‘Shrek’ the Musical delight

The big green ogre is in town, along with his princess, his best pal Donkey,a whole host of Fairy Tale characters, and a rather vertically challenged villain. Of course I can only be talking about Shrek the Musical, which arrived at Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre last night. The critically acclaimed musical comedy, based on the now classic Dreamworks animation film, is bright and brash, occasionally bawdy, and is one of the most entertaining nights you will have all year. I’m a believer? Hell Yes!

Shrek is the story of an Ogre who forms an alliance with a chatterbox donkey in order to rescue a Princess from a tall tower guarded by a fire eating dragon. It throws all the conventions of our traditional fairy tales on its head, with the exception of the happy ever after. It is the only ‘fairy story’ where the Princess can pass wind as loudly as the ogre, the only one where the fire breathing dragon is just lovesick, and the only one to reveal that at least one of the seven dwarfs once found love and actually sired a baby. Yes, Shrek breaks all the fairy story rules and is all the funnier and more memorable for it.

This is a musical that is beautifully staged, with flawless sets that begin with a magical fairy story book that immediately had the family audience gasping, and continues through to one of my personal favourite set pieces, where Donkey meets the dragon and her ‘backing band’. The songs are not well known standards, but they are great, mixing the poignant (Big, Bright, Beautiful World) with the downright hilarious (The ballard of Farquaad and Freak Flag).

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The whole cast are just note perfect, with Stefan Harri bringing the cartoon Shrek to life with his ‘just wanting a quiet life persona’. Laura Main is a fiesty princess, while Marcus Ayton plays Donkey as an amalgam of Prince, James Brown and Michael Jackson – a fantastic energetic performance. But it is Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad who gains most of the laughs as he toddles across the stage on those little legs. It is a comedic tour de force that had tears rolling down my eyes – and I was not alone in this.

Shrek is just perfect family entertainment – like pantomime and the best of Disney it works on two levels, so children can laugh happily at the fart jokes whilst adults love Farquaad’s sexual posturing.

This has been described as an ‘all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza.’ I really couldn’t put it any better myself.

Shrek is at the New Alex Theatre until Sunday 25th February, click here for ticket information.

 

Strangers On A Train – Satisfying Chilling

Two strangers meet by chance on a train heading to the West Coast. One man, Charles Bruno, is charming, funny and gregarious, the other, Guy Haines, is more guarded and private. But through a haze of alcohol, they pass the train journey talking, eventually getting to discussing the bane of their lives, that is, Charlie’s father and Guy’s estranged wife. Charlie hits on an idea, if they killed each other’s problems, there would be no way to link it back to them. They clink glasses in agreement, a pipe dream that would solve all their problems, but is just a fantasy. But, unknown to Guy, Charlie is a sociapath who really does kill his ex wife, and then demands that Guy keeps his part of the deal. If not, he will destroy everything he holds dear – his relationship with new love Anne, his career, his whole life.

This is the famous premise of ‘Strangers On A Train’, the classic thriller from Ann Highsmith that was made into an iconic movie by the master Alfred Hitchcock and has now been recreated to stunning effect at the New Alex Theatre. A thrilller/morality play with little or no morality, Strangers on a Train is a thrilling theatre experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat and yet shows little to no violence at all. Such is the power of the script and the central performances.

In the lead role as Charles, Chris Harper is delicious. Chilling, at times hilarious, but always with an edge of maniacal menace, Harper gets it just right. He is mesmerising when he is on stage, stealing every scene with a standout performance. You literally cannot take your eyes off him as he dances and giggles and then shocks you with his change of mood, his coldness and sheer insanity. He is matched by Jack Ashton as Guy, who portrays a man literally falling apart before your eyes. His sheer desperation is best summed up in the scene where he finally agrees to do the murder, it is a portrait of a broken man who has lost all hope and is super powerful. Chris Harper may have the showier role, but the balance is provided by Ashton, and they work very well together.

The supporting cast is strong. Hannah Tointon is Anne, and plays her as an enigma, a seemingly idealistic, supportive partner, who may also be able to ignore murder. Her scenes with Harper sizzle with tension, you genuinely think he is going to kill her at any minute. Tointon brings charm and lightness to the role, whereas the other female lead, Helen Anderson adds to the warped sense of darkness that surrounds Bruno. As his mother Elsie, she is elegant and glamorous and totally feeds our idea that Bruno is a mother obsessive. In the scene where she uncovers his crimes, the uneasy depiction of Bruno in an almost fetal position is both striking and uncomfortable.

