Calendar Girls The Musical ~ Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sunflowers were out in full force as Calendar Girls The Musical landed at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre last night and brought the full house to tears and to their feet with Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s stunning piece of musical theatre.

The show tells the true story of a Women’s Institute in Yorkshire who made waves with a nude calendar instead of their usual conventional offering. The idea is the brainchild of ‘Chris’ (played by Rebecca Storm) when she dares her fellow members to bare all behind a current bun to raise money for a new sofa for the relatives room at their local hospital. Chris’s Friend ‘Annie’ (Sarah Jane Buckley) loses her husband John (Phil Corbitt) to blood cancer and it’s her experience of the hard wooden chairs in the room she spends much of her time in that makes Chris so determined to be helpful. Albeit helpful in a way that shocks her fellow W.I. members and enrages the snooty Chairwoman, Mari (Judy Holt). It’s a rollercoaster journey for all the characters which ultimately sees an ordinary group of ladies face their fears and triumph. A more heartwarming and heartbreaking story you won’t find – I’ve never before experienced a musical that makes me cry so hard and laugh so uncontrollably in equal measure and in quick succession.

Rebecca Storm is a marvel in the role of Chris, the rule-breaking florist who’s trying so desperately to keep a handle on her teenage son whilst being a rock to her best friend and pushing her unconventional idea forward. Storm’s rendition of the musical number ‘Sunflower’ is show-stopping. Lisa Maxwell shines as Celia, the grounded air hostess who is struggling to fit in at her husband’s golf club. Her solo number ‘So I’ve Had A Little Work Done’ is one of the highlights of the show. Sue Devaney is perfect casting for Cora and her performance of ‘Silent Night’ is joyful, she’s such an engaging performer and a game girl too! Julia Hills is a revelation (in more ways than one!) as Ruth, she gives a very physical performance which enhances all of Ruth’s character traits. The scene in which she sings ‘My Russian Friend and I’ is both hilarious and sorrowful and her singing voice is powerful too. Pauline Daniels is playing the role of retired Headmistress, Jessie (Ruth Madoc is still out of action at the moment) and much as I am aware of Madoc’s talents, I admit I have fallen in love with Daniels’ portrayal of Jessie. She teases out every quality in the pinnacle role and her performance of ‘What Age Expects’ brought the house down. What an amazing vocalist she is.

Sarah Jane Buckley is playing the part I have no doubt she was born to play. She gives a measured, intelligent performance as Annie with a good dose of mischievous fun into the bargain and astonishing vocal ability to boot which lends itself to all of her musical numbers. ‘Scarborough’ gives the audience an insight into Annie and John’s lives and a snapshot of what life would be like without John. ‘Kilimanjaro’ raises the roof, Buckley puts all the pent up emotion into this beautifully crafted song. That moment will resonate with me for some time.

There are also superb performances from younger members of the cast, including; Isabel Caswell as Jenny, Tyler Dobbs as Tommo and Danny Howker as Danny. The entire ensemble are a strong, solid unit though and there is not one weak link nor a performer amongst them who didn’t attract my attention for all the right reasons.

From the opening scene to the magical moments when the calendar is being made – I was unwaveringly emotionally invested in the story and the people. It’s a production not to be missed!

Go and see my favourite musical for yourselves: Calendar Girls tickets

Come From Away ~ Phoenix Theatre

I’m an islander! How could I not be after such a fabulous show? Come From Away is a stunning piece of musical theatre, simply done with maximum effect and another visit is definitely in order.

The story centres around the grounded plane which landed in Canada following the 9/11 terror attacks. The very small community in Newfoundland welcomed some 7000 passengers into their lives.

The musical maps the incredible transition undertaken by every individual as lives intertwines and hope and love are the overriding themes. The musical numbers punctuating the tale are beautifully constructed with care and detail by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. ‘Welcome to the farthest place you’ll get from Disneyland’ is such a poignant and scene-setting lyric in the upbeat number ‘Welcome to the rock’.

The cast is compiled of a strong, talented ensemble of triple threat performers who each bring the various real-life characters to the fore in a caring, almost affectionate manner. It’s clear that the cast are affected by the story and keen to tell it and portray it to the best of their ability. Notable performers in an altogether flawless company include; Jenna Boyd, Helen Hobson, Robert Hands and Rachel Tucker.

It’s no wonder the show boasts four Olivier Awards, go and see it if for no other reason than it’s a wonderfully heartening experience at a time when everything else in the world feels so uncertain.

