Wednesday, 28 September 2016

French Without Tears, Harrogate Theatre - 27th September 2016

English Touring Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre present Terence Rattigan's French Without Tears at Harrogate Theatre for just one week.  Rattigan wrote the play in 1936 and has been revived three times; 43 years ago at London's Young Vic and twice by English Touring Theatre including this production.

English Touring Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre's
French Without Tears
(Image contributed)

The comedy is about a group of young men who spend the summer at a French school to intensely prepare for their Diplomatic exams; the preparation doesn't go to plan as their focus is interrupted by the presence of Diana Lake (Florence Roberts), a beautiful though flirtatious visitor.

The men are seemingly in love with Diana; Kit (Joe Eyre), Bill (Tim Delap) and Alan (Ziggy Heath) and their feelings for her dominate them. Diane's return of love to each of the men is uncommitted and takes in her the stride the love they all have her.  To make things more complicated Jack (Jacqueline) (Beatriz Romilly) is in love with Kit.

Rattigan writes ahead of his time and certainly pinpoints the young men's masculinity and its appeared arrogance but beneath reveals their insecurity and vulnerability particularly experiencing women and romance.  Their attitude and preconceptions, indoctrinated by the expectations and culture at the time, toward women is unsurprising and states "an ideal woman with masculine virtues and feminine fiestas" and unable judge women with "standards of our own".

Men at the time weren't encouraged to express their feelings and display their emotions openly.  The "stiff upper lip" and "be tough" attitude at that time and men were conscripted to serve in the military during the First World War (and subsequently the Second World War) would have influenced this.  Expressions and displays would have been frowned up and/or censored by those in power in the name of political favour, particularly in Continental Europe, and patriotism. This comedy challenges their invincibility and masculinity and makes clear that men are just as fragile as to woman and this is shown with all of them being involved with Diana.

The cast work really well together and in unison - they are overseen by David Whitworth's Monsieur Maingot who keeps on reminding the group to speak only in French.  There is a continuous dialogue flow taking in account the plot.  There are unexpected twists and occurrences from all the characters' friendships, loyalties and long term secular goals are being severely tested - particularly at a time when they shared that "they may live up to their ideals but not to others".  Paul Miller directs the play and ensures the audience appreciate what the young men then faced.

Audience members who have a good command of French can appreciate the play's wit, irony and colloquialism.  Certainly hilarious throughout with the young men's misunderstandings of the French language and innuendoes attached.

Simon Daw's staging certainly has a continental feel with French writing on the stage's back drops.  It blends well with the story and its moods and Mark Doubleday's lighting compliments the staging.  A comedy which will give an audience to ponder as much as being farcically entertained.

Dawn Smallwood

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Company, CarriagworksTheatre, Leeds - 20th September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

LIDOS (Leeds Insurance Dramatic and Operatic Society) presents an amateur production ofCompany at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds. Sondheim’s award winning musical, based on George Furth’s book, premiered on Broadway in 1970. The musical focuses on Bobby (James Sidgwick), a 35 year old single man, who is unable to commit to a relationship. He associates with his best friends who are five married/engaged couples and has on and off relationships with three girlfriends; April (Mariah Young), Marta (Sophie Ketteringham) and Kathy (Gemma Buck).

Company doesn’t follow any particular storyline but instead it focuses on the characters themselves, none chronologically, after the celebration of Bobby’s 35th Birthday. It is set around the dates of his girlfriends and conversations over dinner and drinks with his married/engaged friends. The common themes, Company is one of the first musicals ever to deal with this, are around adult ones and the reality of relationships.It opens with a catchy musical number Company with reprises throughout.   Robert spends time with couples whose actions clearly see that marriage isn’t really what it is cracked up to be along with being in any relationship. Thoughts and feelings expressed in Joanne’s (Janine Walker) sarcastic and The Little Things You Do Together and the mocking The Ladies Who Lunch; Harry (Chris Hall), David (Andy Ashley) and Larry’s (Leon Waksberg) Sorry-Grateful and Amy’s (Claire Sidgwick) decision not to tie the knot in Getting Married Today. Each couple’s relationship doesn’t appear problem free when Bobby witnesses his friends and the various issues and challenges the couples face.
Bobby certainly is valued as a friend with the company’s What Would We Do Without You? at the beginning of the second act even if the couples do not give up their wish to see him married. In conclusion he however bravely comes to terms that being in a relationship with its challenges is worth it for meeting someone who is Being Alive. The live musical numbers are played beautifully by the pianist, Beth Blundell, and the singing and music are directed by Lucy Eyre.
Company is wholeheartedly and energetically performed by this company. The acting, singing and choreographed movements, directed Kimberley Lyon, are performed smoothly in the Upstairs at the Carriageworks studio’s intimate staging space.   The staging is interesting with photographs, framed on the walls and hung from the ceiling, and summarises Bobby’s relationships with the five couples and his casual girlfriends. This is an excellent performance by LIDOS including the cast and its production team.

