Pirates of Penzance – Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte Company – Bristol Hippodrome – Review

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Pirates of Penzance

Saturday afternoon at the Bristol Hippodrome was a gleeful affair. The multi age audience (complete with several youngsters dressed as pirates) was ready to enter the absurd world that is a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The Bristol Hippodrome is a wonderful theatre, a perfect setting for this show.


The D’Oyly Carte company has had a turbulent time these past few years but thanks to a canny ex KPMG partner noticing they paid too much VAT (into the 6 figures too!!) they’re back.

This was a stylish production that had me beaming like a Cheshire cat throughout and laughing heartily too. The opening of Act 2, Police Sergeant and infamous “Modern Major General” song were great.

What is often overlooked due to the humour is the beautiful score in this opera. The wonderful Scottish Opera Orchestra and cast gave outstanding performances.

Rebecca Bottone as Mabel, must get special mention. What a staggering performance, a beautiful voice and wonderful characterisation. The perfect partner for Sam Furness’s Frederic, who likewise gave a dazzling performance.

A great set and costumes gave the production a natural cohesiveness. And the designer Jamie Vartan clearly understood the humour as the set (yes, the set!) got some of biggest laughs. The opening of the show during the overture was genius.

Pirates the ladies

It was an absolute treat. I’m glad to see this partnership between D’Oyly Carte and Scottish Opera has gotten off to a swashbuckling start.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Josh Groban at the O2 Arena

Josh looks happy to meet  "me" - thanks to James for doing this bit of photoshop shenanigans!

Josh looks happy to meet “me” – thanks to James for doing this bit of photoshop shenanigans!

Josh Groban came to London town last night playing the legendary O2 arena. His show was a perfect display of his powerful pipes. He has an engaging and self depreciating stage presence which punctuated the 2 hours worth of music he sang. (he also played the piano and drums on occasions too)

His set included a range of songs from his new album, some previous songs he’s known for (like his wonderful rendition of Vincent). He also included the song Falling Slowly, from the hit musical OnceThe show was just a constant stream of wonderful arrangements of exquisite music.

His band/orchestra consisted of artists from all over the world and the choir Ovation helped to fill the cavernous O2 arena with melody.

The song of the night for me was:

His encore was You Raise Me Upa song that has been covered many times, but I still think his rendition is the best.

In a world where so many “celebrities” are nothing more than faddish and talentless plebs, it’s was a delight to spend 2 hours in the company of a talented, laid back performer who let the music, and his artistry speak.

Billy Elliot – Victoria Palace – Review

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Following fast on the heels of Billy Liar, comes my review of Billy Elliot.

billy elliot

This year’s Radio 2 Audience Award Olivier went to Billy Elliot. Despite it running for 8 years, I’d never got round to seeing it. It’s Olivier win put it nearer the top of my list and thanks to the lovely folks at Shows In London I was able to see this splendid show recently.

Having now seen it, I can see why it got the Olivier Award this year. It’s an exhilarating piece of theatre. It’s the only show I’ve seen where the lead got a standing ovation at half time, another midway through act 2 and then one at the end! We had Tade Biesinger as our Billy. He deserved the rapturous applause he got throughout, an outstanding performance from one who’s only 13.

The whole cast give powerful and passionate performances though. Billy may be the star but his cast are what help him to shine so brightly. Special mention must go to Ann Emry as Billy’s Grandma, Gillian Bevan as Mrs Wilkinson and Deka Walmsley as Billy’s Dad. This is a show with a strong story and high emotions. They keep the emotions high but never stray into the melodramatic.

The lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John range from the melodic and moving The Letter, to the aggressive Solidarity, to the humourous Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher. (surely a contender for Christmas number 1 this year?)


The choreography throws a few surprises and there are some truly remarkable moments from Billy and the cast.

The biggest shock for me was the amount of bad language. I don’t expect miners to speak like they’ve attended finishing school. I do however think the swearing is excessive, especially from the young people. A shame, as for me it’s not the family friendly show it could be. Likewise the one dimensional left-wing bias is a shame.

The story is inspirational and uplifting and I enjoyed the nostalgic feeling for the 80’s the show gave me.

I can see why it won the Olivier Award this year. A worthy winner.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★

Brilliant Billy! – Billy – The Union Theatre – Review

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Billy Poster

The story of Billy Liar has been a story I’ve been familiar with ever since my early teens. I caught the film version featuring the amazing performance by Tom Courtenay one Saturday afternoon on Channel 4 (and recorded it – so watched it multiple times as a youth). Despite it being set generations before mine and it being a black and white film, I was drawn into the world of Billy. When I got a DVD player way back, it was one of the first films I got for it. It was only a few years ago I found out it had also been a musical in 1974, and I’ve only ever heard Some of Us Belong to the Stars sung by Michael Crawford on the odd occasion Elaine Paige plays it on her Radio 2 show.

