The Addams Family – Bristol Hippodrome

I’ve a bit of an odd relationship with my local theatre in that pretty often, the shows we end up  having here will either have me visiting quite regularly, or I can go months without a visit as nothing really appeals to me.  Sometimes though, Bristol will play host to shows that make me incredibly excited, even better if they’re new to me, as this one was, hence why I snapped up a ticket to the opening night of The Addams Family on Tuesday!

Now a staple of popular culture with numerous film and tv adaptations, video games, academic books, everyone’s favourite kooky clan were created by American cartoonist Charles Addams, first published in The New Yorker in 1938, until Addams’s death in 1988.  The musical  originally opened on Broadway in April 2010, and a US tour production won numerous awards. There have already been various international productions: Brazil, Sweden, Finland and Argentina to name a few!  2017 saw its UK debut in Edinburgh before embarking on a tour of the UK and Ireland. The musical features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, and a book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice.

We all know the Addams are deliciously dark and eccentric, with a love of all things macabre, but what happens when the eldest daughter Wednesday, all grown up, falls in love? The object of her affection is Lucas Beineke, a handsome and distinctly normal young man, who first saw Wednesday welding a crossbow somewhere in Central Park, becoming instantly smitten with her. The two become secretly engaged, and Wednesday believes the time is right for their respective families to meet and arranges for Lucas’s parents: straight laced Mal & happy go lucky Alice to come to dinner. All Wednesday wants is one normal night and for everyone to get along, but as ever where The Addams Family are concerned, things turn out to be far far away from normal…

 

Diego Pitarch’s design set a smile on my lips the minute I parked my wheelchair up and got my first glimpse of the stage: we’re greeted by a set of gates, emblazoned with the letter A, and inside the Family home we have moving staircases, moving pictures and the whole effect when coupled with Ben Cracknell’s Lighting and Richard Brooker’s Sound Design, is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric. The costumes are also among the most inventive and brilliant I’ve seen in a touring production,  so it’s a real spectacle for the eyes as well as the ears. Underpinning the entire production is a wonderful sense of humour and playfulness, the jokes come thick and fast, and while even Uncle Fester’s subplot involving the moon is perhaps a little too ridiculous,  I didn’t mind it in the slightest because I was too busy enjoying myself, as were the rest of the audience judging by the volume and intensity of the laughter! The score and songs are catchy and incorporate a whole range of musical styles, and one of my favourite choreographers Alastair David has come back into my life with his joyful energy and dynamics that I love so much about his work. The Addams Ancestors, otherwise known as the ensemble, are all incredibly strong dancers and full of such vivid personalities that further made my attention hone in on how intricate and Alistair’s choregraphy is, and I was always drawn to watching them whenever they were onstage!

 

Cameron Blakely first came into my life in 2011, as my original Thénardier in Les Misérables. I loved his take on the role so much that I longed to see more of him, falling more and more in love with his gift for comedy with each subsequent visit, I think he was my Thénardier.. 7 or 8 times overall?  When he left the barricades, my next chance to see him came last year when he played The Narrator/Mysterious Man in Into the Woods in Manchester, a total departure from the previous role I’d seen him do; yet it showed me just how wonderfully versatile Cameron is as an actor. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the head of the family more perfectly than Cameron does. He gets to show off his razor sharp comic timing, sometimes with little more than a look or small gesture, but Gomez also has some lovely tender moments with Wednesday and Morticia that he plays with endearing warmth and sincerity, and his solo numbers stole the show for me . The result is a portrayal that is incredibly dynamic, well rounded and nothing short of pure, unbridled joy from start to finish… it meant a lot to me to see him again and boy can he tango!

Cameron’s Gomez is complimented  wonderfully by Samantha Womack’s sophisticated, gloriously deadpan amore, Morticia. I last saw her onstage as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls alongside Patrick Swayze, so I was intrigued to see her take on another role. Their chemistry is amazing and they play off each other effortlessly, and Samantha’s solo number Just Around the Corner showcased her voice and humour, much to my delight. Valda Avkis plays Grandma, a joy to see again after Once so long ago. She steals many of her scenes, particularly with Pugsley, cleverly combining humour and wisdom.

 

Carrie Hope Fletcher shines as Wednesday, in the second stage role I have seen her in. Like with so many of this cast, that previous role was something completely different than she’s playing here, and that showed me how versatile she is. In her hands, Wednesday is a wonderfully rich and complex character; I would argue more developed than her film namesake, but still featuring the hallmarks we know and love. Her rendition of Pulled  brought the house down and her chemistry with Oliver Ormson’s Lucas captured all the charm and angst of young love.

 

As well as Oliver, there are a few others in the kooky clan I’ll be watching out for an opportunity to see again, in particular Grant McIntyre as Pugsley and Dickon Gough as Lurch. As with Wednesday, I thought the musical afforded him a lot more scope for  development and his portrayal was this wonderfully interesting mix of humour and vulnerability. Dickon Gough brought life to Lurch in way I didn’t think was possible with just trademark grunts and painfully slow walk, but he was wonderfully funny and his voice (when we finally get to hear it proper!) is utterly phenomenal!

Dale Rapley and Charlotte Page star as Lucas’s parents, they’re a wonderfully funny pair and I loved their character arc throughout the show.

Coming on as an understudy when people are expecting to see a ‘star name’ is, I think the toughest job any performer can do. On this night, Les Dennis was indisposed so Scott Paige was on as Uncle Fester. I was appalled to hear the reactions of the audience to this announcement, and I will never tire of when a performer comes on and smashes the preconceptions of a disappointed audience, just like Scott did. Fester acts as the narrator/ring leader of the chaos that ensues, and Scott is wickedly funny and charming, with a wonderfully powerful voice to match. As I mentioned earlier, the subplot with the moon is a touch ridiculous, but Scott is so likeable I quickly forgot those misgivings and just enjoyed the ride. Having had some of my favourite experiences with understudies, I was smirking to myself as I knew the audience would come round, and sure enough Scott ended the night with one of the biggest rounds of applause!