Anniversary, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds - 15th September 2016 (Originally reviewed for North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

It is a pleasure to be at this unique production of Anniversary, currently playing in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre. This contemporary production offers an opportunity for a group of 11 older performers, some who had begun performing as far back as the 60s, to share their life experiences on stage through a kaleidoscope of story-telling, poetry, movement, dance and music.

Image credit: Anthony Robling

A Performance Ensemble and West Yorkshire Playhouse created and developed Anniversary and last year the production was commissioned through The Baring Foundation Late Style programme.   Anniversary is unique as there is a particular emphasis on celebrating the present instead of living in the past or in the future.
The performance begins when performers announce key anniversary dates which later on in the show will link to significant events that have happened in their lives. The performers share honesty “an anchor” at different stages during the show and reiterate how such events shape and strengthen who they have become today.
Optimism is shared by some of performers such as Namron and Villmore about making wishes, dreaming dreams and never knowing what the future holds. Alex shares his experiences and pleas for not to take my “sunshine away” during the company’s adaptation of Johnny Cash’s “You are my sunshine”.
A moving moment is certainly is the heartfelt singing of “Seasons of Love”, from the musical RENT, by the company and a sign language choir. It sums up the stories that are shared on stage and how, for some performers, the anniversaries are continuing such as the Phoenix Dance Company, which Villmore jointly founded in 1981, and the company is currently celebrating its 35thanniversary. There is also Connie whose “two year plan” on her arrival from Madeira to England in the 1960s is still ongoing.
The finale is unique with balloons filling the stage and the question being asked how balloons associate with one’s life whether it is a happy or a poignant occasion.   Anniversary concludes with a creative and reflective dance finale by the company and receives a heartfelt standing ovation from the audience.
West Yorkshire Playhouse certainly lives up to its reputation for being the “home of incredible stories” and this performance is an evening of such. The theatre takes pride in their creative arts programme, Heydays, for the over 55s. This is a very heartfelt and moving production where each and everyone in The Company have a role to play from its creation to choreography.

Blackthorn, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds - 14th September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here

Blackthorn was developed through Furnace, a festival which celebrates new theatre from creation to production. Written by Charley Miles, it is about two children, the only ones born for a generation, who grow up, fall in love and part ways. Miles hails from North Yorkshire whereBlackthorn is set and the lighting and soundscapes, courtesy of Laura Sprake and Heather Fenoughty, reflects the idyllic village life and the surrounding nature.

Image credit: Anthony Robling

The two person play chronologically explores the changes that occur in both the characters’ lives; HER (Charlotte Bate) leaves the village and HIM (Harry Egan) stays and yet the bond they have between them still exists though strained with the impact of changes. The story focuses on the relationship with a place as much as a person and how it feels to leave or to be left.
The play also touches on childhood, adolescence, tragedy, love, relationships, loyalty, traditions and modernity and the audience is reminded how changes can have positive and negative effects. Miles writes beautifully the lives of HER and HIM and their affected journeys and links to the author’s upbringing.  
Excellent acting from both Bate and Egan who successfully portray both characters from childhood to later on in life when HER returns to the “special place” she calls her birthplace and struggles to come to terms how HIM eventually sees it.   Blackthorn is thoroughly directed by Jacqui Honess-Martin and she is supported by a talented creative team. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Barber Studio is intimately suitable for Blackthorn to be performed. The play is approximately 90 minutes without an interval – it is felt however it could have benefited with one for pacing the delicately packed story.
It is encouraging to see local playwrights and their plays being supported by the Furnace Festival and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new writer development programme.

