Whether it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, or even Basil and Dawson from The Great Mouse Detective, everyone has their own definitive ‘Holmes and Watson’. And I can safely say that, after watching Blackeyed Theatre’s interpretation of the dynamic duo, theirs has become mine.
After his first appearance in 1886, Holmes quickly became a household name. 56 short stories, four novels and countless film, radio and television adaptations later, Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic consulting detective has become one of the most successful fictional characters ever – so popular that he was resurrected from the dead by public demand!
So who better to tackle one of Holmes’ thornier adventures than Blackeyed Theatre, the Berkshire-based company behind innovative reimaginings of Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde – not to mention previous Holmes adventures? Writer Nick Lane (who also directs) navigates smoothly through The Valley of Fear – no mean feat, as it spans twenty years, two cases, and both sides of the Atlantic. Vicky Spearing’s set – a fragmenting skeleton of exposed beams and William Morris-wallpaper, cleverly shifts from fin-de-siècle study to dusty saloon with the help of Oliver Welsh’s clever lighting and Naomi Gibbs’ convincing costumes.
Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington reprise their roles as Holmes and Watson, having first collaborated on Blackeyed’s The Sign of Four in 2018 (For more insight on how Luke and Joseph developed their fantastic rapport, check out our interview here). And what a dynamic duo! Barton is a zesty and mercurial Holmes who positively dances across the stage (at times, quite literally – in one of the show’s most delightful moments, he punctuates his re-enactment of the scuffle by pitching himself across the boards. It’s a ten from me, Luke!) He brings a heroic quality to the role without sanding off Holmes’ rough edges, and his declaration to Watson – “There is no me without you” – is a moment of genuine poignancy.
And it rings true, because Joseph Derrington as Watson really is the perfect counter to Holmes: as steadfast and warm as Holmes is volatile and brash. Watson isn’t a slapstick sidekick here: he’s a partner in (almost) every meaning of the term (and Derrington’s own medical background lends a real authenticity to the good Doctor). Derrington is effortlessly affable as Holmes’ chronicler and companion, and their camaraderie feels authentic and lived-in; there’s a cosiness to the cattiness that reveals genuine affection between them. If, as the characters say, this is their final adventure, then they go out on a high – but I do hope we get to see them together one last time. I dare you to find a better Holmes and Watson after seeing this show.
Meanwhile, Alice Osmanski, Blake Kubena and Gavin Molloy, round out this super-skilled ensemble. Their versatility truly knows no bounds, with Osmanski especially impressive as everyone from a hard-of-hearing housekeeper to a sharp-shootin’ Pinkerton.
Kubena, who thrilled and chilled the New Theatre as the titular Jekyll and Hyde last year, continues to be a captivating stage presence, while Gavin Molloy brings genuine menace as coal-field crime boss McGinty and as Holmes’ most formidable foe (if you know, you know): their confrontation in an art gallery, while brief, is one of the most intense moments of theatre I have yet to experience.
The show has everything you could want from a Sherlock Holmes adventure: packed with twists and turns, it brings the audience in on solving the mystery right along with the characters and keeps you guessing right until the final problem. Whether you’re a die-hard Sherlockian or an amateur sleuth, this is the show for you. Sherlock comes Holmes to roost in Cardiff this week in the last stop of its acclaimed UK Tour, and with only four performances left, it’s an absolute must-see. A whip-smart script and a supremely talented cast make this an adventure for the ages – the game is well and truly afoot!
As Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear comes to Cardiff this week in the last stop of its acclaimed UK Tour, Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore spoke with stars Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington (aka Holmes and Watson). Adapted and directed by Nick Lane, The Valley of Fear follows two cases across two sides of the Atlantic and finds Holmes and Watson at a crossroads in their friendship.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
So Luke, you and Joseph first played Holmes and Watson in Blackeyed Theatre’s The Sign of Four a few years ago. You’re now reprising your roles in the UK Tour of The Valley of Fear, Arthur Conan Doyle’s final novel. Where do we find Holmes and Watson when the play starts?
