The Feeling (The Other Palace Studio)

I was invited to review the debut show by Kyra Jessica Willis, The Feeling, which promised to be a bold, modern, dark comedy musical.

The songs take the form of recognisable pop hits from the likes of REM, Roxette, Demi Lovato, Radiohead, Savage Garden, Counting Crows, Avril Lavigne, Chris Isaak and Fun. They generally work well in the fabric of the show, which provides a look at a group of friends sharing their highs, lows, dreams, hopes, and paranoia.

Poster image for The Feeling
Poster image for The Feeling

Willis herself plays Jessie, first seeming to be just a bitchy woman who plays with people, but developing into someone who needs hugs and happiness. Her close friend (and possibly former lover) is coffee-shop owner and peacemaker Mel, played with a touch of wisdom by Halie Darling, and she is in turn taking shaky steps into romance with geeky Jamie (a sweet George C Francis, who also directs the show).

Jessie and Edie (Chloe Hazel, psychologically shaky and with a heart of stone) have an odd relationship which seems to have more to it than their shared ex-partner, Kasey (PJ Tomlinson). Constantly needling each other and seeking attention, their animosity feels very immature and disturbing.

Cast shots from The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry
Cast shots from The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry

Then there’s Lexie (a delicate Pippa Lea, whose fractured vocals give realism to her situation), who falls for nice guy Archie (Sean Erwood, only in his teens but providing a strong and sensible glue within the group): he’s faced and got through a crisis which may come back to haunt him.

Finally, there’s Holt (Chris Barton), in love with Jessie and on the periphery of the group. This set of people navigating the perils of growing up meet each day in the coffee bar, talking about the small things in life, and sometimes the big things too.

The cast of The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry
The cast of The Feeling (minus Chloe Hazel), via Monsteers Artistry

A change in lighting for most of the songs put me in mind of Rob Marshall’s film of Chicago, where the musical interludes provide hidden thoughts which remain unspoken. Here, too, we get duets between Jessie/Edie, Jessie/Lexie and solos for Lexie, Edie, Jamie, Jessie which gives us that insight that isn’t in Willis’s dialogue.

The Feeling starts with a film projection of some of the backstory while Kasey sings the opening song, “Mr Jones”. After that we’re straight into what seems to be Friends territory but with extra tension, which escalates with Jessie and Edie’s refusal to speak and Lexie mourning her recent break-up.

As a play, I found some of the dialogue needed to be helped along by the songs, and some aspects came from nowhere (why are Lexie and Hoot siblings when they have no interaction). In the main, though, there is enough here to make you care and the use of “We Are Home” as the final song was particularly effective.

Detail from promotional image for The Feeling
Detail from promotional image for The Feeling

The characters have definitite potential and I felt the warm friendship between Jessie and Mel, the caring core of a Kasey who knew he’d made mistakes, the nervous anxiety of Jamie who doesn’t know how to behave around women, and the quiet desperation of a lonely Lexie.

The songs are well-chosen and beautifully accompanied by MD Connagh Tonkinson, who strips them back to their strong lyrical core. They are generally sung with a sense of realism and emotion, which I enjoyed, even if a handful of the choices have a personal resonance to me that briefly jolted me away from the drama.

Ultimately, The Feeling is an accomplished show from a young company which has a lot of potential: it isn’t perfect, but it shows a lot of heart and a willingness to engage with difficult and complex subjects without resorting to hysterics.

The Feeling has two more performances on 7 September, at 3pm and 8pm. It runs at around 2 hr 20 minutes including an interval.

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200 Years Later: Jane Austen’s Sanditon (Other Palace Studio)

Jane Austen’s Sanditon would seem to be a major draw at the moment, despite being left unfinished. Andrew Davies has written a version which will premiere on television in 2030, and then there is this preview of a new stage musical by Chris Brindle and Vicky Clubb.

Playing in the intimate surroundings of the Studio downstairs at The Other Palace, we join Anna/Charlotte (Rebecca Huish) and her pop-rock band as a new idea is pitched to them, a concept album inspired by Jane Austen and her unfinished novel, Sanditon.

