Barbara Hughes-Moore

REVIEW Cinderella, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Pantomime is such a fantastically British art form; a sarcastic blend of slapstick, farce and musical comedy that feels inextricably interwoven with the festive season, brimming with daft jokes for the kids and innuendo for the adults. But panto and I haven’t always been on the best of terms. Our conscious uncoupling resulted from the traumatizingly formative pantomime experience of my youth where everything was too loud, too overwhelming, and too upsetting because one of the ugly stepsisters hit on my grandpa – while my grandma was sitting RIGHT NEXT TO HIM. None of us went home filled with Yuletide joy that night – witnessing ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Sue Hodge try to chat up a close family member does slightly dull your enthusiasm for the medium, it turns out – and I’ve never been to another panto since. Until now…

As luck would have it, it’s another iteration of Cinderella that’s got me tentatively dipping my toe back into the panto pool. Decreed by this production as ‘the Fairy Godmother of all pantomimes’, Cinderella is the ultimate Christmas classic, a story so familiar you could probably shout out the lines in your sleep – and this new production is filled with enough glitz, glamour and giggles to remind you why it’s one of the ultimate feel-good fairy tales. I entered the theatre with not a little trepidation and brought backup in the form of my grandpa (not the one Sue Hodge tried to pick up; pretty sure that one’s off panto for life), and left it singing, laughing, and wishing for an encore!


Musical director Michael Morwood’s scintillating New Theatre orchestra makes a joyful noise (their rendition of Pure Imagination, a recurring musical motif, is utterly magical) and the production values are uniformly amazing, from the incredible sets and visual effects to the gorgeous costumes and choreography. Pantos tend to keep up to date with the music of their time – remember S Club 7’s appearance in that Aladdin panto ITV used to rerun every Christmas in the early ‘00s? This reviewer fondly does – and Cinderella has its fair share of modern(ish) tunes on its slate from the likes of Beyonce, the Jonas Brothers, Shawn Mendes and Pink, as well as some campy classics by Shirley Bassey and Gloria Gaynor.

Pic Tim Dickeson 06-12-2019 Cinderella @ The New Theatre

The cast is stellar across the board, but it’s Gok Wan as the Fairy Gokmother (!) that’s maybe the most perfect, meta casting choice of all – because who better to play the ultimate fairy tale makeover guru than the man who taught a nation how to look good naked? Have no fear: there’s no nudity here, as the cast are fabulously costumed to Wan’s high standards. Wan leads the show with effortless charm, wrangling some sense out of the wacky proceedings and making a grand entrance into every scene via sparkly explosion or flying moon. He also accidentally lobbed a bunch of toilet rolls into the audience during a deliciously chaotic rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas, which is the kind of quality ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ goof you just don’t get in your bog-standard (pun intended) end-of-year production.

Phil Butler is amazing as the lovably lovelorn Buttons, pining unrequitedly for Teleri Hughes’ lovely Cinderella. Butler channels the keenly controlled mania of Lee Evans (a compliment I wouldn’t give lightly), playing especially well off of his co-master of ceremonies Gok Wan, and had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Butler’s delivery transforms every line into a zinger – I was responsible for the loudest guffaw when Buttons claimed to be in his mid-thirties (alarming evidence that I’m turning into my grandma who, when we saw 12 Angry Men at the New Theatre some years ago, watched Tom Conti walk onstage and proclaimed in the loudest stage whisper in the history of theatre, ‘That’s not Tom Conti, is it? My God, he’s looking old!’)


Hughes’ Cinders and Rob Wilshaw’s Prince Charming don’t have the meatiest material but they perform their roles beautifully and lay claim to the loveliest duet, a surprisingly emotional version of Shawn Mendes’ If I Can’t Have You. They also get to flex their comedic chops during a hilarious cover of Beyonce’s Listen, a poignant ballad broken up by a jealous Buttons repeatedly asking Cinderella ‘Who’s that bloke?’ Dale Evans particularly stands out as Dandrini, the Prince’s best friend, who seems like the lovechild of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender and who shares with Wilshaw an exciting cover of Jonas Brothers’ Sucker and belts out an epic solo version of Pink’s Get the Party Started, backed by the excellent ensemble dancers. (Regan Gascoigne and Nathan Skyrme were on particularly lively form).

Pic Tim Dickeson 06-12-2019 Cinderella @ The New Theatre

But let’s be honest: this show belongs to the ugly stepsisters, and Ceri Dupree and Mike Doyle as the winkingly-named Tess and Claudia own the stage whenever they strut onto it. Doyle, an award-winning comedian, returns here for his seventh consecutive year as the New Theatre’s panto stalwart; a performer hasn’t got this much joyous mileage out of a Welshily-drawled ‘alriiiiiiight’ since Nessa Jenkins, and he wears the ever-living hell out of the eye-poppingly inventive costumes – designed by Ceri Dupree, who also plays the Tess to his Claudia. Dupree, an international cabaret star, is the show’s secret weapon, countering Doyle’s outrageous bawdiness with an elegantly deadpan aloofness – and by God he knows how to wear a gown. The revolving runway of their increasingly garish costumes is a gag that never gets old – at various points Doyle dresses in outfits that variously evoke a bee, a lampshade and set of traffic lights, and early on in the show the sisters emerge from the stage garbed in what I can only describe as nightmarishly horticultural French and Saunders cosplay. Their Shirley Bassey-off alone is something you have to witness with your own eyes.

I’ll try not to spoil too many of the jokes here because watching them unfold live is a delight you should experience for yourselves – and (thankfully for this introvert) audience participation is limited to your standard ‘OH NO IT ISN’T’ fare, not the ‘dragging someone onstage’ nightmares that have haunted my dreams in the run-up to this performance. I was especially delighted to see so many Welshisms in the show that gave it a personal feel: from Buttons’ snarky asides about Ely and Butetown to the prince inviting such nobles as Megan of Mynachdy to the ball, it’s wonderfully tailored to Welsh audiences.

Cinderella was the show which reignited the snuffed flame of panto love in my heart, and for that I’ll forever be grateful. It’s total escapism; a show brimming with joy, jokes and genuineness that made me forget the worries of the world for two hours, and it’s the ultimate family show because it absolutely has something for everyone. ‘The word for it is magical,’ my grandpa declared after it ended, and I couldn’t agree more: not only will you go to the ball, you’ll have one too!

Cinderella is playing at the New Theatre throughout the festive season, and concludes its Cardiff run on 12 January 2020.

REVIEW The Snow Queen, Sherman Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

There’s nothing quite like a Sherman Theatre Christmas production to get you in the festive mood – and The Snow Queen, this year’s main-stage musical offering, is a sumptuous Yuletide treat for the whole family. Directed by Tessa Walker, the show adapts Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale about two young friends, Gerda and Kai, whose friendship is tested when Gerda hurts Kai, and goes on an epic journey to find him and make amends after he is lured away by the wicked Snow Queen.

