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