 

I’ve not enjoyed a touring production as much as this one for a long while, and hope the living, the dead, and those undecided find themselves a home in London following the tour….untitled.png

For tour dates and tickets, head to: https://www.theaddamsfamily.co.uk/

 

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Falling back in love with writing.. I hope!

Hello again folks! I realise this is a little out of character for me, posting again so soon, but I’m trying to make more of a conscientious effort to focus and write more. I’ve always had dreams of being a writer for a living, but for various reasons, some of which I’ll tell you about here, I haven’t thought seriously about my writing for a while.

For a long time after graduating in both my BA & MA in English Lit, I fell out of love with the idea of writing for pleasure. University, while one of the best experiences of my life, teaches you (at least in my opinion, anyway) a whole new way of writing. You’re taught how to structure an argument, how to express your thoughts in a particular way in order to answer whatever question you’re posed in class or the particular essay you’re writing, and analyse novels to within an inch of their lives. All of these do wonders for your vocabulary,  makes you a time management/ multitasking master and improves your focus because you’re working to deadlines and want to do well, but I think I lost a lot of the freedom and joy of writing something just for pleasure because I was constantly critiquing myself and second guessing my choices. I definitely fell out of love with reading for pleasure for a while too!

Staying with university for a sec, I remember being incredibly excited to take a module in Creative Writing in my undergrad year, just to expand my passion and help hone my skills. Full of optimism as I loved to write and felt it to be the only thing I have a semblance of talent in, I soon found out that maybe the class wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I didn’t click with my lecturer – I found him brilliant but intimidating, and he didn’t seem to enjoy my writing very much. I wanted so badly to please him, and never quite managed it. I remember emailing  him asking his advice about applying for the Creative Writing MA when I started thinking about my next steps after I got my marks. He, in his brilliant but rather intimidating and abrupt manner, essentially hinted that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. At the time, this hurt me. I know that it’s impossible for everyone to like and enjoy everything you write, and that it was his job to critique me and make me a better writer, but in my naiveté I let his opinion get to me and I lost my faith in my ability.   I got my own back though, he was one of the first members of staff I bumped into while on induction for my Masters. There was a glint of surprise in his eye and he did the slightest double take. I  said nothing, just gave him a satisfied (smug!) smile and went on my way 😉

I’ve also suffered from what I came to call “writer’s guilt.” Life post university mainly consisted of job-hunting, so a cycle of CV writing, applications and many a rejection. As I’m not the fastest typist, a single application took me most of the day, so that in itself was draining. I’d lost my sense of purpose and direction, and became so intensely focused on trying to get a job, I felt guilty when I was writing something that wasn’t related to that goal. While dealing with this, I did eventually dip my toe back into the writing waters: I’m volunteer writer & community reporter for two Bristol  magazines and a famous theatre website, and these have  helped me immensely: not only am I improving my experience, skills and portfolio, they also reignited my love of writing; and those of you who know me and / or this blog well will know that theatre is one of my biggest passions, so what better way to get the best of both worlds?

 

A few summers ago, I started playing around with the idea of writing a draft of my first novel. It’s been stuck on Chapter 3 for longer than I care to admit. I started out with the best of intentions: I wrote  a premise for the whole story, tried to break down what happens in each of my chapters so I had a plan to follow, and even mini biographies for each of my characters. The more and more time went by however, I became less committed and wrote fewer words every day; I lacked the discipline and focus and slowly began to feel less guilty about this. I think the major part of the problem was that I’m a perfectionist; I like to start at the beginning and work my way from there and really struggle with the idea of leaving a section to move on and come back later. It’s stupid really,  and the word draft isn’t one that I tended to use much, it had to be right first time else I just couldn’t get my head around it and move ahead!  Recently, I’ve been trying to decide wether to trash this novel idea and begin working on another project. My logic behind this thinking is that: if this were the piece I really wanted to be writing and the story I wanted to tell surely it wouldn’t be such a struggle to finish and get motivated about working on?

It’s incredibly frustrating because I do have a vision for this particular story of mine, sometimes I look at it and could see parts of it playing in my head  like a movie, and yet I find it so difficult to translate this into words on a page. People have told me not to  delete it for fear I might regret the move later, but somehow I found this hard to believe and feel like too much time has passed.

You’ll know if you read my previous blog that my life at the moment has undergone some pretty momentous changes for the better and so has my outlook. In light of that, here we are: I’m endeavoring to write more often and see where it takes me; I wanted to challenge myself so I’ve signed for NaNoWriMo this November! For those that don’t know, this stands for national Novel Writing Month and challenges participants to write a first draft of a novel in 30 days: 50,000 words.  Friends of mine have participated in the past and really enjoy it, but I remember the one time I’ve flirted with signing up before and kept talking myself out of it: the word count seemed insurmountable,  and I’m one of those people who really struggle with the initial idea phase: give me a scenario, character or setting and say “write me something” then we’ve no problem. But the thought of sitting in front of a blank screen with nothing coming to mind? That fills me with pure, unadulterated dread. I realised something though: I recently got tired of referring to myself as an “aspiring” writer and decided that if I’m going to make any headway with making my dream come true, I need to stop making excuses and take the bull by the horns! Sure it might not happen, but I’m done with being the girl who constantly wonders ‘what if?’

Yesterday I stumbled across a paragraph I once wrote when I took part in a writing workshop 3 years ago, and it seems to have got under my skin and I keep returning to the possibility that I may be able to do something with it… I guess come November I’ll find out!

 

Come, Kerrie, Big Changes are afoot…

I hope no one minds me paraphrasing the words from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave to my favourite fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. It was the first thing that came to mind and made me smile when I was trying to sum up my life at the moment. You might also notice that this is my first blog in four months, and I feel a little justification for this might be in order!