Anni Dafydd as Gerda and Ed Parry as Kai

Reimagining the Danish fairy tale as an urban myth told to the children of the South Wales Valleys fits with the vision of the Sherman’s artistic director Joe Murphy in telling stories ‘rooted in Wales but relevant to the world’. The show has all the cosy feels of being told a great story on a cold winter night, not least because it seems to draw its framing device from The Princess Bride: in this case, it’s told to us and a stroppy little boy (Morgan Lllewelyn Jones) by his beleaguered babysitter (Grace O’Brien) as they wait out a snowstorm that has delayed the return of the boy’s mother. Having taken out the lights, the heating and the wi-fi, the blackout might as well have turned their sleepy town back to the Stone Age, and the boy isn’t in the mood for a story – but before long, the sitter’s initially irate listener becomes as enrapt as the audience as she weaves an epic tale told to her by her grandmother.

The story is indeed a captivating one, skilfully adapted by Conor Mitchell who pulls quintuple duty as writer, lyricist, composer, musical director and onstage pianist! Mitchell’s music is gorgeous – not all the songs work, though the best are up there with Frozen, which was incidentally inspired by Andersen’s story – but it’s his script that is particularly lovely: funny, sweet and sincere, it feels more universal in scope than Andersen’s, focusing less on faith and more on the power of inner strength, self-determination, and friendship; how kindness is not a commodity but a treasure that should be cultivated, cherished and shared, especially during a time in our world in which it may seem rare.

Jo Servi as the Crow and Grace O’Brien as the Sitter

The beautiful messages woven into Mitchell’s script are wonderfully brought to life by an excellent, enthusiastic and deeply creative cast. Anni Dafydd goes on an incredible journey as Gerda, at first a fun but entitled young girl, whose casual classism alienates her closest friend Kai (Ed Parry), and her subsequent quest to find Kai and make up for her mistake is an epic and emotional one. Given that he is the subject of Gerda’s crusade, Parry might not get many scenes as Kai, but he does get to chew the scenery as an adorkably befuddled prince and a sassy anthropomorphic geranium (if that description along doesn’t compel you to see this show, I don’t know what will!)

Along the way, Gerda meets a conveyor belt of eccentric characters, from Hannah Jarman’s bolshy Bandit Girl to Jo Servi’s delightfully irascible Crow (reminiscent of Bagpuss’ Professor Yaffle, with Servi fantastically animating a puppet designed and directed by Rachael Canning) to Julian the adorably heroic reindeer (brought to vivid, hilarious life by Callum Lloyd, who infuses the character with Disney-level charm through sheer skill and enthusiasm – how he managed to draw laughs, gasps and awwws from a lampshade, I’ll never know). Stephanie McConville’s Snow Queen has a glamorously insidious presence, but she appears a touch too infrequently, and her outfit could have been just a bit grander to match the larger-than-life characters that preceded her.

From left to right: Callum Lloyd (Julian the Reindeer), Morgan Llewelyn Jones (Sat), Hannah Jarman (Bandit Girl), Grace O’Brien (Sitter) and Anni Dafydd (Gerda).

Not only is the cast superb across the board – swapping between their roles as actors, musicians and puppeteers with ease – but the show is just beautiful to look at. Cecilia Carey’s inventive sets evoke myriad locations from an eternally-summery garden to an ice palace worthy of Elsa, the season-spanning vistas animated by the atmospheric sound and lighting design (by Ian Barnard and Katy Morison respectively), and Helen Rogers’ inventive costuming (the Bandit Queen’s ensemble is particularly eye-catching), not to mention the snow near-perpetually falling from the heavens. The Garden of Eternal Summer, ruled over by Rachel Nottingham’s slightly demented sorceress, is one of the most vivid locales, and also the setting of the show’s best scene which I can only describe as the Golden Afternoon song from Alice in Wonderland as reimagined by RuPaul’s Drag Race (featuring the above-mentioned sassy geranium, Jo Servi as a timorous wallflower and Stephanie McConville as an ultra-chic rose).

The Snow Queen is brimming with Christmas magic for the whole family, and it’s the perfect show to usher you into the festive season. In my experience, there’s nothing quite as Christmassy as a musical, and the Sherman’s production not only has Disney-calibre songs but a Disney-calibre story and message to go along with them. Not only will it inspire and entertain you, it will teach you that you have to experience the winters of your life in order to appreciate the summers. It’s not the shards of a magic mirror that make a person cruel – that capacity is within us all, but so too is the capacity for kindness, courageousness, and even a little bit of magic.

The Snow Queen is playing at the Sherman Theatre through 31 December.

REVIEW Peter Pan Goes Wrong, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Following its rousing success with The Play That Goes Wrong, Mischief Movie Night and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Mischief Theatre are back with their unique take on J.M. Barrie’s Christmassy classic Peter Pan, which descends into utter chaos in what might just be their best show yet.

The poster warns us that this is not a pantomime – indeed, an increasingly irritated Captain Hook (Connor Crawford, in one of three excellent performances) reminds us of that fact, even as we the audience gamely reply ‘OH, YES IT IS!’ – but there’s enough magic, musical numbers and mishaps to be considered one. The comedy starts even before the curtain rises, from the hilarious programme (including an in memoriam section for Nadia the crocodile) to the bored-looking stagehands roping in audience members and fusing the whole theatre trying to light a few tiny lamps. The gang have crafted something of a stage-bound MCU – a Mischief Theatrical Universe, if you will – in which their hapless cast and crew from “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” slowly descend into chaos and madness: their inventory of onstage oopsies include malfunctioning tech, sets on the verge of collapse and all manner of bungled staging, line deliveries and prop mishaps – and it’s a deceitfully clever, canny formula that runs like clockwork.

The whole cast is an incredible, fine-tuned machine of mischief and they all work so hard – though perhaps none so toilsomely as thespian troupers Oliver Senton and Phoebe Ellabani. Senton plays the over-enthusiastic AD, Nana the Dog, and a particularly unintelligible pirate who sounds like those blokes from Hot Fuzz – but perhaps his best moments come when he inhabits – nay embodies – the role of Peter’s Shadow, which is worth seeing the show for alone. Ellabani has maybe the most divergent set of roles, impressively swapping between the genteel Mrs Darling and family maid Lisa in seconds – not to mention pulling double (quadruple?) duty as Tiger Lily and a fabulously chaotic Tinkerbell. Senton and Ellabani also share perhaps my favourite scene: the one where Senton-as-Nana gets stuck in a door, and Ellabani-as-Mrs-Darling attempts to sing a moving lullaby as the technical team bring out a workshop-worth of noisy power tools to drill him out. You have got to see it for yourselves.

This is the kind of show which wouldn’t work if there was even a single weak link, and everyone in the cast is simply brilliant. One of the standouts is Tom Babbage as Max, a lovelorn actor who was only cast because his rich uncle funded the hapless production (revealed by the malfunctioning sound system). Babbage brings an Andrew Garfield adorkableness to the role, sweet and so sympathetic that he had the entire audience on-side and cheering for him to succeed (his triumphant crocodile dance is perhaps the cutest thing these eyes have ever seen). His unrequited (or is it?) love for Sandra is one of the loveliest aspects of the show, and, as the dance-loving Wendy Darling, Katy Daghorn brings the kind of delightful exuberance only generally found in the end of term school production.

