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Pinocchio

Pinocchio

Lewis Renninson and Company in Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan


Performed by CFT’s Youth Theatre.

A year ago I watched this show on Zoom because Covid regulations were tightening by the hour. Then, they had to cancel the rest of the run. What a joy, this year to see it revived and to be there in person.

Now in the hands of revival director, Bobby Brook, Pinocchio which was originally directed by Dale Rook has a cast of sixty-eight, about half of whom were in last year’s aborted production. Some young actors are back but in different roles, all demonstrating what a marvellously developmental experience CFT’s Youth Theatre is.

Anna Ledwich’s adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s novel stresses the family values, forgiveness and redemption which underpin this story of a puppet turned boy who runs away, tells lies and makes lots of mistakes but is eventually reunited, contrite, humble and relieved with his puppet maker father.

It’s a piece which lends itself to working in bubbles (if you need to) because it’s episodic – most  sections using immaculately well directed ensemble to good effect. And I still like the way Ledwich’s text manages to work in a bit of environmental awareness in the underwater scene.

There is a certain amount of cast rotation. On press night I saw Lewis Renninson as Pinocchio, wobbling his way to boyhood with professional panache. I especially liked his donkey dance during that sinister episode when he is turned into a donkey by a cruel circus owner and forced to dance as an attraction.

Funmi Ajayi gives us a very commonsensible but glittery fairy who acts as a sort of invisible guardian to Pinocchio. And Honami Davies does a fine job as the cricket who is Pinocchio’s forthright voice of conscience. Of course he often ignores her and she gets very cross.

It isn’t easy for a teenager to portray an old man but Spencer Dixon is pretty convincing as Gepetto whose unconditional love for his “son” is quite moving. I was moved too by the way they hugged each other. Last year hugs had to be mimed because of social distancing rules.

Tom Brady’s music purrs happily along in the capable hands of an (unseen, unfortunately) six-piece live band led by Colin Billing. There’s a duet between Pinocchio and Geppetto which stands out for its attractive harmony. And as last year I especially liked slinky Cat and Fox number with its hint of Kurt Weill.

I can’t finish this review without a word of praise for Isobel Buckler’s delightful, shiny orange Lobster with the Russian accent. Her nonchalance and stage presence gets a well deserved audience chuckle every time she speaks.

It’s a fine show of its type – and I see quite a lot of youth and student work. As ever Chichester does it splendidly.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Image: Eliza Wilmot


Rarely have I enjoyed an evening in the theatre so unequivocally. The warmly familiar show itself packs more smile-factor than almost anything else I can think of. And CTC’s practice of using its vibrant, enthusiastic, talented youth theatre alongside very competent non-professional adults works a treat.

Director/Choreographer. Chris Cuming. sets the show in a school library with primary school children reading books so the set is a bit Matilda-like but it’s an inspired idea. The children and teachers are re-enacting the story of Joseph in assembly so the headmaster becomes Jacob, the PE teacher becomes Pharaoh and other roles emerge from the community. As the story starts we move from grey school uniforms into colour (costumes by Liz Milway). And it works splendidly; fizzing with visual and aural energy throughout.

Vikki Jones is outstanding as the teacher/narrator, holding the book she’s pretending to read from, “directing” her charges, singing and dancing well  and making it  all look smilingly, professionally effortless.

Ben Lewis, initially a puzzled bespectacled teenager in his school tie, morphs into a charismatic and ultimately authoritative Joseph and sings with maturity.  Rodger Lloyd has enormous fun with the Elvis/Pharaoh number gyrating his hips and pointing at women in the front row and Lake Falconer finds gentle gravitas in Jacob.

But the real star of the show is the ensemble which moves continuously with volumes of slick, well disciplined exuberance. Cuming really knows how to get the very best from them. Even the finale/curtain call is a choreographic gem.  And let’s hear it too  for Jennifer Edmonds’s eight piece band on a high platform at right angles to stage right. Lovely clarinet work from Graham Dolby and I know the xylophone in “Any Dream Will Do” is just a key board switch but it sounds great.

