Shane Richie's Robin Hood raises the roof at Milton Keynes Theatre
Wednesday 12 December
Review by Alan Wooding
It maybe a story straight out of English folklore, but now the legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men has been turned into a seasonal pantomime which is set to fill Milton Keynes Theatre until mid-January judging by last night's performance.
In truth, this particular Robin Hood panto is a vehicle built around versatile actor, comedian and all-round entertainer Shane Richie who makes the leading role his own – although to me he'll always be the charismatic Alfie Moon, former Iandlord of the Queen Vic in BBC1 soap EastEnders.
Showcasing the fabled outlaw who lives in Sherwood Forest – although Londoner Shane is probably more at home in Epping Forest! – this Robin Hood tale has plenty of heroes and villains and it certainly makes for a great family pantomime penned by Alan McHugh and brought to the stage courtesy of Qdos Entertainment.
Featuring an outlandish story from the Nottinghamshire woodland, four of Robin's Lincoln green clad henchmen are played by an amazing acrobatic tumbling troupe of Merry Men known as The Acromaniacs whose hair-raising knockabout antics deserved huge applause.
I won't go into the panto's actual storyline other than to say that it's a familiar plot and that there's no love lost between our arrow-shooting hero and the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham superbly played by Pete Gallagher who receives all the usual boos and hisses.
But it's Shane Richie's jack-the-lad personality which really shines through, his ease when talking to the children who are called up on stage is great to see while he's hugely entertaining with his knockabout style when confronted by the excellent Peter Piper who plays Robin's best mate, the comical rotund Friar Tuck.
Then there's talented actor and songstress Gina Murray who plays The Spirit of Sherwood. She delivers some cracking vocals and while there's no traditional dame in this pantomime, we do get to love Zoe George as Maid Marian whose hand in marriage is the basis of this adventurous tale... the swashbuckling Robin naturally being the one she choses after escaping from the evil Sheriff's clutches.
Children from the MK-based Dancebox Studios are the Babes in the Wood and are part of the ensemble while Robin's trusty sidekicks Little John (Jamie Kenna) and Will Scarlett (Michael Quinn) had Wednesday night's audience in stitches with their comic routines.
And as for Merlin, the greenwood's resident wizard played by professional magician Phil Hitchcock, his illusions and amazing tricks certainly had the audience totally baffled.
There were gasps when the Sheriffs's huge pet Tyrannosaurus Rex appeared from the depths of the forest while a fabulous 3D sequence brought screams from the audience as they came under attack, the 3D glasses being supplied as you entered the auditorium.
Add to that the stunning scenery, the special effects, loads of glitz, glamour and beautiful costumes along with plenty of traditional boos and hisses, it means it's a show that the whole family can enjoy and take part in.
With an absolutely fabulous cast and a talented four-piece orchestra under the direction of the keyboard-playing Michael Bradley – which I found overpowered some of the vocals! – the choreography is both slick and stylish while there so many laugh out loud moments and some thoroughly entertaining skits which included audience participation.
Robin Hood plays Milton Keynes Theatre almost daily – they have a few Mondays off! – until Sunday 13 January with evening performances at either 6pm or 7pm on most evenings and matinees at 1pm, 2pm or 2.30pm – just make sure you check the theatre's website for actual times.
You can book your tickets for this sheriff-busting, tights-wearing pantomime extravaganza by calling the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes
Review: There's plenty of Sparkle and Shine in this musical Nativity extravaganza
Thursday, 15 November
By Alan Wooding
It's a case of Christmas arriving even earlier than usual in Milton Keynes this week as the new city's theatre hosts a musical spin-off version of the 2009 festive hit film, Nativity!
So popular was the film with family audiences that its creator and writer Debbie Isett's franchise has spawned three additional offerings, the latest being Nativity Rocks! which actually opens in cinemas across the country a week on Friday.
Fortunately the original Nativity storyline remains the basis of this enjoyable festive stage musical extravaganza and again it focuses on two different Coventry-based schools putting on their rival Christmas offerings. One school is desperately under-performing and in Ofsted's special measures while the opposing private prep school has a surfeit of high achievers.
I loved the original film and especially the performances of Martin Freeman as failed actor and St Bernadette's hapless schoolteacher Paul Maddens, Jason Watkins as Gordon Shakespeare from the rival Oakmoor establishment and, of course the brilliant Marc Wootton as St B's crazy but loveable teaching assistant Desmond Poppy.
Luckily the same characters all feature in the stage version with the charming Mr Maddens (Scott Garnham) being charged with producing his Catholic Primary School's musical Christmas nativity by stern headmistress Mrs Bevans (Jemma Churchill) for a second successive year.