Ciaran Kellgren as Jonathan aka a deliciously smarmy Peter Pan in whose flying sequences gets swung about more ferociously than Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball. Even Ethan Moorhouse’s stolid stagehand Trevor gets roped in (and strung up – literally and figuratively) when the chaos starts taking out cast members, including the timorous Lucy aka Tootles (Georgia Bradley), one of the many victims of the structurally-unsound set. Romayne Andrews as John Darling gives a gloriously stilted performance as an actor so apathetic his lines – not to mention Classic FM and the shipping forecast – are being fed to him through anachronistic headphones. His line deliveries are an utter joy – matched only by the delectably dramatic narration of Patrick Warner as Francis, the ill-fated master of ceremonies who punctuates his tale by throwing glitter and growing increasingly afraid of his seemingly-possessed chair. Connor Crawford is particularly great as Captain Hook (and he’s clearly enjoying his stylish pirate costume – the way that coat moves!) but as Mr Darling he delivers a perfect homage to Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein (you’ll know it when you see it).

The revolving set is spectacular – split into three segments that artfully represent numerous locations including the Darling nursery, Hook’s pirate ship, Pan’s woodland hideout, a moonlit London skyline and more, it’s a gorgeous feat of ingenuity that even a tide of technical issues can’t hide. Although it’s not a musical it still boasts some brilliant musical numbers like a rousing sea shanty on the Jolly Roger and a poppy group number about imaginary feasts. There’s also a truly visually striking scene in which Peter and Wendy go for a swim in the Neverland lagoon, and the set transforms into a spectacular evocation of the ocean depths in which neon sea-creatures frolic and glide. They still manage to wring out its comic potential (not least a lights-up reveal as to how they achieved said effect), but it doesn’t dull the polish of the scene’s creative beauty.

Mischief Theatre’s marvellous modus operandi is fast becoming as beloved as theatre tropes and traditions on which it gleefully riffs. Peter Pan is a story so familiar to us that we know the plot beats, the characters and the lines even as the production falls apart at the seams – and there is joy to be had in watching people desperately striving to remain sane while the world collapses around them. It takes pinpoint precision to look this imprecise, and Mischief Theatre have got it down to a fine art. It’s a show for people who adore theatre and even those who aren’t so keen – because every tradition, trope and trapping is lovingly ribbed in that creative, entertaining and endearing way that Mischief does so well. I was lucky enough to see this production with my grandpa, who dubbed the show ‘the best theatre experience I’ve ever had’. It’s a show you shouldn’t miss and won’t forget.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is playing at the New Theatre, Cardiff through Sunday 10th November.

Review Frankenstein, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The story behind Frankenstein’s creation is nearly as mythic as the tale itself: eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, dared by Lord Byron and her husband Percy Bysse Shelley during that fateful summer in Geneva, dreamt of a young scientist staring in horror at the fearful creature he brought into being, and subsequently penned one of the most timelessly influential works of literature.

With countless adaptations of the classic tale over the years, and even more just inspired by it, it’s difficult to envision how a modern interpretation could evoke the same subversive quality as it did in its inception – or even warrant its existence in a sea of Frankenstein reimaginings. To my surprise and delight, this new version, penned by the acclaimed Scottish writer Rona Munro and directed by Patricia Benecke, is a bold and radical reworking that earns its place in the pantheon through ingeniously inserting Mary Shelley into her own story. Although in reality she plotted out her book in great detail, here we get to see Mary think up the book in real time – perhaps not historically accurate, but an innovatively metatextual way of watching the creative process unfold.

As Mary Shelley, Eilidh Loan is a crackling lightning strike of charisma; brash, snarky and devilishly charming, she wields her pen like a magic wand and has the audience in the palm of her hand. I just love the way she takes up space: her Gentleman Jack swagger-and-style (that long black leather coat!) is captivating, her frantic real-time thought-process compelling, and it’s refreshing to see a woman so joyously aware of her own genius. She’s a Regency Fleabag, dragging us through the fourth wall into her world, making snide comments about her own characters and gleefully twirling the strings of their fate like a Romantic-era Deadpool – in many ways, her brazen delight at the gory demise of her cast makes her as bloodthirsty as her own monster.

It’s a quirk that might seem trite in lesser hands, but it makes sense: the women of both Frankenstein and Shelley’s world were pawns, prisoners and victims of patriarchal control and/or male-perpetrated violence, but Mary Shelley was a woman who smashed through the binaries in which society had boxed her – breaking centuries-old societal conventions was just a regular Tuesday for her. So, to set her in the midst of her own story, to give her the reins completely in the telling of her tale, feels like a natural extension of her work and a compelling tribute to such a revolutionary woman – plus, it injects female agency into a story which is (in)famously bereft of it. Sometimes, Mary’s asides slightly dull the dramatic edge of the proceedings – but the characters and plot beats are so familiar that it was refreshing to see them reinvented in a new light. Maybe Mary wouldn’t quite express herself in the way this version of her does, but her fierce rebellious spirit is made of the same stuff.

Loan is so commanding that the other characters in the play often feel just like that: characters, archetypes, shadows of Shelley’s genius mind. This is Mary’s show, and she won’t let you forget it – which, for my money, works, but perhaps that’s because I know and love the novel so much that simply to portray its plot from point A to point B would seem almost too basic at this point. The central conceit, of Mary inviting us into her writing process as she shapes the characters, is experimental enough to risk the cohesion of the tale (which it just about avoids breaking) whilst also speculating as to Mary’s thoughts and motivations in writing it. It’s a meta deconstruction of Frankenstein as much as an adaptation of it, and the original framing device reanimates a well-worn story into something fresh and unpredictable.

Despite Mary’s dominance, the ensemble is brimming with talent and carry the story with ease. In a shocking turn of events, I found Victor more sympathetic here and the creature less; Ben Castle Gibb’s interpretation of Dr F is rather heart-breaking, even if the love story between he and Natali McCleary’s Elizabeth never quite convinces (it doesn’t work for me in the novel either, to be fair). Michael Moreland’s ‘Monster’ (as he is credited here) is effectively animalistic in his performance, although doesn’t appear as overtly monstrous as the characters’ reactions might suggest. His monster is less elegantly eloquent as his on-page counterpart, but he excellently delivers the play’s best line (which, to my recollection, isn’t in the original): ‘despair was the first gift you ever gave me’.

The rest of the cast is energetic and gamely inhabit Frankenstein’s sprawling character list. Thierry Mabonga is tasked with the most variable cross-section of roles, playing Victor’s hyper younger brother William, his genial bestie Henry Clerval, and (a particularly imposing incarnation of) Captain Walton. As Victor’s long-suffering fiancée Elizabeth, Natali McCleary is saddled with one of the novel’s least meaty roles yet still infuses the character with kindness and charm; however, she shines particularly as Safie, a Muslim woman who leaves home in pursuit of true love, and whose newfound family is spied on by the creature from afar. Greg Powrie and Sarah MacGillivray convince as the domestic parade of paternal/maternal figures who influence Victor and the creature, even if their multiple roles are rather thankless.