9 to 5: The Musical, Grand Opera House, York -9th September 2016 (Originally reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

York Stage Musicals present their latest production, 9 to 5: The Musical, at York’s Grand Opera House. It is a musical comedy based on the 1980 film of the same name. The book is written by Patricia Resnick and the music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. The story goes back to the 1970s when Violet (Julie Anne Smith), Doralee (Alicia Roberts) and Judy (Jo Theaker), three office workers, have had enough of Hart (Darren Roberts), their sexist boss, and are determined to do something about it. This is all set to Parton’s award nominated hits and musically directed by Sam Johnson.

Catchy 9 to 5 opens the show and Parton visually appears “live” during the musical number when she introduces the three women. It is set at a time where sexism and sexual harassment were commonplace and particularly in the workplace.
Hart, the company’s boss, is introduced with the crude Here For You which contains sexual innuendoes and his general attitude towards women. I Just Might and Doralee’s Backwoods Barbie analyses how bad things are and more so with the nasty gossip relating to Hart’s perverted attitude. 

Violet, Doralee and Judy plan their revenge and prove to all that Hart is a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. Their plans are creatively executed on stage with Judy’s slick cabaret styleDance O’Death; Doralee’s country and barn danceCowgirl’s Revenge (One thinks of Dolly Parton); and Fairy tale themed Violet’s Potion Notion. Those three musical numbers are executed well and combined with the ensemble’s singing and dancing, choreographed by AJ Powell. A festive rendition of Joy to the Girls celebrates womanhood and liberty and Shine Like the Sun evaluates the unexpected events concerning Hart.
Act 2 sees Violet what it is like to be One of the Boys and the three women’s determination to give their office a makeover dream in Change It. After exposing Hart in hilarious and outrageous circumstances it ends in a sing and clap along Finale: 9 to 5 with Parton again appearing “live” and all ends well for the brave three women who against odds have changed the women’s role in the workplace and beyond.
9 to 5: The Musical is entertaining but crucially thought provoking. In comparison to the 1970s the society has progressed with time where there are more career opportunities for women; increasing rights in the work place; and policies ensuring equal opportunities are available for all. There are also mechanisms in place should discrimination and sexual harassment arise. Still issues remain however; it has been reported recently on the news that women are still earning less than men doing the same job and discussions of salaries among colleagues are still considered taboo today.   Violet, Doralee and Judy have believed that “success is out there for the taking” and many women across the world are achieving more now than what previous generations would have dreamt about.
This is certainly a feel good musical with Parton’s catchy tunes, which leaves one with a lot of food for thought. York Stages Musicals, under the direction of Nik Briggs, has put together an excellent production and performed by a talented cast and creative crew with its great staging reflecting the story’s era.

Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds - 6th September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

Northern Ballet opens the autumn season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse with presenting Wuthering Heights. This production is part The Brontë Season and marking the 200th year anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. Emily Brontë’s classic, set in the moors, is loved by many and known for the obsessive and passionate love affair between Heathcliff and Cathy. Set to Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music; the talented company interprets the classic with a combination of simple and intricate dancing with Ali Allen’s stunning staging and David Nixon’s strong choreography. The focal point is obviously the relationship between Heathcliff (Javier Torres) and Cathy (Dreda Blow). Their childhood affection, from being inseparable, grows and deepens to a love which overwhelms them as well as devastates; particularly from their forced separation initiated by Hindley (Giuliano Contadini) to Edgar’s (Nicola Gervasi) hand in marriage to Cathy.

