Tuesday, 23 December 2014

REVIEW - Cinderella at New Wimbledon Theatre

FOUR stars

IF there is a world shortage of glitter in the not too distant future I will know who to blame. The set designers of Cinderella now on at the New Wimbledon Theatre!
No expense has been spared and there is barely any space on the glorious set which hasn't been given the glitter treatment - it looks amazing, full of colour and sparkle.
But what of the show itself? There are stars galore - funnyman Tim Vine as Buttons, Dallas superstar Linda Gray as the Fairy Godmother, Matthew Kelly as one of the ugly step sisters and ballet dancer Wayne Sleep as Dandini - and there is also a star turn by two delightful Shetland Ponies.
The familiar story has been given a bit of an update - Cinderella, her father Baron Hardup and their oil business are being bled dry financially by her two step sisters who also treat Cinderella with contempt.
One day she meets the Prince in the woods but doesn't realise it's him as he introduces himself as Dandini. They fall in love but don't meet again until a grand ball is organised to help him find a wife.
Despite attempts by the step sisters to stop Cinderella from getting to the ball, the Fairy Godmother has other ideas and in true panto style ensures she gets Cinderella there on time thanks to a bit of magic and a wave of her glittery wand.
The script was funny and full of brilliant gags, the cast was top notch, the music was fantastic and the singing and dancing were spot on.
Thanks to the star billing of Linda Gray there are numerous and predictable references to Dallas - though presumably lost on anyone under the age of about 30. And for a first timer Linda did a great job - and on the night I was there even threw in a few ad libs.
There were many highlights in this fabulous show but a real treat was to see Wayne Sleep proving he still has what it takes to dance around the stage.
For me, the funniest was the chocolate sketch featuring Buttons and the ugly step sisters. It was very clever, fast and absolutely hilarious and had everyone crying with laughter at the end.
And I doubt there was a dry eye in the house at the end of the first act thanks to the entrance of Cinders in her coach led by the two Shetland ponies.
A fabulous show and another Wimbledon winner.

Cinderella is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway until Sunday, January 11. Tickets cost from £11.90. Visit www.atgtickets.com/wimbledon or call the box office on 0844 871 7646.

REVIEW - Treasure Island, National Theatre

FOUR stars

TO say that the National Theatre's production of Treasure Island is epic would be to seriously understate things.
Appropriately enough, given the scale of the production, it is presented on the National's vast, impressive and at times revolving Olivier stage.
Bryony Lavery's adaptation of Stevenson’s classic adventure story is genius. She has taken it and given it a bit of a twist to give it more female role models - including transforming the central character of Jim to a girl - Jemima - brilliantly played by Patsy Ferran.
There is also a very funny Dr Livesey (Helena Lymbery) who takes charge of the treasure map situation as the fatuous and pompous Squire Trelawney (Nick Fletcher) can't be trusted to keep his mouth shut.
But Lavery has also dabbled with the characterisation in other ways and so rather than an old sea dog from the book, Long John Silver is played as a much younger, long haired man (Arthur Darvil).
Complete with a brilliant parrot on his shoulder - who at times looks so much like the real thing it's uncanny - he is still full of menace and nastiness.
The rest of the cast is great too especially Gillian Hanna as Jim's feisty grandmother. Joshua James too as Ben Gunn who, having developed a habit diving into the morass of what look like giant pustules, and of talking to himself, has more than a touch of Poor Tom in King Lear about him.
But it is perhaps Lizzie Clachan’s simply stunning set design that is the star of this show - and surely worth the price of the ticket alone.
There are enormous bowed timber beams encircling the stage which look like giant ribs but could easily symbolise the bowels of a wrecked ship as well as the gigantic waves of the storm which engulf the ship.
The wooden stage reveals itself first as a small inn but then spectacularly turns and rises to reveal a two-deck ship complete with rigging, sails and ship's wheel.
It is framed by a backdrop of dazzling stars which even encroach onto the ceiling above the audience and provide a chance for a lesson in the names of constellations, how to find the North Star and to work out what latitude you are so you can find your way home.
It is a great spectacle of a show with some hilarious rag tag bunch of pirates and a stand out performance by Tim Samuels as Grey. The only slight niggle is that there could have been a bit more dangerous sword fighting, a bit more blood and gore and a bit more menace to Silver.
Despite that it's a fabulous show and will appeal to anyone with an adventurous streak in them - boys or girls.

Treasure Island is on at the National Theatre until Wednesday, April 8. Tickets from £15. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org or call the box office on 020 7452 3000. This production is also being broadcast live in cinemas, as part of National Theatre Live, on January 22.

REVIEW - 3 Winters at the National Theatre


IT'S always great to see interesting and absorbing plays with strong female characters be given star billing.
And Tena Štivičić’s new play 3 Winters, now on at the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage, which features three generations of women in one family, is a real treat.
It is set in a townhouse in the Croatian capital of Zagreb and the lives, loves, fortunes, aspirations and dreams of the family who make it their home is told over a period of 70 years.
Indeed, the piece weaves its story through three separate but very important periods of Croatia's post World War Two history - 1945, 1990 and 2011.
The changing political landscape during that time becomes the backdrop against which the family's story is told.
The only constant is the Kos family house in Zagreb and a picture of one Karolina on the wall.
The story begins in 1945 and we see Rose King, her mother, her husband and their new baby move into part of the house where her mother had once been a servant.
By 1990 Rose's daughter Masha has married, she still lives in the house and has two daughters of her own, Lucia and Alisa.
By the time we get to 2011 Lucia is about to get married to some dodgy businessman as her aunt's own marriage dissolves into a horrible end.
Tensions have been building and when Alisa learns that her soon to be brother-in-law has bought the once nationalised house, arguments ensue.
For Lucia this is progress but for Alisa it's greed and especially so when it transpires a neighbour and former boyfriend of Alisa's is about to be evicted from one part of the house as a result.
The action jumps about a bit and as the scenes change there are projected images of some of the news items from each period including some harrowing pictures from the Balkans war.
Brilliantly staged it is an utterly gripping and compelling story - thanks to both great writing and the fine performances from an outstanding cast, dominated by Siobhan Finneran as Masha, Sophie Rundle as Lucia, Jodie McNee as Alisa, Lucy Black as Dunya and Jo Herbert as Rose.

3 Winters is on at the National Theatre until 3 February 2015. Tickets from £15. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.  

REVIEW - Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse

FIVE stars

AS an antidote to the traditional Christmas panto the Southwark Playhouse has gone to the land of the rising sun for inspiration for its festive offering.
Usagi Yojimbo is a tale adapted from a 30-year-old Japanese comic book and is an absolute delight - even beginning with the audience getting a lesson in how to hold a sword and we have great fun pretending how to use it.
The show itself is a coming of age story about Usagi Yojimbo, a boisterous, tenacious, impetuous and petulant young rabbit who is in awe of his dead father's reputation as a samurai swordsman.
So in awe that he wants to be just like him.
His mother tries to rein in his curiosity and enthusiasm but one day when she finds that he is showing off his father's swords to his friends she decides enough is enough.
So she sends Usagi to a teacher far away who she hopes will teach him the skills he needs.
However, being the chap he is, instead of going to the intended school, he meets an old lion, a former warrior, who he begs to teach him instead.
And so begins Usagi's journey not only to learn how to use the sword properly but also what it means to be a samurai.
It features a small and amazing cast on a simple stage which itself opens up to reveal hidden treasures tucked away in hidey holes and a lone musician at the back of the stage provides the live music.
The stage and the curtain of bamboo on the back wall also become screens for some beautiful line drawn projections which complement the action on the stage.
It is at times funny and poignant but is also full of fun, charm and lots of well choreographed fights with bamboo poles and other implements.
It is a simple story, beautifully told and will appeal to anyone aged seven and over.

