Wednesday, 29 May 2019

REVIEW Man of La Mancha - THREE STARS

Man of La Mancha
THREE STARS


Man of La Mancha is a curious beast. Often dubbed as one of the classic “lost” musicals, it was last seen in the West End in the 1960s but is currently being revived at the London Coliseum.
Based on Cervantes epic novel Don Quixote and set during the Spanish Inquisition, it’s a musical with a play within a play. 
To cut a somewhat long story short, Cervantes is thrown in an underground jail with his servant Sancho Panza. As well as his right hand man he brings with him a chest full of treasures including his beloved and unfinished manuscript of Don Quixote. 
A kangaroo court is summoned by the inmates of this prison in which he has to defend himself and save his manuscript from being tossed in the fire. He does so by telling the story of Don Quixote the chivalrous wannabe Knight who lives in a fantasy land. But is he mad, delusional or does he just have a rather vivid and overactive imagination?
Interspersed with the action is the music including its most popular hit, The Impossible Dream. It sums up perfectly the age in which we are currently living - that of wanting and hoping for goodness in a corrupt world.
The big draw undoubtedly is former Frasier star, Kelsey Grammer, who plays Cervantes/Don Quixote and by and large he delivers a solid performance though he lumbers through some of the scenes. His voice is strong and he raised the roof with his rendition of The Impossible Dream.
Elsewhere Nicholas Lyndhurst raises more than a chuckle with his blotto innkeeper and Peter Polycarpou is a delight as Sancho. Cassidy Janson - who shares the role with Danielle de Niese - as the tavern wench Aldonza and in whom Don Quixote reimagines as the romantic heroine Dulcinea, brings a warmth and energy to the stage which is lacking elsewhere. It is a shame many of the scenes she is in see her being pawed over by the men in the tavern resulting in her being beaten and raped by them.
Despite this, and some oddly and perhaps not intentionally humorous moments, I rather liked it.


Man of La Mancha is on at the London Coliseum until June 8. Tickets from £15. Call the box office on 020 7845 9300.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

INTERVIEW Dan Whitlam starring in Tobacco Road at the Vault Festival



Dan Whitlam, courtesy of Ruth Crafer


They say life imitates art but there are times when the reverse can also be true. And this has certainly been the case for actor Dan Whitlam.
The 23-year-old from Clapham is starring in Tobacco Road, a play that shines a light on London’s criminal underworld as the country emerges from the shadows of the First World War.
The hour-long production is being staged by Incognito Theatre Company who will bring it to the VAULT Festival in Waterloo between February 13 and 19.
Devised by the company, it tells the stories of five young men and women who try and find fame and fortune, not to mention just staying alive, in the cutthroat society of thugs and conmen they inhabit. 
Violence is never far away and it is this aspect that has brought back some painful memories for Dan from his own youth.
“I was stabbed when I was 16,” he tells me candidly as we chat about the show. 
“I was with some friends and we were coming out of an audition at the Pleasance Theatre in North London. One of my friends got mugged and I ran to help. There was a fight and I got stabbed with a screwdriver.
“I was taken to hospital with a collapsed lung.
“Looking back it seems surreal but it was the classic case of wrong place, wrong time,” he adds ruefully. 
Thankfully Dan is now recovered from his physical injuries and was able to pursue his dream of an acting career, graduating from Guildhall School of Music and Drama three months ago. But it’s clear emotionally it has had a profound effect on him.
“Looking back I think the guy who stabbed me was a victim of circumstance,” he says. “Since doing this play I have been trying to see this whole issue of gangs and the violence that often goes with it, from both sides. 
“Why would someone get into a culture like that and carry a knife? They are often scared and vulnerable - it must be a terrifying situation to be in.
“Whenever I see another child who’s been stabbed and injured or killed it’s a horrible reminder of the dangers in London. 
“I don’t know what the answer is though,” he adds quietly.
Not surprisingly it’s his first hand experience which drew him to being part of the production. However the fact it is set in his home turf of South East London was an added bonus. And he says the company uncovered some surprising and fascinating facts during their research.
“I felt compelled really as it’s obviously a subject so close to home,” he explains. “Geographically too as I live in Clapham and it’s all based in Lambeth.
“But it’s also a fascinating period in history when both men and women were drawn to the criminal underworld.
“During the First World War, women survived as there were jobs suddenly available to them that hadn’t been before. They were earning money, were independent and had responsibility. But when the men came back and took back some of those jobs, many women struggled and some turned to crime just to survive - they felt they had no other option.
“Similarly today many young people feel they have no other option but to carry a knife or be part of a gang.
“What’s interesting is when people think about gangs of the period, and particularly with the likes of [TV show] Peaky Blinders, they think about the men and the violence,” he adds.
“However women played their part too - there were plenty driven by power and money who were also involved in gang culture at the time. 
“When we were devising the show, we wanted to show people the role they played, how powerful they were and how they were seen as equal to the men - something not often told in history books. 
“Here women are very much driving the story.”
Tobacco Road’s protagonists, five small time crooks who join forces, are also based on real people. 
Elsie and Freda are inspired by the ruthless female gang leader, Alice Diamond and her followers,Tommy Carlisle is based on the bare-knuckle boxers of Lambeth, Alfie on the thousands of young men left deeply traumatised by the effects of the First World War and the ambitious Felix is inspired by the bloodthirsty young men who were driven to succeed by their unerring determination. 
“My character Alfie isn’t the brightest,” laughs Dan. “He’s a happy go lucky kind of guy and would run into a fight without knowing why or what the repercussions will be. 
“All the characters want to be in gangs for different reasons but Alfie doesn’t. He is obsessed with Westerns and would much rather leave London and his associates and that life behind, go to America and become a film producer.
“I can relate to his love of films as I’m equally obsessed and would to work in that field at some point!”
In describing the characters Dan is clear the play is far from doom and gloom. Rather it is full of fast paced action, humour and poignancy. And after a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer he hopes for similar reactions when it opens at the Vault Festival.
“Being part of the Vault Festival is amazing and we are all so excited to bring this show to the part of London where these stories took place,” he says. 
“There is so much history woven into the fabric of this area and it’s been fantastic to bring it to the stage in this way.
“Tobacco Road is gritty and dramatic but there is a real depth and balance to it. I hope audiences will be entertained but I’d like to think they will also see the parallels with what’s happening in London now and gain a greater degree of understanding of what it must be like to be part of that culture.”