Of course it wasn’t perfect – there was the occasional bum note and missed entry. This was the opening night after all. A superb achievement, though, by any standards.

I couldn’t help comparing this show with my disappointing 2019 experience of seeing the much hyped version with Sheridan Smith, Jason Donovan and Jake Yarrow which I found forced and oddly unengaging. CTC’s lively, imaginative show is anything but and I know which version I much preferred. Thank you, CTC. This was just what I needed just before Christmas and a real antidote to some of the lacklustre pro shows I’ve seen in recent weeks.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk

Image: Sheringham Little Theatre

‘…Loud, colourful, and energetic; it’s great fun!…’


It’s that time of year again and Sheringham Little Theatre delivers once more with this year’s pantomime: Jack and the Beanstalk. Loud, colourful, and energetic; it’s great fun. Writer and director Nick Earnshaw’s latest festive offering hits the spot, and not a sprout in sight.

The tale of lazy Jack’s redemption ascending a giant beanstalk is delivered with verve and aplomb – and not a little technical wizardry. The story bounds along at a sprightly pace and delivers energy, songs and jokes to the evident glee of everyone in the audience (both small and large).

Charlie Randall leads the way with a composed and charismatic performance as Jack. Harry Wyatt is faultless and absolutely nails it with an almost League of Gentleman-esque performance as loveable diva, Dame TikTok. Emma Riches sparkles primly as Jill; Olly Westlake amuses greatly as Colin the Cow; and Katie Thompson adds to the enigma as the Mysterious Woman. And if that wasn’t enough, director Nick Earnshaw turns in a virtuoso virtual performance as Giant Bogie, a superb screen villain – eminently booable!

The songs are great and performed excellently by a vocally adept cast. The well-worked, hard-practised, high-quality harmonies are noticeable throughout, and much appreciated. Choreography is well-thought out, beautifully delivered, always integral, and apt.

The screen technology works really well and interacts wonderfully with the deftly economic set. Lighting and sound importantly are bang on (often literally). Costumes are characterful, colourful, and fun.

All in all it’s rollicking good fun for children, adults, and everyone in between. Everything you’d want and expect – including the chance to be squirted by a cow, or sneezed on by a giant! (The audience loved that!). Wonderful feel-good family fun. Forget your troubles – and go!

Jack and the Beanstalk continues at Sheringham Little Theatre until Friday 31 December.

Tickets (Adults £12, U16s £8.00) are available online or by telephone on 01263 822347. The venue follows new Government Covid guidance: Masks must be worn at all times (unless exempt or under the age of 11). Proof of vaccinations or negative tests are not required.

Dick Whittington – and – Sleeping Booty

Dick Whittington – and – Sleeping Booty

The newly reopened Bridge House Theatre in Penge is celebrating Christmas with a pair of pantos – one for children and the other for adults using almost the same cast. I saw them consecutively on the venue’s gala night. And, seeing two pantos in one evening, I can report first that it’s like watching a traditional rep company or being at Edinburgh and is therefore a pretty powerful showcase for versatility. Second, it’s an experience almost as long as seeing an uncut Hamlet. We started at 6pm and finished just before 11pm. If nothing else, it speaks volumes for actor energy.

The first half of Dick Whittington, set mostly in a Penge fish and chip shop, is stronger than the second in which some of the incidents and numbers are a bit protracted. I quite liked the “educated” jokes such as the running alliteration gag and I admired the use of uncompromising vocabulary: “Nubile” and “most verbose of vermin” for instance. That said, the whole show is a bit wordy for young children.

The reactions, though, tell their own story. The playing space at the Bridge House is a simple, informal square, with seats on three sides and no larger than the average classroom. The complete absence of any semblance of a fourth wall makes the children feel effortlessly included. One boy (maybe 9) put his hand up and demanded of Steve Banks (good) as Rattigan, the dastardly rat, “Who exactly are you?” At the end a very small girl (probably under three) took over the space near her front row seat and happily joined in the dancing. It certainly keeps cast members on their toes.