I have touched upon it briefly here before, but for those that don’t know, over recent years, the fact I have been living with my parents still at my age caused me great frustration at times, even though I love them both dearly and am ever grateful for their support, encouragement and good humour. I vividly recall this intense, at times overwhelming feeling of being stuck in a rut within my life, while I watched friends doing all the things you’re “supposed” to do as an adult- find a job, have your own place, find a partner, get engaged and/or married, have children and so on. Of course, none of these things are the secret to a happy, fulfilled life for everyone and we all make our own choices, that’s the beauty of life. I know full well it’s not a race or competition, but I was finding myself judging my life against theirs, and felt like I wasn’t achieving or moving forward. I got sick of the endless monotony and lack of direction I felt my life and often felt low. You get trapped in this “same sh*t, different day” mentality, which is incredibly draining and destructive to your sense of worth and purpose, and my frustration often manifested itself in either tears or  arguments with my parents; more often than not a combination of the two.

I still feel incredible guilt at times for the angst I put my parents through as I dealt with these feelings.  Personally I think my feelings around my disability made the emotions more acute and heightened: to my mind my life was always going to be about the limits my condition places upon me day to day. No matter how often my mum would reassure  that she understood, or when Dad and I would have a row over something ridiculous and petty then I’d let him in and admit (often in floods of tears) to him how I was feeling and he’d assure me that it was okay and that things would come together, I couldn’t see it for myself.

My excursions to London to see the friends I’d made through theatre once more proved a joy and ever welcome escape. I was able to let go of all my resentment and lose myself in the thing I love best, and after these visits I’d cherish the few days of a lifted mood I’d get before I’d drift back into the old darker patterns. Before long though, even the magic of London wore off. I became tired. Tired of the joy in my life revolving purely around the prospect of my next theatre trip.  Though I adore the theatre and it will forever be special to me in a way some find difficult to understand, I got to thinking that I’d lost sight of the fact that there was more to my life.

My time at university from 2008 – 2011 as an undergrad living away from home was an incredible period in my life, both the best and most daunting thing I’ve ever done. Even though my disability means I still require support to do most day to day things, it gave me a taste of what it was like to live independently from my parents, and prove both to them and myself that I could do so. I won’t lie and say it was always easy, but I’m grateful for all the highs and lows as they shaped me into a more rounded person, and reiterated to me that I am capable of awesome things; another thing I’d lost sight of.

 

Going back home to Mum & Dad after graduating was a major adjustment. I guess I’d toyed with the idea of moving out and loved the idea, but knowing from my uni experience how long it can take to put my support measures in place and the sheer volume of red tape you have to jump through (more on this later) from Social Services, and the fact I was unemployed made it seem like nothing more than a pipe dream.

However, myself and my brilliant folks eventually started talking about the idea more seriously and contacting all the relevant authorities to get the wheels in motion. Eventually, in January last year, we found the perfect place and waited with bated breath to see if our offer was accepted. We heard on 29th January 2016 that it was, and we were all over the moon!

Of course, nothing ever seems to be that simple: there was the matter of required adaptations (ceiling hoists in my bed and bathrooms, wider doors and making some automatic so I can just press a button and manage them without help, and a raised kitchen unit. There was also the matter of my care package. I had to account for and detail every single hour of my day in order to justify to my Social Worker why I need the support I do, and have things scheduled to the nth degree which drove me crazy… I wanted to be your normal, spontaneous if I wanted to be individual, not some timetabled robot, who by their logic had to even pee on schedule. That wasn’t even the most ridiculous part, she wanted me, to save our Council time and money,  to survive on microwave meals,  and for my parents to pick up the slack on evening hours.  For me this defeated the object of moving out of the parental home entirely: me transitioning into an independent adult! We compromised (having received next to no support from my local council) on a lot over the years and were left to fight for everything I need. We were even told that 24 hour care ( I had at university) was cheaper than my current set up, but that I couldn’t have 24 hours due to the property being one bedroom! I was livid, if we’d known that 24 was even a possibility (we were told in no uncertain terms it wasn’t  at the very beginning) we’d have looked into getting a two bedroom. My quality of life however was one thing my parents and myself were fed up of compromising on, and we fought to get everything exactly right before we’d even entertain the idea of moving in.

 

Over the following months, initially I would visit my new place a lot, brimming with excitement and enthusiasm. In time, setbacks with the works and my care plan stopped me from wanting to do so as often. I was still excited, but convinced it was all going to blow up in my face and didn’t dare hope.

 

We’ve had the flat over a year now, and I moved in on 18th July 2017.  Only three months in, I can’t tell you what a difference it’s made to my life and outlook. I have two wonderful Personal Assistants who share the job of looking after me, and my relationship with both my parents has improved immeasurably; they still come over one evening a week and do ‘the bedtime shift’ and we have dinner and quality time together – much more quality time than we ever seemed  to manage whilst I was living with them. From a personal point of view, the guilt I often felt because they were caring for me all the time has gone, they now have more time to focus on them both as themselves and as a couple, but I know that if I need them, they’d be here.

 

Sadly, early this year, in the run up to my move; my Grandma passed away.  In  late 2016 he had a fall, broke her hip and continued to deteriorate from there, in hospital and later a nursing home. I was too scared to visit her in the interim, but eventually said to myself, you need to I couldn’t describe it, but I had an odd feeling. Seeing her in the state she was broke me, and I lasted only a few minutes before I left her room in a complete mess. She died three days later, and I regret the fact I couldn’t hold myself together long enough to tell her I loved her. I hope she knew though; we were always close and I’d tell her things I wouldn’t tell my parents, and I always felt that she did understand me if I was low, unlike others. She was the sweetest, funniest person and I was so looking forward to sharing this part of my life with her. She was thrilled I was moving, and often joked how lonely she’d be when I was no longer next door. I miss her every day. I know she’d be so chuffed to see its all come together! Decorating the flat was brilliant fun and I love the freedom of having my own space.

