History Boys ~ Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Star rating 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Alan Bennett has long been a playwright who’s work I jump at the chance to delve into. His penmanship is such that every character is formed before an actor and director even begins to put in their own interpretation. History Boys is long overdue a revival and the production (which has been meticulously directed by the hugely talented Jack Ryder) is a treat indeed. I could not fault it and thoroughly enjoyed a fantastic evening at the theatre.

History Boys is set in Sheffield and follows the story of a group of boys who have excelled at secondary school against many odds. Their headmaster (Jeffrey Holland) is baffled by their abilities in History yet keen to aid the lads in their Oxbridge quest and brings in a young teacher by the name of Irwin to keep them on track and give them all the help they need to pass the looming examination. We are also introduced to their current teachers, Mrs Lintott (Victoria Carling) and Hector (Ian Redford).

As we get to know each boy’s quirks, passions and ideals we also get a good insight into the lives of the teachers. There are also a few fast forwards to life after this momentous exam which are eye opening, heartening and alarming in equal measure. The set is fairly simple, making scene changes easy and fluid. There are monitors showing filmed scenes from the playground and we see madcap teacher, Hector on his ever-present motorbike. When the film picks up from the action on stage it’s wonderfully consistent and as enjoyable as the live scenes.

Jeffrey Holland is almost unrecognisable as the stern, bold Headmaster. I’m extremely familiar with him and I forgot it was Holland playing the role, he plays it brilliantly. Ian Redford is exceptional and superbly engaging as Hector. He’s quite a pivotal character and there are so many emotions in play at once, Redford explores the complexities of the role in an interesting way. Many of the laughs are induced by his lines. Lee Comley brings out the best and worst of Irwin, from his awkwardness and inner battles with himself to the passionate emotions he portrays when he attempts to push the boys beyond their limits. Victoria Carling as Mrs Lintott reminded me of one of my teachers. Compassionate, understanding and full of gumption. It’s an inspired performance of a character who could easily blend into the background.

The boys are all to be applauded for their team work, they managed to simultaneously perform as one while each showing the qualities of their characters. Arun Bassi brought a quiet confidence to the role of Akthar, Joe Wiltshire Smith was extremely entertaining as rugger-mad Rudge, while Adonis Jenieco brought Crowther to the fore subtly. James Schofield as Lockwood showed thoughtful characterisation as the cock-sure one in the group and Dominic Treacy is perfectly cast as Timms, he drew my attention for all the right reasons. Jordan Scowen’s job as Dakin was to show us a boy at odds with himself even though he appears to have no self awareness either, tricky role but he pulled it off flawlessly.

This cast give a masterclass in drama, it’s unmissable and with such a limited run catch it at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre before it finishes on 22 February: History Boys tickets

Photo Credits: Tim Thursfield/Express & Star

Blithe Spirit ~ Malvern Theatres

Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

One of my favourite Coward plays and starring the incomparable Jennifer Saunders in the resplendently iconic role of Madame Arcati! It’s a deliciously comedic role at the heart of a madcap tale involving a rather smug, second time married author called Charles. He’s looking for a muse to help him to write his next novel, and Psychic Medium Madame Acarti fits that bill. He hopes to find her out as a fraud and sets up a dinner party with his wife, Ruth, also inviting Dr and Mrs Bradman.

As the evening unfolds, accompanied by incessant clumsiness from new maid, Edith and much suspense when the bonkers Medium is going about her hilarious business, one thing Charles hasn’t bargained on is Madame Arcati not necessarily being the fraud he hopes she’s going to be. The reunion with his late wife, Elvira is wholly unexpected too.

It’s Coward at his best and for the most part the cast do it justice. The pace of their dialogue and interaction with each other is almost always spot on and characters who might be easy to discount and miss in the grand scheme of things are brought to the fore subtly and successfully.

Saunders triumphs in the role she was surely meant to play, she brought everything to the character that I expected her to bring. I was not disappointed in the physical comedy she added, the exceptional delivery of beautifully crafted lines and her facial expressions spoke volumes.

Geoffrey Streatfield plays Charles so meticulously that it’s easy to see his wealth of theatre experience has prepared him to do the character justice. Lisa Dillon is quite stunning as Ruth, it could be such a benign role if you allowed it to be and she has done a sterling job, a real class act. Lucy Robinson also takes a relatively smaller role (Mrs Bradman), makes it her own and engaged me in every scene she appeared in. Lucy is an actress with whom I’m familiar and it was a joy to see her on stage. Simon Coates was a great match for her as Dr Bradman, they were quite the comedy duo in fact. Rose Wardlaw provided many a laugh out loud moment as Edith the hapless maid, certainly an actress to watch out for as she really stood out for all the right reasons. Emma Naomi had wonderful poise and sensuality as the miffed spirit, Elvira, however she could have been a little more coquettish and mischievous. There’s a lot of fun to be had with that role.