Sleeping Booty – in which co-writer Brendan Matthews gives us a menacing Wagnerian-horned Carabosse  is, of course, a very different sort of show. In a sense “adult pantomime” is a contradiction in terms but it worked for the audience I saw it with who showed their enjoyment with gales of raucous laughter at the many sex jokes, the funniest of which was a series of escalating sweet puns delivered by George Lennan with nicely judged nuance and timing. Lennan, incidentally, is interesting to watch as two contrasting dames. His Dame Sarah is funny and ridiculous without being especially camp. By the time we’re over the 9pm watershed his Queen Constance is up several notches with lots of filthy flirtatiousness.

But the best thing in Sleeping Booty is Alex White delivering a hilarious but understated Bojo. Nothing as cheap or obvious as a blonde wig but he has all the gestures, umming and erring and mannerisms perfectly especially the very serious injured tone. He is also fun as Tom Cook the straight guy in Dick Whittington and I like his singing.

Ellie Walsh is an outstanding actor. She brings oodles of panache and neat dancing skills to a Dick who manages to be charismatic without too much swashbuckling or thigh slapping. And her sweary King Cole, catching eyes in the audience and stomping around crossly is excellent.

I also reckoned Olivia Penhallow’s cheerful cheeky cat (good singing voice) but I was less taken with her work as narrator in the second show. Sarah Louise Hughes screams, shouts and pulls faces, first as a drunken Fairy Good and later as a very spoiled Princess Aurora, among other roles. It’s initially amusing but soon gets wearisome because it’s relentless. She should have been directed to dial it down occasionally.

There is no space at The Bridge House for a built set but it is learning to do clever things with projection on its back wall. Simon Nicholas’s projection mapping gives us, among other things Penge East Station with a moving train, a desert island and a castle with bats.

Luke Adamson and Joseph Lindoe have done a marvellous job in getting Bridge House Theatre up, fitted and running again in its new upstairs space. It would have been a challenge at any time but they’ve achieved it against the pandemic. I wish them all the best for the new year and look forward to seeing more shows there soon – whether “received” or home produced.

Omid Djalili – The Good Times Tour

Omid Djalili – The Good Times Tour

This review is a giant step away from our usual fayre but, thanks to the growing Omicron variant (and the mass panic that comes with it), invitations have materialised from all corners of the entertainment industry. So, here we are; stand-up comedy.

At least the talent in question, Omid Djalili, is also a real-life actor, who, incidentally has featured in some impressive and top-rated films. Omid Djalili is arguably now the go-to Middle Eastern pastiche when it comes to casting films. These include the likes of Gladiator and The Mummy as well as home-grown movies such as the acclaimed The Infidel, in which Djalili took a starring role where a devout Muslim finds out he was adopted and his real parents were Jewish. In fact, the comedian presented us with a 5-minute showreel at the outset, followed by “I don’t like to talk about it!”

Omid Djalili is famously known for being (self-proclaimed) “Iran’s only stand-up comedian.” He constantly refers to his roots, parentage and his motherland’s view of the West (America mainly – “Death to The West!”). His parents actually came to the UK in 1957, so he was born over here, rather than immigrated. He brilliantly refers to his Kensington upbringing although in a slightly “embarrassed” way.

In a routine titled The Good Times Tour, Djalili discusses the pandemic at length in front of the Eventim Apollo’s packed auditorium (It’ll always be the ‘Hammersmith Odeon’ to me – mind you Hammersmith has completely changed since my boyhood days) in fine detail; lockdown, toilet paper, work… Indeed this extensive UK tour has been rescheduled from 2020.

I was fortunate to attend with my Iranian father-in-law (Tehran) who couldn’t believe how packed the venue was last night – “…and with so many non-Iranians!”

Djalili is very funny and has forged himself as a top-flight comedian over the past twenty-ish years. Nevertheless, during the routine he was extremely happy to stop and pay a major tribute to the late Sean Lock who passed away earlier this year, and who gave Djalili his big TV break back in 1997.