Book now: Come From Away tickets

The Son ~ Duke of York’s Theatre

An intense piece which draws you in and raises many questions. Intensified all the more by the lack of interval.

It’s the final part of a trilogy from writer; Florian Zeller, which includes The Father and The Mother. Directed by Michael Longhurst, it’s a story centring around family dysfunction and signs of an unsettling nature from the son who is suffering through his parents’ divorce.

Amanda Abbington, known for her television work, in particular ITV’s Mr Selfridge plays the role of Anne, the mother in the tale. John Light plays Pierre, the father, while Laurie Kynaston wowed as Nicolas, the son of the piece who struggles with the world he knows and takes comfort in, crashing around him as a result of his parents’ divorce.

It’s disturbing, harrowing and relentless ~ not easy viewing and exceedingly challenging. The set is functional and provides a benign backdrop for an action-packed production where the sheer drama and indeed Kynaston’s performance steal the show.

Book now: The Son tickets

Downton Abbey ~ Malvern Cinemas

Star rating: *****

It’s been a long time coming and I admit when Downton Abbey closed its doors on Christmas Day 2015 I was dubious about a movie. Unsure if there was any need to continue and whether the season finale had finished the story adequately. I’ve been a fan of the television show since Downton Abbey first opened its doors so I was torn between one last hoorah and leaving it on a high.

As the years have rolled by with not so much as a sniff of a film on the horizon, have I considered what the Crawley family and their downstairs employees might have been getting up to in the meantime? Absolutely! Thanks to Julian Fellowes, the exceptionally talented writer of one of the nation’s favourite dramas, anyone who may have found themselves wondering about the much-loved characters need wonder no more!

The opening titles gave me goose bumps, there’s always been an element of grandeur when Highclere Castle makes its appearance, however on the big screen, it is magnified and then some. The theme tune lends itself to a movie soundtrack too. Indeed all the promise of a fine follow up were in place from the outset and I wasn’t left disappointed.

You’d have to live in a sack not to have an idea as to the main storyline, the trailers have been teasing us for a while. The King and Queen (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) are paying a visit to Downton Abbey for one night and the excitement and trepidation is palpable! Not least from Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) who is champing at the bit to get back into his livery and undoubtedly make a spectacle of himself in true Molesley fashion.

It’s all hands to the pumps as Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) mithers loudly over the menu, raising the hopes of Mr Bakewell (Mark Addy) from whom she buys her supplies. Mr Barrow (Robert-James Collier) appears all too lackadaisical for Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) tastes, he clearly doesn’t measure up in comparison to her beloved Mr Carson (Jim Carter). Cue the reappearance of the retired butler and he couldn’t be more delighted to oblige Lady Mary’s request that he return to the helm. Life at the cottage seems to mostly revolve around trying to find things to occupy himself with while his wife, Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) continues in her role of Housekeeper. Their marriage is still going strong though and indeed the pairing up continues downstairs as Daisy (Sophie McShera) is engaged to Andy (Michael Fox) ~ and there’s a couple of scenes that show Andy’s jealous streak too! Mr Molesley and Miss Baxter persist in dancing around each other, there does appear to be progress although they are moving at an even more glacial place than Carson and Hughes did.

So, with Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) excited to play host to royalty, Lady Edith, now Lady Hexham (Laura Carmichael) and her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) en route, all the action is centred around the visit and the impact it has on each individual character. Mr Branson (Allen Leach) is still very much a part of the Crawley family and proves himself to be the hero of the hour in more than one way too when the royals are ensconced at Downton.

One of the strongest storylines happens downstairs when the Downton staff are at war with the King’s staff. Carson certainly meets his match in Mr Wilson (David Haig) and it’s the battle of the chatelaine between Mrs Hughes and Mrs Webb (Richenda Carey). It all hots up when Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) lead the revolution to claim back their rightful household roles and it’s quite a cunning plan.

Highlights of the movie include a whole host of one-liners delivered expertly by Penelope Wilton, Lesley Nicol, Phyllis Logan and of course Dame Maggie Smith. Plus, Imelda Staunton plays a new character, cousin of Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), Lady Bagshaw. Staunton fits in like a dream, it feels like she was always a part of the cast. The two-hander scene she shared with Penelope Wilton as Isobel was a performance de force from both actresses, a masterclass if ever there was one.