Rounding out the cast is Emmerdale star John Middleton, playing a private detective who knows that Bruno is somehow involved with the death of his father. He plays the role with an air of calm, another perfect foil for Harper, and works out all the angles with assurance adding depth to what could be a thankless role.

Strangers on a Train is wonderfully atmospheric, and despite being set in the 50s, is very ,modern in terms of the real lack of morality that is shown. Building tension throughout the play, it ends with a satisfying denouement that leaves you with many questions as you leave the theatre.

Go see.

Strangers on a Train

New Alexandra Theatre

Tuesday 20th – Saturday 3rd February

Click here for ticket information

 

 

Jersey Boys Returns To Birmingham In Style

It lays a claim to being the greatest musical of them all, and last night it started it’s UK tour with a press night at the New Alexandra Theatre in serious style. Jersey Boys, the story of the Four Seasons, is the musical that has it all – instantly recognisable songs, strong performances, and a story that is so incredible in its highs and lows it could almost be a work of fiction. The fact that it is all true makes this truly special – potent theatrical magic that is simply mesmorising.

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The story of Frankie Valli and the original Four Seasons is the stuff of legends. When Tommy DeVito hears Frankie Castelluccio (Valli) sing, he knows that his amazing falsetto voice could be the key to stardom for his band. But run ins with the law, numerous line up changes and a set list based on cover versions of standards all hinder their rise to any sort of fame. It is only when former teenage one hit wonder (‘He wears short shorts’) and songwriter Bob Gaudio joins the group that they hit on the magic formula of pop hits that will lead to super stardom. However, Tommy’s debts and dodgy dealings catch up with the Four Seasons at the height of their fame, leaving the band in pieces and Frankie to go it alone, with Bob as songwriter behind the scenes. But the brilliant pop they create at their height means they are destined for an appearance in musics Hall of Fame, a legendary group with an incredible back story and back catalogue.

Photos by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Frankie is played by Michael Watson. He delivers a faultless performance, with his wonderful falsetto voice a great match for those faultless songs, particular in the sublime rendition of ‘Can’t take my eyes off You’. He also shows great acting talent too, showing how Frankie grows from a gauche teenager to a man in charge of his own destiny, you really feel his heartbreak over his marriage and loss of his daughter. Simon Bailey is  fabulous as Tommy, playing the role as a brutal, bullish bully who is never quite as in control of ‘his’ band as he thinks. He has many of the best one liners in the show, and he delivers them in perfect, New Jersey wisecracking style. Tommy is his own worst enemy, but it is hard not to like him, and his interactions with a young Joe Pesci are a hoot.

Declan Egan is also perfect in the role of Bob Gaudio, playing the former teen protegee as the voice of reason, wise beyond his years, but also with a sense of fun, especially during the ‘Oh what a night’ scene midway through the first half. Rounding out the trio is Nick Massi, once again played as a man of few words by Lewis Griffiths. He describes himself as the Ringo of the group, and has one of the funniest scenes when he describes what it has been like to share a room for 10 years with Tommy De Vito. This is the most expression he exhibits during a brilliant, poker faced performance. Lewis is the quiet hero of the piece and I love the way he plays the role, a cool and laconic star.

Left to right: Declan Egan, Michael Watson, Simon Bailey, Lewis Griffiths
by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

The musical harmonies in those classic songs are spine-tingling  and brilliant, with the trio of Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk like a man a definite high point. But there are so many other brilliant songs, from the poignant ‘My eyes adored you’, to the angriness of ‘Beggin’, the urgency of ‘Let’s hang on’ to the triumphant comeback single ‘Who loves you’, that in any other musical, every song could be a high point.

So much more than a jukebox musical, Jersey Boys is brutal and brilliant, shocking and funny, with the most wonderful soundtrack around.Jersey Boys is the must see show in Birmingham this Christmas

Jersey Boys New Alexandra Theatre

Until 6th January 2018. Click here for ticket information.