USAGI YOJIMBO is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until Sunday, January 4.

Tickets cost £18 or £16 concessions. Visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

Monday, 22 December 2014

REVIEW - Slava's Snowshow, Royal Festival Hall


WATCHING eight clowns in giant shoes, long overcoats and sporting bright red noses taking silliness to a whole new level has to be one of the best spectacles of the year.
For those who haven't seen Slava's Snowshow, I urge you to go. The show, which has been wowing audiences around the world for the past 20 years, is a terrific assault on the senses and is currently enjoying a fourth season at the Southbank Centre.
Blending wit, music and clever tricks, the group of eight clowns spend 90 minutes making the audience laugh and gasp in equal measure.
Set to a beautiful soundtrack which mixes a whole range of musical styles from pop to classical, the clowns glide, walk, crawl and dance their way through a variety of routines and tricks.
They also come into the crowd, spraying water, climbing over seats, sitting on peoples' laps, taking peoples' bags or coats and throwing them elsewhere in to the auditorium.
At one point a character appears at the side of the stage and sees something white. He pulls at it and a balletic series of moves later he is completely tangled up in what looks like a white cobweb.
Another of his friends comes out and between them they stretch the cobweb so it envelopes the entire audience - even those right at the back get tangled up in it.
Then there is a marvellous scene in which two of them are on a boat and how they negotiate a storm is priceless - and gets funnier when one of the clowns slides on to the stage on a skateboard with a shark's fin attached to his back.
There are bubbles and a giant snowstorm made out of a billion pieces of paper which get blown into the audience and one gorgeous routine in which one of the clowns makes friends with a hat stand.
Finally the climax of the balloons, of all different colours and sizes, which get pushed into the audience and which have everyone on their feet.
Beautifully choreographed and crafted it is a fabulous show. There is no narrative and no words, but there don't need to be. It's silly, funny, breathtaking, exciting, mesmerising and uplifting - a treat from start to finish.

Slava's Snowshow is on at the Royal Festival Hall until Monday, January 5. Tickets cost from £20 Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7960 4200.

Review - Timber! at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre


WALKING on logs, juggling axes, clog dancing, aerial acrobatics, beam-balancing, storytelling and live music and song are all part of a day's work for the Cirque Alfonse crew.
The group, from rural Quebec in Canada, are at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall for a 11-day residency of their show Timber! in which they showcase their extraordinary talents in circus skills.
Featuring three generations of the Carabinier-Lépine family and their musician friends, Timber! is set in a lumber-camp in the back woods of Quebec.
From the start there is much merriment and mischief and this continues for the entire 90 minutes of the show in which the audience is also treated to some dangerous, funny and frankly mind bogglingly adventurous stunts.
Showing off their incredible strength and agility, the group rarely pauses for breath and the routines flow from one to the next beautifully.
The whole show is breathtaking and an utter a delight and there are many highlights. They include an amazing clog dance and beautiful aerial acrobatic display from Julie Carabinier-Lépine, an extraordinary beam balancing stunt by Antoine Carabinier-Lépine, Jonathan Casaubon and Francis Roberge and some incredible juggling with axes by four of the group in which their only protection is wearing gloves.
The precision of the choreography and timing was flawless and elicited numerous gasps from the audience.
The only bit that had most people hiding behind their fingers was when a long and very sharp-toothed saw was used for a series of stunts.
While one of the group held it in a semi circle, two others hurled themselves through it. They also jumped over it as it was swung round in a circle. One false move and a foot, hand or some other body part would have had it!
The whole show was set against a back drop of some rousing and toe-tapping traditional Quebec folk music played by members of the group.
Timber! is utterly brilliant and I defy anyone not to be wowed by it.

Timber! is recommended for those aged eight and over and is on at the Queen Elizabeth Hall until December 31.

Tickets cost from £20. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7960 4200.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

REVIEW - Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory


THROUGHOUT history there have been many people who have tried to kill some of America's long list of presidents - some successfully.
And a musical featuring nine of them - including three who succeeded - is now on at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is a funny and inventive show and although it doesn't set out to condone their actions, does aim to give some kind of back story to those who wanted to kill a president.
Jamie Lloyd's production is a joy, set in what looks like a dilapidated fairground, and features a star-studded cast that includes Jamie Parker, Mike McShane and Catherine Tate.
At 100 minutes with no interval it strides along at a brisk pace with a series of short scenes knitted together brilliantly.
We see each character - from some familiar names including John Wilkes Booth who shot President Lincoln and John Hinkley who tried to kill President Reagan to the less well known of Leon Czolgosz who shot dead President McKinley.
Each of them is given a chance to tell their story - either for personal glory or to bring down a political regime - and when they do take aim, the action stops momentarily before the shot rings out, bells chime out and a Hit or Miss sign is illuminated at either end of the thrust stage.
There are fine performances from the entire cast, particularly Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau and Simon Lipkin as the Proprietor who encourages the nine to take aim.
Catherine Tate is hilarious as trigger happy Sarah Jane Moore, giggling as she continually fires her gun in mistake and Jamie Parker is brilliant as the balladeer who, right at the end of the show, is eventually unmasked as Lee Harvey Oswald and cajoled into taking a pot shot at President Kennedy.

Assassins is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street funtil March 7. Tickets from £30. Visit ww.menierchocolatefactory.com or call the box office on 020 7378 1713.