Having been responsible for the previous offering which got a dismal minus-two stars from creepy Coventry Telegraph's theatre critic Patrick Burns (Jamie Chapman), Maddens is offered the help of Mrs Bevans' disruptive but hilarious nephew Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin) to help out.
With Mr Shakespeare (played by Andy Brady) pooh-poohing anything that St Bernadette's hopeless kids could possibly produce, Mr Maddens was desperate to gain the upper hand against his five-star reviewed rival. So he boasts that his former girlfriend Jennifer Lore (Ashleigh Gray) is now a big-shot Hollywood executive producer and that she is flying from her home in Los Angeles especially to film his musical-style Nativity play.
However as Mr Maddens hadn't actually spoken to her for years, his lie soon becomes a nightmare after the eccentric and child-like Mr Poppy tells the children that they're all talented stars and that they'll all be in the film, thus fuelling what starts as a silly boast to whole new level!
With every St Bernadette’s pupil and their parents now expecting a part in what Mr Poppy tells them will be a real musical extravaganza, it's all 'Sparkle and Shine' as the city's Mayor offers the schools the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in which to perform their nativity... surely it must be the perfect start to Christmas?
All the favourite sing-a-long songs from the film are included – Nazareth, One Night One Moment and, of course, Sparkle and Shine – while Debbie Isitt has again linked with co-composer Nicky Ager to expand the original six musical numbers to around 20 for this stage production. And once again they've come up with a string of toe-tapping, catchy songs which are sung with gusto by the entire cast and particularly the talented youngsters.
Mr Shakespeare's Oakmoor pupils – who are involved in their school's colourful 'King Herod's Rock Opera' – are made up of youngsters between the ages of nine and 12 years from the Milton Keynes area, namely: Marie Peedle (aged 11), Kuhu Agarwal (9), Darcie Griffiths (10), Caitlin Le Roux (10), Daisy Reynolds (9), Darcy Springall (9), Keanne Skye O’Quinn (10), Adelaide Barham (11), Alesandro-Aurelia Borrelli (10), Regan Parker (9), Layla Waggott (9), Elissa Birkett (11), Tora Doyle (9) and from Sandy, Kaspar Cahill Ritter (11).
Meanwhile Mr Maddens' St Barnadette's children are: Evie Bennell-Low, Demi Delord, Joseph Duffy, Kheiri Issac-Osmani, Betsy Jiggins, Marlie Love, Jasmine McKenna, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Amy-Louise Mulhall, Aston Sidwell and Nicholas Vakis and both sets of youngsters are superb.
However just as in the film, it's the loveable Mr Poppy who steals the limelight as far as the comedy is concerned with Simon Lipkin – who also features in the new film – certainly making the part his own. He has a wonderful way with the children while delivering plenty of great lines and references to other shows, very much in the traditions of a pantomime.
As for Scott Garnham (a dead ringer for Martin Freeman!), he is excellent as Mr Maddens and he travels with two of his pupils to the USA to plead with his former fiancé to help bring his lie to life. But he soon finds out that Jennifer has also told a lie of her own as she's merely a secretary. I particularly loved Ashleigh Gray's voice and would have liked to have heard more although her duet with Paul Maddens in the moving Suddenly was a winner.
The clever use of on-stage Christmas present-style boxes were used to good effect while the choreography, courtesy of Andrew Wright, is not too ambitious and the children take it in their stride. Meanwhile it's Andrew Griffiths who is the show's musical director and, despite having just five musicians in the theatre's pit, they never miss a beat.
I can't help but make mention of Cracker, the cuddliest, cutest most placid dog imaginable which is handed around the stage by the actors after being given as a present to Jennifer by Mr Maddens just before they split up.
The whole cast received a deserved standing ovation at Wednesday's opening night, the glitzy Nativity! The Musical being the perfect feel-good show for all the family and it could easily replace a pantomime at this time of year!
Nativity! The Musical plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Sunday (18 November) with shows at 7pm nightly while there are matinees at 2pm today (Thursday) and again on Saturday. Then on Sunday there are shows at 1pm and again at 5pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes
Kara Lily Hayworth shines supreme as Cilla Black at Milton Keynes Theatre
Tuesday, 30 October
By Alan Wooding
Cilla The Musical opened at Milton Keynes Theatre last night (Tuesday) to rapturous applause while the performance of the show's sensational leading lady Kara Lily Hayworth took me right back to the swinging sixtes.
Having been lucky enough to grow up in a decade which musically took the world by storm, it was also an era that anything coming out of Liverpool was an instant hit in the pop charts… and it was usually worth listening to!
Naturally The Beatles led the way, although close on their heels came the likes of Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Big Three, Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas and The Fourmost... although a shy female vocalist originally named Priscilla White was shortly to join the top flight.
