Friday, 14 August 2015

The Commitments - how I got to tread the West End boards.....

IF I was to ever draw up a bucket list, performing on the West End stage would be right at the top. It's something I've secretly been secretly wanting to do since I was very young but as I've no particular aptitude for acting it's alluded me.
That was until a few weeks ago when to my surprise an email arrived in my inbox with an "it's too good to be true" request to fulfil this long held dream.
The PR company that looks after the award-winning West End show The Commitments, currently playing to packed houses at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, asked if I would like a walk on part in it.
Thinking it was a wind up I ignored it for a day or so before inevitably curiosity got the better of me and I replied asking for more information.
On further investigation and to my utter astonishment it was no wind up - in fact it was very much for real.
And so, never one to turn down an opportunity of a lifetime on Saturday, August 8 I arrived at the theatre's stage door to meet stage manager Marcus Watson who was to show me the ropes.

For those who've not seen the production or know the story it is based on the 1987 book by Roddy Doyle.
It follows the fortunes of a group of young unemployed but musical unknowns from north Dublin in the 1980s.
They were led by Jimmy Rabbitte who helps friends Derek Scully and "Outspan" Foster create a band who will be the saviours of soul music.
Through an advert in the local rag Jimmy recruits a motley crew of singers and musicians to form the band which he names The Commitments.
But just as they are beginning to gel and get established with a series of gigs and a possible record deal it all starts to go wrong.
Sparks fly, and fights ensue when lead singer Deco announces he's applying for Eurovision - without the band - the ageing trumpet player, Joey "The Lips" Fagan is seen kissing Commitmentette, Imelda and sax player Dean starts flirting with jazz.

The show itself is an absolute belter - performed with gusto, passion and a serious energy by the 27 strong hugely talented cast of actor musicians, most of whom hail from the Emerald Isle, and are supported by the 30-strong backstage crew.
The music is as impressive and as glorious as you would expect it to be with all the old classics such as Mustang Sally, I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Try A Little Tenderness.
So you won't be surprised to learn that there was more than a little trepidation on my part about what was to follow.

Given my previous "acting" experience was limited to playing Mr Bumble in a school production of Oliver Twist when I was about nine and a truly forgettable performance as Gwendoline Fairfax in The Importance Of Being Ernest at university I was hoping that my appearance would not require any acting ability - or more importantly that they'd regret their invitation!
Fortunately for me - and the audience - Marcus explained that all I had to do was to follow one of the ensemble characters on to the stage in the given scene, sit by the bar, chat to the bar manager, drink a pint of fake Guinness, watch the guys play darts and then leave at the end of the scene.
What could be easier than that?

First things first though, I had to get acquainted with the stage.
Marcus took me onto it through the wings and showed me where I would come on, where I would leave at the end of the scene and what I'd be doing.
The stage itself is small because the theatre is tall and narrow. As a result there isn't much room at the back or sides of the stage for the sets. It's down to the talented crew to negotiate their way around the actors as they change the sets at the end of each scene.
It's all very compact but looking out to an empty auditorium with its hundreds of seats on four levels, with all the stage lights on was both surreal and exciting.
But there was no time to admire the view, or get stage fright because I was needed in wardrobe.
There I met Wendy Phillips who dresses the cast. She has been working in costume departments in various London theatres for more than a decade so knows her stuff.
She soon found me a very 80s brown patterned dress, a pair of rather orange tights and a pair of brown shoes to wear.

A quick visit to wigs and I was done. It was there I met John McLarnon who plays guitarist Outspan who was having his hair done.
"You will be amazing," he smiled reassuringly. "We really love having people on - we've had other journalists and also competition winners. It's really fun for them and for us.
"It’s such a fantastic show that you can't help but have a good time doing it and you get a real buzz. You'll love it - so don't be nervous!"
Words of encouragement too came from Padraig Dooney who plays Sap, and who I was to follow onto the stage, as well as Daniel Lloyd who I was to follow off.
As I waited in the wings to go on I met Brian Gilligan who plays the quick tempered but vocally gifted Deco, the star of the show.
"Enjoy it," he said. "You will love it - good luck!"

And then I was on. Marcus led me under the stage and to the wings before I stepped out onto the stage.
It was all a bit of a dream and a blur but I had a chat with the bar manager, played by Christopher Fry and pretended to get enthused by the game of darts being played by Daniel while the main action was taking place in the centre of the stage.
I tried to take a peak of the audience but the lights were too dazzling to see properly.
All too soon though it was time to come off stage, get out of my costume and take my seat in the auditorium to watch the rest of the show - which is toe-tappingly terrific and well worth seeing.
As well as the excitement and utter thrill of being on stage it was fascinating to see at first hand how the show is put together backstage and the work that goes into getting ready.
Sadly I don't think there were any casting agents, directors or talent scouts in the audience that night to capture my brief appearance but it was the most unforgettable and brilliant experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The Commitments is on at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until Sunday November 1. Visit for full listings.