PANTO preview - Snow White at Catford

THRILLS, spills, magic, music and mayhem. Essential ingredients in any self respecting panto - and which will be in abundance in Snow White And The Seven Dwarves on at the Broadway Theatre in Catford this Christmas.
Among its star studded cast is Richard Blackwood - back at the theatre for a second season.
The Streatham-based actor, rapper and stand up comedian is reprising his role as Muddles but says this year he has been given a brand new adventure.
"Last year was my first stint in panto and I wasn't sure what to expect," he says. "It was hugely nervewracking to begin with but it was such good fun, the audience really engaged with the character and it went so well that the producers asked me back again this year.
"It was such a great honour to be asked back that I jumped at the chance."
This production will see Richard as Muddles help his princess win the heart of the dashing prince whilst trying to outwit the Wicked Queen.
"It's great to be back as Muddles," he says. "He's a great character - a real cheeky chap - and so to have a continuation of his story is really nice.
"Besides everyone loves a sequel don't they!
"Muddles is like the go between that keeps the show going so there is a lot of onus on me to keep the audience entertained between all the bits of the script and be a kind of anchor role.
"He's very funny and very honest and loves the princess. Really he wants to be the Prince Charming and each time he hopes it will be his turn - it won't happen though," he adds chuckling.
"He's a bit like me in my younger years."
Richard promises the show will feature plenty of songs, ad libs and a "great script". There will also be a lot of glitter, plenty of which ends up on Muddles.
"I do get coated in the stuff," he laughs. "It's all good fun and I take it well but I get really mucky and get a load of glue and glitter all over me. It's going to be very funny!
"There are also some great songs - we are doing some classic tunes such as Baggy Trousers which has taken me back to my childhood - but we are also going to do Pharrell's Happy which I'm sure most of the kids know."
That Richard found his way into showbiz is not a surprise given some of his family have trodden the path before him.
His uncle Junior had a successful career as a singer in the 1980s and he's related - by virtue of his father's marriage - to Streatham supermodel Naomi Campbell.
After school - he went to Links Primary in Tooting and Gorringe Park Primary in Mitcham - Richard went to university before pursuing his dream of working in the entertainment industry.
He became a regular face on the comedy circuit and was catapulted into the limelight with his own Channel 4 programme, The Richard Blackwood Show.
Appearances on Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, Holby City and Casualty plus the box office smash hit movie Anuvahood have kept him busy since then.
A smash hit single Mama Who Da Man followed and last year he wowed West End audiences with his role as the Donkey in Shrek at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
"I love acting - it's always been my passion - and I really enjoyed my two years as the Donkey in Shrek," he says.
"But I love stand up and have been doing it for 21 years.
"I realised quite early on that my talent was making people laugh and so panto is a natural fit for me," he says.
"However it's not easy though. Making adults laugh is easy but with kids it's much trickier and more complex - you have to be on your toes all the time.
"Kids are great, but they are totally honest and can be really tough too, so you have to be ready for their comments - and have to stay in character all the time.
"But I love it, it's a lot of fun and I can't wait to be back on the Catford stage - it's a great company, the atmosphere is fantastic and it's going to be an amazing show.
"And if they ask me I'll definitely be back again next year!"

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves is on at the Broadway Theatre, Catford until December 30. For tickets visit www.broadwaytheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 8690 0002.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

PREVIEW - Timber! at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

LAST summer a family of acrobats burst on to the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage. They wowed audiences with their blend of gravity-defying acrobatics and thrilling tricks with metal saws, axes and logs so much they're back at the Southbank Centre this Christmas for an 11-date run.
Cirque Alfonse is a three-generation strong family of lumberjack performers from Quebec, Canada which was founded in 2005 by Antoine Carabinier-Lépine.
Its smash hit spectacular Timber! - which the group has been touring around the world for the past three years - brings together circus, theatre, dance, live traditional music and the folklore of Quebec.
It stars the whole family, from 68-year-old grandad Alain to his three-year-old grandson Arthur.
They are supported by three musicians, who are friends of the family and who also do a few tricks of their own.
The action is set in a lumber-camp where there is much merriment and mischief and for 90 minutes audiences are treated to some dangerous, funny and mind bogglingly adventurous stunts.
"It's a real family show in every sense," says Antoine warmly as we chat ahead of the show's opening on Sunday.
"We are all on stage together and combine music, theatre, circus and dance. It's lovely and something really special to be part of. It's very special to share the stage with my family and I feel lucky to be doing this."
Such is the bond between them they have all had a hand in choreographing and devising the show.
"We all put in ideas although our director assembled it," says Antoine. "We all have different specialities and tricks we like to do and most have been incorporated.
"Music is as important as the theatrical part of it," he adds. "It gives an energy to the piece and breathes with us on the stage.
"We all sing songs and the musicians join us in some of the tricks so it's a real ensemble."
Antoine says the show will be much like last year's version although he says there have been a few tweaks along the way and now that Arthur is a bit older he can do a few "forward rolls and handstands".
"He's getting much more used to the stage and also performing," says Antoine. "He's really enjoying it and hasn't missed a show yet!"
The story of how the troop came to being is something of a fairytale. When Alain was growing up his dream was to run away with the circus. However, instead he became a champion skier. When he married his wife they moved to her native Montreal and settled on a farm in the woods of rural Quebec.
When he was 14 Antoine went to see a circus show and immediately fell in love with the idea of becoming an acrobat.
"It was my dream so I went to circus school for three years and ended up on tour for about 15 years before setting up Cirque Alfonse," says Antoine.
"I invited my sister and father to join - so in a way his dream came true after all. He had always wanted to be on stage so we gave him that chance and he is really enjoying it.
"We chose the name because we wanted to be true to our family heritage of lumberjacks and Quebec. As children we lived in the woods and so wood has been a real theme for us in our lives."
And Antoine says it's still "the best job in the world".
"There is nothing better," he says. "We are on stage for 90 minutes doing everything - juggling axes, saws and pieces of wood as well as doing acrobatic work but the best bit is at the end when the audience tell us how much they've enjoyed it."
He admits it is sometimes scary but says if it wasn't it would be dangerous and that trust is key.
"Juggling saws is dangerous," he laughs. "We don't cheat - we use real axes and saws and it's intense and scary - but nothing else gives you that amazing feeling of energy!
"Also the audience feels it more when it's done live. Everyone likes to be a bit scared sometimes and so we expect people to look through their fingers at some points in the show.
"But we trained solidly for three months to perfect the routines because these tools are really heavy and not like the balls or clubs we used at circus school.
"We trust each other completely - that's very important!"

Timber! is on at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre. Tickets cost from £20. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7960 4200.

REVIEW - The Fourth Wise Man, Unicorn Theatre


EVERYONE has heard of the Three Wise Men, but have you heard of Artaban, the fourth?
His story is brilliantly told in a new show, especially for younger audiences this Christmas at the Unicorn Theatre.
The Fourth Wise Man is about Artaban, the wisest of them all, who lives happily enough with his wife Samira, a potter.
They lead a modest but somewhat repetitive life and Artaban, who is a bit of a restless fellow, wonders if it's possible to be even happier than he is.
Is there more excitement to have he wonders.
So he sets about trying to find the "something new" that he is searching for, with his patient wife just giving him a knowing but loving smile and letting him get on with it.
His quest includes a delivery of a rowing boat and a bow and arrow, which he hilariously tries to master - and which had the younger members of the audience giggling like fury - but it is when he spots a beautiful new star in the sky that his adventure really begins.
It's the biggest and brightest star he has ever seen, and he is resolute in his belief that it will lead him to something special.
Set to a magical score of live music, it is a funny and heart-warming show that exudes a real warmth and which is beautifully and perfectly staged for the young audience it is aimed at.
Both Philip Arditti as Artaban and Rita Arya as his wife - and the camel - are a delight and make this show something really special.

The Fourth Wise Man is on at the Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street until Sunday, January 4. Tickets cost £16 for adults and £10 for under 21s. Visit www.unicorntheatre.com or call the box office on 020 7645 0560.