The great skill with Djalili is his ability to connect with his audiences (as well as make them laugh). To this end it was a joy to have the comedian return to his first-ever routine which was set in a cinema auditorium surrounded by his family when we come across an 11-year-old Omid Djalili. One word: ‘Slaphead’.

Perhaps you’ll need to catch this tour!

Dates & tickets: www.omidnoagenda.com

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

A workmanlike (workwomanlike?) two-hander for young children, Sarah Middleton’s take on Little Red Riding Hood packs three messages we don’t usually associate with this story: conserve the environment, allow girls the same opportunities as boys and recognise that strength isn’t necessarily physical. It’s a lot to do in 45 minutes.

Carolyn Murray is a homely Granny who brings Lil (Josie White) a birthday present and then goes home. Lil then needs to visit her on the other side of the forest. Said forest is under threat from developers so they decide to start a rumour that there scary wolves therein despite everyone knowing that wolves only inhabit Russia, Ukraine, USA, Canda and so on. The list of countries is repeated several times in the course of the play.

Murray gives us a nice wolf (Wulfric) in a big headdress (costumes and set by Ella Barraclough) with a habit of eating friends because of an incessantly rumbling tummy. The doubling with Granny makes for a very neat bed scene in which audience children help to tug Granny out of the wolf with a rope. At the end Wulfric’s urges are sated with a vegetarian (sort of – it includes chicken) pie and the wood becomes a wolf sanctuary.

The acting is convincing enough for pre-schoolers and both actors have reasonable audience connection skills. The singing isn’t great however. Although the words to Wayne Walker-Allen’s songs are clever and clearly articulated neither performer actually sings. White, in particular simply speaks in rhythm against the music and it’s uneven. Murray has a bit more range but she’s no singer.

I’ve been to Nottingham Playhouse several times but this was my first visit to its Neville Studio, a good space clearly useful for small scale work, It was a pity, though, that at the performance I saw there were only 13 adults and 11 children present: about one third of the capacity. I suppose that’s Covid fears and positive tests biting.

London Behind Closed Doors

London Behind Closed Doors

I was not aware of Angel Shed Theatre Company before this visit, but I will certainly look forward to seeing more of their work in future. It’s always good to see young people developing their performance skills, whether that be through taking part in an adult-directed school play or in something more small-scale and where they can have much more input. It’s unusual, however, to find a group where the young people involved are able to develop their skills in writing and directing as well as performing, as is the case with London Behind Closed Doors.

The performance was by Angel Shed’s Youth Theatre 2, who are aged 13 to 19; Angel Shed work with four different age-based groups as well as Music and Dance companies. Due to the pandemic, the work has been developed over a long period of well over a year. Short pieces involving small numbers of young people were topped and tailed by ensemble sections that tied the evening together.

This inclusive and diverse group of 16 young people presented a range of aspects of London life as they experience it: on the bus, in the street and at eating places. Using the performance space at City and Islington College meant that the audience could see well and the cast had the benefit of good lighting and sound to support their work. I very much enjoyed learning about these young people’s lives and their perceptions of how other people live theirs.

If there was an undertone to the evening it was a slightly offbeat one that seemed to sit well with the cast and indicated their involvement with, and control over, the material. Some of the performers had a quiet but reassuring stage presence which focussed attention on what they were saying; others achieved their effects through movement or by dialogue.

The cast were well rehearsed and mostly coped well with the difficulties of voice projection in a large space. There were occasionally signs of not being sure how to end a section, but that is the eternal problem for writers of sketch format pieces. The beginning and end pieces with the whole group worked very well, with the bus sketch getting its effect through strong characterisation and well-judged movement. The Q&A with the cast, expertly facilitated, rounded off the evening well and indicated the extent to which the cast had benefitted from the experience.