In a play that so unabashedly celebrates a woman’s accomplishments, it’s wonderful to see so many women in key roles in the creative team. Munro’s script is sharp, witty and inventive – she also wrote the compelling Rebus: Long Shadows which I reviewed for Get the Chance earlier this year – and Benecke’s dynamic direction ensures the story whips by at breakneck pace. But it’s the production design that makes the show truly unmissable: Becky Minto (who also designed the costumes!) has crafted a, spectacular, visually stunning and gorgeously symbolic set which doubles as an abandoned stately home, an Arctic-bound ship, and the internal tapestry of Mary’s mind all in one. The set is skeletal, adorned with spindly trees that variously evoke spines, vines, and veins – and which, in a delightfully inventive novelty, the actors climb as the action moves between the two tiers. The gorgeously Gothic atmosphere is augmented by Grant Anderson’s effectively-Frankenstinian lighting and Simon Slater’s eerie music/sound design.

Some reviewers suggest that the play emphasises the ‘morality tale about unfettered science’ angle of the text at the expense of its contemplation on moral responsibility, but I beg to differ. From where I was sitting, the play focuses almost entirely on the latter whilst throwing the scientific cautionary tale out the window – and is all the better for it. After all, we never learn the exact workings of Victor’s reanimation process, and the condemnation of him playing God or mistreating his ‘patient’ relates to the larger themes of humanity’s shared responsibility in the creation of monsters. Munro herself interprets Frankenstein not as a cautionary tale about unchecked science, but rather about inequality – an interpretation I really feel gets to the heart of the story.

Of the monster’s two creators, Mary is the more attentive and empathetic to the being for whose existence she is responsible; she listens to his story, touches him with kindness, and talks to him like a human being. Mary’s rage at the ‘great men’ who abuse their authority is powerfully tinged in shades of #MeToo – but the script leaves enough room for nuance and ambiguity that lends itself to multiple readings, not least Mary’s implied anger at her distant father William Godwin, who easily meets the requirements of the ‘great men’ she condemns. The real monstrous act is failing to take responsibility for the things you create – indeed; to renege on that responsibility is particularly heinous when one has the privilege, means and status that others lack. Victor does not only fail as a father and as a scientist, but as a human being.

This new version of Frankenstein is a refreshingly creative take on a familiar tale. It’s meta approach to the Gothic makes it feel like a mashup of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Young Frankenstein (I can give no higher praise). As Mary Shelley surmises near the play’s close, ‘vengeance is a monster’; perhaps here, the very novel Mary crafts is her last (or first?) act of vengeance against the myriad foes who have wronged her. This may be just the latest in a litany of adaptations of Shelley’s genre-defining masterpiece, but it’s also an invigorating take on the source material that demands to be seen – and it’s just the thing to get you in the spooky mood this Halloween week. Frankenstein is playing at the New Theatre through Saturday 2nd November.

REVIEW Hedda Gabler, Sherman Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Hedda Gabler will not be coerced. It’s the mantra of a general’s daughter, the battle cry of a woman so enmeshed in the art of war that she keeps loaded pistols in her living room. Henrik Ibsen’s convention-demolishing heroine raised eyebrows (and tensions) when she first stormed onstage in 1891, and the Sherman Theatre’s bold new version proves that Hedda is still as fresh, furious and fascinating a character in 2019 as she ever was.

Adapted from the original by Brian Friel, we follow Hedda Tesman (née Gabler) as she as her husband George return home from their honeymoon. Having recently received his doctorate, George is hopeful of gaining a much-telegraphed professorship – until the resurfacing of his academic rival, and Hedda’s former lover, Eilert Løvborg, threatens to upend the fragile new life they have built together. Chelsea Walker’s electrifying direction keeps mystery and character motivations simmering just below the surface; under her careful, artful eye, the stage is always thrumming with movement, which not only propels the drama along at a nimble pace but makes the world (though encased in a gorgeously hyper-real theatrical set) feel lived-in and authentic.

As Hedda Gabler, Heledd Gwynn is astonishing. Brutal, blunt and unbending, she demands space and attention, majestically spreading her arms like a King holding court – because although Hedda is a wife (and possibly an expectant mother), she defies and often transcends the strict binaries of gender and the behaviour dictated therein. Hedda wears her hair short and her feet bare; the most feminine she allows herself to be in appearance is the glamorous silk dress she sports throughout – a militaristic green gown she wears defiantly like armour (she is the only character who does not change her clothes – or anything else, for that matter – in the second act). And yet Gwynn meticulously threads a vein of vulnerability into Hedda’s precipitous façade, deposits of entombed emotion that Hedda battles to suppress and, if need be, destroy.

After Gwynn’s stellar turn, the other most overtly impressive performance is from Richard Mylan as Judge Brack, a sinewy nerve of malevolent machismo who is perhaps the closest Hedda has to an intellectual equal. As both a man and a judge, Brack is a repulsively-drawn sleaze of the highest order who delights in wordplay and innuendo as a means of making himself look powerful and sophisticated. As the sole representative of the law, Brack is a petty, pernicious piece of work; a man who, despite his profession’s aim to locate the truth, deals in gossip, hearsay and lies. Mylan deliciously articulates his every word with a sort of Wildean lasciviousness, and his every moment onstage feels unsettlingly dangerous.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is George Tesman, Hedda’s blissfully clueless beau, endearingly played by Marc Antolin. George is just so lovable that his oblivious adoration of Hedda even as she ridicules him behind his back is one of the most heart-breaking elements in an already-tragic story. Antolin treads a fine line in making George’s naïveté sweet without slipping into bumbling foolishness; his interpretation is a far more sympathetic take on the character than most – even if did manage to turn their honeymoon into a six-month long research trip. His doting aunt Juliana, tenderly played by Nia Roberts, seems to understand more of Hedda’s foibles than she would ever passive aggressively hint to her nephew, but Roberts brilliantly plays the role on several different levels at once, hinting at a more intricate inner life that other versions might gloss over – meanwhile Caroline Berry as stalwart servant Bertha watches proceedings with soundless intensity.

The ever-excellent Alexandria Riley once again shines in a complex role. As Thea Elvstead, Riley represents a more conventional femininity than Gwynn’s Hedda, escaping one troubled romance to start another, and finding herself caught in the dead space in between men who continue to fail her. She has devoted herself to the cause of Løvborg’s redemption and is willing to put in the invisible emotional labour to help co-author his revolutionary new book uncredited. Although Thea is eager to raise Løvborg up at her own expense, she is presented as a far more bold, brave person than Hedda, who despite her brash callousness admits herself a coward in catering to her phobia of scandal above all else – and the thorny rapport between Thea and Hedda is one of the drama’s most engaging and multifaceted relationships.

As a heroine in 1891, Hedda was unlike any woman in fiction at the time – her existence was a triumph in itself, every cruel act a defiant reclamation of agency that other women (fictional or otherwise) were then denied at a systematic level. Even though Hedda remains frustratingly oblique about her intentions (for the most part), that she has the freedom and privacy of her own thoughts and motivations was a privilege afforded to few women in the literature of her era. It is even more poignant when considering how Hedda is treated as property and possession to everyone in her life – especially to Brack, who views her as uncharted (and as-yet unconquered) territory, and even to dear, darling George (who takes on more of the emotional, empathetic woman-coded duties of the domestic household), who starts mapping out her entire life the second he learns that he has a progeny on the way, exuberantly uncaring of what she has to say in the matter.