INTERVIEW - Tommy Steele

IT’S been 70 years since Glenn Miller vanished over the English Channel as he flew to Paris to entertain the troops during the Second World War.
No one knows what happened to the man whose music defined an era but his disappearance stunned the world.
Now the story of one of the most iconic musical figures of the 20th century will be brought to life in a brand new theatre production, led by one of South London’s favourite sons – Tommy Steele.
And according to the 78-year-old Bermondsey-born entertainer, the Glenn Miller Story promises to have audience on their feet jiving, be-bopping, swinging and jitterbugging while taking them back to the big band days of the 1940s.
“The story is solid gold,” he tells me. “It’s such a great story – a real adventure in music that will get your toes tapping away – and it was that that made me want to do it.
“It’s got great music of course and singing, dancing and with a full and spectacular 16-piece orchestra, it will really wow audiences.
“It’s got the heritage of the story and the sound. People will come and enjoy the music, the dancing and the splendour of it all.
“Glenn Miller died right at the top of his profession and it was only after his death that he became such a hit. It’s very sad.”
It was while Tommy was talking to friend and producer Bill Kenwright that the idea for this production came about.
Bill discovered that his love of Elvis Presley was equal only to Tommy’s adoration of Glenn Miller and his orchestra and thus the seed for a musical collaboration were sown.
“Glenn Miller was the most famous big band leader and I’ve always loved his music – I’m a huge fan,” says Tommy.
“He changed the face of popular music from 1939 to 1943 and he was the most popular recording artist in the world.
“Bill and I were talking about the James Stewart film The Glenn Miller Story and he got really excited about the possibility of telling the story as a musical.
“But there was an obvious problem – although I am fit and healthy and an ‘eight shows a week’ song and dance man, I’m a pensioner from Bermondsey – I’m too old!
“However with a bit of theatre magic we’ve made it work and I’m delighted. It's full of drama, so an actor's dream and it’s going to be wonderful to sing all those amazing songs. And we’ve got some fabulous dancers – the choreography is stunning and it will take everyone back to the big band days of the 1940s.
“It will be wonderful and I can’t wait.”
The show is about to start a 12-week UK tour and will come to the New Wimbledon Theatre next week. It is a theatre Tommy knows well and he tells me it was where he performed Half A Sixpence many years ago.
“It was the first theatre I performed in,” he says. “I remember it was Half A Sixpence and the producer said we didn’t have a good enough number for the second act. So we all got together with the composer who said he’d written this song, Flash Bang Wallop. It ended up being one of the biggest songs of the year!”
So how will he cope with the rigours of the 12-week tour I ask.
“I work out five days a week and have done all my life,” he chuckles. “I’ve always tried to look after myself and I run a lot. I go to bed at 1am because usually I’m doing a show – if I'm not doing a show then I get really fidgety!
"But I love every second of it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
It wasn’t always like this though. In fact Tommy had no real ambitions towards stardom when he was growing up.
He had a number of odd jobs before enlisting with the Royal Navy at 15 but it was whilst in America that he heard the sound of Buddy Holly and a spark was ignited.
When he got back to the UK he began singing and playing his guitar in Soho coffee shops while on leave, was discovered, and shortly afterwards he had made his first record.
His subsequent career in entertainment is legendary – singer, songwriter, actor on both stage and screen, author and even sculptor, he is regarded as one of this country’s best-loved all round entertainers.
Indeed his CV includes more than 20 hit singles, 12 hit films and numerous award winning stage musicals.
“I like showing off,” he laughs. “That’s what it was all about really. I had no idea I was going to go into showbiz. I took up playing guitar and went on the stage. Someone asked me to do panto and I thought it would be a bit of fun and it was – I realised I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
“I’ve worked hard but had a ball along the way and I would love this to last forever.”
And when he wants to relax a bit he says he writes, paints or does his sculpting.
“All that is done over a period of time but it’s a way of relaxing,” he says. “I like to be busy – it’s what drives me and keeps me young.”
He also likes his pie and mash and makes a weekly trip to Manze’s Pie and Mash shop in Tower Bridge Road when he’s in London.
“I live in Lambeth so it’s very quick to get there,” he says. “It’s a great place and has been there since my dad was a little boy. I love it.
“My wife and I used to live in Richmond but when our daughter moved out we were just rattling around and I decided and I wanted to come back here.
“It’s got everything you need – great theatres, the Thames and wonderful buildings. If it was good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for me!”

The Glenn Miller Story is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre between Saturday August 28 and Saturday, September 5. Tickets from £21.40. Visit or call the box office on 0844 871 7646.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

INTERVIEW - Young Jean Lee, appearing at the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre

MONDAY sees the start of this year's Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre.
It is being curated by pop music legend and Talking Heads frontman, the multi award-winning David Byrne. He follows in the hallowed footsteps of the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Yoko Ono, Ray Davies and James Lavelle who have all directed the annual festival in the past.
Over the years Meltdown has given these guest curators the chance to pick their favourite artists to play or exhibit their work at Southbank Centre resulting in a varied and vibrant programme of events. This year is no exception.
For the 22nd Meltdown, David has chosen an eclectic line up of artists that span a wide range of musical genres as well as stretching beyond the musical realm into dance, theatre and film.
Among those taking part are musicians Bianca Casady and Anna Clavi, Spanish flamenco star, Estrella Morente, singer Petra Haden and post punk band, Young Marble Giants.
It also features Brooklyn-based playwright Young Jean Lee who will take to the stage with her band Future Wife to do her OBIE award-winning show, We're Gonna Die.
It is a performance made up of songs and monologues inspired by the death of her beloved father and was first performed four years ago in New York.
"I was consumed with grief after my father died and ended up writing this show," the 41-year-old tells me.
"I wanted to write something that would comfort people who were grieving, myself included - not just those who had lost someone but about any awful things in life - whether it be ageing, sickness, love or loss.
"All the stories I tell in the show are true but not all of them happened to me - some did but there are others that happened to my close friends which I incorporated into it.
“It's all very personal though and was really hard to write especially as I tell the story about how my father died. It was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me and it was tough to get through.
"Writing about it was definitely a cathartic experience and has helped me with my own grief.”
Despite the sadness and the pain, Young Jean Lee insists that the piece is full of humour and fun.
“It sounds like it could be a depressing show but it’s definitely not,” she says warmly. “The way I tell the stories is in a lighthearted way.
“I wanted humour in the show, that was very important and so it ended up being quite comic. It’s the same with the songs and although there is a real mix, most of them are quite poppy and upbeat.
"However, it was even harder to perform than it was to write especially singing the songs because I'm not a performer normally and it’s not natural for me – in fact it was almost torture!
“But every time I've done the show, and had an audience there, it's always incredibly cathartic and is a bit of a healing experience. It’s got a bit easier to do, though it’s still very emotional.
“People come up to me afterwards, share their experiences and say how it’s helped them which is really good."
For Meltdown though she won’t be singing the songs – that will be down to her special guest, David Byrne.
“In the original show I sang the songs and did the monologues so that it was part of a continuous story,” she says. “In this version I tell the stories and David sings the songs.
“He came to see the original production in New York and really liked it. He invited me to do the show in its original form for Meltdown but as I hadn’t done it for a while I wasn’t sure.
"The most stressful part is the singing and as I was reluctant to do it again I said I’d find a singer but he offered to do it instead.
"It is a very surreal experience to see and hear David Byrne singing your songs – there is nothing like it!
“When we did rehearsals it was a very weird experience because I got way more emotional than I would normally. He really infuses so much energy and emotion into the music so it was hard to keep my emotions in check.”
That it was difficult to both write and perform should not be a surprise to those who know Young Jean Lee’s work.
She says she does things “that would be my worst nightmare” because they will take her out of her comfort zone.
Her work is unashamedly unorthodox and previous pieces include Untitled Feminist Show in which the cast perform nude, an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear and identity plays such as Straight White Men.
“When I start a play, I ask myself, ‘what is the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’ and then I force myself to do it,” she says.
"For me it's all about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure, incompetence and not-knowing.
"That’s my inspiration really. It’s so uncomfortable, there is nothing easy about the process and it’s always a nightmare but it gives my work an energy, I learn new skills and I always get a real buzz doing it.
"Since I've been writing I've found the only way to make theatre that gets the audience thinking is when I feel uncomfortable creating it. So my work is uncomfortable and hard for me to write but it takes me out of my comfort zone, is always a challenge and makes me stronger.
"There is a level of terror that never goes away though,” she adds. “Each show I do the stakes get higher.
“We're Gonna Die was definitely the worst to do because I perform in it. Nothing can top that terror! It was and is the most terrifying experience and I used to shake throughout the entire show.”
Despite the terror, she says she’s looking forward to coming back to London, a place she’s performed at before and to be part of the festival.
“I’m so excited,” she enthuses. “To perform on stage with David is definitely going to be a career highlight – I can’t even process it!
“It doesn’t seem real especially as I’ve never performed to that amount of people before. I’m very nervous about being on stage with such a superstar and as part of such an important festival but I’m really excited to be in London and hanging out here.
"It’s going to be very special.”

Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die is on at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre as part of Meltdown Festival on between Thursday August 27 and Sunday August 30. Tickets from £20. Visit or call the box office on 020 7960 4200 for full Meltdown Festival listings.

Go Ape review

ANYONE with young kids will know how much energy they have – they are like dogs, they need to run and bound about. They are also for the most part pretty fearless.
So, what to do when you’ve exhausted all the parks, adventure playgrounds and soft play areas?
Well, help is at hand in the form of Go Ape. For those not familiar, Go Ape is one of the country’s leading forest adventure companies where days out are about having fun and living life at full throttle with family and friends.
There are 28 Go Ape adventures dotted around the country all set in one of Britain’s many and spectacular forests.
They consist of assault courses complete with zip wires, rope ladders, wobbly crossings, bridges, tunnels and swings and all about 10m off the ground.
No two courses are the same, they can vary between an hour and three hours long and all have height and age restrictions. What they all promise though is the wow factor and an adrenaline rush unlike anything else.
The Go Ape adventure began in 2001 when founders Tris and Becs Mayhew were on holiday in France with their six-month old baby. They came across a French family swinging through the trees and from the looks on their faces, it was clear all of them were having the time of their lives.
It inspired Tris and Becs enough to quit the London rat race and Go Ape was born. Now, 28 locations later they are still adding adventures including Forest Segway Experience safaris, Zip Trekking Adventure and Tree Top Junior courses for kids.
It was this last activity that I thought might be good to try out and so last weekend husband Martin and I took our two kids, Lucy aged 10 and Tom aged six to Bedgebury Forest near Tunbridge Wells to see if we could entice them up into the trees for an hour.
The Tree Top Junior course takes kids on the same kind of adventure as the adult version but specially tailored to their abilities.
First up we had to read the safety instructions very carefully – we were tested by one of the instructors before we were allowed up the steps – and then we were given harnesses. Onto this was fastened a wire with a metal trolley which ran along the zip wire - that was our safety net.
Then, when we were ready to be let loose, we were allowed up the steps and into the trees to begin our adventure.
There were two routes to go round - the first was designed to be short enough to ease us in and get us used to it, the second a bit longer and slightly more challenging.
Looking from the ground up it didn’t seem too bad – indeed it looked like a piece of cake. What could be difficult about stepping off the small circular platform that surrounded the tree and onto a series of planks that seemed an alarming distance apart from one another before reaching the next tree and its circular platform?
As it happens, in my case, quite a bit. I made the fatal mistake of looking down and had a really bad case of vertigo.
Knees quaking, hands sweating and practically frozen to the spot, I ended up retracing my steps and spending most of the rest of the hour on terra firma - much to my embarrassment and annoyance.
Lucy was also very nervous at first and almost followed me down the steps. However, to her credit, she was coaxed round the course after a pep talk by Tess, one of the brilliant instructors. Before long she was up and around both the routes like a pro.
Despite Tess’s valiant efforts, she couldn’t persuade me to take my foot off the platform and although I did try again, it just wasn’t to be.
Tom however had no such problems. He may be small but he was very agile, like a young gazelle, nimbly negotiating his way round both routes. The first was a short route to get to grips with the wobbly nature of the crossings. Most consisted of planks of wood attached to wires although one was made up of just a net – had that been the first one I’d come across I might just have had more confidence to give it a go. The final leap into the unknown was the zip wire which looked a lot of fun and the kids gave it a great big thumbs up.
The second route was a bit more challenging and included a single wire much like a tightrope between the trees which you had to walk across. To help you do that, grab ropes were suspended from another wire at regular intervals - it was by far the most tricky to negotiate and wasn't for the faint hearted!
This route was about double the length of the first and also finished with the zip wire.
Tom was a natural and he raced through in no time at all. Indeed I lost count of the amount of times he went round both routes.
Martin was initially a bit unsure and nervous but he too got round both routes although he admitted the tightrope wa a bit hairy.
Most of the kids there were having a great time – and the amount of laughter and squealing with delight, particularly when they’d got round was great to hear.
One mum told me that she comes fairly regularly because she wanted to get over her own fear of heights and not pass it on to her children.
And although I was not brave enough to do it - for which I'm somewhat embarrassed about - it was a great day out nonetheless and I would heartily recommend it. The hour zipped by all too quickly but there was no reason to rush off because Bedgebury Forest offers so much else to do so you can make a whole day of it.
There are plenty of walks for various abilities, bikes can be hired to ride on specific routes and there are two adventure playground areas as well as a lovely cafe.
As for the Go Ape challenge, I am determined to conquer the fear and one day hope to do the adult course which is also at Bedgebury and which appeared to have plenty of happy customers.
And as for the kids, at the end of the hour both Lucy and Tom got a certificate to show they’d conquered the course, and both immediately said they wanted to do it again. Praise indeed.