Overall it was a great evening at the theatre. The set was sensational and lent itself brilliantly to the ghostly happenings. You’ll be sorry to miss this production. Some tickets may still be available: Blithe Spirit Tickets

Anton and Erin ~ Dance Those Magical Movies – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Star rating: *****

What better way to cheer up a long arduous January than with the glorious partnership of Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag? You might know them both from BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, although Erin finishes the show a few years ago now (and is much missed!).

The beauty of Anton and Erin’s tours is that Lance Ellington, known for his exceptional vocal ability which has been demonstrated on Strictly Come Dancing, provides vocals for their show. His velvet tones lend themselves wonderfully to all of the song choices and it was so fantastic to hear him live that I soon found myself looking him up on Spotify! If you love him too I suggest you do the same. Adding her strong voice and gorgeous dance steps to the mix is the talented Laura Emmitt. There are also six backing dancers in the company, all of whom are as engaging to watch as the main pair themselves.

From the waltz to the foxtrot to the quickstep ~ Anton and Erin led us on a journey of wonder and set the silver screen atmosphere with every ebb and flow. Accompanied by the mighty London Symphony Orchestra, it was a real treat from beginning to end.

Both stars have the gift of the gab and their chats with the audience were appreciated immensely. There’s also a chance to put your own question to them and that section of the show is as entertaining as the dancing itself. Not forgetting that Anton also has a rather decent singing voice and I adored his duet with Lance.

Dirty Dancing, West Side Story, Chicago, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Austin Powers are all included in the cornucopia of movie music choices. Austin Powers was a particularly popular option given the dance that Anton performed with his 2019 Strictly partner, Emma Barton (they was robbed!).

Make sure you catch this magical tour: Anton and Erin 2020 Tour

Aladdin ~ Malvern Theatres

Star rating: *****

Pantomime season is in full swing and there’s no denying that Malvern have the right recipe for family entertainment in UK Productions’ Aladdin. It was a Boxing Day treat indeed with a cast de force and a superb mixture of toe-tapping music too.

The show stars the inimitable Mark James, who has become a regular for Malvern Theatres (he’s already cast for next year’s production of Peter Pan!), with Jamie Steen as the most resplendent Widow Twankey and John Challis (Boycie!) as Abanazar. Audience participation was encouraged and embraced, the story was told articulately and it was traditional in the extreme which is just what I like.

There was not one weak link in the talented cast and the vocal ability of all who performed the cornucopia of well-chosen songs, was extraordinary. At times I felt as though I was watching a west end musical cast for all the right reasons.

Aaron Jenson was wonderfully engaging in the title role, he had notable chemistry with Joely Barbour as Princess Jasmine. Jacob Morris entertained as Genie of the Lamp and Loula Geater wowed as the Spirit of the Ring, comedic as well as a sparkling presence. I enjoyed Danny Rogers’ performance as the hilarious PC Pong and Gary Davis made the role of the Emperor his own, little nuances here and there transformed the part. Jamie Steen is by far one of the best Dames I’ve seen and he suited the role of Widow Twankey wonderfully. John Challis was pretty fearsome as Abanazar while Mark James as Wishee Washee had the audience on side with every appearance ‘where’s me mates?’ Brilliant!

There is still plenty of time to book your seats and I promise you won’t regret it. Oh no you won’t!

Aladdin tickets

Photo credits: Lisa Roberts photography

Dear Santa Live!

Star writing: *****

One of Rod Campbell’s classic tales is brought magically to life in festive style and you simply must catch it on tour this Christmas.

The story which undoubtedly captivated the imagination of children of all ages (even big kids!) centres around a very moralistic little girl called Sarah. Whilst decorating her Christmas tree she decides that she should write a letter to Santa. Does she ask for lots of toys? Surprisingly, no she doesn’t. Instead, in an unusual move, she asks for nothing and would prefer Santa to give her share of toys to children less fortunate than her.

There’s plenty of fun to be had with Santa’s Elf who gets the audience in an excitable mood ready for the arrival of Santa Claus. It’s packed with audience participation opportunities and lots of Christmas songs to be joined in with too.

The overall message is quite touching and Santa’s choice to give Sarah a very special present bears its own meaning too. It’s the perfect way to start Christmas and the kids can meet Santa and get a present too!