Following the success of ITV's 2014 BAFTA award-winning three-part mini series about the early life of Cilla Black and her portrayal by the brilliant Sheridan Smith, Jeff Pope's heart-warming tale of the flame-haired Liverpool lass and her rise to fame and fortune is brilliantly brought to life on stage.
It certainly goes well beyond the typical Jukebox-style musicals that have been played out across the country over the past couple of decades, for Cilla The Musical is a truly uplifting life story about a 25-year-old Liverpudlian typist and sometime hat-check girl who changed her name from White to Black and sang at the city's famous Cavern Club.
As a wanna-be star, Cilla was lucky to know the right people and after achieving a string of hits, she went on to become a worldwide sensation and latterly a regular television favourite on popular shows like Blind Date, The Moment of Truth and Surprise Surprise.
Of course all of Cilla's famous hits – Anyone Who Had a Heart, Alfie, Something Tells Me, You’re My World and Step Inside Love – are in the show which is played out against a Merseysound backdrop featuring songs by the Fab Four plus a host of other Liverpool groups.
Kara Lily Hayworth certainly has all the right mannerisms, a strongish Liverpudlian accent and that same outstanding singing voice that Cilla possessed and she uses it to perfection in every single number. In fact she's pitch-perfect!
Often emotional and sometimes tempestuous and childlike, Cilla had that rare talent which holds an audience transfixed while the First Act high spot for me came just before the interval curtain as Kara sings Anyone Who Had A Heart with such conviction that it could just as easily have been the lady herself up there on the stage.
Andrew Lancel was truly superb as The Beatles – and latterly Cilla's – manager Brian Epstein, his own tragic story running parallel to that of Ms White's rise to fame.
Epstein's secretive personal life is certainly exposed in one of the most moving scenes in the show as John Lennon (played by Michael Hawkins) tenderly sings Hey, You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, that well-crafted Beatles number leaving no-one in any doubt as to the group's manager's closet secret.
Meanwhile Alexander Patmore did a great job of playing Cilla's devoted original manager, lover and future husband Bobby Willis whose untimely death in 1999 was to leave 'Our Cilla' a grieving widow for 16 years until her own passing after a fall at her Spanish holiday home in August 2015.
Just as plenty of aspiring young singers have done in the past, Cilla's hairbrush replaced a microphone at the opening curtain, her dreams reflecting a life to come, even though her Roman Catholic parents John and Big Cilla White (Neil MacDonald and Jayne Ashley) clearly poo-pooed her heady showbiz aspirations… and they certainly didn't like the idea of her being with a Prostestant lad like Bobby!
It was after an open-mic spot at a local club singing with The Big Three that Cilla's schoolfriend Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr played by Bill Caple) tried to convince her to go to Hamburg with the Beatles.
It was John Lennon (Hawkins) who introduced her to Brian Epstein, even though her first audition was a total disaster as her backing was played in the wrong key. But the rest as they say is history!
The dark basement of Liverpool's Cavern Club is brought convincingly to life, the staging comprising a triple archway added to some clever lighting, it all makes for the perfect backdrop for a host of well known songs from the early 1960s.
In the recording studio, Cilla would often give a single-take performance, something almost unheard of these days although composer Burt Bacharach did make her sing Alfie over and over again just because he'd travelled to Britain from the United States to hear the recording and he wanted his money's worth!
But that came several months after Cilla's first really big hit, Anyone Who Had A Heart. It was British No1 in February 1964 and was followed three months later by her second hit, the fabulous You’re My World.
And the songs just kept coming with more appearances by The Beatles played by the aforementioned Caple and Hawkins along with Alex Harford in the role of George Harrison while Joe Etherington is Paul McCartney and he also plays the same left-handed violin-style Hofner base as 'Macca'.
There's also a loveable Gerry Marsden (Alan Howell) plus a host of others who all play live on stage… it certainly took me right back to my teenage years.
As for writer Jeff Pope – whose Academy Award nominated film Philomena and the truly memorable television series Mrs Biggs about the aftermath of The Great Train robbery – he really gets into Cilla's psyche and, together with the show's brilliant Scouse Director Bill 'Mr Musical' Kenwright's excellent casting and it's Executive Producer Robert Willis (Cilla's eldest of her three sons), it's a show which left me wanting to see it all over again. In fact if had Cilla been able to see it herself, then I'm sure she'd have said: "There's a 'lorra, lorra' tears and laughter, plenty of light and shade and some really great singing by the whole cast."
Cilla The Musical plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (3 November) at 7.30pm while there are matinees at 2.30pm today (Wednesday 31 October), tomorrow Thursday and Saturday. For tickets call the Milton Keynes Box Office on 0844 871 7652 or go online at atgtickets.com/MiltonKeynes (booking fees apply).