Tragically, perhaps the only one to see her as a person is one she dehumanises the most: Eilert Løvborg, wonderfully portrayed by Jay Saighal. He is the one to call Hedda by her maiden name, by the name we know her, by the name that reflects her true self. Saighal is captivating in the role, projecting the image of a genuinely kind but self-destructive person brimming with love and beauty but unable to channel it into healthy, rewarding pursuits – his infatuation with Hedda a prime example. The moment where Løvborg secretly touches Hedda’s hand as an unknowing George flips through the honeymoon photo album is the most sensually-charged moment in a play that also features the judge crawling towards Hedda on all fours. That brief, almost-hidden moment of contact is a subtle, gorgeously romantic moment that represents all that was, is and could be between two people who just keep missing the chance to be together.

The superb acting is bolstered by a truly spectacular set, gloriously designed by Rosanna Vize in a way that is both edgily creative and deeply symbolic. The stage is decadently austere – all sharp lines and stark colours, nothing homely in sight save for the battered old piano which maybe represents Hedda’s deceased mother; a cage hangs ominously over the domestic square like a sword of Damocles, ready to ensnare her. The set is both specific and universal enough to enable a multitude of readings: perhaps it represents the reductive domestic sphere, or a psychoanalytic manifestation of Hedda’s internal mind; perhaps a domesticated purgatory or a metaphysical courtroom – or all at once? Ash falls from the ceiling at times; a real fire burns in a hidden compartment under the floor; in parts the stage is littered with flowers, symbols of pure, pretty, uncomplicated femininity – and Hedda takes a blowtorch to them. It’s utterly mesmerising.

Giles Thomas and Robert Sword’s anxious heartbeat of a score throbs ominously as tensions rise, and the cast wait their turn while sitting in chairs at the back of the stage, watching. As a purgatorial judiciary of peers, they sit in judgment, but also don’t seem to exist unless as pawns in the machinations of Hedda, who is the only actor onstage at all times – even when she is not participating in a scene, she remains the focus of it, standing imposingly at the centre of the stage as others talk about her. At one point George waxes lyrical about how there is only one Hedda, but she is already two – Hedda Gabler and Hedda Tesman. The true Hedda lies behind a door to which we are never given access; though the drama’s vibrant brush strokes paint only a partial portrait, we learn that Hedda is a deeply complicated, contradictory and confounding person. We may not agree with her, like her, or even sympathise with her – but we are her, in all our wondrous complexity.

It was a privilege to be a part of the post-show panel, along with Hannah Morgan (Head Above the Waves), David Mellor (Lecturer of Sociology, University of South Wales), led by Tim Howe (Communities & Engagement Coordinator, Sherman Theatre). It was such a joyful panel to be a part of and honestly my favourite so far – not least because Hannah
memorably dubbed Løvborg ‘hot bleedy guy’ and made my night! It was particularly special because Cardiff’s Law and Literature module was out in force, including our brilliant students and fearless leader Professor Ambreena Manji. We have been studying the play in our classes and it has been wonderfully rewarding to hear each of the students develop and express their own individual interpretation of the story, characters and themes. Although Hedda Gabler is not obviously legal on the surface, a deeper reading reveals legal issues at play such as gendered criminal behaviour, theft, co-authorship, property law, blackmail, and encouraging suicide (and that’s just the non-spoiler list!) Reading the play with these issues in mind can help to historicise law and explore its real-world effects and implications. The panel culminated in the question of whether Hedda ultimately has a choice in the end – I can only urge you to see this stunning production and answer that question for yourselves. Hedda Gabler is playing at the Sherman Theatre until 2nd November.

REVIEW Curtains (UK Tour), New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

From the creators of Chicago and Cabaret, Curtains marks John Kander and Fred Ebb’s third musical with a one-word title that starts with the letter ‘C’ – and also the third jewel in a storied career that has graced us with some of the best musical theatre in history. Curtains features a starry, multi-talented cast, an enthralling mystery and simply some of the best theatre I have had the pleasure of watching in quite some time.

Originating in the US with David Hyde Pierce in the lead, this version is directed by Paul Foster, and written by Rupert Holmes, based on the original concept/book by Peter Stone. Drawing on the fourth wall-breaking, metatextual mischief of Kiss Me, Kate and The Producers, Curtains is set in late 1950s Boston and centres on the beleaguered cast and crew of the Broadway-bound Robbin’ Hood of the Old West (basically Robin Hood meets Oklahoma, a hilariously bizarre mix). When their lustre-lacking leading lady is murdered onstage on opening night, it’s up to detective Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford) to root out the true culprit – that is, if he’s not too busy turning his dreams of theatrical stardom into a reality.

Curtains The Musical ©The Other Richard

Though the mystery keeps you guessing right up until the end, it’s a show that’s more ‘musical’ than ‘whodunnit’, but that’s no bad thing when you have an ensemble as tremendously gifted as this one. The sheer power of the assembled cast is on full display in thrilling numbers like the captivatingly extravagant ‘In the Same Boat’, the chillingly operatic ‘The Woman’s Dead’, and the hilariously effervescent ‘He/She/They Did It’ (in which the company’s collective paranoia imagines each character to be the culprit in turn). Every single person is a triple threat and a triple delight, whether it’s gloriously hamming up their pleas of innocence or pizzazz-ing the hell out of a showstopping number. But it’s Jason Manford’s leading performance that anchors the show, and further proves his West End mettle after lauded turns in Guys and Dolls, The Producers and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

‘It’s curtains for you, pal!’ is something that Cioffi might be used to saying in his day job, but it also hints at his secret desire to become one of the ‘Show People’ who appear to be the prime suspects. His wish to waive the workaday in exchange for a life in the arts might remind you of one Leopold Bloom (a role Manford has played in the past) – but he’s far from The Producers’ mousy neurotic. Manford brings a Jimmy Stewart-esque everyman quality to this role and continues to impress as an all-round performer, with his characteristic comic timing, killer vocals and some terrific moves – even though the cast also boasts Strictly Come Dancing champ Ore Oduba, it’s Manford who gets the showpiece dance sequence!

Curtains The Musical ©The Other Richard

As songwriter Aaron Fox, Oduba is a revelation here, imbuing his character with classic elegance and Clark Gable charm. We already knew from his 2014 Strictly win that he could dance, but I was surprised and delighted to find out how wonderfully he could sing too! It’s a shame that (other than as part of the chorus line) he doesn’t get a showcase dance scene – but he melds excellently with the ensemble, and his songs (including the melancholy ‘I Miss the Music’) are some of the loveliest in the show. His chemistry with Carley Stenson’s Georgia Hendricks (Fox’s songwriting partner/wife) is fantastic, and Stenson is superb in the role – having already earned her West End stripes in a multitude of hits including Legally Blonde, Les Miserables, Shrek and Spamalot, Stenson rocks some of the show’s most exciting numbers, especially act one closer ‘Thataway!’