Wuthering Heights is best enjoyed for its characters; particularly of Heathcliff, and the evoked emotions. Torres gives a superb portrayal of Heathcliff whose experience of degradation, humiliation, despair, anger, jealously and revenge is linked from the childhood innocence to the unwanted circumstances as an adult. Blow beautifully and passionately interprets Cathy who is always drawn to Healthcliff but is lured to Edgar’s love and the riches and luxury of Thrushcross Grange. Torres and Blow recreates the continuous obsession and passion that both Healthcliff and Cathy had for one another with the rising chemistry generating from their dancing duets and close up movements.
Northern Ballet, under the direction of Nixon and dramaturge input from Patricia Doyle, certainly works very hard to draw out the emotions from all the characters involved and creates the intensity and intrigue expected from the story.   There is a lot to pack in the two and quarter hour ballet and not once did it compromise the characters, the storyline and its emotive themes.
Allen’s sets are certainly of stark contrast but appropriate; the scenes swiftly switches in sequences between the sunshine, colourful and tame life of Thrushcross Grange to the isolated, dark and bleak landscape of the moors and Wuthering Heights. Alastair West’s revived lighting is appropriately applied and captures the moods of all the scenes.   Special effects are used as weather elements when Cathy and Heathcliff meet expressing their love and Heathcliff’s contemplation as an old man during the Epilogue.
Schönberg is well known for the music he composed for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. His creative genius captures the plot, characters and the explorative emotions for Wuthering Heights. Soft piano music and melodious instrumental tunes are played during the scenes at Thrushcross Grange and hauntingly dramatic, melancholic and fast paced music is applied for Wuthering Heights and the moors scenes.
Wuthering Heights has been well received from the audience that evening. The production has a special space in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Brontë Season. Following the success of Jane Eyrein spring this year; Wuthering Heights is another beautiful dramatic production which has a proud place in Northern Ballet’s repertoire.

Brassed Off, Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds - 1st September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

Neil Knipe brings Brassed Off, a collective production by Northern Spark Theatre Company, Barrel Theatre & Comedy, Bite My Thumb and Gravitas Entertainment, to three venues across West Yorkshire. Brassed Off is based on Mark Herman’s film of the same name and the 1996 film honestly portrays life in Grimley, a fictional mining village in the north of England, and its community. The emphasis is on the harsh reality that the community faces - ten years after the 1984-85 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers. In contrast to the fight the miners fought ten years ago, this community somehow tells a different story. The village’s brass band, led by Danny (Reece Andrews), is the focal point to the community and its arrival of Gloria (Leanne O’Rourke), a brass player and a professional for the National Coal Board.

The play opens with a visual screening of a National Coal Board advertisement about the “no ending need for coal”. Young Shane (Alfie Coles) narrates about life in the village and each character is introduced and all share with the audience how their lives are with the never ending hardships. However it is their pride, loyalties, and hope motivates them to continue fighting for what they believe in despite the village’s colliery facing the threat of closure.

The staging appears chaotic but works really well with the story telling scenes. Diverse musical hits from the early 20thCentury up to the 1980/90s are played between the scenes’ transitions and the music and lyrics are appropriate for the story and mood.   The City of Bradford Brass Band and BDI are well represented and supports the performers on stage during their “band practices” and “competitions”. Reflection and contemplation for the fight the community fought for is visually commemorated in Rodrigo’sConcierto de Aranjuez. The fight of fights of pride and solidarity is felt inLand of Hope and Glory.

The standout performances must be Richard Billings’ Phil – he fights in spirit his beliefs to the very end and succumbs to despair and dire straits in losing what he holds dear, and also Reece Andrews as Danny who is determined to keep the brass band going. The brass bands symbolise pride and the fight the villages fought for in order for the survival of their tight knit communities. The cast on the whole did well and represented the voices of this “modern folktale” that Knipe wants to be told.

Many former miners share that closure of the pits has a big social and economic impact to its communities and emotions still run high today. The then Government’s reasons for “progress” has been very different to those who have been affected by an industry now in total decline, with the last pit closing in 2015, and the audience is poignantly reminded of this but those affected and their way of life won’t be forgotten. The spirit will live on like “the miners united will never be defeated”.

RENT, Grand Opera House, York - 26th August 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

RENT is an award winning rock musical written wholly by Jonathan Larson who sadly did not live to see the opening on off-Broadway in 1996. It has won numerous awards and adapted into a musical film in 2005. Twenty years later The York Orchard Theatre Company is performing RENTas an amateur production.

