Groan Ups (Vaudeville Theatre)

The latest show from Mischief Theatre – we are reminded at the curtain call that this is the third of their shows currently running in the West End – is undoubtedly funny but a little overlong.

Groan Ups centres on a group of five schoolmates who we see on three separate occasions. As year two children in 1994 they are rather obsessed with scatalogical and sexual matters, wrecking assembly with frank admissions about their parents and themselves. Children, of course, have no filters at that age.

Cast of Groan Ups
Cast of Groan Ups

Class clown Spencer (Henry Lewis) has a beard (which must have seemed funnier in planning as he hasn’t in the photo on the programme cover). He is loud, boisterous, and unintentionally cruel to hamsters.

After an interlude in the classroom where we see the dynamic between the children already developing, there’s a jump to year nine in 2001. The friends are now teenagers, and perceptively awkward, convincing as they try to figure out the transition from childhood into puberty.

Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis and Zamit in Groan Ups
Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis and Zamit in Groan Ups

Katie (Charlie Russell) and Simon (George Haynes in last night’s episode, covering for co-writer Jonathan Sayer) seem the most realistic characters. She provides a depiction of a bored and neglected wife as an adult which rings true, while he transitions from the class weakling to a corporate loser trying to impress.

Less successful as characters are the dreadful Moon (Nancy Zamit), self-obsessed and bitchy, and Archie (Henry Shields), whose secret is obvious right from his year two revelation of what he did at the weekend.

In act two we are in the present day, at a school reunion, where events move quickly into farce and bring the most laughs, with Simon’s insecurity and trophy girlfriend “Chemise” (Bryony Corrigan), and Spencer’s hamster armageddon.

Russell, Shields, Zamit, Sayer in Groan Ups
Russell, Shields, Zamit, Sayer in Groan Ups

The wordplay is occasionally amusing (“the Prime Sinister”, “he must be executed as a detergent”), but the fast-moving knockabout is what truly pulls the laughs. Lewis and Haynes in particular are gifted physical comics, and some of Russell’s facial expressions are priceless.

Cut back by around half an hour (I’d lose the closing scene, despite the fun costume, and trim down the repetitive character of Paul – we get it, very quickly), and tightened up a bit, Groan Ups would hit its targets more effectively.

As it is, there’s plenty here to justify a nostalgic night out with lines and situations which may well make you shuffle uncomfortably in your seats – remembering your own formative years and being thankful they’ve passed.

Corrigan, Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis, Zamit in Groan Ups
Corrigan, Sayer, Shields, Russell, Lewis, Zamit in Groan Ups

Groan Ups is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward. It runs at the Vaudeville until 1 December.

Photo credits Tristram Kenton.

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The Worst Witch (Vaudeville Theatre)

The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy have passed me by a bit, so this musical adaptation by Emma Reeves about Mildred Hubble’s adventures at Miss Cackle’s academy was fresh and new for me.

Fast-paced and fun, this show has something for both the youngsters and the young at heart, as we head back to the day the disorganised Mildred found herself with the new batch of witches by mistake.

Dealing with the plotting of the devious Ethel, and finding friends in the studious Maud (Rebecca Killick) and the unconventional Enid, Mildred finds her first few months at Cackle’s a challenge, especially when it comes to casting spells, flying a broomstick, or dealing with an evil twin who threatens to destroy all they hold dear in the witches code.

As Miss Cackle (shades of Barbara Woodhouse of “walkies” fame) and her evil twin Agatha, Polly Lister proves to be a versatile scene-stealer, especially in their shape-shifting duet.

Danielle Bird is an excellent Mildred, whether essaying an awkward child, doing gymnastic contortions on a hoop suspended above ground, or crouching out of sight by the front stalls.

The band are also fun, especially the scatting Miss Bat (Molly-Grace Cutler), and Consuela Rolle and Rosie Abraham add a bit of interest with Enid’s audience participation and Ethel’s nasty attitude and magic transformations.

Previous cast of The Worst Witch
Previous cast of The Worst Witch

This is a joyous and lively show with good musical numbers composed by Luke Potter, traditional basic magic tricks, and a simple yet versatile set by Simon Daw of platforms, ladders and mysterious items in jars. There’s also some clever puppetry to evoke the feline familiars essential to every young witch.

The Worst Witch continues at the Vaudeville Theatre until 8 September and is directed by Theresa Heskins. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.

The Mentor (Vaudeville Theatre)

I caught this on its final day, the matinee performance, having noted some decidedly mixed reviews.

Daniel Kehlmann’s play has been translated from the German by veteran writer and translator Christopher Hampton, and I found it a funny, biting satire on the profession of being a writer.