If that’s not already enough, there are also masterful turns by the brilliant Leah Barbara West as rising ingénue Niki Harris (who, on the strength of this performance, is surely destined for the role of Christine Daaé in the not-too-distant future), and Samuel Holmes as hilariously haughty director Christopher Belling, who lays claim to some of the finest sarcasm this side of Dr Perry Cox. But it’s Rebecca Lock as Carmen Bernstein, the delectably brusque producer of Robbin’ Hood, who truly steals the show every time she’s onstage. Lock is a powerhouse in the role, breathtakingly charismatic and possessing the timeless quality and sheer presence of theatre greats like Dolores Gray and Ethel Merman, especially in her magnificent solo number ‘It’s a Business’.

Curtains The Musical ©The Other Richard

This whole production is a creative marvel, gorgeously crafted from top to bottom. David Woodhead’s lavish sets are a spectacle in themselves, none more breath-taking than a striking evocation of the theatre rafters that you simply have to experience for yourself. The vibrant orchestra is incredible; a beautiful reminder that there is nothing quite like live music. Gabriella Slade’s costumes are utterly magnificent (the sheer amount of material in the ‘Kansasland’ dresses deserves an award – the way they move!), and Alistair David’s thrilling, innovative choreography evokes the joyous, pin-point precision of classic movie musicals – Frank/Niki’s love duet (‘A Tough Act to Follow’) on the stairs is pure Singin’ in the Rain, and the ‘Kansasland’ sequence is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers perfection; I, personally, can give no higher praise. It hasn’t aged well in some aspects – there’s a dance/song sequence featuring a Native American character that feels inappropriate (especially as she is portrayed by a white actress), and Bambi (Emma Caffrey) is kind of over-sexualised for laughs, so the script could do with a little updating in those respects.

It’s rare to see such a thoroughly brilliant and beautifully devised show of this calibre outside of Broadway or the West End, but Curtains ticks all the boxes. It’s a self-aware love letter to musical theatre that ribs the genre for its tropes and celebrates it for its virtues. Ultimately, the show isn’t interested in what the critics think – it views them in much the same way as M. Night Shyamalan circa Lady in the Water, but when they’re as deliciously snobby as resident killjoy Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles), who can blame them? – because what it truly cares about is entertaining its audience. With a classic feel and a show-stopping quality in every scene and song, it’s clear the curtain won’t be dropping on this superlative production for a very long time indeed.

Curtains is playing at the New Theatre, Cardiff this week before storming its way through the UK through next year. A genuinely unmissable treat.

REVIEW Watermill Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The Watermill Theatre’s tour stops in Cardiff this week with a double bill of polar-opposite Shakespeare plays on alternate nights: Macbeth, which will be playing on Wednesday, Thursday (matinee) and Saturday, and its tonal opposite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream which will be playing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (matinee). I was delighted to see the performance of the latter, and to experience how Watermill – whose past triumphs include The Wipers Times, Crazy for You andMurder for Two – reconceptualised one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The creative team is brilliant across the board, and even though the pacing can be a bit uneven at times, the infectious energy of the cast, Paul Hart’s direction and the excellent second act more than makes up for it, with the ten actor-musicians gamely switching roles, instruments and costumes. Relocating the drama to Edwardian times maintains the original’s frenetic sense of fun, even if the period doesn’t add a huge amount to the original Athenian setting. (I wonder if it would have worked even better if set in the modern day, as with their staging of Macbeth).

Katie Lias’ production design beautifully shifts from dilapidated Edwardian theatre to the neon-lit faerie realm, aided by Tom White’s ethereal lighting. The music is worth the price of admission alone, with the cast performing gorgeous renditions of classic songs like ‘Cupid, Draw Back Your Bow’, ‘Blue Moon’, and ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’. (Yes, the song choice can be a bit on the nose, but it works – trust me). The harmonies are delicious, especially in the haunting performance of Laura Mvula’s ‘Sing to the Moon’, the culmination of this ensemble’s considerable skill – and the show’s major moment of pure magic.

Our central lovestruck quartet – Lysander (Billy Postlethwaite), Hermia (Lucy Keirl), Helena (Robyn Sinclair) and Demetrius (Mike Slader) – are fairly thinly-drawn on the page, so your investment in their plight relies almost entirely on the actors’ charisma. Luckily, the four are more than up to the task, especially when Puck’s meddling turns their romantic squabbling up to eleven – coming to a crescendo with Hermia/Helena’s quippy sparring and the hysterical ‘macho-off’ between Lysander and Demetrius (the way they treat a bit of playground-style shoving as the most violently masculine mode of attack is maybe my favourite moment in the whole play – think ‘Agony’ from Into the Woods).

Postlethwaite gives easily the best performance in a brilliant ensemble. Effortlessly charming and captivating from the moment he saunters onstage, his Lysander is dynamic and compelling; his physicality pitched (at least from where I was sitting) somewhere between Kylo Ren and Kevin Kline in his prime. He makes the archaic dialogue sound natural and contemporary, and there’s a spark to his delivery that isn’t present elsewhere in the show. On the basis of his work here, his turn as Macbeth is sure to be mesmerising.

The lively chemistry between the main quartet carries them through wave after wave of romantic contrivances. Robyn Sinclair is a standout in every musical number, but her excellent artistry is undercut slightly by poor costume choices and overwrought affection for the rather insipid Demetrius. While Hermia and Helena are perpetually thankless roles, Sinclair and Keirl approach their perennially-perplexed paramours with panache. (Hermia for example insults Helena’s ‘beanpole’ frame despite the fact that the actresses are the same height. It’s a small but conspicuous issue which demonstrates that performing the play as writ doesn’t always work).

The closest the play comes to exploring the contentious gender politics at its core is to genderswap a few characters – notably Puck (Molly Chesworth) and Bottom (Emma Barclay), both of which had potential but were undercut either by performance/direction or connotation. As to the first, Molly Chesworth isn’t quite as mercurial or mischievous as the Puck character needs to be (although her ‘stroppy toddler’ scene is a high point). And although Emma Barclay shines as an entertainingly imperious Bottom (the puns are inevitable when discussing this character), her casting means that we are invited to laugh at the prospect of a romance between the only same-sex couple in the show – and when the spells are broken, the heteronormative status quo is reset across the board. I do think the show’s heart is in the right place, but I think it would have been more subversive to gender-swap one of the main quartet of lovers instead.

In other casting quirks, the actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta traditionally double up as Oberon and Titania – but while Emma McDonald impressively plays both Queens, the roles of Theseus and Oberon are played by different actors here, which doesn’t entirely work. Offue Okegbe’s Theseus is a wonderfully commanding presence, although they added a subtle bit of pre-marital strife between him and Hippolyta that goes nowhere (and reverses their loved-up vibe from the original play); but Jamie Satterthwaite’s Oberon is less convincing. Satterthwaite doesn’t quite bring the same regal elegance as Emma McDonald’s enchanting Titania, and his subpar outfit looks like a Halloween costume next to her elfin haute couture.

