Lizzie UK premiere at the Greenwich Theatre

Thought you knew the story of Lizzie Borden? Think again. This refreshing new production of rock musical Lizzie is the finest masterclass in how to portray a murder story. Forget the six merry murderesses of Chicago – the four powerfully talented leading ladies of Lizzie are the new powerhouse of musical theatre feminism.

Lizzie Borden, renowned for being tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892, tells her tale in raging new fashion, bringing the many theories surrounding the true story to light through a mighty soundtrack of rock ballads. Deception, suppression, incest and homosexuality are explored in bloody and frank narrative of the killings and trial.

The production is largely minimalist, choosing to place focus on the classic rock elements – the sound and the visual. Heavy music, blazing lighting and sparingly-used graphics are put to great effect. You are immediately hit with a wall of light and sound and the energy doesn’t let up until the last. The cast sublimely weave in the theatrical element with Victoria Bussert’s direction but the clever use of microphones reminds you that this is, put simply, the ultimate alternative gig.

Bjørg Gamst(Lizzie Borden) and Eden Espinosa (Emma Borden)_Foto_Søren Malmose

Steven Cheslik-Demeyer’s and Alan Stevens Hewitt’s music is the shining beacon of this show, fantastically amplified by solid band and four outstanding performers. Bjorg Gamst, who originated the title role at the Frederica Theatre, commands the almost schizophrenic Lizzie Borden, seamlessly showcasing her vulnerability while similarly allowing herself to become the unhinged murderer. Bleu Woodward, playing her love interest Alice Russell, handles the suspecting change in her character with ease and grasps the love songs with Bjorg by the horns producing some great moments.

Playing Emma Borden, the canniving older sister of Lizzie, Eden Espinosa is a truly expert vocalist, and it was unfortunate that her character didn’t allow for more stage time. Each time she lifted her microphone she commanded the theatre with her voice. It’s hard to separate when the standards are this high but Jodie Jacobs as the Borden’s maid Bridget Sullivan might just have tipped it. Stunningly awesome vocals paired with a quick-witted, comical character, Jodie drew the eye and ear throughout, seemingly crafting the twisted plot.

Bjorg Gamst, Eden Espinosa

Simplistic staging is a hidden hero of this show, however when it comes to the actual murders you find it all a tad underwhelming. The tone has been set and you expect a little more theatrical vulgarity after an hour of intense, brazen, in-your-face performance. When the front row are given plastic ponchos you expect a little more than what you actually get. They could get away with completely unleashing the ‘blood’ and going a little crazy – it would work here.

Although that’s a minor issue and barely detracts from what is a class production. It has to be seen live. It is truly wonderful to see four intensely powerful and talented women rock a stage with unapologetic tenacity. We need more productions that showcase women like this on UK stages.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The UK premiere of Lizzie plays at the Greenwich Theatre for just 20 performances until Sunday 12th March. Tickets are available here.

Gratefully written thanks to Theatre Bloggers and the #LDNTheatreBloggers.

Photo credits: Soren Malmose

RENT 20th Anniversary Tour, Churchill Theatre Bromley

Fresh from a sell-out London run at the St. James, Rent has launched into its 20th anniversary tour with passion, grit and standing ovations. The Churchill Theatre, Bromley was the next to experience the power and emotion of this musical classic in a first performance that left few dry eyes in the house.

Inspired by Puccini’s opera La bohème, Rent tells the moving story of a group of young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian excess. Their relationships are tested by the struggles of HIV/AIDS, sexuality, poverty and loss.

LtoR Philippa Stefani as Mimi and Ross Hunter as Roger in RENT. Credit Matt Crockett

The production, directed by Bruce Guthrie, certainly does the late Jonathan Larson proud, bringing this hard-hitting tale to the stage with determined intensity yet responsible modesty, a balance never easy to find.

Casting to perfection, Rent has a wealth of talent in it’s midsts. Lucie Jones, recently crowned as the UK’s Eurovision entry, gives a masterclass in musical theatre, delivering Maureen’s protest with ridiculous wit and hilarity. Philippa Stefani is truly immersed in Mimi’s character, beautifully and tragically illustrating the extremity of her highs and lows, oozing character right until the end, not even indulging herself in a beaming bow.

