Kara Lily Hayworth is outstanding as Cilla Black.

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).

Joey and Topthorn greet each other in War Horse

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

The schoolchildren are in rebellious mood in Matilda the Musical

Review: Matilda the Musical

by Alan Wooding

Friday 8 June 2018

When Milton Keynes Theatre announced last year that Matilda the Musical was to play an almost five week mid-summer season in the new city, there was a massive rush for tickets to see what has clearly become something of a theatrical phenomenon.

However I must have been the only person in the theatre on Thursday evening who had no idea what Matilda was all about, for having never seen the film, read author Roald Dahl's book or previously heard Tim Minchin's musical score, I was left a little bemused as to what all the hype was about after the first act.

Having picked up so many theatrical awards since it opened at the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon more than seven years ago, I've learned that Matilda the Musical is quite different from the film, while Dahl's original book was adapted by Dennis Kelly and that Minchin – the Northampton-born Australian comic actor – is now a household name in theatrical terms.

In a nutshell, the story involves Mr and Mrs Wormwood – they're slightly better dressed versions of Wayne and Waynetta Slob! – who have an unplanned, unwanted baby daughter which grows into a clever five-year-old who loves to read books.

Saddled with such ignorant disapproving parents, Matilda is constantly called a boy by her shady car salesman father (brilliantly played by Sebastien Torkia) while Matilda retorts "I'm a girl".

Meanwhile her latin ballroom mad mother (Rebecca Thornhill) is far more interested in her sleazy dance partner Rudolpho (Matt Gillett) than her flashly-dressed hubby who I thought was a dead ringer for Monty Python's cheeky songster, Eric Idle!

I loved Mrs Wormwood's "Dinners don't microwave themselves" quip to her equally stupid husband as he tries unsuccessfully to sell some rusty, clapped out old bangers to a Russian. However Matilda (played by Poppy Jones, one of four youngsters who share the role), sees the injustice of it and accuses her dad of cheating and lying. 

The show certainly opens in a rousing manner with nine schoolchildren attending a birthday party and being joined by several other adults dressed in grey school uniforms.

With Matilda able to read well and do complex mathematical problems, she's sent to school where she meets kind, sweet Miss Honey (Carly Thorns). Truly amazed by a little girl who quotes Charles Dickens' opening lines from 'A Tale Of Two Cities' and also knows how to speak fluent Russian having read Dostoevsky, Miss Honey takes a real shine to her star pupil.

But its Miss Trunchball, the school's much-feared headmistress (so brilliantly played by Craige Els) who steals the show for me. She's downright evil, is a former Olympic hammer-throwing gold medallist, rules with strict discipline, hates books and calls the children 'maggots and worms'… and should they dare misbehave, then it's 'Chokey'!

Els' character really owns the stage, he is nasty to everyone – especially the timid Miss Honey – while the gym class escapades sees everyone making full use of a deep crash mat, vaulting horse and trampette and that really has the audience wildly applauding… it's theatrical brilliance at its best!

For me the second act was more enjoyable than the first after I finally tuned into the children's shrill and sometimes garbled voices – which at times I found difficult to hear or understand – but I did get into it and Mr Wormwood's 'learning from the telly and not books' sequence aided by his dopey, monosyllabic son Michael (a typical 'Kevin-type' scruffy teenager played by Matthew Caputo), was a great opening number.

What followed was 'When I Grow Up' – the only melody I could actually recall after leaving the theatre – which was sung with gusto by the children on swings, the whole sequence being both clever and perfectly choreographed.

Miss Honey, who has a wonderful soprano voice, sings the haunting 'My House' – which turns into a duet – while other characters in the show include an acrobat, an escapologist, a doctor, a cook plus various henchmen, the finale seeing everyone whizzing around the stage on colourful scooters singing a reprise of 'When I Grow Up'.

Full marks to all the children, and especially Poppy Jones playing Matilda. The amount of dialogue and stagecraft that she and her fellow actors have to learn is quite remarkable for ones so young. 

