Review – Kiss Me, Kate, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2019

Kiss Me, KateEvery New Year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I treat Lord and Lady Prosecco to a post-Christmas outing: a weekend in Sheffield (bear with me) to stay at the lovely Mercure Hotel, have some scrummy meals and to see both the Crucible’s Christmas musical AND the Lyceum panto – and we’ve not had a duff experience yet. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken to seeing the panto in the evening – the weight of a few extra wines and a more end-of-term atmosphere always helps. Which left us this matinee with the prospect of seeing Cole Porter’s fantastic, and now grammatically correct, Kiss Me, Kate.

edward-baker-duly-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.This was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite musicals and I was brought up on a diet of Always True to You Darling in my Fashion and From This Moment On; not a bad way to be brought up, to be honest. But this is only the third time I’ve seen it; once in 1987 at the Old Vic with the redoubtable Nichola McAuliffe, and at Chichester in 2012 where Hannah Waddingham attempted to rule the roost over Alex Bourne. That London production was great; the Chichester one a little disappointing. But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and say that this new production at Sheffield by Paul Foster tops them both.

edward-baker-duly-and-rebecca-lock-as-fred-and-lillI’m sure you know the story – a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew is the vehicle for an on-and-off love story between the two leads, Fred Graham (playing Petruchio, also the producer of the show) and Miss Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherine, the star attraction). Lilli senses that their romance is back on track (they are already divorced at the beginning of the show) but when she discovers that the flowers she received from Fred were actually meant for cabaret starlet Lois (playing Bianca), she gets into a Katherine-type rage and takes it out on him on stage. He, being not entirely a true gentleman, gives as good as he gets, and she spends most of the rest of the show unable to sit down because – well, because, gentle reader, he gave her a damn good spanking. It happens in Shakespeare, so why the hell not here. Only one way to tame a shrew; women respect it. (That was a joke, by the way.)

dafydd-emyr-as-harrison-howell-and-rebecca-lock-as-lilli-vanessi.Lilli’s plans to abandon the rest of the run are brought to an abrupt halt by the persuasions of two gangsters who (erroneously, as it happens) need the show to be a success so that Fred can pay his dues to their Mr. Big. Her new beau Harrison Howell arrives to take her away – but, will she find true love with him, or with Fred? If you don’t know the answer to that by now, you never will.

dex-lee-centre-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.It’s true; in the current climate, some aspects of this show have dated to become ever so slightly worrying. The physical animosity between Fred and Lilli does border on domestic violence (even though it’s played entirely for laughs) and the subjugation of women’s will to men’s is still as clear as it was in Shakespeare’s day – you have to feel a cringe coming on when Katherine/Lilli sings I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple. But this is distinctly a period piece, with no attempts (quite right, I think) to update it to the 21st century. Porter’s showtunes are still as 1940s jazz as they can be; the gangsters are still the same Chicago thickos they always were. Porter’s brilliant lyrics anchor the show in his own era; when one of the funniest lines in any of the songs is “he may have hair upon his chest, but, sister so has Lassie”, there’s just no point trying to update it. Provided there are audience members who remember Lassie, the joke works.

layton-williams-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.We’ve been used over the years at Sheffield to seeing the big choreography routines by Alistair David, who made such a mark in shows like My Fair Lady and Show Boat. For this show, the choreography is by Matt Flint, and I have to say I’ve not come across his work before. But he’s terrific! His style is much more intimate and involved; he sets up scenes with so many varied things happening in different parts of the stage all at the same time, then brings them all together for a big impact. The second Act opens with his fantastic staging of Too Darn Hot, led with immaculate artistry and precision by Layton Williams as Paul; it’s one of those classic dance sequences when you know you’re seeing something special and you never want it to end. As an aside, our performance was captioned – a great innovation, imho – and it was fascinating to read the lyrics to Too Darn Hot (as well all the other songs) – it’s easy to overlook just exactly what this song is all about!

cindy-belliot-and-layton-williams.Elsewhere, the show is peppered with memorable moments, mainly involving the big numbers. Paul Foster has concentrated most of his efforts into getting the maximum entertainment out of the songs, so there is no attempt to shorten any of Cole Porter’s mammoth efforts. I guess a downside to that is that if you don’t like the songs much (then why are you here?) you probably won’t enjoy it much. The show opens with (fittingly) Another Op’nin’ Another Show, at first fronted by Lilli’s dresser Hattie (a beautiful, warm-hearted performance by Cindy Belliot) but then it opens out to a wide-ranging musical examination of all the cast and crew arriving at this new theatre, with all the tensions and excitements that can contain – and it’s an exciting and exhilarating start.