With a handful of excellent songs (especially Shallow, Opportunity and Nouveau Riche) and some excellent performances from Huish, director Angie Diggens with her fine harmonies, Amber Cayasso who raps and displays strength as a mixed-race woman of wealth in the 18th century, Elizabeth Brooks’s G&S vibe, Emily Bate’s period drama and William Hastings’s strong-voiced soundman, Sanditon shows a lot of potential, although the narration and pace of the second half still feels as if it needs a bit of work.

The band, including Clubb, Fern Teather, Sam Thurlow and Marcus Wood, work hard to convey a variety of styles from traditional pop to “pom pom” music hall, and Alex Terry adds a touch of the grotesque to his comedic characters.

I feel this musical may well expand to one with an interesting future, and it feels right as a small-scale actor-musician piece rather than a full West End production.

Last night’s one-off performance was professionally filmed so if you’re interested, you may be able to see it and make your own assessment. For both Austen fans and those open to new musical ideas, this was a definite hit, which also left the audience assessing how relevant Austen’s ideas and themes remain today.

Rehearsal and location photos courtesy of Chris Brindle and http://www.sanditon.info.

Toast (The Other Palace)

Nigel Slater’s memoirs become a compelling stage production in this fine adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett. The late 1960s are evoked in the music we hear on arrival and in the design of Libby Watson (all kitchen tops, red toaster, old portable gramophone and yellow Aga) and the period choreography of director Jonnie Riordan.

Lizzie Muncey and Giles Cooper
Lizzie Muncey and Giles Cooper

Mixing a discovery of cookery with growing up, we see Nigel at nine and the relationship he has with his mum, an asthmatic in a floral dress, as they make jam tarts together (only with strawberry, blackcurrant or lemon curd). A moving sequence which is almost dreamlike in which boy and mother dance on the worktops to Charles Trenet’s La mer is complemented with the fun of a Top of the Form round in which “Mr Slater’s views on sweets” is the specialist subject.

So much here pulls back memories of the sixties and seventies – sharing sherbet fountains, the “magic ingredient – lard”, school cookery classes, and the awkwardness of the working dad and the stay-at-home mum. The cast give out bags of sweets for the audience to pick from in act one, with Walnut Whips taking pride of place in act two, the act of exploring the chocolate treat leading into Nigel’s first experiences as a voyeur.

The company of Toast
The company of Toast

Filloux-Bennett’s script deftly deals with the different emotional events in young Nigel’s life, culminating before the interval with the knowledge that “I knew that Father Christmas would not be coming”. Giles Cooper is simply marvellous as the young, precocious child who turns into a moody, then confident teenager dealing with a new force in the house and “Aunty Joan” with her food contests.

Stephen Ventura does well in an unsympathetic role as Dad, who copes badly with a son he cannot understand, even down to leaving him marshmallows each night to help communicate what he cannot say, while Lizzie Muncey’s Mum, physically weak but mentally strong, is well-defined as Nigel’s most enduring influence right up to the closing scene. Marie Lawrence brings her comic gifts to the hideous and over-painted Joan, who barges into the Slater household to cause havoc and discord.

Marie Lawrence, Lizzie Muncey, Giles Cooper, Stephen Ventura
Marie Lawrence, Lizzie Muncey, Giles Cooper, Stephen Ventura

Toast is a deeply reflective piece that will make you laugh (Nigel refers to Aunty Joan as “that baking bitch”), make you cry (that act one closer), and make you hungry (you get a whiff of glorious garlic mushrooms towards the end as Nigel builds his first signature dish). With the right mix of humour, cooking and pathos, this adaptation really is a winner.

Marie Lawrence, Jake Ferretti, Giles Cooper, Lizzie Muncey
Marie Lawrence, Jake Ferretti, Giles Cooper, Lizzie Muncey

You can catch Toast at The Other Palace until the 3 August. Book here.

Photo credit – Simon Annand

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical (The Other Palace)

The Showstoppers have now created more than 1,000 new musicals in their shows; each one unique to its audience, and transient in nature. It’s no surprise to hear that the late Ken Campbell was an early mentor and supporter of the group, as the show does seem to have some of his anarchic spirit around the edges.