Lucie Jones as Maureen in RENT. Credit Matt Crockett

Billy Cullum (Mark) and Ross Hunter (Roger) both charm the audience with believable purpose. Ross’ rendition of One Song Glory is stunning and Billy brilliantly holds the show throughout. Ryan O’Gorman’s portrayal of Tom, the joy at finding love and tragic heartbreak of losing it, is particularly moving. The relationship between him and Angel (played by Harrison Clark due to Layton William’s injury) is endearing until the last moment and Harrison steps into the role superbly.

Despite highlighting the specific triumphs, the cast as a group boast maybe the best collective vocals of any show around right now, despite some weaker voicemail sections. Seasons of Love leaves many speechless, although Shanay Holmes’ (Joanne) and Lucie’s rendition of Take Me or Leave Me is a personal highlight.

This production seamlessly fuses the elements at hand to great effect. Staging, lighting and set design reflects the edgy, uncertain times the characters face, while musically the rock elements flourish behind the vocals. My only gripe would be the occasional audio blip and the seemingly unnecessary turning of part of the set, which to me adds little but distracts greatly.

I’ve never been entirely convinced by the film, and by watching it on stage I was reminded of the true power of live performance. Everything about this show makes you invest and involve yourself not only in the individual stories but the overarching themes, a thing the film never quite succeeded in doing in my eyes. The theatre forces you to listen; forces you to give a damn about these people’s plights in a way that the media or TV just can’t match. Couple that with the stunning sound and you’ll soon find yourself stifling sobs within a silent, positively gripped audience. The 20th anniversary tour of Rent is a knockout sensation.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rent runs at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley until Saturday 11th February before continuing its tour of the UK. Tickets available online.

An interview with… Devon-Elise Johnson & Bethany Huckle, Half a Sixpence

With a fresh extension through the summer and eight Whatsonstage award nominations under its belt, Cameron Mackintosh’s new musical Half a Sixpence has certainly made a name for itself in the West End. I sat down with two of the show’s leading ladies, Devon-Elise Johnson who plays Ann and Bethany Huckle who plays Flo, to talk CamMack’s top ideas, falling over on stage and who they would give half a sixpence to.

What attracted you to the show?

Bethany: When I listened to it I thought it was great cos it was old school, and old school is fun but knowing that it’s a new musical too is really exciting.

Devon: As soon as I got the score I fell in love with it. My agent called me at 10.30pm on a Saturday and said you have nine pieces of material to learn, lock yourself in a room and don’t come out until Tuesday morning! When they said I was up for Ann I did a bit of research into this girl and she was right up my street, I thought she was brilliant.

B: You can’t beat an old musical.

D: Yeah it’s traditional British and there’s nothing horrible in it!

B: I think that’s why it’s been so well received in London. It’s a feel-good musical and you come out smiling.

D: I’ve not seen one person at stage door with a sad face. Everyone’s grinning and laughing and saying that they’re going to come back.

You were both in original run at Chichester Festival, how do you think the show has evolved since then?

Bethany: Back the Right Horse was a big ensemble number in Chichester. Cameron decided he didn’t like it but didn’t have the time to change it. In London rehearsals I remember we heard them upstairs singing it but with a completely new tune. Drastic but it changed for the better!

Devon: Cameron knows what he’s doing. Whenever he does something you know he’s going to be right.

B: I’ll always remember our faces during the original rehearsals for Pick Out a Simple Tune. We didn’t have any of the ‘instruments’ and it wasn’t enough for Cameron. After lunch, he comes back with bags of pots, spoons, cups, plates, shakers – it was epic!

D: He’s a genius – and look at it now it’s an incredible number. I’m gutted because I literally just stand there but I get to watch you all go absolutely nuts with spoons and pots, trying hard not to laugh!

So is that a favourite part of the show?

Devon: Nooooo, we have the same favourite part. Well, I hope we do!

Bethany: Ready… 1,2,3

Both (laughing): TOUCH OF HAPPINESS!

D: That is my ultimate favourite part.

B: It’s so much fun.

D: We actually have such a laugh. I fell over the other night. I don’t even know what I happened. I just slipped on my skirt or something and then I couldn’t get up.

B: Time just stood still and I looked at Devon and thought ‘why are you on the floor love?’

D: I enjoy that song every night, I always come off laughing. The audience relaxes and you see two friends having a really nice time, especially for Ann. Arthur leaves her and you see her being cheered up by her best friend.

Cameron pulled me aside and told me I was trying too hard… he said: ‘you are Ann, just be yourself!’