Moving into London via Bath, the play has failed to find a respectable audience, which is a shame as it is largely a series of accomplished two-hander scenes.  F Murray Abraham is the star name, and for those of us who recall his Oscar winning turn in ‘Amadeus’ he is still a considerable draw as the abrasive, arrogant and charming Benjamin Rubin, who has only written one play of note, rarely produced and only read in schools, with a paranoia about TV radiation and an inflated perception of his own worth as a mentor.

He has been hired to mentor ‘the voice of his generation’ (so called by a bipolar critic who ended his life after filing his review), Martin Wegner, a puffed up joke of a man who has been practically bribed into the week by money, finding himself taken aback by Rubin’s only questions about his play being the font it was typed in and the occasional spelling mistake.  He is played well by Daniel Weyman, who convinces as a writer out of his comfort zone.

Wegner has an art historian wife, Greta (played by Suzy Bloom in the performance I saw); she resents her husband living off her earnings and not contributing anything to the housework, and seems too easily swayed by Rubin once they have drunk a few cheap whiskies together (not the kind he constantly tells us is the best in Scotland).  Do they, or don’t they?  And if they do, isn’t the age gap just that bit too wide for decency?

The final cast member is a scene-stealer, Jonathan Cullen as Erwin Rudicek, a camp arts administrator who reveres his guests, but soon decides what he wants is to make a killing with his ‘mood compositions’ which he carries around in his phone gallery.

With a simple yet effective set, with falling blossoms and stone chairs shaped as hards, this play sets awards, frogs, a soggy manuscript, a red pencil, a bottle of whiskey, and a girl fan who falls for her hero while her marriage stutters to a stop, within a glitzy opening of Wegner accepted an award named after the now deceased Rubin, and a closing scene of Rubin himself channelling Wegner’s play ‘Without A Title’ in returning after falling off the perch to give us a last bit of wisdom about whisky.

I liked this play a lot.  An enjoyable piece which, at eighty minutes, was probably slight and short enough.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre)

This is the version of Wilde’s play which is being publicised heavily because of the casting of David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, and if this feels like stunt casting (it isn’t really, he isn’t the first man to put on the dress and give the immortal handbag line), I’m pleased to say it has paid off.

A sparking comedy of manners, this production by Adrian Noble, former RSC artistic director, sizzles with energy and benefits from an excellent pair of performances from newcomer Emily Barber as Gwendolyn and the hilarious mugger Imogen Doel as Cecily.

Playing as broadly as the script allows, their garden scene is a hoot and Barber’s reaction to the marriage proposal in Act One is hugely entertaining.  Doel’s Cecily is a fiery child not to be trifled with, and her clumsy flirting is seriously scary!

As the two gentlemen who use deceit to enable themselves to have good times, Michael Benz as Jack and Philip Cumbus (last seen in the Trafalgar Studio Richard III as Richmond) as Algy are thoroughly modern chaps who fight over muffins and become lovelorn at the slightest opportunity.

Michele Dotrice and Richard O’Callagan are a fine Prism and Chasuble, a veritable comedy team fairly quivering with unsuppressed attraction.  In their hands the final reconciliation ‘at last’ is believeable, and her twittering delight at the prospect of a stroll is hilarious.

This leaves us with Suchet’s Lady B.  His is a frightful caricature, with exaggerated expressions and reactions which liven up her first interrogation of Jack in particular, with the slow opening of the black book, the shudder of distate about railway stations, and the look of distain she gives her daughter’s intended suitor.  It’s a performance which is just a step back from the pantomime dame, but it richly mines the comic potential of this greatest of female characterisations.

In Act Three his return bodes a change from the ‘gorgon’ to something softer, as this Aunt Augusta has a past of poverty and a marriage based on money, not love, and there may be just a little bit of regret when all ends happily without a thought for her, an essentially nouveau riche vulgar harridan whose exaggeration comes out of insecurity.

It’s an interesting take on the story in a production which is not perfect, but which is effortlessly entertaining, from David Killick’s snipey Lane through to Brendan Hooper’s Merriman (which an air of resignation whether ordering a dog cart or serving cake at tea).

Potted Sherlock (Vaudeville Theatre)

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festival, this show is the fourth in the series of ‘Potted’ shows from Dan Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who are joined in their Sherlockian endeavours by Lizzie Wort.  Their aim: to present all sixty Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories in just eighty minutes.

Their previous shows have centred on Harry Potter, Pirates and Panto, so this is a step further, and although the former CBBC presenters do aim this at the childish end of the spectrum and audience, somewhere along the way the point of the show is lost.