Ever heard of a musical called Avenue Q? In it, there’s a song called: What Do You Do With a BA in English? It always makes me chuckle and felt too apt for my situation at the time. I have both a Bachelors and Masters degree in English Literature, and it’s my dream to make a living writing in some capacity. Soon after graduating though, I fell completely out of love with the old chestnut: a degree will improve your job prospects. From my personal experience, unless you go on to do your PGCE and train as a teacher, an English Literature degree won’t have much clout. I was getting rejected for job applications left, right and centre, mostly due to “lack of experience”. I even remember one employer saying they worried about my ability to hold down a full time job due to my disability. Not to my face, I might add… I found out about it after the event from my advisor who attended from the specialist employment agency I was with at the time. I spent time doing various bits and pieces of volunteer work in the hope of beefing up my CV.

The other issue was, plain and simple: I feel I’m terrible at interviews. When I’m nervous, I tend to ramble and lose focus on the question I’m asked, perhaps using something that would better answer the next question.

Now I had my flat though, I was feeling more positive than I had in months. I threw myself into jobhunting with renewed optimism, and eventually last month found myself at an interview for a part time position at a housing association. I still had my usual nerves, but it was the first time I’d felt I’d given a good account of myself where I’d be happy whatever the outcome was.

The phonecall a few days later followed the familiar pattern, except with one crucial difference: I got the job! 

I have yet to start,  due to some adaptations that need to be made to the office, but have been blown away by the willingness the company have demonstrated to want to get things right for me so I can do my job well. They’ve all been so kind, enthusiastic and supportive; and that fills me with positivity, even though I am slowly edging into a state of “new job fear”..

Though still early days, this move has changed me so much for the better, and I can’t wait to see what else this new chapter of my life has in store.

La Cage Aux Folles – Bristol Hippodrome

 

Since my major local theatre had a bit of a facelift and have moved the wheelchair spaces forward thus offering a better view, I’ve been more inclined to see more shows here at home over recent months, and even better if they tie in with my resolution to see more musicals (and indeed plays) that are new to me. That in mind, this past Friday I could be found in my favourite space for my wheels in the row at the Hippodrome, to see the UK tour of the six time Tony Award winner: La Cage Aux Folles.

Based on the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret, the musical features a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Set in Saint Tropez, we follow Georges, an openly gay nightclub owner and his relationship with his partner Albin, who is also La Cage’s star, in the form of drag artist superstar Zaza. Georges’ son Jean – Michel is getting married, and wants to bring his fiancée Anne to meet the parents. The only problem? Anne’s parents are ultra conservative.

 

 At the heart of this show is a story about love, family and acceptance. Having only been vaguely familiar with some of Jerry Herman’s melodies and lyrics, I loved hearing these in context and it struck a chord with me how simple yet profound and evocative his lyrics are, The Best of Times and With You on My Arm featuring some of my favourites. Director Martin Connor captured this balance of tone in the piece for me perfectly: one minute I’d be laughing, the next I’d be choked up and emotional, but always, always a smile was never far from my lips. I felt emotionally invested in every single scene and character. This is probably best summed up by Georges, who, close to the end of the show, says: “If we have done our jobs correctly, you will leave with more than a folded programme and a torn ticket stub”, and in my case, Georges was right: I left feeling that  special sense  of pure joy that only theatre gives me, especially when they get me to think about life and what’s important just like this show did!

 

If you’re going to touch on these pretty profound universal themes, there’s no harm in doing it hand in hand with a little bit of glitz and glamour. Gary McCann’s sets are charming and really help evoke the atmosphere; there’s colour everywhere, his costumes and Richard Mawbey’s Wigs and Makeup are wonderful, I lost count of the times I felt a serious case of “wardrobe envy” with Zaza, and it’s almost unfair how effortless the Cagelles made dancing in high heels. Bill Deamer’s choreography was playful and fun and performed with infectious energy and enthusiasm which kept the action moving along well. The jokes come thick and fast, and admittedly at times the humour is a little obvious, but that’s part the fun, and in this cast’s hands it works utterly.

 

Heading the cast is John Partridge as Albin/Zaza.  As a fan of John’s who doesn’t get to see and support him as often as I would like in my circumstances, it always means a lot to me when I am able to go and watch him work. This production is the third musical I have seen him in, but I can say with total, utter sincerity that this has been his best to date. His comic timing is razor sharp and he radiates charisma in both of his guises. I enjoy an actor’s portrayal all the more when I feel like they are enjoying the role and I got that in spades from him. His quieter, more serious moments are also a pleasure to watch, and moved me profoundly. I’ve always adored his singing voice since he first came into my life through Cats, but after hearing him sing this score, my appreciation has skyrocketed to new levels; to choose  perhaps the obvious moment,I remember cheering myself hoarse and clapped my hands till they were sore after I Am What I Am and think it’s by far and away the best rendition of that song I’ve ever heard. And of course, he looks absolutely divine in Zaza’s gowns and makeup.

 

John is joined by Adrian Zmed as Georges, who charmed me completely. He brings warmth and an easy likeability to Georges, and he and John share a wonderfully heartwarming and amusing chemistry, and played off each other incredibly. Their duet With You on My Arm was another highlight of the night for me, and I enjoyed every minute they were on stage, together and apart.

026_La-Cage-Aux-Folles_Pamela-Raith-Photography

Image Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

 

 

Dougie Carter and Alexandra Robinson were another wonderful paring, I hope I get to see more of them both in my future stagey shenanigans. Jean Michel goes through an interesting character arc throughout the show and its great watching Dougie play this out: there’s the boyish swagger, pride, akwardness of young love and everything in between, not to mention an impressive voice to match, complimented beautifully by Alexandra, who brought an endearing grace to Anne.