You obviously get on really well off the stage too! Do you think you’re similar to your characters?

Bethany: I’m not gonna lie, my character is pretty much me.

Devon: Yeah she is!

B: She’s cheerful, a tiny bit sassy. Flo is with the boys half the time so she has to stand her ground. She’s one of the lads!

D: I’d say I’m Ann but I only made that discovery when Cameron pulled me to one side after a show in Chichester and told me I was trying too hard. He said: ‘when you walked into the audition, you were Ann, so I just want you to be yourself’. It took a lot of soul searching. I kept asking the girls ‘who am I?!’ Then I allowed myself to relax into it which hopefully is coming out more since being here (at the Noel Coward).

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It’s just been announced that you’re adding another matinee instead of doing Wednesday night performances…

Bethany: We’re thrilled – an evening to do whatever we want!

Devon: Don’t get me wrong, I love this life, it’s what I chose to do, but to have the opportunity to see friends who work 9 to 5 is lovely.

B: You do miss people who work 9 to 5 unless you have a cheeky lunch break!

D: Equally it’s great for the show as the matinees do so well here! It’s a show that attracts an older generation, but it’s also appealing to young people who are expecting it to be old and ‘fuddy duddy’ and it’s not.

B: It’s the opposite of what people expect.

Are there any shows you’ve seen recently that you’ve loved?

Bethany: Last month I saw Murder Ballad – it was so good! The understudy was on and she was fierce. And I saw Wicked for the first time which is embarrassing. I enjoyed it but I definitely should have seen it at least four years ago!

Devon: The last thing I saw was 27, which was interesting. Odd, but it was amazing. The songs were incredible; I was blown away by the voices. Prior to that it was Book of Mormon which is hilarious!

The amount of love and care that has gone into this show – I absolutely adore it!

Some people are saying that Broadway nurtures new shows better than London does. What do you think?

Devon: Off west end has loads going on. I did Taboo at Brixton but that was classified as something really upcoming and it was well supported. I think theatre is more appreciated over there.

Bethany: It’s the producer as well. If they believe in it, they will make sure it does well. Cameron has put this show everywhere, from Facebook to the One Show.

D: It’s doing so well. The amount of love and care that has gone into this show, and the detail. I absolutely adore it and I think it’s got life after this as well.

Finally, who would you give the other half of your sixpence to?

Bethany: I’d have to give it to my boyfriend because he bought me this (showing half a sixpence on a chain). He said ‘it’s the cheapest present in the world but it’s so sentimental’.

Devon: My mum! She bought me two half sixpences for opening night in Chichester, she’s got the other. We’re best friends – she’s incredible and so supportive.

You can catch Devon and Bethany at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2nd September. Half a Sixpence tickets are available here and you can read my four star review here.

Four shows to get you through Blue Monday for £20 or less

The infamous Blue Monday – supposedly the most depressing day of the year with Christmas long gone, funds low and not to mention the fact that it’s a Monday! The process of labelling this day is up for debate – do we need to highlight depression and raise awareness? Yes! Do we need to remind people how sad they should be feeling? Maybe not. But what I do know is that if you are feeling a bit blue on 16th January there’s only really one solution… the theatre!

Escaping to another world for two and a half hours is surely the only way to avoid any Blue Monday disasters. I’ve picked out four feel-good shows running in the capital right now that will ensure you end the day with a smile on your face. And because I know you’re on the January penny-watching patrol, I’ve found you tickets for all of them for £20 or less if you book now for 16th January! That’s about the same as that takeaway and bottle of wine you were planning on getting…

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Half a Sixpence

You may have caught Cameron Mackintosh on the One Show on Tuesday with his charming new West End hit, Half a Sixpence. If you were impressed by the cast’s flash, bang, wallop then it’s definitely worth booking a ticket. An uplifting show with a leading man that will have you on your feet. Check out my review if you’re not convinced but you’d be better off just booking your £10 ticket now. Yep… a tenner!

Tickets for as little as £10 through Get Into London Theatre.

Kinky Boots

Kinky Boots

If there’s one show that can lift you up after a bad day, it’s the award-winning Kinky Boots. Based on a true story, this is a musical about changing your perceptions and accepting others for who they are. If Cyndi Lauper’s upbeat soundtrack isn’t enough, throw in some dancing angels and awesome footwear… naturally!