joel-montague-and-delroy-atkinson-as-the-gangsters-in-kiss-me-kate.Other highlights include Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca teasing routine with the three suitors for Tom Dick or Harry – one of these, Dex Lee, plays Bill/Lucentio and I always admire his brilliant, acrobatic dancing; Rebecca Lock (a brilliant Katherine/Lilli with a stunning voice) throwing herself around in fits of fury during I Hate Men; Edward Baker-Duly (also brilliant as Fred/Petruchio – I loved his ham, and then even hammier, vocal performance as the stagey actor) ripping through the memories of all those women in Where is the Life that Late I Led; Amy Ellen Richardson’s funny and flirtatious performance of Always True To You Darling in my Fashion; and the simple but oh so effective staging of Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as the two theatrical gangsters, occupying the spotlights – Mr Atkinson in particular gave a brilliantly expressive physically comic performance. I also appreciated the fact that, for much of the performance, James McKeon’s orchestra was hidden at the back of the set, but for the songs that belonged to Taming of the Shrew, it was on view – a very nice touch, I thought.

amy-ellen-richardson-as-lois-lane-in-kiss-me-kate.The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the staging of one of my favourite songs from the show, From This Moment On. It’s a difficult one. The song was never written for Kiss Me Kate; Porter wrote it for another show from which it was dropped at the last minute, but it was obviously too good to waste, and Cole Porter was an expert musical recycler. From This Moment On appears in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, where it works perfectly as a number between Bianca and her three suitors; but the dramatic usefulness of that has already been taken by Tom Dick or Harry. So nowadays the custom is to have it sung by Harrison Howell and Lilli before he sweeps her away to the magicless life of a military wife – or not. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have it there; but in practice the characters are too old and the situation too cynical (ouch! Sorry!) for the song to work properly. It’s a young person’s song – a starting out in life song – filled with genuinely great expectations, and I’d prefer to give the song back to Lois and Bill. In characterisation and acting, Dafydd Emyr made an imposing Howell, but, for me, it just didn’t work.

simon-oskarsson-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.But this is one small quibble in an otherwise excellent show that thrilled us all, and we continued to talk about it later that evening and all through the next. One of those productions to savour and recall with happiness for years to come. It’s on until Saturday 12th January. Would be a crime to miss it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Hairspray, Derngate, Northampton, 28th September 2015

HairsprayThe prospect of the return of Hairspray the Musical filled Mrs Chrisparkle and me with delight. We loved the original show in 2008 with Michael Ball and Leanne Jones, and remember leaving the theatre energised and upbeat. The original film, too, is a heap of fun, with the amazing Divine as Edna – casting that thereby required all future Ednas to be played by a bloke. One quick check of the creative team for this revival tells you you’re in the safest of hands, with Leicester’s Paul Kerryson directing, top-of-his-game Drew McOnie choreographing, and a cast of huge talent. So it was no surprise that the Derngate was packed to the rafters with an almost full house on Monday night for its first performance in Northampton.

Tony MaudsleyI’m sure you know the story, but in a nutshell: “pleasingly plump” Tracy Turnblad longs to be a TV star but she has neither the figure nor the middle class background to break into the big time. When she tries to audition for Corny Collins’ music and dance show she comes up against the ruthless producer Velma whose sole ambition is to get her pretty but obnoxious daughter Amber into the limelight, primarily by fixing her to win the “Miss Teenage Hairspray” title. But Tracy’s natural vivacity and talent shine through and when Corny sees her perform he insists on her being in the show. We’re talking 1962 Baltimore, and there’s racial segregation everywhere you look. Prim parents, like that of Tracy’s best mate Penny, Peter Duncanrefer to “race music”, and the prejudiced Velma has an “all-white” policy for the show. One day a month is “Negro day”, when the black performers are allowed to take to the stage – no other time. Tracy tries to use her new influence to break down this barrier by organising a protest march for all the dancers on the show to demand full integration between the races. When the march gets out of hand, the police are called, they’re all arrested, but “the new Elvis”, Link, sneaks into the prison and helps Tracy escape so that she can get back to the studio just in time to win “Miss Teenage Hairspray”. In the end, segregation becomes integration in what turns out to be a very moral story where good wins through and evil is defeated.

Freya SuttonThere’s so much to enjoy this production, and a good night was had by all despite some technical problems, no doubt related to the fact that this was its first night on tour. Given that it’s Paul Kerryson in charge, perhaps surprisingly the majority of problems are down to the staging. We were in the middle of row F of the stalls – and I spoke to a friend who was in the side stalls in Row K – and we both had the same problem: you can see far too much of what’s going on in the wings. Now, you might expect that if you’re right on the edges of the seating plan; and sometimes a little hint of what’s going on is quite exciting from a stagecraft point of view. But this level of movement was distracting. The problem is that the side drapes don’t hang low enough to mask what’s going on – maybe because of the two platforms that get wheeled on and off at the sides, representing the Turnblads’ house and Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop. The band are also positioned at the back of the set, which means from time to time they are in full view, normally something that would lend an added, exciting dynamic; but during the course of the evening I looked up at them occasionally and when some band members were not playing their instruments, they simply looked bored! So that really didn’t work. I also felt that the scenery representing the prison was distracting, as it flew in and out of position just a bit too often; and I also didn’t realise that the place where Seaweed and his pals hung out was meant to be a record shop; I thought it was just a street.