 

Theatre royalty Marti Webb shone as Jacqueline, her humour and presence a force to be reckoned with. A massive special mention must go to Samson Ajewole, who played an absolute blinder as Albin’s and Georges maid, Jacob. He made me cry with laughter and I think if he doesn’t soon find himself at the Adelphi donning a pair of Kinky Boots, the theatrical world will be missing a trick!

 

Special mention too, to Angelique (Richard Levey), Bitelle (Matthew Ives), Chantel (Louie- George Daniels), Hannah (Jordan Livesey), Mercedes (Oliver Proudlock-John)  Phaedra (Brian O’ Muiri) and Rochelle (Luke Byrne), otherwise known as the Cagelles. They were all gorgeous and glorious, and I loved watching them. Again, wardrobe envy and fabulous leg envy abounded!

Image Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

 

I left the theatre feeling totally uplifted and regretted the entire evening that I had not bought another ticket whilst it was here. I’m working on going to Brighton to see it again as a treat for my birthday this summer, it’s a total joy from start to end and I hope my plans prove fruitful 😉

 

A new stagey favourite: The Lion King

LK

 

 

Though I like to think of myself as an avid theatre fan, I admit I seem to have a bit of a reputation for being horrendously “late to the party” when it comes to certain shows, especially established long runners. I didn’t see Les Miserables until 2011, and I spent the evening of my birthday in 2013 seeing Jersey Boys for the first time. It’s a pattern that I didn’t mean to fall into, but it makes me smile nowadays because, often, the shows I take the longest to see are the ones that end up meaning the most to me. This is definitely true of The Lion King, which I saw in London for the first time on February 6th, 2016. It got so under my skin that to date in a relatively short time, I’ve racked up six visits, and am always on the lookout for my next opportunity to visit the Pride Lands. The Lyceum, host to the show since it first opened in October 1999 is one of a handful I can count in the West End where I am allowed to sit in the stalls in my wheelchair, so that’s part of why I go so often, but the bigger and more significant reason is the simple fact I love the show and am forever grateful for the talented folks it has brought into my life.

Based on the 1994 Disney film of the same name, the musical tells the story of a young lion cub named Simba, who after a tragic and sinister turn of events at the paws of his villainous uncle Scar, is forced into exile. The time comes however, when Simba must return to take his rightful place as King and continue the circle of life. You’re probably going to laugh at me now when I say that the film was never my favourite Disney growing up, but it has some truly stunning music and lyrics courtesy of Elton John and Tim Rice, and the Shakespeare enthusiast in me loves the Hamlet influences. The musical, in my opinion takes all the things that make the film amazing, but managed to bring in some new songs and moments unique to itself, so you go in mostly knowing what you’ll be seeing, but there’s still scope to be surprised! Personally some of my favourites moments in the musical are actually things we don’t see in the film.

One of the things I adore most about the whole experience of the show is the sheer joy I get from being a repeat visitor in an auditorium filled with folks who are likely seeing it for the first time. Being a part of the thunderous applause at the end of Circle of Life at the top of the show is worth the ticket price alone in my opinion but there’s also something special about the humour, and the fact the young kids, and indeed us big kids in the audience are often found laughing at the same jokes, and there are  little cultural references thrown in that keep things fresh, like Zazu bursting into a chorus of Let it Go, Timon doing Riverdance, and my personal favourite, the Ikea gag. Visually, I love how colourful and inventive the show is, and there isn’t a scene that goes by where I don’t smile at some point, huge thanks to Director Julie Taymor’s Costume and Puppet Design. The show uses a combination of actors in costume with some extra clever technical wizardry and puppets, my favourites being the headpieces that Scar and Mufasa wear that allow the actors controlling them to mimic the movement of lions, and I am forever in awe of Richard Frame, who currently plays Timon; his puppetry looks like the hardest to master as it must put a real strain on his arms, neck and back!

George & Shaun

Scar & Mufasa (Image from http://www.london-theatreland.co.uk/theatres/lyceum-theatre/lion-king-customer-reviews.php)

 

The production design  as a whole is why I appreciate my seat in the stalls so much: my first time was sitting at the very back in Row Z, and while you get a feel for the spectacle, you do miss out on a lot of the finer details. Every visit since I have been lucky enough to park myself in Row P, much closer to the action!

During my time as a fan of the show, thus far I have seen three Simbas, two Nalas, two Rafiki’s, and the odd single change to the Hyena trio. What strikes me each and every time is that, regardless of who is onstage, principal or alternate, you really get the feeling the cast are enjoying what they do. Whether you have a single actor, multiple characters or the entire ensemble around, the sound they create is magic and even after repeat viewings I find myself getting goosebumps or tearing up at particular songs. And it’s not just the adults: I have seen multiple different pairings of Young Simbas and Nalas, and I love how each brings their own nuances to the characters, it completely changes the dynamic and feel of their scenes for me and makes it feel fresh, even though the script is always the same. When it was announced that current Simba (Nicholas Afoa) would be joining the show, I fell head over heels for him immediately after hearing him perform at West End Live, and that was only via Youtube. The first time I saw him live, I was utterly smitten by him by the end of his introduction near the end of Act One where he sings a grand total of 3 lines, so I knew we were onto a winner. Since that first time, I feel like his portrayal of Simba has gone from strength to strength: he brings a warmth and vulnerability to Simba that I find really endearing, but manages to marry this with the little hint of swagger and likeable charm that I think the character needs to make his journey convincing. I love that every so often you also catch a little hint of his native New Zealand accent when Simba is talking, and he holds the record for the only Simba that has managed to move me to tears (in the best possible way) with his rendition of Endless Night.