RENT, in similar vein to Puccini’s La Bohème and which the story is based on, explores a group of ambitious artists in poverty who are struggling to survive in New York City’s Bohemian East Village. It primarily focuses on the daily hardships of two roommates, Mark and Roger.
Mark (Sam Lightfoot-Loftus), the key narrator, chronically films, records and captures lives of those around him.   Josh (Roger Eldridge-Smith), however, struggles to take things in his stride and this eventually has an impact on the relationship between him and Mimi (Beth Stevens). They and their friends honestly share their life journeys of love, hope (as in Santa Fe), disappointment and loss. 

All performed with varied musical dialogues with voice mail interludes from concerned loved ones. Crucial numbers are sung harmoniously that confirm their struggles ranging from Tune Up,RentChristmas Bells and Take Me. There are reprisals of the some songs and some catchy numbers which engage and evoke the audience, with Tango Maureen and Over The Moon.   There are Mimi’s emotive Light My Candle and the convincing Today For You and the determining I’ll Cover Youwhich demonstrates the desperate times.

With Rachel Dennison’s strong choreography, the cast performs excellently throughout particularly in the collective musical numbers such as in the honest Santa Fe, their shrewd identify in La Vie Bohème and their summative Seasons of Love where they evaluate how much has happened in 525,600 minutes. This is all under the direction of both Justine Hughes and, musically, Ryan Durkan, with clever staging that captures life in and out of Mark and Roger’s industrial like abode.

Shown in Act Two’s finale, there is a creative use of visuals on a hung canvas, which captures the life, filmed by Mark over the past year (or 525, 600 minutes) which impressively contemplates the journeys of each individual. There is great use of lighting and spotlights, courtesy of Magnus Leslie, throughout the performance and the bright costumes reflecting the Bohemian lifestyle in the East Village.

The York Orchard Theatre Company consists of highly talented young performers and creators and they should be proud of their latest production. Following the success of Phantom of the Opera and Little Shop of Horrors this year, the company sadly announces that this production to be their last one. They however will finish RENT on a high and their production will certainly be remembered for a long time to come.

RENT reminds one of the stark realities today where many, particularly artists and young professionals, across the world, are struggling to make ends meet as well as optimistically pursuing their dreams. Many won’t give up and will continue fighting for their dreams to come true just like Mark, Roger and their group of friends.

Relatively Speaking, The Grand Theatre, Leeds - 30th August (Reviewed on behalf of The Reviews Hub)

This was originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub and the link can be found here.
Contributed Image (Accessed from
Relatively Speaking was written in 1965, originally titled Meet My Father. The play premiered in London’s West End in 1967 to positive reviews.   This production is jointly presented by Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Kenny Wax Ltd and is currently touring nationwide.
The comedy play introduces, Greg (Antony Eden) and Ginny (Lindsey Campbell), a young couple who are cohabiting, and it is evident that Ginny has previously had a series of relationships.  Greg is suspicious that Ginny hasn’t been faithful and thus challenges Ginny with her “predecessors”.  Ginny embarks on a day out to the countryside, supposedly visiting her parents. In reality, she intends to end her relationship with Philip, her older married lover.  Greg decides to follow her.
The play moves to the home of Philip (Robert Powell) and Sheila (Liza Goddard), both of whom are seen to be in a marriage rut and engaging in an uneasy dialogue over breakfast in the garden.  Greg unexpectedly turns up, assuming the couple are Ginny’s parents and pursues permission from Philip to marry Ginny, much to his bemusement.  Assumptions become incomprehensively complicated with naivety and innocence.  More so with Ginny’s appearance on the scene and the delusional belief that Greg believes Sheila to be Ginny’s mother, with Philip suddenly pretending to be her father.
Act Two is seemingly scheduled to be the catalyst for the characters to admit who they really are, or is it?  Ayckbourn writes in such an imaginative and creative way; characters are evasive in order to be not to be evasive and hasty conclusions are drawn to obscure each other’s truth.  Under the direction of Robin Herford, the audience is humorously engaged in the plot, with charades supposedly covering mistaken identities. This eventually leads to a discovery of a founded item at the very end of the plot – clearly obvious to the audience.
Relatively Speaking played a crucial role in society when it first premiered in 1967 and it is evident that Ayckbourn writes with the times as such themes are just as relevant today.  The 1960s saw a shift in social changes and the onslaught challenge to traditional social conventions, particularly with unmarried couples cohabiting and 1967’s Summer of Love.  The changing attitudes towards family planning and sexuality brought in major legislations that same year, even with unease from key players in society.
Peter Mckintosh’s staging includes a map curtain which cleverly illuminates the journey Ginny and Greg take from London to the countryside.
With a fairly slow start, one could be forgiven for thinking this story would end up being pretty uneventful.  Gradually the audience is introduced to a flurry of innuendoes, metaphoric and indirect references that enrich the plot and suspense intensely.  This excellent production guarantees laughter throughout, and there are exceptional and well-received characters portrayals from all the cast courtesy of Powell, Goddard, Campbell and Eden.