Claire SweeneyHopefully the technical issues will get quickly ironed out – there were, for example, too many moments when actors were performing unlit, and where the pauses between scenes were too long. Fortunately, the cast coped with the problems admirably; particular kudos to Jon Tsouras for deftly switching from hand-held mic to no mic and back again without a flicker of an eyebrow. I must say though this is the first time I’ve ever seen a dancer (no names, no pack drill) come on stage in a pair of trousers at least three sizes too small for him, unzipped and unbuttoned up at the top, do a few moves and then run off, not to reappear for the rest of the scene. What on earth happened there?! Had he put on someone else’s trousers? Despite that, I thought Takis’ costume design for the show was first rate, providing a stage billowing with primary colours and creating some enormously snazzy shirts and jackets of which I was thoroughly jealous.

Brenda Edwards and castTalking of dancing, and dancers, this is one area in which this production absolutely excels. Drew McOnie’s choreography is sparky and funny, and reaches out to the audience with a huge pair of open arms and welcomes us in. He creates dances that manage to tell a story, even within the context of a big show number, in a way that other choreographers would just create something that looks pretty. It was his choreography for the song “Run and Tell That” that was so instantly captivating and that matched perfectly the creativity of his dancers, that made you feel you were watching something really special. The whole dance ensemble are fantastic, but amongst them there is one Layton Williams, whom we saw in Lord of the Flies, who is just an amazing dancer, and for whom I predict Really Great Things.

Jon TsourasOf course the role of Edna is really larger-than-life, and Tony Maudsley has some very big shoes to fill when you consider other performers who have taken the role before him. When he first appeared on stage, I was completely thrown as he was the spitting image of my Nan in the 1970s. Even their gravelly voices were similar. He plays Edna more demurely than I would have expected; very respectful of her maternal role, and not remotely playing up the drag aspect. I was unsure of this interpretation at first, but it worked particularly well with the show-stopping “You’re Timeless to Me”, as his surprisingly refined and elegant Edna provides a great contrast with Peter Duncan’s cheeky-chappie portrayal of Wilbur. With Mr Duncan cutting a diminutive figure in comparison to Mr Maudsley’s statuesque Edna, it was a bit like Tigger romancing Winnie-the-Pooh’s granny. I didn’t expect to have to say this, but I still think he could brighten up (maybe even camp up) his more glamorous appearances; in particular his final entrance didn’t quite have a sufficiently outrageous wow factor for me. Mr Duncan is, however, pitch-perfect throughout, conveying just the right mix of parental kindliness and general facetiousness that you would expect a joke shop proprietor-father to have.

Dex LeeFreya Sutton is a great Tracy; full of teenager enthusiasm, hopelessly infatuated with pop stars and delightfully open-minded and unprejudiced. She sings with great strength and charm and can turn in some wicked dance moves too. There’s a cracking performance from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle, putting all her heart and soul (and then some more) into that big rousing number; and a funny yet very strong musical performance from Monique Young as Tracy’s dorky friend Penny, who graduates from Ugly Duckling to Beautiful Swan in front of our eyes. Jon Tsouras cuts a charismatic dash as Corny Collins, nicely massaging away the fixed grin from his face whenever the camera is turned off, and there’s excellent support from both Adam Price and Tracey Penn as the two “authority figures”. Lauren Stroud is a splendidly smart-arsey Amber, the perfect representation of what you become when you’re spoilt rotten as a child. I thought Ashley Gilmour rather underplayed the role of Link Larkin; I’m not sure I could see him as the next Elvis, to be honest, and you couldn’t really tell when he was being a louse and when a hero. There was an unintentionally hilarious moment when he came through the audience to rescue Tracy from prison. Waving his torch in all directions he called out “where are you?” to which an audience member replied “here!” and we all had to stifle our giggles.

Monique YoungI always love it when I see A Star Is Born performance – and this show has one in the form of Dex Lee as Seaweed. We’ve already seen him once in the incredible Scottsboro Boys but in Hairspray he absolutely shines and confirms he is a brilliant song and dance man. His voice, his dancing and his enormously likeable stage presence make for a winning combination; and he and Monique Young made a really charming young couple together. There were also brilliant contributions from the three Dynamite girls, Vanessa Fisher, Aiesha Pease and Bobbie Little. They looked gorgeous, sang like a dream and danced their little socks off.

Layton WilliamsOf course the show has lots of amazingly entertaining moments, none more exhilarating than its brilliant finale – You Can’t Stop the Beat – which, as Mrs C pointed out, is worth the ticket fee alone, and which guarantees you leave the theatre in the bounciest of moods. It also has some hard-hitting and poignant moments where it exposes the racial segregation system of the time, and its occasional uncomfortable scenes stand out as moments of telling dramatic tension. Once it’s taken a couple of days to bed in this is going to be a really slick show – fingers crossed for no more technical failures! It’s on a pretty massive UK tour right round to next May, so if you’re local to Malvern, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, Wimbledon, Bradford, Southampton, Ipswich, Brighton, Birmingham, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Inverness, Bristol, Woking, Cardiff, Norwich, Milton Keynes, Canterbury or Stoke, I’m sure you’ll have a great time!