Go Ape has adventures all over the country. Visit for full listings and prices.

REVIEW Heresy of Love, Globe theatre


ON the face of it a play about a 17th century Mexican nun who wrote plays and was persecuted for it doesn't sound like desperately exciting. However, I urge you to give Heresy Of Love at the Globe a chance.
Written by Helen Edmundson it is set in a convent in Mexico in the late 1600s. There a gifted, intelligent and progressive writer, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, pens her poems and plays.
She is celebrated by the Court, her fellow nuns and also the Bishop Santa Cruz who are all beguiled by her wit, wisdom and intelligent argument.
However when Archbishop Aguiar y Sejas takes control of the church he demands she stop writing fearing that she is a danger to society.
At first the other nuns and bishops try to persuade him to be more lenient but he has an iron will and is good at blackmail and in the end she is forced to stop. Her downfall is hastened thanks to a jealous fellow nun and her erstwhile friend Bishop Santa Cruz.
It is a fascinating commentary on the society at the time - how women were perceived both in and out of the church - and how women are still fighting for equality in all aspects of their lives.
The acting is first rate with a very powerful performance from Naomi Frederick as Juana. She is more than ably supported by Anthony Howell as Bishop Santa Cruz and Ellie Piercy as the Vicereine, with whom Juana has a close friendship.
But perhaps the star of the show was really Sophia Nomvete as the nun’s maid Juanita. Her witty repostes and saucy asides had the audience in stitches.
Brilliantly and beautifully written by Edmundson, it is a wonderful play – thought provoking, intelligent, passionate and moving and in its own way really quite gripping. It is also funny and tragic and the ending is full of sadness but also of hope.
You can’t really ask for more.

The Heresy Of Love is on at Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside until September 5. Tickets cost from £5. Visit or call the box office on 020 7401 9919.

INTERVIEW Maureen Nolan

BY her own admission Maureen Nolan is the official stalker of the musical Blood Brothers. It’s her “favourite show”, she’s seen it 18 times and she says the story is “amazing and beautiful”.
So it’s fitting then that given her obvious enthusiasm for the show - which is utterly infectious - not to mention her musical and showbiz pedigree, she has realised her ambition to be in it.
The 61-year-old, who found worldwide fame with her sisters in the 1970s as The Nolans, plays Mrs Johnstone a mother of seven living on a council estate in Liverpool. Times are heard, her husband has left her in the lurch and she takes a job as a cleaner to a wealthy local couple to make ends meet.
When she finds out that she is expecting twins she decides, in a moment of desperation, to give one of them up for adoption to her boss’s wife.
The story tells their contrasting, captivating and moving stories from being separated at birth to their reunion by a twist of fate years later.
"It’s a truly amazing part and a fantastic show,” says Maureen as we chat shortly before the start of the tour which takes in the New Wimbledon Theatre between September 8 and 12.
“At its heart is a great story that anyone can relate to and within that there is comedy and drama, fabulous music and I get to sing great songs - what’s not to like!”
The show, written by award-winning playwright Willy Russell, has been running on and off for more than 25 years.
Featuring a memorable score with songs including A Bright New Day, Marilyn Monroe and Tell Me It’s Not True, the show has won four awards for best musical in London, and seven Tony award nominations on Broadway.
This year is the 10th year Maureen has been part of it and she says she still loves it just as much as she did when she first played the role a decade ago.
“I did two years in the West End before we went on the tour and I’ve been doing it ever since,” she laughs.
"I'm still mad about it. It’s absolutely my favourite show and I love every second of it. It’s such a great story that really grabs you. That’s the secret of its success.
“It’s all about nature and nurture and how the boys grow up in different societies and different classes. They meet up when they are seven and become good friends. Eddie, my posh son leads a charmed life though he is lonely and envies his brother Mickey as he has lots of friends. However Mickey loses his job and his life goes downhill so it’s quite sad.
“It really tugs at your heart strings and I cry every night, but it’s also laugh out loud funny and magical - there's so much to it.
“I’ve done other shows like Footloose which was fun, and panto of course but nothing really compares to this part. It's my dream role.
“It keeps me coming back and we have such amazing audiences who have different reactions each time that it is such a joy to be part of.”
Maureen is also perhaps the perfect choice to play the mother of such a large family having come from one herself.
“I really relate to Mrs Johnstone,” she says. “I was born and grew up in a big family in a council estate in Dublin.
“I was one of seven children and money was tight so a similar situation to Mrs Johnstone. In fact I base my portrayal of her on my own mum who was feisty, funny and strong, and for whom life was all about her kids. Mrs Johnstone is the same.”
And it’s also a bit of a family affair in that Maureen is the fourth Nolan sister to get to play the part of Mrs Johnstone.
“I saw it 18 times and was obsessed by it but never had any idea I’d ever be in it,” she says.
“So it was a dream when I got the call to go in and audition.
“However I knew that I couldn’t be the only sister who didn’t get the part – that would have been a bit humiliating!”
Fortunately she did get it and has not looked back and says after a summer-long break she’s itching to get back onto the stage and on the road.
And she’s looking forward to coming to Wimbledon, a theatre she’s performed in before.
“Wimbledon is such a lovely theatre that I’m sure we will have fun there," she says.
"What’s great is that there is always someone in the audience who’s never been to the theatre before and so there is a responsibility to make sure they have a good time and love it enough to come back."
“I love the area,” she adds warmly. “It’s really close to my family so I’ll be spending time with them, particularly my neice, when I’m not on stage.
And despite the fact she has spent much of her life in showbiz, touring the globe and performing to huge crowds, Maureen says being away from family is still tough.
“It’s hard being on tour and I do miss my family,” she says. “My son is 26 and I’m about to get a third grandchild any day now so it’s tough but you get used to it. My husband is a tour manager so away a lot but we make it work.
“I’ve done it most of my life so it feels natural though if someone told me that I would be opening in the West End at 50 I would have laughed at them. It’s amazing when I look back and see how life has panned out.”
So what would Maureen have done had she not put entire generations "in the mood for dancing" by going into the family business?
“I wanted to be a PE teacher or a journalist,” she admits. “However my parents were in showbusiness and I was singing from the age of nine so I think we were destined to be part of it.”
And she shows no sign of wanting to retire or take it easy as after this leg of the tour finishes in November she’s straight over to Rotherham to do panto.
“I’m playing the fairy godmother so it’s a bit like chalk and cheese,” she laughs. “There will be no rest til May. But I love it.”