Preview - Slava's Snowshow, Royal Festival Hall

ONE of the world's most enchanting shows is back in South London for a record fourth consecutive year this Christmas.
The award-winning Slava's Snowshow arrives at the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre this weekend for an extended run.
Created by Russian artist Slava Polunin, artistic director of the St Petersburg Circus, it is celebrating its 20th anniversary and has so far been seen by more than five million people worldwide.
Its UK producer, Matthew Gale says its appeal is down to its simplicity and beauty but admits it is difficult to describe.
"It's a beautiful show to watch," he says. "But it's difficult to explain what it is! It's physical theatre and completely non verbal. It's very clever, funny, full of visual delights and wonderful music but it's also very subtle.
"The clowns do some amazing and extraordinary physical tricks which are breathtaking to watch - although sometimes you wonder how they are physically possible!
"Each also has their own distinct personality and character on the stage and some are quite anarchic, some are quite cute, but they are all very silly and funny," he adds.
"Their facial expressions are fabulous - when one of them raises an eyebrow the audience erupts with laughter.
"It doesn't rely on a narrative per se but there are a series of vignettes and stories within it which relate back to peoples' childhoods so it touches the audience emotionally.
"It makes people feel like a child again. It's full of wonderment, positivity, ignites your curiosity and that's the joy of it."
Influenced by artists such as Chaplin, Marcel Marceau and Engibarov, Slava, and his company of clowns have created an imersive piece of theatre designed to appeal to anyone over the age of six.
Together they use a combination of theatrical clowning and visual spectacle to create a dream-like world where images melt into one another, a cobweb envelops the audience and one tiny piece of paper starts a blizzard of snow.
Throughout the show the clowns, who come from all over the world, interact with each other and the audience, sometimes going into the crowd to play with them or do a stunt.
It builds to a magical finale where the audience gets to play with giant balloons in the midst of a snowstorm.
"It's amazing to see everyone totally connect with the performers and get so involved in the show," says Matthew.
"It's a real visual treat from start to finish and the snow storm at the end is the most beautiful theatrical effect I have ever seen. It's pretty special.
"I've seen eight year olds skipping out of the show with their grandparents who are also beaming and skipping!
"It is fantastic to see people really come alive when they see it - it has a real energy, power, excitement and brilliance to it as well as a touch of magic.
"There are so many horrible and terrible things going on in the world at the moment sometimes you forget human beings are extraordinary and can do amazing things.
"So to see people being silly for the sake of it is joyous and this show manages to transport you to a different place which will leave you feeling elated and reflective - you will see the world in a different way.
"It's pure magic and perfect for Christmas."

Slava's Snowshow is on at the Royal Festival Hall until Monday, January 5. Tickets cost from £20 Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7960 4200.

REVIEW - It's A Wonderful Life


Gerard McCarthy as George. Below, the cast. Photo credit Anton Hewins

IT may be in its infancy but the Bridge House Theatre in Penge has a belter of a Christmas show for its opening season.
It's A Wonderful Life is a new version of the classic film which starred Jimmy Stewart.
Written by Tony Palermo and directed by Guy Retallack, the uplifting tale of everyman George Bailey, is staged as a live radio broadcast in front of a live studio audience.
Set in 1949 and featuring a cast of six it is introduced by a rather jolly radio announcer, played by a superb Daniel Hill.
There is even a red "On Air" light above the door, hand held cue "applause" signs and - in a genius move - pauses during the show for adverts from the theatre's local sponsors.
For those who don't know the story, it concerns one George Bailey from the small American town, Bedford Falls.
George has always had big plans and dreams for his life, even as a young boy. He wants to escape his small town and see the world.
But thanks to his loyalty to his family and friends, and his sense of duty, he sacrifices every one of his dreams to stay in the small town he grew up in and take on his father's business.
One day though something happens that makes him believe his life is not worth living.
The play opens in Heaven on Christmas Eve where the head angel tells rookie angel Clarence that he must save George from committing suicide - and that if he does he will earn his wings.
Clarence is then taken back in time to see how George has arrived at his fateful decision before he tries to stop him from carrying out the deed.
Taking on multiple roles, the entire cast is outstanding and they use the small stage well.
In particular Gillian Kirkpatrick as the head angel and Sophie Scott as Mary, George's wife both excel.
But it is Gerard McCarthy who shines as George. Showing a whole range of emotions with the dilemas George faces throughout his life, he successfully portrays him as a decent man who only wants the best for his family and for whom the audience is rooting for from the off.
Overall it is a glorious, entertaining and heart-warming story and in the intimate setting of the Bridge House Theatre this new version is an absolute winner.

It's A Wonderful Life is on at the Bridge House Theatre, High Street, until Sunday, January 4.

Tickets from £12.50. Visit www.bhtheatre.com or call the box office on 020 8133 0311.  

Interview Elliot Barnes Worrell

BY his own admission Elliot Barnes Worrell wasn't interested in Shakespeare much when he was at school.
However, the 23-year-old's view of the Bard changed when he saw a production at the Ovalhouse theatre "with two black guys doing Hamlet".
"I really got it," he says. "The poetry was beautiful. I was a rapper at the time and realised Shakespeare was better than me!
"He was talking about raw emotions, strife, fighting, love and loss - everything that is still relevant to what's going on today. So he's for everyone."
The visit changed his life. For not only did he discover a love for Shakespeare's poetry but it encouraged him to become an actor.
And now, nearly 10 years later, Elliot has realised his dream and can be found on stage after having bagged the roles of Prince John and Francis in the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) production of Henry IV Parts I and II.
The show which started out at the RSC's Stratford theatre earlier this year has just finished a small nationwide tour and is now at the Barbican.
And the Forest Hill actor says he is loving every minute.
"It's been an amazing journey," he says. "As a kid growing up in Peckham I didn't really connect with Shakespeare.
"My granny had travelled all over the world when she was younger and used to tell us stories about her adventures in all these different countries. My mum used to read books to us instead of letting us watch TV so it gave us a taste of story telling and performing.
"However, I went to a comprehensive with metal detectors and where fighting was a way to survive.
"My teachers didn't have much passion for Shakespeare either."
However after the Ovalhouse experience Elliot went to see as much theatre as he could and became a regular visitor to venues such as the Southwark Playhouse.
He also realised he really wanted to perform so one of his teachers encouraged him to apply to the Brit School. Happily it was a good move.
"I was very lucky," he says. "At my comprehensive you were valued by who you could beat up. When I went to the Brit School in Selhurst it was a case of being valued for diversity and how hard you worked.
"For the first time it was OK to be who you are."
A place at Central School of Speech and Drama followed and since finishing drama school he has written poetry and has appeared in Doctor Who, the last ever Poirot starring David Suchet as well as the RSC's production of Richard II last year, alongside David Tennant.
He also won a special commendation in last year's Ian Charlson Award for actors under 30 - something he said was a "real surprise".
But it's the stage which is his passion and he attributes his success to one thing - "hard work".
"Working on Doctor Who was great but I always wanted to be a classical actor and when I got the RSC contract I wasn't going to miss it!" he laughs.
"However, everything that has happened to me is a down to good fortune and more especially hard work," he adds.
"I have grasped every opportunity - I wrote loads of letters to the RSC because I wanted to work there and it paid off in the end. You can't sit back as nothing will come to you if you do."
And he says he's enjoying being part of the RSC team and bringing the shows to life in London.
"The roles I play are both very different - Francis is young and innocent whereas Prince John is machiavellian, sly and reptilian - and it's amazing to be able to play them both," he says.
"It's a great cast, I'm still in awe at being able to work with its director Greg Doran, and it's a fabulous production - really exciting and full of drama.
"It's brilliant."