When I discovered The Union Theatre were reviving it, I was excited to finally get to hear the rest of the score. I’m perplexed as to why it’s taken several decades for it to be revived. The story is fabulous, and the musical score is by John Barry (arguably one of the 20th Century’s finest composers) with lyrics by the award-winning Don Black. It’s such a shame the original recording is not available, perhaps this cast can get some crowd-funding to get their renditions recorded as these songs need a wider audience. (This version also includes three songs added in the 1990’s for a revival and as far as I can see these haven’t been recorded yet)

The role of Billy is synonymous with Tom Courtenay and the musical version with Michael Crawford (see here for an interview with Michael Crawford in 1974 when he was Billy) , it’s a brave actor that takes it on. Keith Ramsay does so in this production and leaves his own stamp on it. He gives Billy an awkwardness with hints that Billy might just be going onto the autistic spectrum. This makes him a character that you develop a care and concern for, I’d not experienced that previously. When Billy gets to sing out, Keith Ramsey’s melodious voice soars. His two renditions of Some of Us Belong to the Stars were stunning with his I Missed the Last Rainbow giving a melancholic and moving final song. This role has been career defining for previous actors and I have a feeling it will be the same for Keith Ramsay. He deserves it.

A Career Defining Performance from Keith Ramsey.

A Career Defining Performance from Keith Ramsay.

The Union Theatre may be small but the cast of 17 filled the stage with their personalities, witty lines, dances and voices. Mark Turnbull as Councillor Duxbury gave a tear-jerking rendition of the beautiful song, It Were All Green Hills.

Rosie Clarkson as Barbara and Laura Bryars as Rita

Rosie Clarkson as Barbara and Laura Bryars as Rita.  

The three girlfriends of Billy, are each contrasting characters, played with self-assurance by Rosie Clarkson as “good girl” Barbara, Laura Bryars as mouthy, brash bulldozer Rita and Katerina Stearman as Liz, the only one that actually understands Billy and gives him the chance to break free.

Liz Stearman as Liz the girl that "gets" Billy.

Katerina Stearman as Liz, the girl that understands Billy.

Billy’s interactions with his long-suffering parents are brought to life by Mark Carroll and Ricky Butt as his dad and mum respectively. Their confusion and frustrations come to the fore, but they never let you forget they love their son despite his short comings. It’s an honest and heartwarming show.

Michael Strassen has directed other hit shows at The Union Theatre and it shows, he knows the space and maximizes it to its fullest. The show punches to the wow factor when it needs and comes down to intimate levels as appropriate. He’s aided in this by Tim Deiling’s magnificent lighting. Richard Bates orchestration allows the songs to shine, which they deserve to do. As I’ve said this is a first-class score.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see it, as you may have to wait a decade or two until it’s back again. I don’t know why, but that’s the crazy world of theatre.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★

All photographs by Sam Mackenzie-Armstrong

Race by David Mamet – Hampstead Theatre – Review

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Anyone that’s been reading TheatreThoughts.com for a while will know I’m a huge David Mamet fan, his plays and writings on theatre are one of my biggest influences. Few writers have got me thinking like Mamet.

So the chance to see a premier of his latest play was a must for me. In fact it’s the first play of his I’ve seen, having only seen film versions, read or listened to his other works. My first visit to The Hampstead was a pleasant affair, it’s a great theatrical space with helpful and friendly staff and I’ll definitely be returning as it produces some amazing work.

Race is Mamet writing at his frenetic and gripping best. We’re thrown into the legal world of the US and watch as a white man is accused of raping a black woman. The legal firm consists of a white and black partner with a black legal apprentice. Assumptions, prejudices and deep-seated beliefs are brought to light.

Whilst this is an issue based play, Mamet doesn’t ignore his own advice and ignore the plot (something far to many “issue” plays do). There is a strong plot that has you on the edge of your seat throughout as the schemes and twists of the case come out.

In some ways this being set in the US makes it easier to observe and pass judgement on the issues he presents. I know it caused a stir on Broadway. However the issues he brings up are not comfortable for us in the UK either (and equally as applicable) and do need addressing. Yet he frames them within strong characters and you’re torn between who is right and wrong.

A powerful quartet of actors

The cast of four (Jasper Britton, Charles Daish, Clarke Peters and Nina Toussaint-White) give dynamic performances, keeping the pace up and allowing the intensity to come through. Mamet’s usage of dialect and machine gun dialogue is not easy. Their timing and phrasing is spot on.

As my wife and I left the theatre for a stroll up to Hampstead Heath we were still talking about the play walking around the Heath! To me that’s the mark of great writing, it gets the audience talking and thinking as it leaves. Race did just that for us and I’m sure it will for you.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★