Blood Brothers is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre between Tuesday, September 8 and Saturday, September 12. Tickets from £10.25. Visit or call the box office on 0844 871 7646.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

INTERVIEW - Clare Donoghue, author of No Place To Die

After 10 years of living and working South London, author Clare Donoghue decided to escape the rat race and move back to her home town in Somerset to do an MA in creative writing.
It proved to be a good move because her first novel, The Watcher, was long listed for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger award for unpublished authors.
Although it remains unpublished it inspired Clare to carry on writing and in 2013 she published her murder mystery thriller Never Look Back.
Set in Lewisham it featured the borough’s murder squad headed up by DI Mike Lockyear who investigate a serial killer responsible for the deaths of three women.
Things are complicated further when another woman, who fits the profile of the other murdered women, fears she is being stalked by someone unknown.
Creepy, dramatic and with a gripping plot, it received critical acclaim from readers and critics alike.
Fans of the book will now be delighted to learn that Clare has picked up her pen again to write a sequel, No Place To Die, which once more follows the exploits of DI Lockyear and his team as they patrol the streets of Lewisham, Southwark and Greenwich fighting crime.
The plot is somewhat darker and whereas in Never Look Back, the victim was the main character, this time it’s DS Jane Bennett who is centre stage. She takes charge following her boss Mike’s suspension at the end of the previous book for becoming involved with a female witness who was then murdered.
No Place To Die starts with the team making a grim discovery of a man made tomb and in it the body of a missing university student under Elmstead Woods.
It leads them on a winding case through psychologists and dodgy academic practises in and around South East London.
And with Jane often feeling as though she is floundering while her boss fights his own demons, she eventually finds herself in danger.
“It’s very dark,” admits Clare when I chat to her about the book. “When I signed the deal it was for two books so I’d already created the synopsis for the second by the time I had finished the first.
“My inspiration for No Place To Die was a nightmare I’d had as a child. When I was quite young I had a recurring dream of being buried alive and not being able to breathe. It was very scary and I would imagine for many people, it’s their worst nightmare.
“I realised it could work as a premise for a story and so I did some research about it which was fascinating and freaked me out a bit – and still does – but it has cured me of the nightmare!”
The story is both gripping and frightening especially the descriptions of the student whose life gradually ebbs away as she lies alone in the underground tomb.
It is extremely chilling and there are lots of twists and turns along the way making it a real page turner.
One of the best bits about it is that it’s so descriptive. Indeed the attention to geographical detail is spot on – and for anyone who lives in South East London all the locations within the book are instantly recognisable.
Reading it I felt as though I was right there with the characters, so realistic were the references.
“I lived in Nunhead for about 10 years when I was working in London so I know the area well,” says Clare.
“Lewisham has a big murder squad and it’s home to the biggest police station in Europe and it always gave me a massive amount of inspiration so it made sense to base it there.
“I don’t live there anymore but I do love coming up to South London on my research trips and pounding the patch. Lewisham has and is changing massively even in the few years since I’ve been way.”
But why leave in the first place I ask.
“I was working as a deputy credit manager in a law firm but had always wanted to write,” she says.
“My writing at school was dreadful, I don’t think I had any aptitude, my spelling was bad and grammar was over my head. I wrote lots of stories but realised I had no idea what I was doing. There was no proper structure, I only had short scenes and I didn’t know how to make the bits in between interesting.
“I’d always loved puzzles and reading crime fiction and had writers I admired such as Stephen King, David Hewson, Tess Gerrittsen and Sharon Bolton and I couldn’t wait for their books to come out.
“After a while I realised that I actually really wanted to give writing a serious go and if I didn’t do it soon I’d never do it.
“But to do it I needed to do a writing course.”
So she quit her job, upped sticks and moved back to Taunton and wrote her first book whilst doing her MA.
By the end of the course she had The Watcher under her belt and had “totally got the writing bug”.
“It was a big risk but it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she laughs. “I was a complete dunce on the course but absorbed everything they threw at me. Even just mastering the basic writing helped and gave me confidence and I realised I could do it.”
“Eventually I was writing characters and situations I was comfortable with and by the end of the course I had written The Watcher.
“No Place To Die was done in about six months which was very quick but I was on a bit of a roll and I found it easier to do than Never Look Back!
“I’d never go back to my old life,” she adds warmly. “This suits my personality, I love the space I have here to write and although it’s tough, I want to keep going.”
So are there plans for a follow up to No Place To Die?
“Oh yes definitely,” she says enthusiastically. “I’ve just about written the third which will be published hopefully next March and I’ve got ideas for future books.
“I’d love to write a series of stories featuring Mike and Jane and their team – I’ve certainly got lots of ideas for plots and characters that pop into my head all the time.
“They are definitely fictional characters, though Jane is most similar to me and a bit of a goodie two shoes.
“I wanted to give her more prominence in the second story but in the third we see them run together on the case and we get to see more of the team they work with.
“What I want is to make my books enjoyable, easy reads, something that someone can get stuck into and that will make them miss their stop or read one more chapter before they go to sleep – that’s what I’m aiming for!”