Now in its eleventh year, it has had success at the Edinburgh Fringe, on the West End – following the end of The Other Palace run on 16 March it takes up a monthly residence on Mondays at the Lyric – and on Radio 4. The premise is a simple one: a new musical created from suggestions as to setting and style at each show.

Poster for Showstopper!

Of course, we all know that improvision is far from a simple process, which makes it all the more fantastic that what is conjured up at each show is fresh, new, funny, inspired, and entertaining. At the show we saw, the setting was “inside a volcano”, utilising the musical styles of Annie, Oliver!, Dear Evan Hansen, Legally Blonde, and eventually, Waitress, Hamilton, and Heathers as well. The name of this ephemeral show? Burn, Baby, Burn!!!

The cast of this show were a talented bunch: Matthew Cavendish the chap trying to appease the producer on the big red phone, directing and shaping the performance; Jonathan Ainscough (Patrick Hamilton), Pippa Evans (Luigi and his wife), Joshua Jackson (Mark Jones), Philip Pellew (Stuart Jones and Fredopolis), Lauren Shearing (Mrs Hamilton), and Heather Urquhart (Maria) bringing the show to life; Jordan Clarke, Alex Ash and Chloe Potter providing the accompaniment.

The show was inventive, from a “Consider Yourself” style number, a Hamilton-style rap, and a Waitress-style ballad, and characters ranging from Luigi the Italian who decided his life was best served by opening an AirBNB in a volcano, through passionate gay couple the Joneses, the dreadfully formal couple the Hamiltons, and the volcano god “Fredopolis”.

Some of The Showstopper! cast
Some of The Showstopper! cast

What was saw was very accomplished, from a group clearly thinking, quickly, on their feet, and for those familiar with the styles of the various musicals (I haven’t seen or heard DEH yet, but I now have a flavour of it!), this was a delicious piece of parody.

I’d definitely recommend this for a light night out. The audience can feel complicit in the creation of what they are seeing, the actors (each show features up to seven from the ensemble) and musicians can get a workout, and everyone will have a fun time.

Eugenius (The Other Palace)

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This frenetic new musical from Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins takes its inspiration from comic books, 80s music and TV, and the perils of both childhood and Hollywood.

It makes a triumphant return to The Other Palace in advance of a well-deserved transfer to the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End at the end of October. (Update – as of 11 October this is no longer happening).

Eugenius tells the story of Eugene (Rob Houchen), a self-described geek who lives with his father and spends his spare time creating the story of Tough Man, Super Hot Lady, and the Evil Lord Hector.

His friends Janey (Laura Baldwin, previously on stage at The Other Palace in Big Fish) and Feris (Daniel Buckley, very funny) are equally viewed as odd by their peers: she has a secret crush on Eugene but he doesn’t seem to know it, and Feris is so consumed by teenage sexual fantasies he even laminates the comics he reads.

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Feris tries to impress the cool gang at school.

When a Hollywood producer’s lackey, Theo (Scott Paige, enjoyably camp) makes a trip into Eugene’s school to look for new ideas, Tough Man is pitched and then within a flash, taken to the city of dreams to be made into a film for Powermad Productions under the direction of Lex Hogan (Alex Bourne).

The trouble is, Hogan’s vision for the story leans more towards fish people and spandex airheads than the tale invisaged by young Eugene.

There’s another problem, too. Evil Lord Hector (Neil McDermott, EastEnders actor turned stage bad boy) is somehow not a product of Eugene’s imagination, but he’s real and after heading through space for years with only a perpetually cheery robot by his side (Kevin, voiced at the performance I saw by Mark Hamill), sees the film in progress and misidentifies the doltish actor Gerhard (Simon Thomas) as the real Tough Man.

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Super Hot Lady, Evil Lord Hector, Tough Man – photo by Scott Rylander

Hector channels a fair bit of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, while the actor playing the film Hector may just be based just a little on Laurence Olivier, but once the evil one lands on Earth he causes havoc for Hogan’s production.