Tobacco Road is on at the VAULT Festival, Network Theatre, 246A Lower Road, between Wednesday February 13 and Sunday February 17. Visit www.vaultfestival.com for tickets.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

INTERVIEW - Sarah Spence in Seussical

The fantastical and magical world of Dr Seuss will burst into South London with a riot of colour, feathers, music and pizazz this month thanks to a major stage show.
Featuring some of his most endearing and much loved characters - Horton the elephant, Gertrude McFuzz and of course the infamous Cat In The Hat - Seussical will take over the Southwark Playhouse’s Large stage with a feel good music fest for all the family.
Included in the 12-strong cast is Clapham-based Sarah Spence who will take on the role of Bird Girl. Having just graduated from drama school, the 25-year-old says it’s a dream job and one she can’t wait to bring to audiences.
“We have just started rehearsals and it’s already a joy to be part of this amazing ensemble,” she enthuses.
“It’s such a feel good show, high octane with music from the get go that doesn’t stop and that audiences will be tapping their feet to all the way through.
“I play one of the Bird Girls in Maisie’s troupe. I have some great songs to sing so for a first job I couldn’t be happier. 
“It’s also amazing to be here at the Southwark Playhouse as it’s a fantastic theatre and one of my favourites - the productions they put on are incredible.”
Without giving away too many spoilers Sarah tells me Seussical is an amalgamation of some of the Dr Seuss stories but with an emphasis on Horton Hears A Who.
“It’s a very clever adaptation in which we meet lots of the characters who will be familiar to anyone who has read his books,” she says.
“In particular the audience gets to follow Horton the elephant as he journeys through the various different worlds inhabited by Dr Seuss.
“It’s full of excitement, lots of fun and non stop action.”
As in the original tales, the show touches on some of today’s most topical issues - such as the power of loyalty, bullying, unrequited love, inclusivity and acceptance - in a funny and moving way.
“I think the positive affirmations and messages of inclusion and acceptance that run throughout the stories are some of the reasons Dr Seuss is so loved,” says Sarah.
“The issues he references in the books are still as relevant today as when they were written. So I think we can all relate to these themes which are within the show - certainly working in this industry I’ve felt insecurity from time to time. 
“It makes the show very relevant - it’s wacky, mischievous, wild and hilarious at times but it contains important messages and reminds the audience that a ‘person is a person no matter how small’ and that we should be accepted for who and what we are.”
And she insists it’s a production the whole family can enjoy and with the action taking place so close to the audience she says it will be an immersive and thrilling experience.
“It’s a bit like a panto in that respect,” she says warmly. “There are larger than life characters and amazing costumes - I don’t want to give anything away but mine looks fantastic with plenty of feathers! 
“It’s packed with colour, fun and excitement with the most amazing musical numbers all the way through. The score is incredible as it features a whole range of different styles such as funk, big band, swing, rock n roll as well as the more traditional musical theatre numbers. 
“It goes from light and soft to big rocky numbers so there is definitely something for everyone and the tunes are really catchy.
“But there is also real depth to it. It’s inspiring and at times it’ll be really emotional. What makes it even more special is that the audience is so close they can almost touch us and so it will feel really intimate.”
The show opens on Tuesday, November 27 and runs until Saturday, December 29 after which Sarah says she hopes to continue working in musical theatre.
“I was always pestering my parents to sign me up for acting, singing and ballet lessons when I was little,” she laughs. “I always knew this is what I wanted to do - it was definitely a calling. 
“I’d love to do TV and film one day but for the time being, the stage is where I want to be and where I feel most comfortable. I can’t imagine doing anything else really so I’m keen to see where my career takes me.
“I’m very lucky to have Seussical as my first job. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous but I’m also hugely excited about it not least because the Southwark Playhouse was on my bucket list to perform at.
“If the rehearsals are anything to go by, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”