Matilda is one of Roald Dahl's typical 'good over evil stories' in every sense of the word, it's been beautifully staged by the RSC and is both powerful in its message while being extremely funny and entertaining. 

Matilda the Musical plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, 30 June with shows at 7.30pm nightly and matinees on both Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

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"I'll drink to that", say the cast of The Play That Goes Wrong.

 Review: The Play That Goes Wrong

by Alan Wooding

Monday 23 April 2018

More than 50 years ago I travelled to London's Whitehall Theatre to see the late Brian Rix starring in one of his ridiculously hilarious farces and now, thanks to The Play That Goes Wrong which opened in Milton Keynes last night, the memories of those crazy days came flooding back.

Just like those Brian Rix's Whitehall farces – incidentally the theatre was renamed the Trafalgar Studios back in 2004 – The Play That Goes Wrong is a clever over-the-top piece of comic theatre and it's no wonder that numerous West End and International awards have been bestowed upon it as it enters it's third year.

The play features local drama group, The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, whose new production is an Agatha Christie-style murder-mystery called Murder at Haversham Manor.

Set in the late 1920s, the amateur group encounter catastrophe after catastrophe as things go hopelessly and hilariously wrong from the opening scenes – it's all reminiscent of dear old Lord Rix's productions of those 1950s/60s heydays.  

Co-written by three members of the Mischief Theatre Company – Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – they've come up with every slapstick joke known to man along with every physical and crazy comedy routine without actually injuring one another. And it all adds up to plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, cracking timing and great fun for the audience and for the cast alike.

Before curtain up, a couple of cast members walk through the audience calling out as if looking for their dog Winston. After that, the entire amateur drama society members struggle with their lines, miss their cues while their props are either misplaced or just go missing. 

However it would be unfair to retell any of the jokes or the plot lines as it could spoil it for those wishing to see the show which plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday.

What I can reveal is that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society and its acting Director Chris is played by Jake Curran (who also doubles up as Police Inspector Carter) and who tries to keep his cool when everything around him seems to fall apart. 

He has something of a John Cleese manner as a straight man in many of those old Monty Python sketches and while it's all totally over the top, I couldn't help feeling that Basil Fawlty had vacated Fawlty Towers for the evening and joined in.

Elena Valentine’s Sandra (who plays Florence Colleymore) is looking for her moment of fame while her brother Thomas Colleymore – played by Kazeem Tosin Amore playing Robert … yes it's all very confusing! – delivers some cracking one liners, especially when he's propping up the collapsing scenery. 

There's some fantastic self-conscious facial expressions towards the audience from Max (Bobby Hirston) who plays the clumsy Cecil Haversham and Arthur the Gardener. As a first timer on the boards he's clearly stage struck while his brother Charles Haversham (Steven Rostance as Jonathan) is the first to die… or does he? 

Meanwhile Catherine Dryden’s is a coy Annie who ends up in dispute as she plays the same role as a defrocked Sandra, with both trying to outdo the other. Also worthy of mention is Benjamin McMahon as Dennis who excels as Haversham Manor's dopey butler Perkins, especially in the sequence when the main characters get themselves into a loop and repeat the same lines over and over again. 

The Play That Goes Wrong delivers slapstick comedy in the cleverest way and it certainly left me grinning like a Cheshire cat. In fact the highest praise you can ever give a performance is with a standing ovation… and on this occasion it was richly deserved!

The Play That Goes Wrong remains at Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (28 April) with shows at 7.30pm nightly and matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets from the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 or online at www.atgtickets.co.uk/miltonkeynes

Bronté Barbé is truly magnificent as Carole King

Review: Bronté Barbé shines in Beautiful at Milton Keynes

The Shirelles in Beautiful

Wednesday 21 February 2018

by Alan Wooding 

Her music had been the soundtrack of my teenage years but this week everyone can enjoy Beautiful, the superbly constructed jukebox-style musical which plays Milton Keynes Theatre and features the hits of legendary singer song-writer Carole King.