Sister Act - The Grand Theatre Leeds - 22nd August 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of The Reviews Hub)

This was originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub and the link can be found here.
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton (Accessed from

Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood brings his new production of Sister Act on an extensive UK tour, including its stop in Leeds.   The musical is based on the smash hit movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith.
Many know the story of Deloris Van Cartier (Alexandra Burke) who longs to make her break as a disco diva, but this takes an unexpected turn when she witnesses a murder involving her boyfriend, Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert).  She ends up in protective custody and the last place where she is likely to be found – a convent. Under the strict eye of the pious but funny Mother Superior (Karen Mann), she disguises herself as a nun. Deloris bonds with fellow nuns after finding her own voice and encourages them to open up their souls through theirs; however the Mother Superior doesn’t take kindly to her modern and worldly ways.
Matthew Wright’s set is stunning and Richard G Jones’ lighting is highly creative. With an on-stage orchestra and most of the cast doubling up as musicians; the audience enjoys and rejoices in a series of musical numbers, based on the original music courtesy of the award-winning Alan Menken, including Raise Your VoiceTake Me to HeavenSister Act and the catchy and show-stopping finale, Spread the Love Around.  The glitter ball effect swirling around the stage and auditorium evokes the discotheque, Motown, and soul, with its Philly hits in the 1970s.
The 1960s and 1970s went through a big social change which changed attitudes in general, but particularly religion.  However, Deloris receives opportunities for deep reflection and contemplation which she may not have got outside the convent. Sister Act is a musical comedy where a clash of traditional and modern views is shared throughout, particularly between Deloris and the Mother Superior in Here Within These Walls.
Burke excels as diva Deloris, her performance selling the character perfectly through narrative and song.  The dancing and Revel Horwood’s choreography are impressive, especially as seen in the pulsating energetic collective musical hits especially in Take Me to Heaven reprisal at end of the first act.  Another mention is Mann’s excellent portrayal of Mother Superior, whose combined piousness and dark humour goes down as a treat.  All members of the cast engage well with one another, and most importantly with the audience.
Sister Act celebrates friendship, sisterhood, love and music, guaranteeing a thoroughly enjoyable evening out.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Pick Me Up's Sweeney Todd, John Cooper Studio, York - 5th August 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

Sweeney Todd is Pick Me Up’s second production this summer following Assassins and forms part of the 2016 Sondheim Season. Stephen Sondheim’s musical is written by Hugh Wheeler and set to his music and lyrics. It premiered on Broadway in 1990 and a number of adaptations and revivals have happened since.