Luke Barton (LB): Things have changed for Holmes and Watson, because at the end of The Sign of Four, Watson gets married to Mary Morstan! In the short stories that occur between [this book] and The Valley of Fear, we learn that Watson has moved out of Bakers Street. He’s set up his own doctors’ practice, and lives with Mary – but he does always seem to return to Baker Street. There’s something about the mysteries they go on that just keeps attracting Watson back to Holmes and Baker Street. So we find Holmes and Watson on New Year’s Day 1895: Watson has come home for Christmas –
Joseph Derrington (JD): And he’s not gone back!
LB: He’s chosen to stay with Holmes instead! Then a mysterious coded message arrives in the post warning them of some harm about to happen to a country squire down in Sussex. From there, they embark on this mystery, and very quickly they go back to what they know best: being a crime-fighting, mystery-solving duo.
I guess a coded mystery message is the best present you could get Holmes and Watson!
LB: Holmes loves it! I imagine Christmas is very boring and sentimental for him but a mystery is like [a gift].
JD: Better than socks!
Joseph, these are two of the most iconic characters in literature. How do you go about crafting that sort of relationship, especially given that you’ve both played the characters before?
JD: I found it quite an easy process. When we first started rehearsals for The Sign of Four back in 2018, there was a lot of discussion about how the relationship between Holmes and Watson should be. Watson was a lot of the time portrayed as a buffoonish character. He’s obviously not as intelligent as Holmes but he’s still intelligent: he’s a medical man, a doctor. We wanted to try and push this relationship where one person is incredibly intelligent but needs one person to channel it. Watson is that person. And when The Valley of Fear came along, we just slipped back into it. What works quite well is that we still speak to each other when we’re not performing in shows! It helps that we like each other.
Do you draw anything from any particular adaptations, or do you leave that behind when focusing on this? How do they play into your process?
JD: I obviously draw off the looks of Jude Law (!) I’d never actually seen a lot of Holmes adaptations, which is probably quite bad! I focused on the discussions I had with Nick [Lane, the writer-director]. I tried to lead in more from the text than from how the character had been played before.
LB: I think for me and a lot of people our age, I was very excited by the BBC adaptation. It was after that version that I went on to read the stories. I think our performance and our production is very much rooted in the original stories and the world of Conan Doyle, and [like] the BBC adaption is done with great reverence to the books. The Victorian world that Conan Doyle creates is quite key to our production, and that was my inspiration as well. There’s something so quintessentially Victorian about Holmes: he is both very much a part of that world but also completely strange within it; he’s very un-Victorian in lots of ways.
Is it important to you to you make him ‘sympathetic’?
LB: Holmes doesn’t care what other people think. But in the job he’s doing, I think he finds [that] emotions and feelings just aren’t helpful, and that’s why he’s described as this unemotional machine. But he is a human being: he just has an incredible capacity to filter stuff out, and that’s intriguing because most of us care what other people think. As actors, we spend every night standing in front of people getting judged by them. You’re always under the spotlight. It’s really refreshing to have a character that can switch that off.
Why is this story so suited to the stage?
LB: There’s something about the larger than life events of these stories, particularly The Valley of Fear, that lend themselves to the theatre. Audiences expect more: we have to go on a bigger imaginative leap. The uniqueness of theatre is that as actors, we sit down with an audience and say: ‘we’re going to pretend we’re these people and you’re going to pretend we are as well’. When you throw in these big characters, like the gangsters and murderers we get in The Valley of Fear, it’s really exciting for an audience. It just allows the imagination to run wild.
JD: I think it also adds to the murder mystery, too: it’s more claustrophobic when you’ve got a mystery and there’s hundreds of people watching you and [anticipating] what’s going to happen in the next hour and a half. Some of the venues we’ve been to in the past, you can see the audience in the front row. We had a floor rolled out and when they’re on the edge of the stage, it does add to the pressure of trying to solve a mystery. No matter how many times we do it, it’s still exciting.