Book now: Dear Santa Live!

Dick Whittington ~ Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Star rating: ****

Panto season has well and truly started in the midlands, oh yes it has! What better way to kick off the festivities than with a trip to the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre on the theatre’s 125th birthday?

Starting Coronation Street’s Ryan Thomas in the title role, the show is jam-packed with all the old favourite pantomime traditions. It’s a fast-paced cornucopia of jokes for all ages, engaging choreography and songs that haven’t been plucked directly from the top 40, which we all appreciated in our little party.

Ian Adams (writer, director and Dame) should be glowing with pride at such a spectacular triumph. He’s a seasoned pantomime performer which shines through, however the talent he clearly possesses as far as writing and direction is concerned was not lost on me. Aaron James was on top comedy form as Jack, his impersonations alone were outstanding. Jeffrey Holland was a perfect choice for Alderman Fitzwarren, bringing his usual exceptional stage presence to the role. His energy is incredible and did cause me to wonder if he might still be able to play the Dame, a character I know he has played wonderfully many times in the past. It’s undeniable that the effervescent and incomparable Su Pollard stole the show as Queen Rat. What vocal ability! I loved her comedic take on the villainous character, she remains a force to be reckoned with for all the right reasons. As a Hi De Hi! fan myself, the reference to the show (which was fitting given both Pollard and Holland’s presence in the cast) made my night.

The special guest appearance made by Jimmy Tarbuck delighted the audience. What a superb treat! Due to the Grand Theatre’s big birthday, Tarbuck played the role of the Sultan. There were a few puzzled youngsters who wondered why there were two Sultans, as Tom Roberts actually plays the role and came on after him to carry on with the show after the special interlude. The adults in the packed auditorium were all in raptures though.

At this time of year it’s inevitable that the dreaded ‘lurgy’ will do the rounds and it does seem to be making itself known. However, this is a fabulously strong cast who gave their all, oh yes they did!

Book your tickets now: Dick Whittington

Images: Tim Thursfield – Express & Star

Six ~ Malvern Theatres

Star rating: *****

Welcome to the show to the historemix! What an inspired musical Six is! It is easy to see why it is an award winning piece of theatre and a sell out to boot.

It reminded me of a history lesson combined with the feistiness of the characters in the West End hit ‘Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour’ mixed with the vibe of The Spice Girls. Something for everyone? Most definitely and possibly a good way to introduce younger audiences to theatre too.

There was enough sequins to make the Strictly Come Dancing costumes look plain, the backing band wouldn’t have looked out of place with Robert Palmer and the cast had all the right credentials for a successful girl band line up!

Every tune was catchy and every girl had an amazing singing voice. Lauren Drew was exceptional as Catherine of Aragon, Maddison Bulleyment shone as Anne Boleyn, bold and ballsy lass indeed! Lauren Byrne provided stark contrast as the meeker Jane Seymour, Shekinah McFarlane was fierce as Anne of Cleves. Jodie Steele’s vocals were incredible as she rocked the role of Katherine Howard and Athena Collins gave a memorable portrayal of Catherine Parr the sixth wife.

You’d have to be as mad as Henry VIII to miss this lesson in history and life! Go, watch, enjoy and watch out for ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’ that was my favourite. Book now:

Six tickets

Reviewed by Jen Franklin

Disney on Ice ~ Arena Birmingham

Star rating *****

Disney is one of my families absolute passions, we are all nuts about Mickey and Minnie Mouse, couldn’t wait for Toy Story 4 to be released earlier this year and our home is filled to the brim with Disneyana. Disney on Ice remains one of our top highlights of the year, it’s always a must-see and this autumn’s magical spectacular at Arena Birmingham has proved to be no exception. Celebrating 100 years of magic in wondrous style.

As usual, Mickey and Minnie were at the helm, together with Goofy and Donald they led a packed and excitable arena through every glorious setting and Disney movie. There were short excerpts and longer pieces which gave a good all-round showcase of the classic and more modern day films.

Forky’s brilliant performance in the Toy Story section was our son’s favourite. If I had to choose I would pick out the beautiful dances performed by the various Princes and Princesses. My husband loved the Aladdin scene where the ever-effervescent Genie took the lead and multiplied!

All of the dancers are magnificent skaters and it can be no mean feat to skate and perform in some of those costumes. The attention to detail is always on point and the fact that these popular characters are gracing the ice for all their fans, be they kids or big kids is the most wonderful sight.

Disney on Ice is a fabulous pre-Christmas treat for all the family so get your tickets now and enjoy the magic: Disney on Ice Tickets

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

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