Most of my questions left open from the 2015 season finale are answered and my curiosity satisfied. However, where has Mr Mason got to? Did Mrs Patmore frighten him off? Why did Daisy accept Andy’s marriage proposal if she wasn’t sure at first? Where is Mr Carson’s hand tremor? Maybe these unanswered wonderings are enough to warrant a sequel to the movie?

The glorious locations used, extraordinary attention to detail from the costume department and the intricate yet simple script from Fellowes combined with faultless casting makes this movie one of the biggest hits of 2019, for me. You also can’t fail to be amazed at the uncanny resemblance Geraldine James pays to Queen Mary.

Go and see it, it will make you smile, laugh out loud, reminisce and cry: Downton Abbey Movie

On Your Feet ~ Birmingham Hippodrome

Guest Reviewer: Claire & Anthony Sidebottom

Star rating: ****

As a married couple, we arrived at the Hippodrome with one of us having loved Gloria Estefan when younger, and one who said he didn’t know her or her music, so it was going to be interesting to see how the two different ends of the spectrum felt about the new musical ‘On Your Feet’ which is the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s life.

The music started straight away, and everyone’s toes started tapping! It was amazing to see that the band would be on the stage instead of in the normal orchestral pit, it highlighted from the get go that music was at the heart of their story. 

There was a good flow back and forth to give some depth to the story; however my husband felt it was disjointed in areas, with no idea they were now married, or suddenly had a 10 year old son. 

After just a couple of songs it was soon apparent that my husband knew more Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine songs than he realised, and the music taking you into the interval left you on a real high. 

During the interval it was plain that we both felt the dancing was absolute perfection. None of the dancers were even a second out. It was fast, synchronised, graceful, sexy, all at the same time, nothing else could be said but just absolute amazing dancers. You could tell the cast hadn’t just been picked as ensembles who may have danced before, this ensemble were exceptional dancers first who also happened to have great singing voices.

With the first half leaving you with Gloria at the peak of her career, the second half went on to the difficult time of a terrible coach crash that her and her family were involved in and the aftermath of such a dreadful accident. I recognised how the story reflected that the public very often see the star but don’t realise that fame is not everything, and the effects fame can have on family life. For example the strain it put on her relationship with her mother was a very sad side line.

Gloria’s Mother , Gloria Fajardo was played by Madalena Alberto and was a strong depiction of traditional approaches and how past disappointments can impact so many lives going forward. Although for some reason both of us felt that the mother’s image and attitude somehow reminded us of the Mother Gothel character fromDisney’s Rapunzel!

Of course the main outstanding performance was that of Philippa Stefani portraying the superstar Gloria herself. Her voice was absolutely perfect; you can see why Gloria Estefan herself picked Philippa to represent her in telling the world her story. Emilio Estefan, Gloria’s husband and musical soul mate through the story was played by George Ioannides and even though his acting and singing were faultless, with Emilio’s character bringing some humour to scenes with his language difficulties and a pair of very short shorts, somehow the chemistry between the Gloria and Emilio characters, somehow didn’t quite work for both my husband and I. The love story didn’t feel as sincere as I undoubtedly think it is in real life, especially as not many relationships face the test of time in the music industry! It was only at the end when the encore began that I felt a spark between the two characters. 

The strongest love that came shining through with the characters was that between Gloria and her Grandmother Consuelo played by Karen Mann. She was absolutely a stand out character and this was even more obvious when she received the loudest applause of the evening, aside from ‘Gloria‘. This could be contributed to Karen’s vast theatrical experience, because the pure love for Gloria that ran through her performance seemed effortless, and she brought such comedy timing to the show every time she stepped on the stage.

The set design seemed to change effortlessly, through large screens, changing of lights, and the sliding partitions, taking you from a bedroom to a rehearsal or stage scene. The sliding portions of window shutters really worked well to take you from different centuries, along with the costumes which were beautifully synced with the different eras portrayed throughout the show.

The final vote upon leaving the theatre was that the show is a hit and we doubt anyone could watch that show without starting to move to the beat, the rhythm really is going to get you! We were humming the songs all the way home, and I am playing the greatest hits while writing this review, which means its taking me longer than expected because I’m dancing around instead of concentrating! That naughty Dr Beat!

So as it resulted in us both enjoining the show and highly rating both the music and especially the dancing that featured, it turns out you do not need to have been an EsteFAN in the 80s and 90s to go and see the show, because the music and storyline is pure entertainment which is made even stronger by the fact it is a true story about a real superstar.

Book your tickets now: On Your Feet tickets

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