We start with Holmes being introduced by the theme from Shaft, and despite the best efforts of the three hardworking cast to swap characters and zip through the stories with some humour and a bit of song and dance, the moments which really work are few – a running gag involving a puppet Moriarty is fun, the Northern grit of the murderer in The Speckled Band works well, and some musical interludes during the Hound of the Baskervilles raise a smile.

It’s obvious that the performers love the stories, but why throwaway so many opportunities when characters like the one-legged man of the Sign of Four, the Crooked Man, the Man With The Twisted Lip, and even Mycroft – who is mentioned but sadly, never appears could be rich seams of comedy?  Too much mugging and fake corpsing goes on, and although it is funny to see the old water pistol gag making an appearance, it may be a case of too little, too late.

(Also, in the Priory School, it is not the father who orders his son to be kidnapped so the illegitimate elder son can inherit, but the half-brother himself).

Forbidden Broadway (Vaudeville Theatre)

The first main number in this uneven parody of the shows and stars of musical theatre is a spoof of Gypsy’s ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ rendered as ‘Everyone Thinks They’re A Critic’, which may be an attempt to put off us theatre bloggers, but no such luck!

‘Forbidden Broadway’ has been running in various guises for the past thirty years, with sections coming in and out depending on audience taste.  Now, I love my musicals, but I also love a good mickey take, and the ‘Les Miserables’ section of this show is one of the best I have seen, from the plaintive lament of Valjean to ‘Bring It Down’ (of the very high-pitched ‘Bring Him Home’, which must be the bane of every singer’s life since the character was created by the wonderful Colm Wilkinson) to a mischievous nod at the revolving stage, a bored Eponine ‘On My Phone’, and the Thenardiers bemoaning their lack of funny lines!

The rest of the show moves between spot-on send-ups of Broadway stars like Bernadette Peters (croaking through ‘See Me On A Monday, Please’), Angela Lansbury (not liking the modern Broadway in ‘I Don’t Want To Go’ – which started life as ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ in Dear World), Mandy Patinkin, Hugh Jackman, Idina Merkel, and – less successful – Kristin Chenoweth (not that well known here) and a tiny Elaine Paige in Toulouse Lautrec mode.  I felt the ‘Miss Saigon’ section was a little too cruel (especially The Producer) although the little helicopter is fun, while the section on ‘Once’ starts well but goes on too long.

Filling in the gaps are a nice piece on ‘Circle of Mice’ in ‘The Lion King’ lampooning the House of Mouse, Elphaba’s ‘Defying Subtlety’ in ‘Wicked’, a nip at the creators of ‘The Book of Morons/Mormon’, and a fun (but perhaps best if you have a long memory) competitive duet between Chita (Rivera) and Rita (Moreno) to the tune of ‘America’ in ‘West Side Story’.  There’s also a dig at ‘Liza One Note’ (rather unkind to the still-talented Liza Minnelli), and a very wicked and wonderful send-up of Sondheim’s wordplay in ‘Into The Words’.

I would cut the running time back a bit to stop the longueurs and padding that plague part of this show, but the five performers undoubtedly work hard – music director/pianist Joel Fram, Damian Humbley (Valjean/Cameron) and Ben Lewis, Christina Bianco (Peters), and the understudy Laura Tebbutt (Lansbury/Elphaba) standing in for Anne-Jane Casey.

‘Forbidden Broadway’ runs for one more week at the Vaudeville.

Theatre review: Master Class

Fresh from Broadway with three of the original cast, this play focusing on the masterclasses given by the opera diva Maria Callas to fledgling singers is very much a star vehicle for Tyne Daly (still best known for playing Mary Beth Lacey in the famous cop series of the 1980s).

Callas, in the 1970s, had lost her voice by this time but still displayed verve, wit and energy.  Part of this play focuses on the classes but our eyes are always on Daly, who expertly works the audience to her advantage.  The remainder is set in a memory of La Scala, with the recordings of the real Maria Callas showing what a wonderful singer she was, as her later self shares memories of her childhood, affair with Aristotle Onassis, early marriage to a much older man, and life’s disappointments.

On a limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre until April, this play is written by Terrence McNally, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, and features (alongside Daly in the lead) Jeremy Cohen as the pianist, Gerard Carey as the stagehand, and Dianne Pilkington, Naomi O’Connell, and Garrett Sorenson as the student singers.  They sing well, but they are not the focus.

Master Class is enjoyable as a one-woman show with characters in the fringes.  In an odd way it reminded me of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which centred around the hard-drinking journalist and his social pastimes, and former lovers.