LB: They’re trying to solve it with us: Holmes and Watson are solving the mystery at the same time as the audience. That’s what makes it exciting: you have to figure it out as we do.
Do you find different audiences react in different ways?
LB: That’s the great thing about touring! Like Joe said, we’ve done over 160 shows now, and every night the audience is different: every town, every city, connects and responds to different things. They even root for different characters! And that’s one of the joys of theatre, especially of touring theatre: you go to so many different places, and each one has a different energy.
JD: And while it’s not a comedy, there are funny bits! Nick has tried to keep it very true to the story itself, and it’s nice to see proper Sherlock Holmesians – is there a word for them?
JD: Like Beliebers?
JD: So these Sherlockians are enjoying it even if they know how it ends, because it stays true to the book. It was nerve-wracking to start, [wondering] how Holmes fans would respond. It’s always tricky trying to please everyone – but I think we’ve done it! I’m pleased with it.
The Sherlockians take it really seriously, then?
LB: You’ll not see me in a Deer stalker in this production, but you will see people in the audience wearing one! Plus the full cape, the magnifying glass…
JD: And a lot of moustaches! I’ve seen a fair few – maybe they’re back in…
LB: You know, in the Victorian era, the bushier your beard, the manlier you were.
JD: So I’m semi-masculine, then?
LB: You’ll get there.
Watson is Insta-ready.
LB: You should see him tending that face.
JD: I can’t wait to try and twiddle it.
Only when you’re solving a mystery or being nefarious.
JD: It’s my thinking moustache…
Do you feel you’ve been able to relax into the roles this time around? Or is there something about bringing it back – the moustache, and everything else – that surprised or challenged you?
LB: I did relax a lot more this time around! Like Joe was saying, that feeling the first time around of stepping into the shoes of such brilliant actors, and bringing to life characters people really love, was overwhelming. This time it wasn’t quite as bad. I think what’s been interesting is that Nick really wanted to explore the limits of their friendship: how tricky it must be for Watson to be friends with [Holmes] and what that must be like. What happens if their friendship is tested? That’s been interesting to explore.
JD: For me, the only thing I found tricky was fitting back into the costume after lockdown!
LB: We all did!
I wonder how Holmes and Watson would have coped in lockdown.
JD: Would Holmes have gone into a Baker Street bubble, or a Mary Morstan bubble?
LB: Definitely Baker Street.
JD: Yeah. That’s awkward!
Why do you feel that Holmes and Watson are still so close to our hearts?
LB: They’re basically the first superheroes! You’ve got a dynamic duo with individual ‘powers’ that complement each other, and they use those powers to serve good: they’re superheroes that are also best friends. But there’s just something about their relationship [that] is so interesting. They understand each other even though they’re complete opposites and shouldn’t like each other. We all have that person we can’t be without – and that’s who they are to each other. The intrigue is the cherry on top.
JD: It’s human nature, isn’t it, to build connections with people? To ask for help when you need it; to communicate, and Holmes and Watson do communicate even when it’s one-sided. It’s the humanistic aspect we come back to.
Have you performed in Cardiff before?
LB: We didn’t take the The Sign of Four to Cardiff, though we did perform it in Llandudno – we’re really excited to come to Cardiff! After 8 months, we’re concluding our tour here so Cardiff is getting our last few performances: as of Friday we’re done.
JD: I’ve been brushing up on my Welsh.
JD: Bless you.
We can’t wait to welcome you to Cardiff. The game is afoot!
When the RMS Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912, it became instantly one of the deadliest peacetime disasters in history. Over 1,500 passengers were lost, and more than a century later, the fate of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic continues to captivate the world, not least in James Cameron’s multi-Academy Award winning blockbuster that swept the Oscars in 1998. So epic was the film’s success that it (almost) eclipsed an adaptation that premiered on Broadway mere months before: Titanic The Musical, which docks at Cardiff for its 10th anniversary.