No Place To Die, by Clare Donoghue is published by Pan Macmillan. RRP £7.99.

REVIEW: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse


AN aging prima ballerina who wants to retire, a Baron who is both bankrupt and a thief, a terminally ill young Jewish man, a hotel manager who wants to be by his wife's side as she goes into labour, a drug addict doctor and a typist longing to hit the big time in the movies.
These are just a few of the characters in Grand Hotel, a musical now on at the Southwark Playhouse.
It is being staged by the theatre’s dream team of producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland and it is a rousing and exhilarating production from the off.
The audience sits either side of a slim traverse stage with a glorious chandelier up above it.
It is along this stage, like a corridor in the hotel, that the 17-strong cast twirl, dance, stomp and parade up and down while giving the audience a snapshot of their lives.
Set in Berlin in about 1928 it tells the stories of those who stay and work in the hotel and how their lives intermingle over the course of one weekend.
Throughout the show, it's clear the Grand Hotel is a fine place to be. It’s a place where young and old, rich and poor converge, attracted by its opulence and possibilities and every one of those who pace its corridors has a story to tell.
Among the most poignant of those we hear about are Flaemmchen, the typist who dreams of Hollywood stardom, beautifully portrayed by Victoria Serra, Jewish book keeper Otto Kringelein (George Rae) and Madame Grushinskaya played with more than a touch of Greta Garbo by Christine Grimandi who wants to quit performing to empty houses.
It is a really fascinating production, well staged and with a stunning cast that left me wanting to know how life panned out for those who stayed and worked there after that fateful weekend.
And although the score isn't full of recognisable tunes, the music is dramatic and full of passion and energy, much like the show itself.
A word to the wise therefore, book yourself into the Grand Hotel - it's a gem.

The Grand Hotel is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until Saturday, September 5. Tickets cost £22. Visit or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Review - Three Days In The Country, National Theatre


WATCHING Patrick Marber's adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's play A Month In The Country it's hard to believe the original is more than four hours long.
Three Days In The Country, now on at the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage, is a little over half that at a mere two hours.
And a thoroughly enjoyable and funny piece it is too despite the fact nothing much really happens.
Set in Russia during one summer in the mid 19th century we see a family in some emotional turmoil as a new tutor arrives at the house of rich Russian landowner Arkady and his wife Natalya.
His arrival certainly shakes things up a bit as over the ensuing three days, the people who live, work and visit the house learn lessons in love of all kinds - whether it be forbidden love, the giddy feelings of first love, the pain of unrequited love, platonic love or any of the other kinds of love in between.
Natalya, the wife of rich Russian landowner Arkady, and with whom she has a loveless marriage, has brought in the new tutor, Belyaev, for her son and she has found herself falling in love with him.
This has a massive ripple effect for practically everyone else in the house, from her 17-year-old ward Vera, who also falls for Belyaev, to Rakitin, a frequent visitor to the house and who has spent a lifetime in love with Natalya - despite the fact it was his best friend Arkady who won her heart.
Elsewhere the doctor Shpigeksky who proudly says he is "a maestro of misdiagnosis" attempts to propose to one of the more senior ladies of the house, Lizavetta. This hilarious scene, in which he is suddenly crippled with a bad back, is worth the ticket price alone.
It is a stunning production with a fantastic but simple set in which the actors sit on chairs placed around the outside of the minimalist stage looking in on the action.
The cast too are top notch with Amanda Drew as Natalya tortured by a lust and love that consumes her totally and John Simm as Rakitin who, having been equally tortured by his feelings for her, finally accepts Natalya will never love him.
But the stand out moments are those in which the doctor is in. Played by Mark Gatiss who shows his brilliance as a comic actor, they are a joy to watch.