Angel Shed’s strapline is Inclusivity Through Theatre, and their inclusivity is total: anyone is welcome to join, they never audition, workshops are free to those who cannot afford them and support is provided where necessary. It is difficult to know how to rate performances like this as there is nothing to compare it to – but due to the enterprise, commitment and achievement shown, and above all the level of inclusivity, this was a five star experience for cast and audience.

Circus 1903

Circus 1903

Circus 1903 company. Photo: Dan Tsantilis


When you assess a show professionally you are supposed to judge it as being decent, weak, good or outstanding for a production of its type. Well I haven’t the faintest idea how to star rate this one since I’ve never seen anything remotely like it before and therefore have nothing to measure it against. This was the first circus I’ve been to since childhood and that was so long ago that I remember plumed horses and roaring lions all of which is now illegal in the UK, thank goodness. I’ve seen occasional circus acts in, say, panto or the piazza at Covent Garden but never the whole caboodle. Well, after much thought I’ve decided it’s a four on the simple grounds that I enjoyed it very much and it includes some stunning performances. I have only a couple of minor reservations of which more shortly.

In a sense Circus 1903 is a play-within-a-play. We’re meant to be in an American touring circus of which there were many (remember Barnum and Bailey The Greatest Show on Earth) in the early 20th Century. The year is 1903 and in the first act they are setting up, rehearsing the show and training the elephants: two life-size puppets by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller are a theatrical tour de force. They are beautiful – moving, in every sense – and totally convincing. The second half is more or less a performance, with glitzier costumes, beginning with a parade and ending with a finale.

It’s noteworthy that none of the spectacular acts is British or even American. Most are from South America or Eastern Europe. And they are mind-blowingly, heart-in-mouth good. As I watched them I was forcibly struck that what this work needs is three things: phenomenal trust, bodies trained to behave like iron and decades of practice. The “Daring Desafios”, for instance are a quartet of grinning tattooed young men from Brazil who launch themselves to enormous heights from a teeterboard turning double and triple somersaults in the air. The cheerful camaderie they exude belies the skill of the coordination which is like a very fast four man dance.

We also get Roberto Carlos from Mexico juggling, Natalia Leontieva from Russia doing impossible things with spinning hoops and Olava Rocha Muniz and Denise Torres de Souza, also   Brazilian, in a “Russian Cradle”. The latter involves very daring arial work with nail biting mid air throws. The highest (literally) spot for me was two brothers from Colombia on a “wheel of death. It’s a huge structure like a giant egg timer made from metal tubing and mesh and it’s flown slowly down to stage level. One man in each oval space makes it spin – ever faster as they walk, skip, jump and sometimes climb round the outside of it. The top man standing upright almost has his head in the flies. It’s quite an act.

So all in all a fine show. Recorded music is composed and arranged by Evan Jolly who borrows from all sorts of genres including some traditional circus numbers and some atmospheric classical. It works quite well in the first half but becomes far too loud and relentless in the second. The performances are excellent, Adding that level of noise as an enhancement is almost an insult to the acrobats who don’t need their work psyched up like this.

My other reservation is that I really don’t like squirm-inducing gags involving audience children brought on stage and made to look silly and there’s too much of that in this show although David Williamson as ring master is fairly gentle with them. Even I have to admit, however, that it’s very funny when a child is invited to thrust the traditional plate of shaving foam in her own father’s face and does it with glee.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Launch photo: Paul Johnson


Sublime in 2019 to disaster in 2021!

Lame, Tame and almost devoid of any atmosphere. This year’s panto review from Croydon…

What a difference a year or two makes.

Twenty-four months ago The Fairfield Halls brilliantly sprang back into life in the venue’s concert Hall and presented Imagine Theatre’s digitally designed set as Cinderella thrilled its audiences with a little help from its stars Tim Vine and Ore Oduba. This week Imagine Theatre opens Beauty and the Beast but not in the luxury of the concert hall, the pantomime has been moved back into the Ashcroft Theatre – complete with its traditional proscenium arch. This time the stars are CBBC’s Dick and Dom as well as Derek Griffiths – arguably all from yesteryear. What’s more, this year’s pantomime – which lacked a plethora of expected special effects –  just isn’t very funny. In fact, compared to the other pantomimes I’ve been to in the last fortnight, tonight’s festivities in Croydon were second rate.