 

Nick Simba From The Front Row

Nicholas shines as Simba (Image from:https://fromthefrontrow.co.uk/2016/06/27/big-interview-nicholas-afoa/)

Nicholas is joined by Ava Brennan as Nala. The show gives Nala her own solo number: Shadowlands, a part I always look forward to hearing as not only does Ava sings it incredibly well, but it’s one of the ways in which Nala is given more character development than the film affords her; and as such I find her an infinitely more interesting character on stage than I do in the film. Ava’s portrayal is strong and sassy, but she also shares some great moments of humour and romance with Nick, and their chemistry is a joy to watch. Sticking with the theme of “girl power” for a minute, I think one of the other changes I like most from the film is the fact that Rafiki is female. Brown Lindiwe Mkhize, who plays her always puts a smile on my face with the humour she brings to the role and I love watching her feed off the audience’s energy and enthusiasm, not forgetting the fact I am astounded constantly by how such a powerful voice comes out of her frame!

Howard Gossington as Zazu is always a pleasure to watch, and he never fails to make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I hear his jokes. The same goes for Richard Frame as Timon and Keith Bookman as Pumbaa; they play off one another so well and their energy and enthusiasm is totally infectious! Shaun Escoffery is ever magnificent as Mufasa, his wonderful, soaring soulful rendition of They Live in You never fails to give me chills. Like with Nala’s character, the musical also gives Mufasa a little more scope for character development, there’s a lovely scene he shares with Zazu where the two talk about parenting and how Simba reminds Zazu of Mufasa when he was that age. I also love Shaun’s scenes with each of the Young Simbas I’ve seen, they are incredibly endearing and Shaun’s smile lights up the room. The scene where Mufasa appears to the older Simba is also one of my favourites; you just hear Shaun’s voice but he has great charisma, onstage and off.

Those that know me well will know I am a total sucker for a great villain; I just find them more exciting and interesting. As such, Scar is my favourite here; he’s clever and cunning, but also has something suave and charming about him that I find completely enchanting; a quality bought out in spades by George Asprey. Each time I see the show, I have been consistently bowled over by George’s presence, (I’m always drawn to watch him even if he isn’t where my attention should be in certain scenes) intensity and gift for subtle humour, I literally sit there in “I know I shouldn’t like you right now, but you’re so good at being evil I really do” mode for the entireity of the show. I can always be found cheering at Curtain call for George, usually when everyone else is giving him the good natured “boo”. I guess for a villain the latter is a sign you’ve done your job well and it always gives me a chuckle, but I can’t bring myself to do it!

Speaking of George, I am always incredibly grateful for his time, warmth, humour and patience  with me at Stage Door. My last outing he came out especially to see me between his Jiu Jitsu training just because he was aware I was in watching; something I felt incredibly guilty about but can’t thank him enough for. He asked me how many times that made it now:

“Six? You know it better than I do!”

I wouldn’t go that far, not yet. But I’m pretty sure I love it just as much as he does 😉

 

 

 

 

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“Team Scar” -George & I post my sixth trip – 18th Feb 2017

 

 

Death Takes a Holiday, Charing Cross Theatre – January 21st, 2017

In my experience, there seems to be a general perception that Off West End theatre can’t match up to its West End counterpart. For my part I’m trying to see more Off West End productions, but it can be difficult to fit their  shorter runs into my  theatregoing schedule what with travel expenses from home and still being an unemployed twenty -something, along with the fact my wheelchair excludes me from accessing some of the city’s older buildings. I’m taking strides to change this though, and my favourite venue that allows me to do so is Charing Cross Theatre.  My first musical there was Ragtime which I was lucky enough by chance to see twice. I adored the production so much that I quickly arranged to see another musical in their season: Maury Yeston’s Death Takes a Holiday. Originally premiering off Broadway in 2011, this production marks the musical’s European debut. The musical, with a book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone is adapted from the 1924 Italian play La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella, which was in turn made into a 1934 film starring Fredric March, and later remade into the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. The latter is one of my favourite films of all time, so I was intrigued to see where the story really began, and above all being only vaguely familiar with Maury Yeston’s scores, how it was set to music.

It’s an evening in Venice just after World War One, and the family of Duke Vittorio Lamberti are returning to their villa after celebrating the engagement of their daughter Grazia to Corado Montelli.  When a mysterious figure blocks the road, Grazia is thrown from the car but is miraculously unharmed. In that instant, she knows that her life has changed dramatically. Death, entranced by Grazia’s beauty and spirit, and disillusioned with his purpose, takes human form in a Russian prince, Nikolai Sirki and endeavours discover why humans fear death so and understand human emotion. He visits the Duke, and blackmails him into letting him stay at the villa for the weekend. Thus begins a journey about life, what it means to be human and the question of whether love can transcend death.

The first thing that struck me about the production was how beautifully designed it is by Morgan Large. It features a set of large walled arches that are moved to signify a change in location, and I felt these immediately give a sense of grandeur to the intimate stage space, complimented stunningly by Johnathan Lipman’s sumptuous costumes. Matt Daw’s lighting is wonderfully atmospheric generally, even if the haze gets a little overwhelming at times; and the production  overall is a lovely balance between a brave and ambitious vision of an unusual love story, with a kind of calm yearning signified by Yeston’s luscious sweeping melodies. What I found most exciting about the score is the ease by which he brings together light and dark, often simultaneously within one song, that touched me deeply and something about his work feels very raw and truthful.