Tickets for as little as £20 through Get Into London Theatre

Enter the daily lottery for £20 front row tickets through TodayTix

Wicked

Wicked

If reality is a bit too much for you on Blue Monday, you can truly transport yourself to another world and see Wicked. The true story of the witches of Oz has it all – showstopping numbers, stunning sets and strong morals. You might not want to come back to London but when you do, at least you’ll have that warm, fuzzy feeling with you on the journey home.

Tickets for as little as £20 through Get Into London Theatre

Stomp

Stomp

Don’t fancy a full-blown musical? Stomp’s your show! The perfect infusion of music, dance and comedy… using a load of junk. Stay with me here – it’s pure genius. You’ll spend the trip home annoying your fellow commuters tapping a rolled-up newspaper onto the nearest bin, but at least your mood will be lifted!

Tickets for £20 through Get Into London Theatre

Discounts and meal packages through Love Theatre

 

Got a little more cash to spend? You can get slightly more expensive seats through all of these links but still enjoy some brilliant discounts. If none of these shows take your fancy then have a browse through the Get Into London Theatre website – you won’t pay more than £40 for a top West End seat on Monday!

Bumblescratch Gala Night at the Adelphi Theatre

The eagerly awaited addition to the Sherman dynasty scurried into the West End on Sunday 4th September with a star-studded charity gala performance of Bumblescratch, a new musical about a filthy rat during the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. On the surface Robert Sherman’s show has all the makings of a great musical – a renowned composer, a talented cast, artistic costumes and intriguing subject matter surrounding two of Elizabethan Britain’s most shocking events. Unfortunately it just doesn’t come together as one would hope.

Bumblescratch is a musical that doesn’t quite know where it’s going. Lascivious rat Melbourne Bumblescratch tells gruesome tales of London town in the 1600s after adopting a young rodent Perry as his sidekick. We learn he has stolen a precious jewel from King Rat Socrates and regularly dreams of a phantom friend, pirate rat Hookbeard, after eating dodgy cheese. For almost an hour you think it’s rivalling Cats with a seemingly lacking plot.

Bumblescratch; by Robert J Sherman; Directed and choreographed by Stewart Nicholls; with Darren Day; Ilan Galkoff; at The Adelphi Theatre; London,UK; on 4 September 2016; Photos by Francis Loney; T: 0207 254 1199; francisloney@talktalk.net; Unit One Quebec Wharf; 315 Kingsland Road, London, E8 4DJ.

Darren Day (Melbourne) and Ilan Galkoff (Perry) in Bumblescratch Photo by Francis Loney

Just as you settle into the concept of ‘Rats’ you hurtle into a storyline as Perry falls in love with a human girl, forcing Melbourne to watch over her before being brutally clubbed to death by her baker father. All within the last ten minutes of the first act! For a show billed as a ‘family musical-comedy’ it seems to have some identity issues. I don’t know many children who enjoy tales of whores being eaten, and I certainly didn’t hear many of them laughing in the theatre that night.

The score is obviously sophisticated with hints of beauty, particularly before the interval with Music of the Spheres and My Place in the Sun. There’s no stand-out hit – the one that you leave the theatre humming – but there could be. I felt these songs weren’t always explored to their full potential before moving on.

Michael Xavier as Hookbeard Photo by Francis Loney

Michael Xavier as Hookbeard
Photo by Francis Loney

Saying that the cast performances were outstanding throughout the ensemble making the gala enjoyable despite the musical’s issues. Darren Day does his best to navigate you through a difficult plot, instantly establishing a likeable narrator in Melbourne Bumblescratch. His witty and funny performance is to be commended alongside young star Ilan Galkoff as Perry, who handles a particularly mature and vocally-heavy role with ease. Michael Xavier is simply stunning as Hookbeard, although not nearly used enough during the show. Mention must go to Cathy Read as Thamesa whose gorgeous vocals will be heard from another West End stage soon I’m sure.

It’s almost a shame to criticise something that has so much potential but it does need work. A plot outline in the programme is something I usually think redundant but in this case it was a necessity! You shouldn’t have to study the show afterwards just to find out what happened, especially when it’s described as a family show. However I’d like to see the show again after some work, and definitely with a similarly talented cast.

⭐⭐

Review organised by #LDNTheatreBloggers. Want your show reviewed? Access a two-hundred strong blog community through Theatre Bloggers.