Henry IV Parts I and II are on at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street until January 24. Tickets from £10. Visit www.barbican.org.uk/ or call the box office on 020 7638 8891.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Bridge House Theatre Penge

WITH cuts in funding across the arts, it's a brave man or woman who sets up a theatre in these financially austere times.
However that hasn't deterred Guy Retallack and Rachel Tucker.
The director and his actress wife felt so passionately about the need for a theatre in their town that they decided to set one up themselves.
With no government grant or Arts Council funding, the pair founded The Bridge House Theatre in Penge.
"When I moved to Penge and met Rachel we realised there was no theatre in the immediate area and we felt there should be," says Guy.
"The Croydon Warehouse had gone and although we have the Jack Studio in Brockley and of course Theatre503 in Battersea they are quite far away.
"We both work in the theatre, had already fallen in love with the area so we decided to find somewhere local where we could have a theatre of our own."
He says it was a "crazy dream" but one which became a reality thanks to an evening at his local - The Bridge House.
"Rachel and I went on a hunt around the area and one night last year we were sitting in the pub and by chance, sitting next to the owners," says Guy.
"We got chatting and told them about our vision and asked if they had a room upstairs which we could transform into a theatre.
"They said yes, showed us the space and we fell in love with it. It's absolutely the perfect place - with high Victorian ceilings and is right in the heart of this vibrant part of South East London. So that was that!"
And so the theatre was born with the couple transforming the room to a 60-seat venue.
It was funded entirely by them and they now rely on ticket sales to help pay for the running and other costs.
Last winter they staged a production of A Christmas Carol, which was so successful they had to add more dates, before a four-week run of Macbeth. Since then they have put on shows from two visiting companies not to mention hosting comedy nights.
This season has seen a production of The Frida Kahlo Of Penge West and their Christmas show It's A Wonderful Life has just opened. It will be joined by The Uglies Take Penge which opens today.
Along the way their production of Macbeth earned them two nominations from The Offies (The Off West End Theatre Awards) and they have been invited to take that production to the Shakespeare Festival in Germany next year.
"It's been an incredibly exciting journey for us so far," says Guy. "We have achieved so much in such a short space of time which is really special but we have worked so hard to make it happen.
"We have got a brilliant relationship with the pub, have attracted some incredible actors to work with us and are very proud to have been nominated for these awards.
"We've also had a great reaction from the many people who have come to the shows and who have told us how much they like the fact we are here.
"It is absolutely fantastic and a great endorsement - their reactions have shown us that there is a real need and desire for a theatre in Penge!"
Along the way they have also been joined in their venture by producer Rob Harris and they are currently working up a list of plays to bring to the theatre's stage next year.
And Guy admits he is "incredibly ambitious" for the future.
"We want the theatre to host a rich and varied programme of shows - with something for everyone - and so we will be doing the classics, musicals, showcasing new writing as well as family shows and comedy gigs.
"We are hugely ambitious for the future and hopefully as the venue grows and develops our programme will grow as well," he adds.
"What's great is that the space is very versatile and exactly what a Fringe Theatre should be. Most of all though we want to be able to stage high quality productions with a ticket price that is competitive and affordable - and have a reputation for that.
"There is masses we want to do but we know that with the support of the local community and this fantastic pub, we can do it."

It's A Wonderful Life is on at the Bridge House Theatre, High Street, Penge until January 4. Tickets cost £12 for adults and £10 concessions. The Uglies Take Penge is on until December 21. Tickets cost £12.50 for adults and £8.50 for children.

Visit www.bhtheatre.com or call the box office on 020 8133 0311.  

PREVIEW - Treasure Island at the National Theatre

IT'S a dark and stormy night. Jim, an inn-keeper’s granddaughter, opens the door to a terrifying stranger. At the old sailor’s feet sits a huge sea-chest, full of secrets. Jim invites him in – and her dangerous voyage begins.
Such is the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale Treasure Island, a story of murder, money and mutiny.
A thrilling new adaptation of the story by Bryony Lavery is being brought to life on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre as part of its winter season.
Among its star-studded cast is Peckham actress Gillian Hanna who plays Jim's granddaughter. It is a role she tells me she's enjoying playing, not least because she gets to keep her feet firmly on the stage.
"It's a hugely exciting production and swash will be buckled all over the place," she chuckles. "There is adventure, swords, fighting, the climbing of rigging and unfurling of the sails - which thankfully I don't have to do but it's all very exciting and terribly dramatic!
"I have found a rocking chair on the stage so I get to oversee things a bit."
For fans of the book Gillian says the production is "pretty faithful" to it and promises it will be "quite scary".
"There are some real jolly 'yo ho ho' types of course but there are some really horrible guys that will kill anyone in their way to get their hands on the money so it's quite scary," she says.
"It's pretty faithful to the bones of the book though there are a few tweaks."
John Silver for example will not be played as an old man but rather someone much younger and rather than Jim living at the inn with her mother, this version sees her live with her grandmother.
"Bryony wanted to make her a lot older," says Gillian. "She's a lovely character. They have this inn on the edge of nowhere but it's hard to make a living and they have a hard life. They don't eat a lot of the time because they are so poor.
"She's very protective of her family but she's a very tough granny and she's a great part to play."
Gillian was able to have input into her characterisation and put her foot down about one aspect of the make up.
"When we were discussing the character they wanted me to have warts," she says. "But because she's the equivalent of a good fairy and she's the grandma who people rely on, I said no. Warts in this sort of show when you are dealing with archetypes have to be on bad characters."
Warts aside it's clear Gillian is enjoying being part of the production which she describes as "huge".
"It was the whole package that appealed," she says warmly. "It's such a classic story - an iconic piece of English literature. It is incredibly well written and rattles along. There are a lot of people who say it's the best book he ever wrote.
"I suppose it's sewn itself into the fabric of our cultural life. The language in it isn't convoluted - it's relatively straightforward and is a real adventure story.
"It's also lovely to work at the National as you are treated so well," she adds. "And it's lovely to work on something that's so big. It suits the Olivier because it's such a huge stage. It's great fun and is a very special show."
That Gillian became an actress in the first place was rather by accident than design though she admits it suits her as she "can't sit still".
"I could never do an office job for eight hours a day," she laughs. "My mum made me take a secretarial course for something to fall back on but I lasted two months - I just couldn't do it.
"By pure fluke I went to university in Dublin to do modern languages. A friend of mine wanted to audition for something at the drama club but was a bit shy so I went along with her and, oh dear, I got the part instead!"
Despite this early success Gillian says she still didn't consider acting as a career. So she continued with her studies, gaining a first class honours degree.
"I did do a few more plays while I was there and then someone asked if I was going to do this properly and a director said he knew someone who ran a theatre in Liverpool. It was the Everyman but I was so idiotic I didn't realise!" she laughs.
"The Everyman called me and in the end that was that."
She then moved to London, eventually settling on Peckham, a place she says she loves and has since enjoyed a successful career both on stage, as a translator, writer and playwright.
"I've lived here for 30 years and have the whole world on my doorstep," she says. "It's fabulous, and I love being near Peckham Rye which is where the oak tree William Blake had his vision of an angel. I'd like to think it's true but I've not seen on yet!
"I love the variety of this job," she adds. "TV, theatre, film, writing, they all present different challenges and different ways of working - besides it's a bit too late to retrain as a brain surgeon!"