War Horse opens to triumphant scenes at Milton Keynes Theatre
By Alan Wooding
Wednesday, 19 September 2018
As we approach the month which brought an end to hostilities in the First World War exactly 100 years ago, it's perhaps fitting that a play as powerful as War Horse arrived in Milton Keynes tonight as it continues its tenth anniversary tour.
Following eight successful years in London's West End at the New London Theatre, War Horse has picked up numerous theatrical awards, visited 11 different countries worldwide and has been seen by more than seven million people.
However when St Albans-born award-winning children's writer Michael Morpurgo penned what he thought would be a book in the mould of Black Beauty aimed at school-aged youngsters, little did he expect War Horse to become such a world-wide sensation and to make him a household name.
The story features Devonshire farm boy Albert Narracott (played by Thomas Dennis) who forges a real bond with a horse named Joey which was purchased as a foal at an auction by his drunken father Ted Narrocott (Gwilym Lloyd). In a drunken stupor, Ted outbids his own brother Arthur (William Ilkley) with the sum of 39 guineas… and as that was his family's mortgage money, once he returns home to Rose (Jo Castleton), his extremely furious wife won't even let him in the house.
Albert gains the young Colts confidence as they grow up together while a bet between the two Narracott brothers sees a two-year-old Joey grow to become a strong stallion able to pull a plough which means Ted wins the bet.
However when the British Army come calling in 1914 at the outbreak of the Great War, Joey is sold to amateur sketch artist Lieutenant Nicholls (Ben Ingles) by Ted for £100, once again much to the fury of Albert and Rose.
Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg's brilliant 2011 film will already know the War Horse story, but for those who haven't, Albert lies about his age and joins up but soon finds himself embroiled in the cruelty and brutality of war first hand – and he's especially horrified at the way the horses are treated.
The scene of a cavalry charge against a German machine gun battery see Lieutenant Nicholls killed along with most of his battalion while Joey survives only to end up on the German side of the trenches. There's much suffering, the war being well described by Private David Taylor (Toyin Omari-Kinch) as he and Albert take shelter. However when he writes a letter home for Albert, he certainly doesn''t tell the truth.
The battle scenes are magnificent using just lighting and sound with the minimum of props. A farm plough becomes a gun carriage while fencing from the farm turn into the railings on a troop ship. There's also a huge British tank and a massive gun which is hauled by half dead horses under the lash of a cruel German sergeant.
Throughout the two hours 45 minutes of the show (including a 20 minute interval), a clever graphic projection of sketchbook pencil drawings sets the scene; from depictions of rural life in tranquil Devon to the horrors that Albert and Joey encounter on Flanders Field and the killing grounds of the Somme.
If there is a star in this stunning National Theatre production, then for me it's undoubtedly the 12 puppeteers of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company who bring the title character to life. After a few minutes you hardly notice Joey's three operators for his head, heart and hind quarters. And it's the same clever puppetry which operates Topthorn, another magnificent horse which joins Joey on the battlefield. Each trio of puppet masters get their horses to trot, gallop and canter so realistically while making all the right sounds: a whinny or a snort along with panting breath.
There is a large cast of National Theatre actors, many playing two parts as the scene switched between the British and German front lines. Impressive was passive German office Friedrich Muller (Peter Becker) who attempts to switch identities and become a medical orderly in a bid to avoid the front. His slightly comic-style attempt to speak English reminded me of Arthur Bostrom's French policeman in 'allo 'allo!
Thomas Dennis is great as Albert while the Narracott family – dad Ted, mum Rose, Uncle Arthur and cousin Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) – make the parts their very own. Without going into too much detail, you've probably guessed that Albert is finally reunited with Joey in a moving scene which brings a tear to many eyes.
The show's background music might well have been composed by Edward Elgar himself, while musician Bob Fox (he's the aptly named Song Man) deserves all the accolades for his accordion playing and singing. A folk singer in the tradition style, he has a fabulous voice while the songs bring about light relief against the sound of war. Then as the whole cast form up as a choir, the accompaniment comes from Bob's accordion and provides a moving distraction from the brutality.
Fortunately there are other lighter moments in the play; one uttered by a sergeant regarding discipline in the ranks after Albert joins up, but this is merely lost as the horror returns.
War Horse is a truly enthralling piece of theatre and the packed Milton Keynes audience certainly showed their appreciation on opening night with a standing ovation. And I can't forget the loud applause at the final curtain as a puppet goose – which had tried constantly to get into the farm house – took a bow alongside the other actors before it is quickly ushered off stage to roars of laughter.
The War Horse tour plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 6 October with shows each night at 7.30pm (Monday to Saturday) plus a matinee today (Thursday, 20 September) at 2.30pm. There are also further afternoon performances each Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes
Review: Matilda the Musical