Bringing life to a story about Death is a strong cast all round, led by Chris Peluso as Death and Zoe Doano as Grazia. I bought my ticket prior to casting being announced, which if this production has taught me anything, I should be brave enough to do more often. My first experience of seeing Chris Peluso perform came with recent London revival of Miss Saigon, an experience which for me was totally marred by the staging and my view from the wheelchair spaces in the Prince Edward. I’d so been looking forward to hearing Chris singing Why God Why, but the staging meant he was sitting out of my sight for the entire duration of doing so, and trying to lean over for the majority of the action between Kim and Chris resulted in me ending the night with a very sore neck and back, and feeling disappointed at being unable to connect with the story emotionally due to the fact our view was such as it was. This in mind, I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Chris performing again, and he charmed me utterly as Death. He brought an intensity to the role that was so entrancing that I often found my eye drawn to him whilst he was simply watching other characters, and wondering what Death was thinking in those moments. He contrasted this with moments of wonderfully endearing, almost childlike enthusiasm in the way Death first encounter’s his new found freedom in Alive! His smile during the latter was infectious and I found myself wrapped up utterly in the simple joy he finds in everyday things. Not to mention his singing, which was glorious throughout and Chris made the most of every single moment of the handful of times Death actually sings. His Act II solo number, I Thought That I Could Live was a highlight and gave me wonderful chills down my spine and brought tears to my eyes.

Chris is joined by Zoe Doano, who is nothing short of pure radiance as Grazia. This production marks the third I have seen Zoe in, and I was simply delighted to hear her beautiful soaring soprano once more, a perfect fit for a score like this. She is spirited and feisty, and I loved watching Zoe play this as it was a change from the kind of characters I have seen her play in the past. Her chemistry with Chris is one of the strongest I have had the joy of watching between a leading couple recently, I loved watching them interact because I believed everything from the moment they first set eyes on each other and their voices complimented each other beautifully.

Other special mentions must go to James Gant as Fidele, the family butler whose razor sharp comic timing was a joy to watch, I think at times I found the humour in the piece a little cheesy and obvious, but James made me embrace it and forget my misgivings. Since I saw the show, James has taken over as  Prince Sirki/Death and I will forever regret not being able to arrange another visit to see his portrayal. He has a wonderful rich voice that I’ve no doubt also compliments Zoe’s, but knowing James as I do for more comedic roles, I would have thoroughly enjoyed the chance to see him play something more serious and romantic!

Anthony Cable and Gay Soper share some lovely tender moments as Baron Dario Albione and Countess Evangelina, and Mark Inscoe a face I shall watch out for in future after seeing him as Duke Vittorio. On a more personal note, I was chuffed to see my friend Trudi Camilleri up on stage again as Cora having witnessed her impromptu triumph of a debut as Mother in Ragtime here and I look forward to seeing where her whirlwind of a journey continues to lead.

It’s the cast that really hold an unusual story like this together, and coupled with the ten piece band led superbly by musical director Dean Austin, the whole effect was truly spellbinding and I’m so grateful I got to see it.

 

zoe-chris-dtah-scott-r-annabel-vere

Credit: Scott Rylander & Annabel Vere

 

School of Rock – New London Theatre, 15th January 2017

 

My love of musical theatre has led me to encounter some shows that are incredibly special to me that began life on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star, Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County, and more recently, a reimagining of my favourite Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame with new music from Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, which retains the Disney score and infuses it with more of Victor Hugo’s original novel. I genuinely love London’s theatre scene, but regularly find myself a teensy bit jealous of my American friends who have access to certain performers I’ve come to admire and will most likely never get to see because travelling in my circumstances is a logistical nightmare, and on a simpler level I just don’t have the funds. Some of them might likely tell you they feel the same jealousy with certain performers we have based here; I guess it’s an amusing vicious circle that we share! I’ve noticed  in my admittedly few years of regular theatregoing that shows tend to have a very strong likelihood of going over to Broadway, but the reverse is a rarity (at least I think so!) which I think is a shame as we miss out on some amazing pieces and potential for audiences to see something totally different. Also, many  West End performers are being snapped up for work on and off Broadway (including two of my favourites, and a third who I haven’t had the joy of seeing onstage beyond a handful of songs at a concert whilst he was amid having made his Broadway debut back in 2015). I wish more performers were afforded the same opportunity to come over to London.

 

My personal gripes are by the by however, because every so often a show does come along fresh from the Great White Way. One of my favourite films is 2003’s School of Rock and it was a bittersweet moment when in 2015 it was announced it had been adapted into a Broadway musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Glenn Slater and a Book by Julian Fellowes. Once more the familiar green eyed monster reared its ugly head. I contented myself with the Original Broadway Cast Recording and any Youtube clips of performances the cast did on American TV that I could find, living vicariously through my American friends, and the Brits who were lucky enough to travel over and see it. After the Broadway opening, Lord Webber announced that the West End production would open in 2016, originally rumoured to be playing at the Palladium, eventually confirmed instead for the New London, home previously to Show Boat and War Horse. This news devastated me, thanks to what I then referred to as the ‘paragraph of doom’ on the website that handles the theatre’s access bookings:

Wheelchair access is via a goods lift to the first level and then a quick transfer to a second lift.

Please note the width of the second lift door is 70 cm (27.5″) wide (depth 83cm – 36.2″) and will not accommodate many sizes of wheelchair especially most electric wheelchairs or scooters. Most people with wider wheelchairs will need to temporarily transfer to a small house wheelchair to access the auditorium. We strongly advise you to check the measurements of the wheelchair before booking, especially if you are unable to transfer to the house wheelchair.”

 

Luckily, my ever-pragmatic dad, who knew how upset I was by this, reckoned we could get my chair in, so I took a punt and booked a pair of tickets for   early November. We were on our way into London and it was an hour or so before showtime, when I get a call on my mobile. I didn’t recognise the number, so I let it go to voicemail. Turns out it was the theatre manager, who, immensely apologetic, informed me that the lift was broken and the engineer wasn’t able to get the part today, and so I couldn’t attend the show. I kid you not, it took all my resolve to stop myself  bursting into tears on the phone to her. She very kindly proceeded to phone round the other Really Useful Theatres to try and get us in somewhere for the matinee, a long shot given the time. Unsuccessful, my tickets were refunded and my next trip was on the house. I spent almost three weeks trying to rearrange the trip, and it included a whole bunch of calls I made, ones I missed, staff being away from the office, and so on. Then, on 23rd November, I got a call from Craig, who that day, was my hero and managed to book me in again to see the show in the new year.