Seussical is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway, from Tuesday November 27 until Saturday, December 29. Visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 0207 407 0234 for tickets.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Greenwich+Docklands International Festival 2018


I speak to Bradley Hemmings MBE artistic director of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival about what this year’s line up has to offer.


WINDRUSH, votes for women and the ending of World War 1 will be celebrated at this year’s Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF).
Now in its 23rd year the annual event takes place at outdoor venues across Greenwich, Docklands and Tower Hamlets between June 21 and July 7.
Part of Royal Greenwich Festivals, GDIF will present an extensive programme of art installations, street theatre, circus, dance and music, produced and performed by home grown acts as well as international artists.
This year’s line up includes more than 130 performances which celebrate dreams of love, struggle, ambition and flight.
It has been put together by its artistic director Bradley Hemmings MBE who says the hunger for outdoor events as a way of bringing people and communities together is growing.
“There is no doubt that outdoor arts festivals such as the GDIF are growing in popularity,” he says. “Not only do they give people a chance to engage and connect with one another, be inspired, excited and entertained, they also allow us to reach a great number of people for whom the cultural infrastructure that you find in Zone 1 is not readily accessible.
“GDIF itself has gone from strength to strength - last year more than 100,000 people came along which is fantastic.”
The inspiration for this year’s line up has come from a variety of sources, not least the areas in which the events takes place and the people who live there.
“Here in South London we are blessed with some fantastic outside public spaces - some like Greenwich and Woolwich that we have used before as well as some new exciting ones,” explains Bradley.
“We also strive to have a mix of local talent as well as artists from other parts of the country and indeed internationally to show the area in a different light.
“It’s not like when you go to the theatre and the lights go down and you focus on the performance. Here, outdoors, you can’t help but be aware of the audience and so it’s OK to talk and chat and respond to what is going on. It makes for quite a remarkable experience.”



Kicking off proceedings on June 21 will be an extraordinary and magical union of public art and nature. For three nights, a flock of 1,500 specially trained pigeons with tiny LED lights on bands around their legs will take to the sky over Thamesmead at dusk in Duke Riley’s Fly By Night.
Bradley says it promises to be a spectacular event.
“We worked with the RSPCA on this and it’s going to be quite something,” he says. “The leg bands on the pigeons which have the lights on them were traditionally used in wartime for carrying messages.
“Just before dusk the LED lights will come on and the birds will fly to create something that will be incredibly special and completely beautiful. It’s going to take place on the edge of land near Crossness which in itself is a fantastic location.”