Although a tad drawn-out, the show ends on a perfect note thanks to the ramshackle players’ (un)intentionally inept version of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the hilariously but earnestly incompetent luvvies wouldn’t seem out of place in Waiting for Guffman or Barry. The machinations of the fey court might be frequently more interesting than the bickering beaus (you can’t really beat top hat and tails-wearing faerie courtiers singing Nina Simone) – but if what we have witnessed here is, as Puck warns, just a dream, then it’s a very good one indeed.

Review ‘The Creature’, Company of Sirens, Chapter Arts Centre, by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The Creature, Company of Sirens’ bold reinvention of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is not only a magnificent modernisation of the classic tale but a potent and poignant examination of what it means for society to deem someone a monster. The play, vibrantly written by Lucy Gough and dynamically directed by Chris Durnall, functions as a spiritual sequel to their previous collaboration The Wolf Tattoo, which explored knife crime and gang violence. The Creature picks up these thematic threads and shifts the action from a futuristic dystopia to the dystopian prison system of our own world; to a single cell in which a young man confronts his erstwhile father for his part in the son’s terrible crime.

The production is thematically rich and harrowingly rendered. Are monsters born or created? What makes us monsters? And who is responsible? These questions form the spine of the story, and Gough has a knack for exploring the universal in the specific. The central mystery of Son’s ‘monstrous’ act is elegantly unwrapped, with breadcrumbs – bird, heart, tree – keeping the audience guessing until the final reveal, which (as in a criminal trial) still only forms a partial glimpse as to the act itself. Thematically and tonally, it called to mind Carol Ann Duffy’s Education for Leisure (empathetically exploring the psyche of a person who commits violent acts), the Taviani Brothers’ documentary Caesar Must Die (humanising/liberating prisoners through theatre), and Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell (in which the central image of hell – descending a rope into a bottomless pit – strikes a chord with the metaphors of this piece).

The original soundscape is effectively squelchy and unsettling, with Angharad Matthew’s design impressively recalling the psychological minimalism of the Sherman Theatre’s Tremor, and Dan Young’s spectral lighting eerily recalls Frankenstein’s early foray into the visual medium. The performances are powerful and evocative, even if they can be a little overwrought at times, but Durnall’s direction imbues a fantastic sense of motion and movement, and the melodrama complements the story’s high emotions and Gothic origins. Sometimes the characters’ declarations can feel a little on the nose, and a few elements don’t read as powerfully in execution as they might have on the page (the “autopsy”, Father’s revelatory monologue), but the creative team’s skill and good intentions keep the drama grounded and thrilling.

Intriguingly, the character of Son is portrayed by three actors – primarily by Matt Reed, who brings a brilliant Toby Kebbell-like intensity to proceedings, but also by Jared Ellis Thomas and Angharad Matthews, who embody the various facets of Son’s character, occupying the roles of his heart and mind respectively. The trio’s sinewy, surreal entrance starts the play: the three, a tangle of limbs under a sterile table, emerge as if from the primordial ooze in a visually thrilling sequence that you simply have to see to believe.

The doubles’ aspect of the Son character is especially interesting because duality is a key theme in his beloved Frankenstein, in which the son (the creature) can be read as a dark double of the father (Victor). Father (Jams Thomas) enters as an imposing figure jangling a set of keys. At first, then, he seems like a Warden, until his aloof disdain makes him more akin to some remote deity who materialises to pass judgment. When he enters the cell, he identifies himself as Father – not just the Frankenstinian sire of this seemingly-monstrous Son, but also the manifestation of patriarchal enmity; a symbol of the society which has shaped, condemned and discarded people like Son.

It was a pleasure to stay for the excellent post-show panel, in which the creative team explained that, in developing The Creature, they collaborated with young offenders from Parc Prison in Bridgend – the vivid authenticity of their collective and individual voices lends the drama a tangible, believable quality even as the weirdness escalates. Much of what we witness is ambiguous, largely psychological, and steered by an unreliable narrator who leaves us in doubt as to whether what we have seen actually takes place in reality.

The play is not realistic in a literal sense, then, but in an emotional one. The feelings are raw and jagged; tension simmers and rises to boiling point, but there is no relief or release – because this is a snapshot into the mind of someone like Son, whose traumas are absorbed so deeply into his psyche that he relives them on an endless loop. Son’s nightmare – ‘I’m in a labyrinth being chased by a monster, but the monster is me’ – demonstrates a remorse that he never clearly vocalises, and it’s interesting that his quest for a clean slate and father figure doesn’t turn him towards religion (despite wearing a rosary, something which is never overtly mentioned by the characters). The play also has some fascinating meditations on gender/gendered violence which similarly harken back to its Shelleyan source.

The dialogue is frequently interspersed with songs by cult music icon Daniel Johnston, a loner and underground revolutionary of whom Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a vocal admirer. The most striking of these is ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’, which hauntingly sketches Son’s predicament through the recurring lyric, ‘he was smiling through his own personal hell’. The penal system is its own specific type of hell on earth, imprisoning people in a monotonous cycle that is supposed to squeeze the criminal impulses out of them and depositing them back into society a changed person – or, otherwise, hole them up for the rest of their natural-born lives for committing a crime that society deems unforgivable. But it is almost impossible to imagine how the four walls of a barren cell can facilitate a moral and spiritual metamorphosis, especially because a criminal record can operate as an indelible mark on one’s character which jeopardises the prospect of ever finding a stable job, home, and life.

‘Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?’ Though never spoken in this version, the original creature’s plaintive repine appears to encapsulate Son’s rationale. Myriad social factors and personal traumas formed the disparate limbs of his identity that the root of his criminal actions is fragmented in neglect, abandonment, isolation, and (implicitly) issues of poverty, class and mental health. Monstrosity is a social phenomenon; it’s a word we use to label people whose actions are so repugnant that we as a society cannot condone. But monsters are the children of society – and, as Son urges Father, the responsibility for these monstrous acts are shared by us all. If society does not provide an opportunity for people to change, the vicious cycle repeats. The fact that re-offending is on the rise and people of colour (and especially black men) are disproportionately incarcerated accords with the notion that prison is a microcosm for the world: its injustices are the world’s injustices. The system punishes the offender rather than the social structures which contributed to that person’s crime, and as such can arguably never truly offer justice or closure.

The least we can do, as Son implores, is listen. The play wonderfully demonstrates how literature (and theatre) can help you make sense of the world – Frankenstein’s creature gives Son the words he wouldn’t otherwise have to describe the chaos in his soul. Likewise, this production gives us the chance to hear Son’s story and empathise with him just as we did with Shelley’s creature.

This is a four-star show with a five-star heart that resonates long after the striking final image.  It’s not only a taut exercise in maintaining mystery and suspense, but a viscerally timely and harrowingly relevant work of art that urges us to take responsibility for what we create and, crucially, for each other. The Creature is playing at Seligman Theatre, Chapter Arts Centre from 1-5, 8-10 October (BSL-interpreted performance on 4 October):

REVIEW The Lady Vanishes UK TOUR, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes remains one of the hallmarks of the genre, and the Classic Thriller Theatre Company (presented by Bill Kenwright) has brought the story to vivid life on its excellent UK tour. Despite its distinctly Agatha Christie-esque trappings, the original film, scripted by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, was actually based on the novel ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White, although the mystery is a top-quality Christie-style affair.