Treasure Island is on at the National Theatre until Wednesday, April 8. Tickets from £15. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.  

REVIEW - Antarctica at Battersea Arts Centre

FOUR stars

ANIMALS, adventure, tonnes of imagination and a bit of seasonal magic. Perfect ingredients for a children's show and which can be seen in abundance at the Battersea Arts Centre.
It's Christmas offering, Antarctica, is an absolute delight. It concerns brave explorer Sir Peregrine Falcon who sets out to Antarctica to see if he can find the illusive Owlabear.
What he wants more than anything is to take a picture of this amazing creature which has the head and wings of an owl and the body of a bear.
Along the way he gets snowed on by some mischievous snowflakes, meets penguins and sea lions loses his lunch to some scavenging birds and swims with the fish and jellyfish.
He also encourages the young audience, members of his Explorer's Club, to help him in his quest to see the Owlabear by holding flags, looking after his lunch and map reading.
It is a lovely, hugely imaginative and sweet show in which participation is encouraged and which grips the attention of the young audience.
Alex Scott as the explorer is brilliant and is ably assisted by Dominic Conway and Clare Beresford who between them dress up as the different animals - one of the funniest scenes was them pretending to be sea lions lying on the stage, barking and trying to move around.
They also play the snowflakes and perform hilarious dances as they toss their white paper snowflakes into the air.
It is all set to a selection of beautiful music - both classical and more modern. But the real thrill is seeing the Owlabear who is stunning!

Antarctica is on at the Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, until January 4. Tickets cost £14 for adults and £9 for children. Visit www.bac.org.uk/antarctica or call the box office on 020 7223 2223.

Friday, 5 December 2014

PREVIEW Peter Pan, Polka Theatre

THERE can't be many children who don't know the story of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up.
The classic story, written by JM Barrie, was originally done as a play before it was turned into a book. Since then it has been adapted many times and translated onto the silver screen as well as for a variety of stage productions including pantomimes.
A stage version is now being brought to life for youngsters at the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon.
And according to artistic director Peter Glanville, it features original songs, puppetry, swashbuckling fun and lots of fairy dust.
"We are always looking for a big classic story to produce around the Christmas period," he says. "I have always loved Peter Pan - it's one of the greatest stories ever told.
"On the one hand it's an incredibly imaginative story, full of pirates, fairies and children that can fly but at its heart there are these incredibly powerful relationships.
"There is an interesting relationship between Peter and Wendy and how that pans out plus we have the bitter rivalry between the pirates and the lost boys.
"They are iconic characters and there is huge potential for spectacle.
"Crucially it also draws us in emotionally so it had all the ingredients for the creation of an exciting show."
In developing the production, which Peter says has taken almost a year to do, there were a few challenges to overcome not least how to make some of the characters fly.
"We could have blown our budget on a massive flying rig but the stage isn't big enough," he says.
"I have a real passion for puppetry and I started to get ideas of how some of the characters could be represented through puppets.
"As a fairy Tinkerbell in particular seemed an appropriate choice, and I thought the snake could be one too, so I got an extraordinary puppet maker in who has created some amazing puppets for us.
"It means we now have amazing flying scenes in the show - it's fantastic."
As well as the challenge of staging the piece, Peter was also keen to update some of the messages within the original story.
"It is slightly dated so I have set it in the 1960s which was a time of change where people were questioning the role of women and bringing the whole idea of being young to the forefront.
"There is also a bit of a Mod look to Hook which has been fun to do and there's even a bit of jive dancing!"
What there won't be is any audience participation except for one crucial scene.
"It's been created very much as a piece of theatre and is certainly not a panto," says Peter.
"However there is a tender scene in the story where Tinkerbell drinks poison Hook has left for her and we see her light fade away.
"It is the only part of the show the actors talk directly to the audience and ask for help to make Tinkerbell better."
And he says he hopes the whole show will grip the young audiences.
"Our challenge is always how we can make the experience as rich as possible for our audience whatever their age - emotionally and intellectually," he says.
"This show is funny, sad, exciting and quite dark in places so hopefully it will stimulate their imaginations and get them asking questions about why the characters act the way they do - why is Hook feeling a sense of anger and why does Peter Pan refuse to grow up.
"It's been incredibly exciting to create."

Peter Pan is on at the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon until Saturday, February 14. Tickets cost from £17.50. Visit www.polkatheatre.com/ or call the box office on 020 8543 4888.

PREVIEW Antarctica at the Battersea Arts Centre

A DOCUMENTARY on how animals live in the remote wilderness of Antarctica has formed the inspiration for a new show for young children at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC).
Antarctica, which has just opened at the Lavender Hill arts venue, has been created by Little Bulb Theatre company and features slippy-slidey penguins, glamorous sea lions and pesky birds as well as an intriguing creature - the owlabear.
Its artistic director Alex Scott came up with the idea after watching an episode of Frozen Planet.
"We have never done a show for children under seven before but were very excited to be commissioned to do so," he says.
"They are an amazing audience because they really invest and believe in the things they are seeing. It means you can do a lot of exciting things for them and we therefore wanted to make something really special for them.
"We were watching Frozen Planet which featured polar bears and we thought the imagery was so beautiful and the animals and the way they cope with the extreme cold so interesting.
"We found out so much amazing information about the animals and birds who live in the region - it was utterly fascinating and we thought we would love to do an adventure story where kids and their families get to go to the Antarctic."
And so the story began to take shape with Alex and his team keen to bring the Antarctic to life.
It has resulted in a show in which the audience is invited to join the Explorers' Club and to be whisked away on what Alex hopes will be an unforgettable journey.
"We've incorporated songs, puppets and lots of snowy surprises!" he says. "I play the explorer who runs the club. My character is on a mission to find an Owlabear and it becomes a quest for the audience too.
"Along the way we meet a whole array of other animals including polar bears, fish, penguins and birds so visually it's amazing.
"It's quite sciencey and a bit educational but also we wanted it to be funny and magical as well and that's where this mythical and magical creature comes in.
"The kids are very good at seeing it but as the explorer, I'm not so good! In fact I'm very bad at spotting it which is all part of the story."
As well as Alex there are three other actors on stage who between them play all the animals and of course there is the owlabear itself.
And to link in with the explorer theme it's been set in the Victorian era.
"We were all inspired by the exploits of the explorers of that time - such as Scott and Shackleton," explains Alex.
"It's mind blowing because they achieved so much and had a real mission to go out there and discover things. They had a devil may care attitude.
"I'm hoping that because children are naturally inquisitive and curious they will be completely absorbed and inspired - and excited to discover the amazing owlabear!"

Antarctica is on at the Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, until January 4. Tickets cost £14 for adults and £9 for children. Visit www.bac.org.uk/antarctica or call the box office on 020 7223 2223.