Pic credit Tod Seele


For Bradley one of the highlights of the festival is the celebration of the arrival of Empire Windrush 70 years ago.
“Outdoor arts have a special role to play in marking moments of public significance and resonance,” he says. 
“With Windrush, it’s a local as well as national story. The fact that it’s been in the news so much for other reasons is coincidental but it’s an important part of our history and should be told.
“Windrush: 492 is going to be very exciting. It’s a performance which will see the names of those who arrived in that ship transcribed in photoluminscent powder on to the ground around the Cutty Sark Gardens. 
“As part of this piece we worked with Greenwich playwright Roy Williams who recorded some of the very many stories and memories of those people who were on board the boat and who came to the UK. It will form part of a soundscape around the Cutty Sark and promises to be amazing.”
Other elements of the programme take inspiration from global stories of mass movement and migration, including Never Set Eyes On The Land, a new installation from Nutkhut recalling the experience and legacy of Partition in 1947, and the French hip hop company Dyptik, who explore the struggles associated with contemporary border crossings in D-Construction, an emotional production that takes place on and around a symbolic fence structure.
The 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) which gave some women in the UK the right to vote, will also be celebrated with performances and participatory events across the Festival.
Undaunted, is a stunning high wire walk from Phoebe Bullzini, the UK’s only female wire-walker and one half of the UK’s leading high-wire duo The Bullzini Family. It has been specially commissioned to mark the ROPA centenary. 
Woolwich will see the world premiere of Rise! an uplifting local and global story of the continuing struggle by women for equality and rights told by French company L’Homme debout.
It will feature giant puppets who will move through the streets of Woolwich - something Bradley says should not be missed.
Woolwich will also be the setting for the world premiere of Graeae Theatre Company’s epic outdoor production, This Is Not For You, honouring Britain’s wounded and disabled war veterans. 
Elsewhere, an established GDIF favourite, The Greenwich Fair will return to delight audiences between Friday June 22 and Sunday June 24.
Highlights include the world première of Icarus from Southpaw Dance Company, co-commissioned with The Place as part of a new outdoor dance initiative called Stomping Ground.
There is also a playful integration of circus and live painting in PLOCK! by Flemish theatre company Grensgeval, and the London première of Belly Of The Whale, a spectacular new production from circus dance company Ockham’s Razor. 

Belly Of The Whale. Pic credit Mark Dawson Photography

At Canary Wharf, this year’s Dancing City programme brings together performances from nine dance companies, including award-winning Catalan Cia Moveo, Candoco Dance Company with a new commission, Dedicated to…, as well as entrancing performances of Dopamine from Ballet Black.
New productions this year include Bicycle Boy which is aimed at those under 12 and will be staged at the Royal Naval College. 
“It’s a lovely interactive piece of outdoor theatre, with the performances powered by getting on bicycles!” enthuses Bradley. “I saw it in Brighton and loved it.”
The finale to this year’s GDIF will be a large-scale, outdoor dance-theatre retelling of Jonathan Harvey’s iconic and landmark LGBTQ play Beautiful Thing, a tale of young love blossoming on a South East London housing estate. The site-specific production, combining spectacular staging and video projection, is staged close to the area of Thamesmead described in the piece and marks the 25th anniversary of the play’s first production.
With such a varied and packed line up, and many of the events free of charge, Bradley is confident there is “something for everyone”.
“The Festival is very inclusive and there is plenty for everyone no matter who or what age they are,” he says.
“There are lots of people who live here who don’t go into the West End or South Bank and so to create quality arts experience on their doorsteps and allow them to become immersed in it all is very special and a privilege.
“For me it’s also about discovering part of the cultural life of this area and shouting about it as much as possible.
“There are great things happening in South London including the exciting new cultural quarter of Greenwich which will open in the next 18 months. It’s an incredible area and it’s fantastic to celebrate it in this way.
“I hope the Festival inspires, delights and amazes.”


Greenwich+Docklands International Festival takes place at various sites from June 21 until July 7. Visit www.festival.org for a full line up.