The story: on brink of World War II, pampered socialite Iris (Lorna Fitzgerald) is anxious to reunite with her Lordly fiancée on her way back to England. On the train ride home she strikes up a friendship with Miss Froy (Juliet Mills), a former governess who takes care of Iris after a bump on the head, and whose subsequent disappearance Iris is determined to solve – despite the other passengers denying they ever saw Miss Froy at all.

Although I was vaguely familiar with the synopsis (and wrongly convinced that it was an Agatha Christie joint), the rest of the story was new to me, and kept me guessing as to the compelling mystery at the heart of it. Is the conspiracy over Miss Froy’s disappearance (indeed, Miss Froy’s very existence) just a product of the injury to Iris’ head? Or is she being gaslit by unknown assailants for some nefarious purpose? The exact nature of events isn’t revealed until the end, but the setting and time period might provide some clues along the way.

The striking first image sets the scene in malevolently epic fashion: the curtain rises on a train station swathed in swastikas, in which Nazi officers mingle with ordinary citizens in a shockingly routine manner. It is an especially haunting visual because of how accustomed the characters are to this occurrence, and how this chillingly reflects the way in which Fascism is becoming insidiously normalised in the current political climate. It renders the story – over eighty years old at this point – powerfully relevant in our day and age.

Roy Marsden’s marvellous direction and Antony Lampard’s agile script have produced a tight, nimble thriller in which the puzzle pieces are a joy to assemble and the story whips along at the same breakneck pace with which the train dashes through the Austrian Alps. As Iris, Fitzgerald wonderfully grounds the piece, crafting an affecting transformation from superficial to superstitious, and remaining endlessly sympathetic throughout. Her chemistry with Matt Barber’s elegantly affable Max is sublime; Barber brings a terrific Benedict Cumberbatch-esque flair to proceedings, and his good-natured bemusement provides an effective counterpoint to Fiztgerald’s harried resolve. The way in which the mutually antagonistic relationship between these unwitting detectives mutates into one of trust and esteem is one of the play’s loveliest lynchpins.

The play is helmed by acting icons Juliet Mills (as the vanished lady herself) and Maxwell Caulfield (as the genially dubious neurologist Dr Hartz). Although they aren’t in as much of the play as I presumed, they both make a tremendous impression with their superb performances that are a credit to the calibre of their acting credentials. The production excels in both in its mystery and (delightfully) in its comedy, with the latter largely owing to the often-oblivious antics of country-hopping cricket fanatics Charters and Caldicott (Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon), but the play deftly weaves comedy into the mystery and is thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Designed by Morgan Large, the set is both gorgeously authentic and splendidly theatrical, an artistic marvel that is worth seeing the play for alone. Sumptuously realised and innovatively adaptable, the train in which most of the action takes place is animated by Charlie Morgan Jones’ inventive lighting, the collaboration of which crafts a magical visual experience that gives the sensation that you – the audience – are on the train with the characters.

Star-studded, sumptuously crafted and swiftly paced, this UK tour of The Lady Vanishes is a wonderful theatrical mystery that you owe yourself the joy of unravelling. (I would also direct you to Donna Poynton’s excellent review of the show, especially as Donna is more familiar with Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s repertoire ). It will be playing at the New Theatre through Saturday 20th July, after which it will conclude its tour in Leeds until 27th July.

Avenue Q, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The multi-award-winning mature muppet musical makes a glorious return to the New Theatre after their much-lauded 2012 and 2016 runs, not to mention their monumental success across the pond. The premise: in a world populated by humans and puppets, the musical follows the ragtag residents of the eponymous street in New York City, an area so decrepit that the locals view Hell’s Kitchen as a step-up. Directed and choreographed by Cressida Carré, its an entertaining blend of the nostalgic and the now, with the melodies recalling those iconic Muppet Show tunes while the lyrics bemoan the ‘warts and all’ anxieties of modern existence.

Avenue Q’s colourfully crass approach to social commentary via meta musical parody pitches it somewhere between Sesame Street and South Park, with its closest contemporary being the tunefully tragicomic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Thematically, the show is emotionally ambitious and surprisingly nuanced in its portrait of modern life, demonstrated by the depressingly relatable What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?/ It Sucks to Be Me, the hilariously realised The More You Love Someone (The More You Want to Kill Them) and utterly hysterical highlight The Internet is for Porn.

Even though its references are rather dated (it did premiere in 2003, after all), the show’s tales of millennial angst are still relevant sixteen years later, with characters unsuccessfully searching for direction in life (Purpose) or lamenting the endless cycle of love gone wrong (It’s a Fine, Fine Line). These fantastic numbers hit home in unexpected ways, and pepper in moments of poignancy amid the calamitous crudity on display most of the time – case in point, an extended instance of puppet-related rumpy-pumpy that evokes the infamous scene from Team America: World Police, only turned up to eleven.

The production’s raucous energy is thanks largely to its superb cast, with standout performances by Lawrence Smith (Princeton/Rod), Cecily Redman (Kate/Lucy) and especially Tom Steedon (Trekkie Monster/Nicky/Bad Idea Bear). (The Bad Ideas Bears, played by Steedon and Megan Armstrong, are particularly entertaining – manifestations of the worst impulses that goad you to misbehave with the power of their Care Bear-like innocence). Everyone in the ensemble emotes wonderfully through their puppet alter egos (which I imagine was no mean feat, especially as they play multiple distinct roles with ease), and their Herculean efforts mean that the puppet characters feel just as real and complex as the human characters (often moreso). The gorgeously ramshackle set, designed by Richard Evans, grounds the action in a truly transportive way, and the live orchestra is sensational.

However, there are a few potholes dotted about Avenue Q’s sidewalk: much as it wants to skewer stereotypes, it often ends up indulging them: the brilliant Saori Oda is a dazzling stage presence but her character (Christmas Eve) is uncomfortably caricatured; and Rod’s coming out story is mired in stereotypes which plays his sexuality for laughs. Even though the show is commendably unafraid of engaging directly with more weighty themes, its handling of them comes off a little clumsy in If You Were Gay and Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. Some characters simply do not work (Gary Coleman, Brian), some numbers fall flat (Schadenfreude, I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today), and some of the humour feels more mean-spirited than cheekily self-aware.

Avenue Q is a hugely entertaining musical that feels slightly out of date in some elements and viscerally prescient in others. Amidst the raunchiness and rowdiness there’s a real beating heart at the centre of the story that no amount of flippancy can hide. However, other than a brief mention of Brexit and Theresa May in the last number, it stubbornly plants itself in the pre-social media age of 2003 and refuses to move with the times. With a little updating, its already-relatable themes could be refreshed and renewed by acknowledging how the internet has become even more ingrained in our personal lives, especially the way in which it has effectively become the de facto matchmaker of our times. That potential to both enhance and complicate our already-fraught lives and relationships seems like the natural progression for such a savvy show – but as it stands, it’s an excellent, irreverent, exercise in accepting (as its beautiful final song attests) that ‘everything in life is only for now’. For now at least, that’s enough.