PREVIEW Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse

BRINGING the stories from the pages of a Japanese comic book to the stage has been the inspired choice of Christmas production for the Southwark Playhouse.
Usagi Yojimbo is the story of Usagi, a young rabbit who yearns to become a famous samurai like his late father.
The show is based on the award-winning comic book by Stan Sakai and has been adapted for the stage for the first time by Stewart Melton.
"The theatre has been going for 21 years and we try to do something a bit different at Christmas time," says Southwark Playhouse artistic director Chris Smyrnios.
"We don't really do panto and when we do traditional we do it with a twist. So we were keen to carry on that theme this year.
"I was looking through some old comics I used to read and I came across Usagi Yojimbo. As I read it I realised it had all the ingredients that everyone would want for a family show.
"It's not Christmassy per se but it's got a bit of everything in it - animals, action, adventure and a strong moral code - I felt it was the perfect choice.
"The comic has also just celebrated its 30th anniversary and we thought it would be a great thing to do so once we had been given permission to adapt it we set about developing it and creating a story that would appeal to children."
The show is set in 17th century Japan in a world of bandit raccoons, feline ninjas and warring animal clans.
After an argument with his mother the young rabbit Usagi leaves his home, family and friends behind him to train with an old lion sensei, a teacher of the warrior’s code known as Bushido.
However initially, his adventure isn't quite what he thought it would be and eventually he learns what really makes a samurai swordsman.
"It's all about the young rabbit who under the guidance of an eccentric old lion learns about honour and learns responsibility in his quest to become a samurai," says Chris.
"It's very exciting partly because it's such a great story with lots of comedy and pathos, but also because there is plenty of live action.
"It features sword fights as well as some amazing costumes including wigs that turn into ears."
Along with a cast of five, all but one of whom have more than one role, it features a set made out of bamboo, video projection and original live music.
"The projection is fantastic because it is a way of illustrating the story that makes it feels as though you are stepping into the pages of the comic," says Chris.
"It also creates different atmospheres and there are some beautiful pictures which are projected both onto the stage but also the backdrop."
He adds that the show has not been without its challenges but says the result has been worth it.
"It's been a fantastic experience for us," he says. "The challenge was to remain faithful to the the original comic as well as to portray a young boy who gets older as the play progresses.
"We also needed to make him recognisable to those who know him from the comics but interesting for the whole audience.
"I think the team has done a great job and I really believe we have created something really quite special."

USAGI YOJIMBO is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until Sunday, January 4.

Tickets cost £18 or £16 concessions. Visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

PREVIEW: Cinderella and the Beanstalk - Theatre503, Battersea

IT'S panto season and while many of the bigger theatres in the region are concentrating their efforts on just one story, Theatre503 in Battersea is doing something a bit different.
The Latchmere Road theatre is staging Cinderella And The Beanstalk, devised by award-winning comedy trio Sleeping Trees.
The company is made up of long-time friends John Woodburn, James Dunnell-Smith and Joshua George Smith, all aged 25, and they promise a panto with a twist.
The plot is a good one. A theatre company has booked the venue and they’ve bought the costumes. But, there’s just one problem. They’ve forgotten to cast any actors.
Luckily for all concerned, these boys aren’t the kind of people to let an obstacle like this get in the way so they’re just going to have to play all the parts themselves.
"It is a mash up of everyone’s favourite pantomimes," explains Josh. "We've taken the traditional panto idea and given it a modern twist and part of that has been to pack in as many of the stories as we can.
“Anyone who comes to see the show will recognise all the characters. This time though they all feature in one story - it's quite a hoot!"
The show the boys put on centres on Cinderella who goes on a perilous adventure. The scheming Rumpelstiltskin blackmails the would-be princess to retrieve the coveted golden eggs from the top of the beanstalk in order to recover her glass slipper.
But with Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother and Jack's pregnant cow all doing their best to get in the way, the delicious, oversized eggs may not be so easy to reach.
With so much to cram in and with only three of them to do it on a relatively bijou stage it has presented the trio with a few challenges.
"This has been the most challenging show we’ve ever done,” says James. “It's a bit out of our comfort zone as we normally don't have any costumes or props and we build the set as we go along but with this show we had to adapt our trademark style a bit.
“There were a few tricky moments in terms of the staging but part of the fun has been trying out different techniques and we’ve really enjoyed the process and bringing the show to life.
“When we were writing the script we actually wanted to bring in more characters but there are only three of us and it’s also quite a small stage. However, because there is so much in it and there are about 40 characters, there is barely a moment when we are still and costume changes have to be very quick!
"It's really funny though and lots of silliness which we love and part of the charm comes from manically having to change costume in a matter of seconds. There's plenty of singing, dancing and fighting that goes on too and it’s deliberately chaotic - although by the end we are exhausted!”
It is the first time the Latchmere Road theatre has put on a festive family show and although John says the trio are really looking forward to it, he admits to a few nerves.
"It's the first Christmas show for the theatre so we are really pleased to be part of that but there is also a certain responsibility to make sure we do a good job," he says.
"For us it’s a new experience too as we’ve never ventured into panto before, or doing a show for younger audiences so we are a bit nervous about it!
“But it’s been great fun devising it and trying to get all those classic stories and characters into one show.
“It’s also been fantastic for us to branch out and do something a bit different and add another string to our bow - we are really excited to see what audiences make of it."

Cinderella And The Beanstalk is on at Theatre503, Latchmere Road from Tuesday December 2 until Saturday January 10. Tickets cost £15 or £12 concession, with a £10 under 16 ticket. Pay what you can Sundays. Visitwww.theatre503.com or call the box office on 020 7978 7040.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

PREVIEW Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Unicorn Theatre

IT must be hard to think about Christmas in the middle of a heatwave but that is exactly what Ellen McDougall had to do this summer.
The Brixton director was tasked with staging the Unicorn Theatre's Christmas show which this year is The Nutcracker And The Mouse King.
Written by Annie Siddons, it is a re-imagining of ETA Hoffmann’s original masterpiece, The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, a version of which has in recent years been delighting ballet audiences.
The story is set on Christmas Eve and seven year-old Marie finds the sad and broken Nutcracker from under the Christmas tree and promises to look after him.
But on the stroke of midnight he comes alive, and after enlisting Marie’s help in his battle with the evil seven-headed Mouse King, they journey together through strange and fantastical stories until they finally arrive in a secret land made of nothing but candy.
Combining music and song, and a bit of dancing, this new adaptation of the story features themes of fear, courage, compassion and wonder - not to mention the mischievous mice.
It is a welcome return to the Unicorn for Ellen - who was responsible for the theatre's recent modern version of Henry V and The Man with the Disturbingly Smelly Foot - and she says audiences can expect plenty of Christmas magic as they follow Marie's journey.
"It's a beautiful story and I suppose the thing that drew me to Annie's script was that it's about trusting your imagination," she says.
"It's a real tribute to Marie's imagination which takes her to amazing places and is an opportunity for her to see a world around her in bright, beautiful colours and plenty of magic."
Although based on Hoffman's classic tale, the Unicorn's version features a somewhat less privileged family to that which perhaps most people are familiar.
Ellen adds the story is more complex and more in depth but still features all the magical elements to make it come alive.
"We had very solid script from Annie who had a strong sense of what works for young audiences," she says.
"She has drawn out the dynamic of the family Christmas and she has written a beautiful journey for Marie.
"It's got all the elements you would expect with puppets, dancing, though not ballet, singing and some acting," she jokes.
"However, Marie and her family are a very ordinary one. They are poorer than the family in the ballet version and have to deal with more everyday household issues.
"There are some parts of the original story that feel of their time and although we have kept the essence of that, we have worked hard to draw out the contemporary relevance of it."
The show, which has just opened at the Tooley Street theatre features a cast of nine, the majority of whom Ellen says double up on roles.
"It's a massive show partly because there are a lot of characters in it," she laughs. "And in terms of the technical process it's been quite a challenge.
"It's actually a huge production for the Unicorn and has been the biggest show I've done but it's been amazing and so enjoyable - although to be thinking about designing a Christmas show with all the magic and gingerbread in the middle of this summer's heatwave was a bit of an odd thing to do!" she says cheerfully.
Despite this Ellen says she has loved being back at the theatre after her past successes there.
"The priorities of this theatre are so clear - to support children's imaginations - and so it's an inspiring and thrilling place to work," she says.
"Purni Morell [artistic director] has an insightful and skilful way of putting work together and there is always lots going on here that's so interesting.
"It's great to get up in the morning and come to work knowing you are creating something for an age group which is so honest in its reactions.
"And now this show is all coming to life on the stage and we have had some audience reaction it feels great and exciting. It really feels as though Christmas is on its way - it's lovely!