With music and lyrics by Tony Award-winning Maury Yeston (Nine, Phantom) and book by Emmy- and Oscar-winner Peter Stone (1776, Woman of the Year), Titanic The Musical follows the passengers of the White Star Line’s fateful ship. Unlike its big-budget younger brother, most of the musical’s characters are based on the real-life people who experienced the tragedy first-hand, from the three working-class Irish ‘Kates’ dreaming of a better life in the new world to the old-money couple who founded Macy’s department store.
It’s an unusual premise for a musical: how could any theatrical show convey the scale of such a disaster on the stage? Titanic achieves it and then some. The original Broadway production won five Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book – and its easy to see why. David Woodhead’s set is a mechanical marvel while Yeston’s songs are sprawling and lush – when performed by the 25-strong ensemble, the music positively soars. The ship might be the star, but these actors are titans.
Their skill is showcased in the epic opening number, ‘Godspeed Titanic’, in which the passengers board the grand ocean liner for the first time. In doing so, it begins with the same exhilaration with which most shows end – more impressive still, it maintains that momentum. There are exuberant moments like the song ‘Lady’s Maid’, in which the third class passengers dream of new horizons, led by the luminous Lucie-Mae Summer. There are moments of connection, as between Alastair Hill as cheery wireless officer Harold Bride and Adam Filipe as crewman Barrett, where they marvel at how technology can bridge hearts a thousand miles apart. Valda Aviks and David Delve are funny, warm and affecting as the stately older couple who refuse to part. And Barnaby Hughes is fabulous as the haughty head butler while Joseph Peacock adds a cheeky charm as the spirited bellboy.
You might not expect a show about the Titanic to have much happiness, but Director Thom Southerland brings a lovely breeziness to moments of whimsy, like when busybody Alice Beane (a charming Bree Smith) gossips about the blue bloods on board to her loving, beleaguered husband (James Darch, on fine form). Southerland moves elegantly between these moments of delight and the encroaching drama: when the iceberg looms, it does so to the eerie melody of ‘No Moon’ – it’s as unsettling a moment as approach of the shark in Jaws. All credit to musical director Ben Papworth and the fantastic orchestra.
What the show does exceptionally well is prepare you for the coming tragedy without sliding either into maudlin doom and gloom or into ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ clue-dropping. The characters’ moments of joy, love and hope are given real poignancy, especially when you realise that they are based on real-life people and their stories. So when class-defying couple Charles and Lady Caroline (Mathew McDonald and Emma Harrold) sing of getting married as soon as they reach New York, we ache for them. And when Captain Edward Smith (Graham Bickley, masterful in the role) speaks of this being his last voyage before he retires – it gains a greater resonance. So, too, does the Ozymandian epic of ‘Mr Andrews’ Vision’ in which the Titanic’s architect (Ian McLarnon, breathtaking) watches his dreams – quite literally – sink before his eyes.
It also brings new insights into a story you might think you already know. Here, the relentless greed of White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay (a delectably pompous Martin Allanson), who scrimped on lifeboats to make room for more higher-paying passengers, may sound horribly familiar to us in our own time. Those who have the most – money, wealth, privilege – will always be the first on the lifeboats. Titanic The Musical gives voice to those left behind.
An unsinkable cast, an unbeatable score, and an unforgettable experience, Titanic the Musical is an emotional triumph of epic proportions – and, like the fabled ship, it must be seen to be believed.
The Golden Age of Musicals was an era unlike any other. From the 1940s through to the 60s, the movies were the place to go for opulent Hollywood spectacle, presided over by Messrs Rodgers & Hammerstein, the inimitable duo behind such classic musicals as Oklahoma!, Carousel, TheSound of Music – and the multi-award-winning The King and I.