 

Happily, I didn’t get any more phonecalls and January 15th saw us make it to the New London Box Office without further incident. Dad and I decided to “scope out” where we would be with the lift situation; whether he’d have to lift me into the house wheelchair or not. I wasn’t overly thrilled by this thought, as my own wheelchair has a seat specially designed for my posture and enables me to sit comfortably and I don’t have to worry about needing to be sat up as much, because Dad wasn’t watching the show with me to help on that score either if I should have to transfer. So, we asked if we could see if my chair would manage before the show began, before I headed off to meet my friend for a pre-show lunch. I can’t praise the staff enough, they understood our concerns and couldn’t do enough for us. To our relief and my joy even though the size of the lift, the position of my feet needing slight adjustment and my chair being manoeuvred so the door could shut in such a way that leaves my poor father pinned in a rather uncomfortable position against the lift wall… the house wheelchair wasn’t needed.

 

You know that old chestnut that you should never get your hopes up about something you’ve been waiting ages for because the anticipation means it’ll not be as good as you hope?  In the case of this show, at least in my mind anyway, it’s emphatically, joyously untrue. I don’t think I stopped smiling from start to finish; not least because the minute I entered and was told where I’d be sitting, my view felt like I was in an arena!

If you don’t know the film, it follows down and out aspiring Rockstar Dewey Finn who in need of some cash, poses as a substitute teacher at prestigious prep school Horace Green and sets out to turn his class of straight A students into a mind-blowing rock band. My favourite work of Lord Webber’s is Jesus Christ Superstar, so I am overjoyed to see him make a return to his “rock roots” here. The score features some truly infectious and face melting melodies, my favourites being Stick It To The Man and You’re In The Band. That said, there are also moments of real warmth and tenderness in If Only You Would Listen which I felt added another dynamic that the film didn’t I think touch on as well as it could have: namely the children’s frustration at their parents, and a reprise where they thank Dewey for the difference he has made to their lives. Principal Mullins also gets a starring solo with Where Did The Rock Go, a song that I fell in love with from first listen as it fleshes out her character more than the film does. I think it’s fair to say the number of reprises in the score sometimes gets a little  repetitive, but the way I looked at it was it was Lord Webber and Glenn Slater trying to drive home their creative point in making this more than an adaptation of the film, and emphasising the joy one can find in the power of music and staying true to yourself. It was also fun to see the Lord  do things in his scores like slide in a cheeky reference to Cats and let loose with writing a Battle  a la Guitar Hero for Dewey & Ned.

 

At the performance I was eventually lucky enough to attend, I found out a few days before I had the privilege of seeing Gary Trainor, the Alternate Dewey. I know Gary from his time over at Beautiful, where he played record producer Donnie Kirshner, and when casting was announced for School of Rock I was thrilled and longed to see Gary in the role, as it it’s completely different to  the role I  already knew and loved him for! Needless to say, he didn’t disappoint in the slightest; capturing the essence of Jack Black (who played Dewey in the film), but firmly putting his own stamp on the character. His energy and enthusiasm is boundless and he had me properly belly laughing to the point of near distracting hiccups on multiple occasions.  In the musical, Dewey also shares some lovely emotional moments with the kids and Principal Mullins that warmed my heart. One in particular between Dewey & Tomika and another between Mason and Ms Mullins had me choked up! Since seeing Gary, I’ve been telling all my friends who have already seen David Fynn, the principal Dewey, that they must go back and see Gary; especially if they saw him in Beautiful because he’ll blow their minds!

sor-gary

Image:

http://uk.schoolofrockthemusical.com/

 

I was also thrilled to see Florence Andrews had joined the cast, having seen and thoroughly adored Once three times during its West End run. She has a wonderful voice, hitting notes I could only dream of and I found myself more convinced by her character arc here than I am with the film, thanks to Florence’s grace and moments of razor sharp delivery.

 

 

Other special mentions for the adult cast go to Jonathan Bourne who has a three pronged attack as Jeff/Gabe/Billy’s Dad and thus made me smile and be frustrated on Billy’s behalf in equal measure, popping up in all three so seamlessly I almost forgot they were being handled by him by himself, Alfie Parker who was on for Mr Williams and absolutely hilarious, Michelle Francis who was on for Patti, Ned’s girlfriend, and Oliver Jackson, perfect as Dewey’s nerdy and downtrodden pal Ned. Those names aside, I loved the adults across the board; they throw themselves at this show with as much heart and energy as the kids.

 

Speaking of the kids, my god are they talented! My band for the afternoon was made up of Jake Slack (Zack), Sophia Pettit (Katie), Noah Key (Freddy), Oscar Francisco (Lawrence),  Adithi Sujith (Tomika), Leah Levman (Marcy) and Jaydah Bell- Ricketts (Shonelle). I was either in awe of their prowess at their respective instruments, or particularly in Adithi’s case, how such a powerful voice can possibly come out of her petite frame! Class was completed by Eva Trodd (Summer), Logan Walmsley (Billy), Lucas Chow (Mason), Bradley Bissett (James), Grace Schneider (Sophie) and Zac Dowlatshahi (Matthew). All of them were a joy to watch,  and in my opinion the Battle/Finale are worth the ticket price alone; I haven’t been in an audience so swept up and receptive to rockin’ out in a long time!

 

Elsewhere, Anna Louizos scenic and costume design add oomph and personality  to what I think is a really hard stage to dress, and Natasha Katz (Lighting) and Mick Potter (Sound) really get to let loose and have fun, a trait also abundant in Laurence Connor’s directing.

 

You can say I’ve been incredibly late in “handing in my homework” writing this so long after the event. All the same, I wanted to say a massive thankyou to the cast and creative team because it meant a lot for me to finally get there. I look forward to whenever I’m next in class 😉

 

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Made it! Waiting for class to begin