The Nutcracker And The Mouse King is on at the Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street until Sunday, January 4. Tickets cost from £15. Visit www.unicorntheatre.com or call the box office on 020 7645 0560.

PREVIEW Sleeping Beauty, Churchill Theatre, Bromley

HE may be known to millions as killer Rob Donavan in ITV's Coronation Street but Marc Baylis is hoping people won't be booing him when he makes his panto debut this week.
The 37-year-old has left Rob behind and will be taking on the role of the Prince in Bromley's Churchill Theatre's production of Sleeping Beauty which opens on Friday for a five-week run.
And despite the understandable nerves about being a panto first timer he says he's looking forward to the challenge.
"I've done theatre before but this is my first panto and I'm really up for it," he says cheerfully.
"I'm not worried about being booed to begin with - and I'm sure some of the gags will reference the Prince killing someone - but I hope I'll be able to win the audience round so they'll be cheering me on!"
Although he's most well known for his stint on Corrie, Marc has numerous other TV credits including Misfits, Sirens, Law and Order, The Bill, Eastenders, Doctors, My Uncle Silas, Battlefields, and Hollyoaks.
But his background is theatre and he's starred in a variety of productions including Mark Rylance's Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre and The Belle's Stratagem at the Southwark Playhouse.
Indeed it was a trip to the theatre as a child to see a panto that inspired him to become an actor.
"I went to the Birmingham Hippodrome and loved it from the off," he says. "There's so much energy and atmosphere - it was just fabulous and that was it for me.
"It's one of the reasons I became an actor really - and I love it because in every job you can always be someone different.
“I've done a lot of theatre although not for a while as I've been in Corrie so it will be nice to be back on the boards though this will be a whole new challenge," he laughs.
"We've got a great cast and a fantastic script but what I'm most looking forward to is the fact panto is so lighthearted which will be great after what has been a serious storyline in Corrie!
"There are no restrictions or boundaries with panto so it will be pretty awesome.
"It's spontaneous and you never know who's going to play a prank on you - plus you get so much more audience participation which I'm really looking forward to - so bring it on!
He will be joined on stage by a plethora of stars including Forest Hill actress and former Pop Idol finalist Zoe Birkett who stars as Carabosse the Bad Fairy.
The 29-year-old who has made a name for herself in the West End and most recently on Channel 5's Big Brother, says she's looking forward to the show, not least because she can unleash her "darker side".
"I'm a real girly girl and I normally play the princess so to be taking on the role of the wicked queen is going to be a lovely change - though I'm not sure how I'm going to feel about all the booing," she laughs.
"Although I'm a bit nervous, I can't wait and am really excited especially as I get to bring out my darker side.
"My costume is great too - I'll be wafting black feathers all over the place and I'm going to put fairy lights in the dressing room!" she chuckles.
Like Matt, Zoe got the acting bug when she went to see a production of Peter Pan in Newcastle when she was a child.
"Peter Pan was my first panto and got me hooked," she says. "I used to go every year with my dad and loved it. It inspired me to do lots of musical theatre as a kid and that was it.
"Panto is very different to other stage shows though. It brings the whole family together and everyone has a great time.
"It is the whole theatrical nature of it that is so brilliant. You have to take it a bit seriously - although it's not like Shakespeare let's face it - but it's a chance for the cast, crew, musicians and the audience to relax and have some fun.
"It is scripted of course but what I love is the whole audience participation which makes it so enjoyable.
And Zoe promises there will be "tonnes" of fun in this show.
"There are some great songs of course, fab costumes and loads of opportunities for the kids to interact with the characters at all our silly jokes. It's going to be fantastic!"

Sleeping Beauty is on at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, until Sunday, January 4. Tickets from £15 to £26.50. Visit www.atgtickets.com/Bromley or call the box office on 0844 871 7620.  

REVIEW Jack and the Beanstalk, Greenwich Theatre


TEN years ago Andrew Pollard was drafted in to write Greenwich Theatre’s panto. It was a partnership that has grown more successful every year since with the result that the Crooms Hill theatre’s Christmas show is widely and rightly regarded as one of the best in the business.
This year Andrew is back once more and has chosen to revisit Jack And The Beanstalk – a show he wrote for the theatre seven years ago – and, not to beat about the bush, it’s brilliant.
Using a small cast led by Andrew as Dame Trott, puppets, magic, music and song, not to mention bringing a certain giant back to life, he has created one of the funniest shows.
Jack and his mum Dame Trott are on their uppers. The giant and his henchman Nightshade are demanding ever higher taxes which the villagers can no longer afford. It’s up to Fairy Fullobeans, Jack, Jill, Daisy the cow and the magic beans to save the day.
As ever, the attention to detail is spot on. Andrew’s script is pacy and razor sharp with gags galore and the comic timing between the cast is superb – in particular the afternoon tea sequence involving an ever deflating sofa and the broken mirror scene were so brilliantly executed the audience was crying with laughter.
The show is also full of geographical and topical jokes, some gloriously funny and very cleverly reworked songs – Bohemian Rhapsody was genius - spontaneous and hilarious ad libs, and some fantastic costumes – not least for Dame Trott whose Dairy Air and the final creation brought the house down.
The cast was superb particularly Andrew's Dame Trott who was hilarious. Martin Johnston as Mayor Boris is a joy and with a belter of a voice and although Greenwich regular Paul Critoph is starring in the West End, he does make an appearance.
There were also fine performances from the rest of the cast including Melissa Keyes as Fairy Fullobeans, Sophie Ayers as Jill, Alim Jayda as a fabulous Nightshade and Tom Oakley as Jack.
In short Andrew has done it again – it’s a belter from start to finish and will have you laughing all the way through Christmas and into next year.

Jack And The Beanstalk is on at Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill until Sunday, January 11. Tickets cost £27 for adults and £13.50 for children. Visit www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 8858 7755.