Three Days In The Country is on at the National Theatre until October 21. Tickets from £15. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000  

Monday, 3 August 2015

Motherf**er with the Hat, National Theatre


IT might have a sweary title and there are plenty of expletives in the play but don’t let that put you off The Motherf**ker With The Hat.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s viscously dark and hilarious comedy, now given an in-your-face airing at the National Theatre is fabulous.
Set in New York, it contains five flawed characters, all of whom are recovering from something, whether it be sex, drink or drugs or a combination thereof.
The story is essentially what happens when their lives intermingle.
Jackie is fresh out of jail, determined to kick the drink and the drug dealing for good and make a fresh start with girlfriend, cocaine addict Veronica.
Unfortunately when he finds a hat in her apartment he fears she has been sharing her bed with someone else while he’s been banged up. And it’s soon clear that anger management issues are another aspect of Jackie’s personality that he struggles with.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Big Apple, Jackie’s AA sponsor and counsellor Ralph is having problems of his own - not least with his live in girlfriend Victoria.
And as the play moves on it becomes clear why – he’s a bit of a weasel. In fact he treats sleeping with other women as a perk of the job - something that Victoria understandably doesn't take too kindly to.
The only vaguely nice one in the group is Jackie’s cousin Julio who, whilst recovering from his own demons, imparts wisdom and home truths in a camp but calm and deadpan manner.
It is all highly entertaining with plenty of twists and turns throughout the story to keep the audience guessing as to not only what will happen in the end but who is really betraying who and will they be able to stay clean.
The five actors are superb – Flor De Liz Perez is a real firecracker as Veronica, kicking ass when Jackie accuses her of infidelity. Ricardo Chavira as Jackie turns swearing into an art form as he rages like a bull at times – you can almost see the smoke billowing from his nostrils as he stamps his feet.
Yul Vazquez is brilliant as Julio, Alec Newman is perfectly slimey as the creepy Ralph and Nathalie Armin as Victoria cannot disguise her contempt for Ralph and cuts him dead with her glorious put downs.
The set is a triumph and the whole thing romps along with such speed and ferocity that it’s like being inside a hurricane but one that had my ribs aching at the end from laughing so much.

The Motherf**er With The Hat is on at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, until August 20. Tickets from £15. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

The Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse

A FADING prima ballerina who is being forced to dance again, a fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper who wants to spend his final days living in luxury, a young, handsome, but destitute Baron, a cynical doctor suffering from First World War wounds, an honest businessman going bad as he faces financial ruin and a typist dreaming of Hollywood stardom.
These are just some of the eccentric and sometimes dubious guests to be found at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.
Over the course of a weekend in 1928, their extraordinary lives interweave with each other and the hotel’s hard-working staff.
This glorious tale is being brought to life at the Southwark Playhouse by producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland for a six-week run from today.
Written by Luther Davis and with music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright, Grand Hotel premiered on Broadway in 1989 and won five of its 12 Tony Award nominations.
This new London production of the show features a 17-strong international cast amongst which is Italian actress and singer Christine Grimandi who makes her eagerly awaited UK stage debut as fading prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya.
It is a role she's looking forward to playing not least because she knows a bit about what it's like to be a dancer.
"I started as a ballerina when I was a child," she says in her faultless English. "I started when I was about five years old and by the time I was nine I was on tour meeting people like Pavarotti.
"However over the years I realised that although I loved ballet it wasn't what I wanted as a career. I loved singing, dancing and acting and so I decided to focus on musical theatre."
The move proved to be a positive one as her career has blossomed and she has performed all over the world with roles in musicals such as Cats, West Side Story and The Sound Of Music to name but three.
However a chance to take to the London stage has eluded her - until now.
"I'm really excited about being in London," she says. "It's great to be here and I like South London very much.
"I have brought my daughter who is 11 years old and who has never been to London before.
"In between rehearsals we've done a lot of exploring - mostly walking through the city which has been fantastic. It's a very nice place to walk around and we've seen all the bridges, the London Eye and along the South Bank.
"I live near Wimbledon so we've done all the parks there too. It's lovely."
But it wasn't just London that was the draw. The "fantastic characters and beautiful music" within the show also provided a pull for Christine.
"The Grand Hotel is a rather special place where people come in and spend their money and time," she says.
"It's a bit of a bubble really with the really rich rubbing shoulders with the hotel workers who are anything but.
"My role is that of ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya. She is at the end of her career but is being pushed to get back on stage and do one more performance, something that she's not happy about.
"We see her as she comes to Berlin from a very bad night in Amsterdam. She's mad as it was a disaster and she doesn't want to go on stage anymore but her agents want her to as they want more money.
"She's falling apart and is almost broken, not least because she's fallen in love with a young man. We see what happens to her over the weekend - her hopes and dreams.
"It's very sad really but she always keeps an open mind because you never know what might happen in life."
It's a philosophy Christine adopts in her own life and says it has served her well.
"Life is for living," she says firmly. "I am very open minded and try and make the most of situations that present themselves.
"I have performed all over the world and go where the work takes me but you always get something special from every single country.
"It's the first time I've performed on the London stage and so I'm excited and thrilled but a bit scared at the same time. It's quite challenging and I feel like a little mouse in a trap thinking about it but it's such a rich and fabulous show to be in."
And while it may be set in 1928 Christine says it's a very contemporary story.
"It is set in a very specific moment between the two world wars but it could have been set in the present," she says.
"In that time there was a lot of change and uncertainty in countries across Europe - much as there is today - people are wondering what is going to happen but they still have lives to lead.
"But actually it's not really that it's set in 1928 that is important, but that the emotions and situations that happen in the story are ones that everyone and anyone can relate to.
"It's full of emotion and every single character has something special and something to tell the audience.
"I really believe everyone who comes to see the show will be able to find a relationship or connection with one or maybe two of the characters - whether it be sickness, money worries, having children or being at the end of a career.
"People can relate to this as they are real life situations, feelings and emotions so there is plenty of humour and sadness and I'm sure audiences are going to love it."