Beautiful is the story of Carole Joan Klein (superbly played by Bronté Barbé) who, as a cocky 16-year-old Brooklyn kid, skips a couple grades at school to seek her fortune in New York, much against the wishes of her divorced Jewish mother Genie Klein who wants her to be a music teacher… “Girls don’t write music, they teach it," she exclaims.

With a surname change to King, Carole's remarkable talent saw a meteoric rise to stardom after co-writing a string of hits at the 1650 Broadway studio, which became something of a musical 'sausage factory' and was home to host of pop writing talent.  

King's hits includes such classics as It Might As Well Rain Until September, One Fine Day, Up On The Roof, The Loco-Motion and You’ve Got a Friend although she doesn't get a break until impressing producer and manager Donnie Kirshner (Adam Howden) who decides to take her under his wing with some reservations.

While her melodies are wonderful, she struggles with the lyrics… enter highly-strung fellow student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin. He certainly came up with the goods and before long the pair become a solid writing partnership and are very much in love!

At just 18, she and 21-year-old Goffin penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow which became their first number one and was sung by The Shirelles. An unplanned pregnancy then led to a speedy marriage and that resulted in Take Good Care of My Baby, their second big hit, this time sung by Bobby Vee – and things were now really looking up.

Carole and Gerry (played by Kane Oliver Parry) also enjoy a friendly rivalry with the vivacious Cynthia Weil and her destined to be hypochondriac partner Barry Mann, the two sets of talented writers become good friend as they race to see who can get a Billboard Number One first and, who they can get impresario Kirshner to sing it?

Bronté Barbé is brilliant as Carole whose marriage to Gerry sadly breaks down before she finally grows into a tremendously talented solo artist. Barbé's vocals are absolutely spot on and she finishes with numbers from the platinum-selling Tapestry album which topped the charts across the globe. I felt Barbé's singing and performance at the piano was so good and looked so authentic that it was hard to believe that she wasn't actually miming to a Carole King soundtrack!

I also loved Parry's performance as Gerry Goffin who had a wandering eye for the ladies – popular American soloists Janelle and Marilyn Wald in particular! Those two dalliances was to finally break up the marriage which had produced two daughters. Goffin was also to suffer a mental breakdown yet he still delivered his lyrics and worked hard to make them touch people's emotions. 

When it comes to Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann respectively, they are such a fantastic pairing that you could almost script another musical about them! 

Richardson has a really powerful voice and she really shines in He's Sure The Boy I Love while her opening gambit is a reworked Happy Days Are Here Again which impresses Donnie Kirshner enough for him to take her on his payroll. 

Equally talented is Gonsalves whose rendition of We Gotta Get Out Of This Place (made famous by Eric Burden and The Animals) while playing an electric Gibson guitar, plus his great duet with Cynthia in Walking In The Rain, were real audience pleasers.

Also worthy of mention is Carol Royle who plays Carole King’s mum Genie and who, as a typical Jewish matriarch, delivers several witty one liners. 

Other members of the talented ensemble seemed to turn their hand to anything, for at any given moment they immediately transform into The Drifters (On Broadway and Up On The Roof) or The Righteous Brother (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling). 

Then there's that other legendary performer Neil Sedaka who keeps popping out from behind the curtain with his rendition of Oh! Carole (written by him in honour of Carole King) while dressed in a sparkly jacket and sporting a huge cheesy grin. 

Beautiful has so many great songs which simply showcases the talent which came out of Donnie Kirshner's 1650 Broadway New York empire, and with King, Mann, Weil and Kirshner himself joining forces to sing You’ve Got a Friend, that was one of my personal favourites… although it's even better when sung by James Taylor!

Full marks for the 1950s and 60s costumes, the lighting and clever no-nonsense staging while Steve Sidwell's arrangements are absolutely brilliant under the leadership of keyboard-playing musical director Patrick Hurley.

Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, is a really fabulous and rather nostalgic musical which plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday at 7.30pm nightly while there are matinee performances on 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