The well known tale is about Sweeney Todd (Nick Lewis) who returns to London after serving his time as a convict in Australia. A victim of injustice he goes out to seek revenge against those who separated him and his family. He meets Mrs Lovett (Susannah Baines), who owns a pie shop and is reputed to sell “the worst pies in London” and sets his barber business above the shop. Both work as a team to execute Sweeney’s revenge and that his clients will end up being ingredients in Mrs Lovett’s pies. Set in Victorian London where then the poverty was rife and the social and justice gap between the rich and the poor was widening.
It opens chillingly with the Organ Prelude and the ensemble singingThe Ballad of Sweeney Todd. Courtesy of Adam Moore and Robert Readman, John Cooper Studio Theatre is fully transformed and is specifically themed with the darkness and dim and red lighting symbolising the darkness, “bloodiness” and brutality of the show. The smoke spurts on stage reflecting the urban and industrial London at the time. Sondheim has cleverly composed catchy and reflective songs specifically for each character, their stories about themselves and summaries their state of minds and plans – all under the direction of Ben David Papworth. Anthony Hope’s (Sam Hird) declares his love in Johanna. Sweeney shares the story The Barber and His Wife and his plans for further revenge in Epiphany. He states with his shaving razor “at last my arm is complete”!
Lewis and Baines put on an excellent performance as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett. They admirably work together as one team in planning Sweeney’s revenge whilst supporting each other businesses. Another outstanding performance must be Hird’s Anthony whose quest for Johanna (Maren Fagerås Nævdal) is sung convincingly and lovingly in Kiss Me and of course Joanna. In all, with excellent choreography, the ensemble cast ensures the regular reprises of The ballad of Sweeney Todd is alive throughout with close up intimate performances all around on and off stage with good spotlights on the key characters.
Readman directs a successful production, though a long one of three hours, which gives everyone food for thought with the themes raised which are just relevant in society today.

Pick Me Up's Assassins, John Cooper Studio, York - 22nd July 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

Pick Me Up’s 2016 Summer Sondheim season opens with AssassinsAssassins is written by John Weidman based on a script by Charles Gilbert, a playwright, which was read at Stuart Ostrow’s Musical Theatre Lab where he served as a panellist several years previously. The musical premiered Off-Broadway in 1990 and opened in London in 1992.
The small intimate theatre is fully transformed and especially themed for the show - with the draping of star and stripes and wooden structures and the seating layout includes ‘presidential’ boxes.

Assassins opens with a crowd gathering at a carnival gallery with the proprietor of the shooting gallery enticing customers to “C’mere and kill a President!” From that point forward; stories of nine individuals whose aim is to assassinate the President of the United States are narrated in text and song by The Balladeer (played by Sam Hird) who double ups as actor/musician.
Sondheim cleverly composes and writes ballads, under the musical direction of Barbara Chan, for some of the assassins with the infamous John Wilkes Booth (played by Simon Radford) killing President Lincoln to Samuel Byck (played by Craig Kirby) who attempts to assassinate President Nixon by hijacking and crashing a plane into the White House. The musical comes to a climate when a desperate Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Hird) is met by the assassins at the Texas School Book Depository in 1963. In order for them to be united in history, legitimacy, and justification this soon leads onto President Kennedy’s assassination.
This musical could not be any more relevant today. Assassinations are planned and attempted, many done similarly in vein, by many disenchanted people around the world and it comes to no surprise with today’s political and social current affairs. The audience is invited to look into nine individuals who assassinated or attempted to assassinate presidents of the United States. Their build up and reasons include delusions, unfulfilled hopes, social and political injustices, broken promises and disappointments, which are explored. Only to be confronted that their desired outcomes didn’t turn out as they wanted it to be.
Sondheim cleverly mixes the characters from the different periods, reflected in the musical numbers, by all of them reconvening between their stories and shares their experiences which give a kaleidoscopic picture with history being reunited under one common theme. Though poignant it is also entertaining and attentive. The outstanding performance must be Kirby’s Samuel Byck who entertains the audience with poignant truths with some funny twists about the so called American Dream. Dressed up as Santa Claus he questions society and the government stating “Lie what’s right, lie what’s wrong”.
All the assassins are united with Another National Anthem which highlights the nightmare reality and disappointments of the American Dream which motivates them to meaninglessly act violent. In the end they seek solace in singing Everybody’s Got the Right with their happiness, being different and to their dream and, chillingly, to their death.
The lighting, courtesy of Adam Moore, provides the right ambience and mood for the musical with dim lighting representing metaphoric ally the dark chapters of United States’ history of the assassinations. Smoke is used as a special effect and the loud soundscapes, by Ian Thomson, for the gunshots.
Robert Readman directs an excellent production which gives everyone food for thought and in the politically and socially motivated musical there is more to the assassination themselves. Pick Me Up’s second Sondheim show, Sweeney Todd, will be playing on the 5th August at the same theatre.