The Grand Hotel is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway from tonight until Saturday, September 5. Tickets cost £22. Visit or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

The Scoop - Captain Show Off! and Women Of Troy

FOR the past 12 summers the ampitheatre outside City Hall has been home to an open-air classical theatre season where people can come and see a play for free.
This year, theatre company Gods And Monsters is presenting two shows at The Scoop - Captain Show Off! for the younger members of the family and Women Of Troy for older audiences.
The season has been put together by the company’s artistic director Phil Willmott who promises plenty of action and adventure outside City Hall.
"It's always really exciting to do outdoor shows," he says. "This year the two we are doing explore how our ancestors regarded the morality of war.
"One is a real family friendly show and the other is for older children and adults but what's great is we have the same set of actors doing both shows so it’s quite a feat."
Captain Show-Off! has been adapted from the Roman comedies of Plautus by Phil, with original music by Theo Holloway.
It is set in a bustling Roman town where everyone anticipates the return from war of the big-headed soldier, Milos Colossus.
But if he's expecting everything to be as it was when he left for battle, or that he's going to be welcomed back with open arms, he's in for a bit of a shock.
“It’s a real fun show with lots of myhem, silly gags, confusion and mixing of identities, slapstick, singing, dancing, audience participation and puppetry,” says Phil.
“We've got a brilliantly colourful cast of clever slaves, daring lovers and cunning tricksters and they’ve all got funny names to reflect their characters. For example we’ve got Timidious who’s really shy and timid.
“It’s very fast moving and very visual and it’s been written in a way that there is enough going on for everyone - whether they are two or 200.”
By contrast Women of Troy, adapted by Lisa Kuma from the ancient Greek Trojan War trilogy by Euripides is pure drama, a dark tale of some of the courageous women on opposing sides of the Trojan War.
This new adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis, Hecuba and The Trojan Women looks at their sacrifices, triumphs and tragedies.
“It looks at the way women are brutalised by being caught up in war and the way in our society we are worried about becoming radicalised,” says Phil.
“What I found fascinating was that we can read these speeches which were written hundreds of years ago and it’s almost exactly the same thing going on today. There are so many parallels as we still see these international conflicts going on with the associated oppression and brutality.
“It’s horrific and you realise we just never learn from our mistakes.”
And indeed Phil says the inspiration for choosing the two plays came about from what was going on in the news.
“I was thinking about what’s pre-occupying London and indeed the country at the moment and the choosing of the plays, particularly Women Of Troy, reflected that.
“I always try and find plays that reflect stuff going on at the moment and this seemed to fit the bill.
“I also love Roman stories and we've not done many before and it seemed like a fun idea and it suits the space well.”
And he says he’s looking forward to bringing them to the Scoop.
“It’s an incredible venue and I love it because the atmosphere is extraordinary,” he says.
“When you get 800 to 1,000 people on a summer night and they go completely silent – so much so that you can hear a pin drop - it's amazing.
“For me though it is about getting people coming to see what we do who would not normally come to the theatre. For many it will be their first experience of seeing live drama with a big crowd and being excited by it.
“What's also important is that it’s free. In these difficult economic times it's really important to have free access to high quality arts and we are really proud to be able to do this. We only ask for a donation at the end of the show.
“It’s the same for the kids’ show too. There is excellent children’s theatre out there but it costs money – this costs nothing except their time.
"However, even though it's free there is still a challenge to keep it lively, exciting and interesting - enough that it encourages people to come back next year or to go and see something else that's on.
"What this also does is show how diverse audiences can be. I love the idea that you can look along the row and see City workers with locals, young and old, students, tourists and homeless people and know that they all have the same experience and hear the same story.
“That’s really powerful."

Captain Show Off! and Women Of Troy are on at The Scoop, More London, between Wednesday, August 5 and Sunday, August 30. Shows start at 6pm and 8pm. No need to book, just turn up.

Pinocchio - Greenwich Theatre

AN adaptation of children’s classic Pinocchio is coming to Greenwich Theatre this week.
Based on Carlo Collodi's classic tale, Pinocchio tells the story of a wooden puppet yearning to be a real boy.
Carved out of wood by the lonely toymaker Geppetto, Pinocchio tumbles from one disastrous situation to another in search of adventure — only to discover that, in the end, all he really needs is an unselfish heart and the love of his father.
Written by Broadway and Disney writing duo Neil Bartram and Brian Hill this adaptation is a new version of the story, and blends puppetry, magic, live musicians, singers and performers to bring it to life.
Among its stars is Rachael Louise Miller who plays the Fairy and the Narrator.
The Forest Hill-based actress says she is excited to be part of the company bringing it to young audiences for its three-week run at the Crooms Hill theatre.
"It's really quite magical and beautiful," she says. "It's a real family musical although in many respects it's quite dark. The original story, while beautifully written, was quite dark and even the Disney film version wasn't all sweetness and light!
"This particular version of the story is aimed at those aged five and up so it's not scary but as it's based on the original tale, we don't shy away from the darker elements.
"But there's also plenty of laughter and fun and more than a sprinkling of magic - Pinocchio's nose has to grow when he tells a lie and there's a bit where the boat gets swallowed up by the sea so it's been a lot of fun learning the tricks of the trade to make all the magic happen.
"We also had an amazing workshop on how to use the puppets. It was fascinating and we all learned so much. We use puppets throughout the show and right at the beginning there is shadow puppetry which is really beautiful to watch."
As well as being fun, the story also has a moral element to - that of being good, being kind and doing the right thing.
"One of the characters I play is the Fairy who is like Pinocchio's moral compass," Rachael says. "She is quite feisty and pops into the story to remind him of the direction he's supposed to be taking. He gets distracted easily and goes on adventures very easily so she has to steer him back again.
"I encourage him to make the right decisions rather than tell him what to do or make them for him."
And she says this is one of the reasons it's had such enduring appeal.
"It's such a great story and I think is still so popular and so well loved because people relate to these themes of what it means to be kind and good," she says.
"Children particularly really get that and it's one of the magical things about doing theatre for children - they are so engaged.
"To see their faces when the story unfolds is fantastic!"

The Adventures Of Pinocchio is on at Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, from Wednesday, August 5 until Sunday, August 23. Tickets from £10. Visit or call the box office on 020 8858 7755.