Carrie, the actress playing Super Hot Lady (Emily Tierney, who has a knock-out dance number), almost falls for the adolescent pimply charms of the portly Feris, while Eugene learns that what’s most important in his life isn’t necessarily the need to “kiss ass”.

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The company of Eugenius

This hard-working company are flat out in fast-paced dance routines, but also give some love and heart to the most proposterous of characters.

It’s hard to single out any one member of the cast but apart from the main principals, I’d like to give a nod to Dillon Scott-Lewis who is a lithe and energetic dancer, and to Tom Senior’s Shock Jock.

The remainder of the cast are Christopher Ragland, Titus Rowe, Laurence Alex Tranter, Ben Darcy, Lauren Cancannon, Amy West, Sasha Wareham, and Alison Arnopp (Space Diva). And not to forget “the voice of Brian Blessed”, which is used to good effect.

With fun songs, audience participation, and silly cultural references, this show is a hard one to dislike. It has bags of heart and soul, and a vibrant message to all those grappling with growing up and life’s ambitions: “don’t shoot for the stars: shoot higher”.

Update: on 11th October it was announced that Eugenius will NOT be transferring to the West End due to the “withdrawal of a key investor”.

Big Fish (The Other Palace)

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Over at the rebranded The Other Palace (formerly St James’ Theatre), something rather magical is going on, with a bit of Broadway pizazz in this show of tall tales, misunderstandings, loss, redemption, daffodils, and fish.

Kelsey Grammer has been imported from the US to make his London stage debut in Andrew Lippa’s musical, itself based on the screenplay for the film (starring Albert Finney) written by John August, itself based on a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Edward Bloom is introduced at his straight-laced son’s wedding, shortly after they’ve been fishing. He’s been cautioned not to share his ‘stories’ or even make a toast, but of course, he doesn’t listen. Quickly, though, we realise that all is not well and that his son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) will have to make sense of the man who he regards as a stranger and who is starting to slip away.

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While Edward slips in and out of consciousness, with his loving wife Sandra (Clare Burt) and new (and pregnant) daughter-in-law Josephine (Frances McNamee) close by, we meet his young self (Jamie Muscato) and follow him on wild adventures with a witch (Landi Oshinowo), a giant (Dean Nolan), and a circus supremo (Forbes Masson), as well as young Sandra (Laura Baldwin). These boast bizarre and big song and dance numbers – often pastiches – while the real-time/life scenes are more of the ballad type. Little Will is present for most of the time, too, and was played by Colby Mulgrew at the performance we saw; he reacts to the fun and the sadness around him and pulls us in.

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The set is simple enough, utilising sound effects and video projections to give us a sense of where we are, when outside the hospital ward.  A lovely act one closer gives us a stage full of daffodils, which were always Sandra’s favourite flowers, although we might not quite believe the story of how the young Edward and Sandra met.

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Some commentators on this show have scoffed at reports of audiences being moved by events as they unfold, but certainly at the evening performance I attended there were quite a few people dabbing their eyes, and rightly so, as the final scenes are deeply moving, and the effectiveness of this has to be laid at the door of director Nigel Harman and star Kelsey Grammer, who is simply superb in both the humorous and tragic scenes, as well as throwing himself into the boisterous song routines.

Incidentally, front row ticket holders may well get a closer encounter with Grammer than you might have bargained for, which was amusing in itself.  There’s some doubling of roles in a hard-working cast, with Oshinowo and Masson portraying two characters, while the smaller roles in ensemble are well-drawn.  The fantasy sequences are great, and Burt is quietly wonderful in a role which might have misfired, as is McNamee. I found Muscato had a lot of charm as young Edward, although it’s hard to think he grew up to turn into Frasier (still Grammer’s best-known role, and despite best efforts he doesn’t quite shake off memories of Seattle’s finest).

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If you want something which is ‘flipping’ marvellous, with a ‘sole’ and a good line in ‘cod’ philosophy, then make your way to The Other Palace for this short run; it is well worth your time and is definitely the ‘plaice’ to be.