and oppressing their ‘souls’. From then on, we hear only the opening syllables of slurs that are scratched out by a screech of chalk, the brothers visually marking each assault. The violence of these actions cuts deep, creating near-physical reactions from the audience each and every time. There is no room for complacency where racism is concerned, and the play is all the more shocking and perceptive for it.

As Riaz ingrains himself further into the football casual culture we see his world paradoxically expand and narrow. He’s found his place, but is confined within it. Life now boils down to the next high, the next game, the next fight, the next must-have fashion (from golfing sportswear, to designer brands and questionable paisley shirts, to hip-hop and acid house – ironically a football casual would never be caught wearing their team’s strip). Unemployed or stuck in menial jobs, nothing else matters except loyalty to the firm. Smart’s design comes into its own here, the overhead stadia lighting rig closes in on Riaz as he delves further into violence.

It takes a lot to pull of an immersive show, but I imagine even more so when there are only two actors. Varsani (as Riaz) and Deol (as Riaz’s brother, Suf) have no problem filling the stage as they switch between playing dozens of characters with chameleonic ease; from their parents and ancestors, to Enoch Powell and a camp Skegness skinhead. Varsani and Deol bask in the comedy (and parts are very, very funny), playfully dart in and around the audience, and bring a solemn sobriety to the darker aspects of the narrative while avoiding what in other hands could appear cloyingly earnest. These charismatic young actors are definitely ones to watch.

One of the fascinations about this production, heightened by Foster’s choice of a traverse stage, is being able to see and hear others’ reactions. Some reacted in recognition to familiar Leicestershire place names (Upperton Road, the Haymarket, Gallowtree Gate, Eyres Monsell); others were perhaps nostalgic about the terraces of the old Filbert Street ground (now replaced by the nearby King Power Stadium). Above all of that, however, was the unique experience of having the play’s protagonist sat in the audience. Khan, along with his family and friends sat nearby, was enthralled watching his experiences relived in front of him. At the end, he walks onstage, speaking to us and his younger self in a moment touching catharsis.

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.

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual plays at Curve, Leicester until 6th October.

This post was corrected on 4th October - the traverse stage was mislabelled as a promenade stage.

Hareet Deol (Suf) and Jay Varsani (Riaz) -Photography by Ellie Kurttz

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Curve, Leicester

2nd October, 2018


‘How do you quote a dance show?’ I asked my partner this morning. It may seem trivial, but this quandary perfectly exemplifies Matthew Bourne’s genius ability to tell stories both sweeping and intricate without the utterance of a single syllable. Following his most recent smash hits, The Red Shoes and Cinderella, Bourne has returned to the piece that made his name and irrevocably rocked the dance world. In a newly revised production of Swan Lake, Bourne and the New Adventures company demonstrate yet again why they are the most inventive, compassionate and exciting producers of dance around.

Retaining the essential themes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – duty, freedom and doomed love – Bourne has crafted something altogether more psychological, unnerving and heartbreaking with his tale of a Prince that longs to escape the bonds of royal responsibility, yearns for his frosty mother’s love, and is haunted by visions of gathering swans, majestic yet brutal. 

Much has been made of the now iconic ‘male swans’ section in Act Two, and over the years has lost none of its potency. The striking visuals of the muscular, brooding, graceful yet intimidating swans is heightened in this productions revised aesthetic; eschewing the traditional ‘slicked back’ look of the original, Bourne and Assistant Director Pia Driver instead opt for a troupe of male dancers sporting identical ‘skinhead’ looks. This uniformity heightens the viciousness of the pack mentality seen in the finale, while also creating an enigmatic frisson of beauty and menace in the hyper-masculinity of the ensemble.

Yet to reduce Swan Lake to that one, albeit stunning scene, is to neglect the other joys that Bourne concocts in this veritable cornucopia of delights. From the comedic pitfalls of the Prince’s Girlfriend we are transported back to the type of slapstick coquettishness that made early silent films such a success, while the nightmarish chain of mother-masked and anaesthetised nurses that prey on the deranged Prince is a twisted allegorical exercise in quasi-oedipal castration. Played upon a larger-than-life story-book set designed by Lez Brotherston, the production is sumptuous, while avoiding the type of ostentation that could detach us from the action.

Standing out amidst an overall spectacular cast, Nicole Kabera exudes poise and elegance as the duty-bound but unfeeling Queen, and Katrina Lyndon has pitch-perfect comic timing as the hapless Girlfriend. New Adventures veteran, Dominic North expresses all the despair, abandonment and melancholy of the Prince, displaying a vulnerability which is deeply touching. The chemistry between North and Will Bozier’s inscrutable and alluring Swan/Stranger is electric; their pas de duex is a treat both tender and powerful, sensuous and romantic, while the intense eye contact between the two during the ball as they dance with their respective partners is compelling. Bozier and North’s unspoken connection ensures we are invested in the piece, so when tragedy befalls the royal household the effect is devastating.

Bourne’s Swan Lake is timeless, this production as fresh as ever, while a company that embody a tireless amount verve, ingenuity, precision and emotion ensure this is a revival to be universally celebrated. I defy anyone to watch Swan Lake and not fall completely under its spell. In short, this is an enchanting show for fans of dance and novices alike that truly justifies and deserves the years of acclaim bestowed upon it.

Swan Lake plays at Curve Leicester until 6th October and continues to tour the UK. For further details please visit:

The ensemble of Swan Lake.
Photo credit: Johan Persson