Friday, 30 March 2018

INTERVIEW - ED BYRNE



Ed Byrne - pic credit Roslyn Gaunt

Comedian Ed Byrne has been making us laugh for more than 20 years both on stage and on TV shows such as Mock The Week.
The Dublin-born father of two is well known for his genial manner with a delightful bonhomie that has endeared him to millions.
So it comes as somewhat of a shock to see him suited and booted whilst brandishing a chainsaw. Fortunately it transpires he’s not branching out to play the villain in the new James Bond film but rather it’s part of the promotional material for the second leg of his latest tour.
Entitled Spoiler Alert it sees Ed bring his unique blend of gentle wit and observational humour to audiences across the country including Bromley’s Churchill Theatre on April 10 and Wimbledon Theatre on April 21.
In a chat ahead of the gigs he tells me the premis of the show will be exploring the thin line between righteous complaining and brat like whining.
“It’s the little things in life,” he muses. “Do we have too much choice and why are things so much easier these days? It makes us lazy - why do we now start a car by pressing a button? What’s wrong with turning a key for goodness sake!
“Then there are the days when the online banking is down so I can’t pay the bills, or when Netflix doesn’t work, or when the room isn’t ready in my hotel.
“It’s about me asking if we are right to be fed up or are we spoiled? And on the flip side whether we are not spoiled enough, which I would suggest in terms of politics we aren’t and so should act a bit more entitled.
“It’s a bit more flippant than what I normally do and a bit more complainey.”
To his credit Ed admits he may be part of the problem, and within the act he references his children who he acknowledges have much more than he did when he was a child.
“Of course the other side is how I’m contributing to it all,” he says. “I compare my own childhood with that of my children and I realise I’m totally spoiling them. 
“I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in an aspirational but working class background whereas my kids are resoundingly middle class.
“It’s not so much about them complaining when the iPad has run out of charge or they’ve had their allotted time on it as that’s progress and I’m happy for them to have these things. But it’s when they ask for stuff that I’ve never heard of - like elderflower cordial and pesto - how do they even know about these things!” he asks in mock astonishment.
As well as anecdotes about his two sons, Ed’s routine includes a neat way of bringing Brexit into the conversation.
He tells the story about the time one of his sons wanted to touch an electric fence while Ed was warning him of the dangers of doing so.
“It occurred to me that it was a bit like the Brexit decision,” he says. “I couldn’t not reference Brexit but at the same time it’s a very divisive subject and you never know how an audience will react. Just like the electric fence, we were all told what a terrible idea Brexit was but people went and voted for it anyway.”
Spoiler Alert started life at the Edinburgh Fringe last year where it won critical acclaim. Ed then took it out on the road for a few months before a well-earned Christmas break. Now refreshed and on the road again, I ask if it’s evolved since the early days.
“Oh yes,” he says. “I’m constantly tweaking and updating it. It also started out as a one hour show with a support act. Then it was about an hour and 15 and now with this second leg it’s just me on stage for about 90 to 100 minutes.
“It gets funnier too,” he adds with a chuckle.
“The stuff about Donald Trump, well that just grows and the punchlines just get better and better. 
“Also, some jokes work better depending on where I am in the country of course. Agas go down better in more well healed spots whereas talking about how I spent my childhood sitting outside pubs eating crisps and drinking lemonade work better in others.”
Although he admits it can be tiring criss crossing the country he says he’s looking forward to bringing the show to South London. Indeed when I ask him about the two theatres he will be visiting he immediately consults his diary that is his constant companion when touring.
“This is the third tour where I have packed a diary,” he explains. “I like to be reminded of what the audiences were like, the theatre and the dressing room so I write notes after each show. Some places are more fun than others.
“Sometimes I rock up to a venue and it’s freezing cold and only 60 per cent of the tickets have been sold and I grumble about it, but when I look in my notes I find the audience last time was brilliant.”
So what about Bromley and Wimbledon? After some frantic flicking through his oracle he tells me he’s got fond memories of Wimbledon but admits he can’t find a reference to Bromley.
“I am going to assume I said nice things about Bromley because otherwise I wouldn’t be coming back!” he laughs.
“Wimbledon was lovely last time I was here so I imagine we will have fun in both places.”
Stand up he adds is where he feels most at home.
“I am myself on stage,” he says. “I feel in control in front of an audience and it’s a great feeling when you walk out on stage.
“TV is great but it’s about reminding myself that I’m still alive. TV is also heavily edited which I don’t have control of whereas the stand up show is just me and the audience. 
“There is nothing like it and I try and tour every two years or so although the downside is being away from home quite a bit. On balance though over the course of the year I see more of my family than many of those who work a 9 to 5 job - some only see their kids at weekends so I can’t really complain. 
“With any tour I have to do a photo to publicise it - but I never have any idea at that point what the show will be about. This time I wanted to do a homage to Very Bad Things, a film with Christian Slater and Cameron Diaz, so that’s why this one features me with a dinner suit and a chainsaw - which is mine by the way.
“It’s a sign of my moving into the middle class,” he chuckles. “I’m not really channeling my inner James Bond… but it looks good!”


Ed Byrne, Spoiler Alert, is on at the Churchill Theatre Bromley on Tuesday, April 10 and at Wimbledon Theatre on Saturday, April 21. Call Bromley 020 3285 6000 or Wimbledon 0844 871 7646 for tickets.