It all started upon arrival at so-called press night. I fully understand that the new Omicron variant halted any hopes of a potential press reception but not to have any kind of welcome at all was just plain weird. In addition, the lack of any kind of show programme (until I was sent a digital version via email two hours after the event) and the staff that were there behaving like a chaotic event of some kind had just occurred – didn’t kick the evening off in style. Two years ago I couldn’t move without bumping into a smiling producer or venue manager. This year, they’re nowhere to be seen.

Poor Dick and Dom – whom I interviewed at the launch – were full of energy and really trying their best. But when the script isn’t good enough you can only go so far. I remember Derek Griffiths (whom I also interviewed) from Play School and Play Away before seeing him as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opposite Michael Ball at the London Palladium, and, ironically, as the Candelabra in the West End’s original Beauty and the Beast from Disney. In December 2021 he does tend to look like he’s merely turned up for work. But it’s really not our stars’ faults. I’m sure Ant and Dec would gabble or talk over each other’s punchlines without good direction.

The trouble is Croydon’s Fairfield Halls is a big deal and audiences will expect to be blown away – just like they were two years ago. I’m very sorry to say that the ATG venues, with all the inventiveness and tradition all mashed up together win hands-down.

Of the rest of the cast, the lack of any children onstage this year is something to overcome, and with an ensemble of just three (plus Fairy Fairfield!), you’re always going to struggle. I need to bite my lip a little here for fear of getting personal but suffice to say I overheard other members of the audience saying that they thought Nic James’ Benedict Bourbon brought the best-drawn character to the party (he’s the Gaston figure who chases after Belle.)

I really hope that BH Live – the company that runs the Fairfield Halls – is prepared to grovel on all fours to bring back the snubbed Evolution Pantomimes who were breaking the venue’s box office records before the venue mysteriously closed for three years. We need the brilliance of Paul Hendy’s writing and direction. Sorry, Eric, your panto has gone to Potts!

Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus

It’s vintage Bennett and just as funny as when it was first staged in 1974 especially in the hands of Patrick Marber and his cast of nine accomplished actors.

A surreal play, it’s farce without the clutter.  It makes no attempt at realism. The set consists of a coffin, identities are continually mistaken, characters burst into song and often deliver soliloquies in rhyming couplets. Twice we get manic tango to the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem. There’s a running gag about size (Dan Starkey as Sir Percy Shorter and that’s what he is) borrowed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a great deal of misunderstanding about a pair of false breasts.

We’re in the home of an unlikely doctor in Hove and almost everyone is randily yearning for sex with someone inappropriate. There’s something appealingly innocent about this at a time when me too, political correctness and a woke world lie decades into the future.

It’s play about rampant desire at the heart of which is an outstanding performance from Jasper Britton as Dr Arthur Wicksteed. He undermines his character’s non existent professionalism with a mere lift of an eyebrow and entertains with fake gravitas. Catherine Russell is splendid as his sadly ridiculous wife longing to be loved and fulfilled by almost anyone. But they also bring some depth to the piece in their reconciliation scene towards the end of the play which is actually quite moving.

Ria Jones as Mrs Swabb the cleaning lady does a lovely job as the quasi narrator. Very Welsh and making outrageous but perceptive comments she really makes the role her own. And since Bennett played this role himself in the original production it’s a pretty hard act to follow. There’s a nice nod to the playwright’s presence in this production when Matthew Cottle, as Canon Throbbing, intones a few lines of verse a distinctively Bennettian voice.

The play includes some memorable lines such as “Sometimes I think Freud died in vain” and “In Memphis, Tennessee, fourteen babies have been born since this play began” – all delivered with wit and panache. And of course – like all the best dramas – it ends with a paternity revelation in The Marriage of Figaro tradition.

Catch it if you can. It’s a couple of hours of real escapism.

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