The King and I is based on the 1870 memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a widowed governess who was invited to the court of Siam (now Thailand) to teach the children of King Mongkut. The story was turned into a novel, a Tony Award-winning stage play, and a number of films and tv series – but its most beloved incarnation is the glossy movie musical of 1956, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner (Kerr was famously dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also provided the singing voices for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). Following a hugely successful revival across the pond, director Bartlett Sher has brought his revitalised Lincoln Center production on a UK tour, starring Call the Midwife’s Helen George as Anna Leonowens.
On press night, Anna was played by cover Maria Coyne, who portrayed the character in the show’s sold-out run at the London Palladium. Coyne brings power and poise to the part, and pitch-perfect vocals that lend a gorgeous crystalline quality to songs like ‘Hello Young Lovers’ and ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’. She shares a wonderful chemistry with Darren Lee, fabulously mercurial as the King of Siam, brimming with energy and elan in every ‘et cetera, et cetera’.
Their scenes together are the highlight of a glittering production, not least the iconic ‘Shall We Dance?’ sequence which sees the pair twirling around the room in a moment of pure romantic revelry. It distils the magic of the show in a triumph of athleticism, acting and aesthetics – and Coyne and Lee outdo themselves here. They simply couldn’t have been better. The audience practically gave them a standing ovation then and there!
Special mention must go to Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang, mother to the king’s heir, and Kok-Hwa Lie as the Kralahome, Mongkut’s Prime Minister, who each bring far more nuance and gravitas than their film counterparts. (Lie and Caleb Lagayan, who plays Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, also have some particularly artful moments of capework). Meanwhile, Dean John-Wilson and Marienella Phillips captivate as doomed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, with an affecting rendition of ‘We Kiss in A Shadow’. Meanwhile, Sam Jenkins-Shaw is chameleonic as Captain Orton/Sir Edward Ramsay, and the young cast shine in the delightful ‘Getting to Know You’ and their characterful introduction at the palace.
The lavish score is brought to life by musical director Christopher Mundy and a sublime orchestra. With original choreography by Jerome Robbins, Christopher Gatelli’s dance numbers seamlessly blend traditional and modern styles, augmented by Michael Yeargan’s striking sets and Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes. All the elements combine in the ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ sequence, in which Tuptim stages a pointed retelling of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Led by Wang-Hei Lau as Eliza, it showcases the ensemble cast at its finest and, even without its deific cameo, is nothing short of divine.
While The King and I hasn’t completely escaped the shadow of its problematic past, it has certainly taken care to move with the times: like its title character, it’s doing the work to change for the better. Sher, the man behind the acclaimed revivals of My Fair Lady and South Pacific, has nailed the classic formula, capturing the feel of the original while letting his excellent cast improve on the rest. Opulence, passion, pageantry, The King and I might be precisely your cup of tea!
The King and I is playing at the New Theatre from 25 – 29 April. More information and how to book tickets here.
The New Theatre is no stranger to spectacle. It never fails to pull out all the stops: in the last few months alone, it’s welcomed huge touring productions of Bat Out of Hell, Mamma Mia and Rocky Horror – but equally impressive are the hidden gems behind the bells and whistles: the chuckle-worthy comedies, the cosy character studies, and shows that excel with only a small cast and a smart script.
Steel Magnolias is one such show. Based on Robert Harling’s original stage play, it was adapted into a star-studded 1989 movie starring Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Sally Field. This new touring production is directed by Anthony Banks and follows the lives of six women in a small Southern town in the 1980s. Idealistic Shelby (Little Voice’s Diana Vickers) is getting married, which is the talk of a local beauty salon run by the ultra-glam Truvy (Lucy Speed). Shelby’s plans to have a baby, even with Type 1 diabetes, alarms her doting mother M’Lynn (Laura Main, Call the Midwife). Meanwhile, new-in-town Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) conceals a troubled past while frenemies Ouiser (Claire Carpenter, standing in for Harriet Thorpe) and Clairee (Caroline Harker) bicker like Statler and Waldorf.
The cast share a charming chemistry, capturing the catty camaraderie of lasting friendship; it’s a joy to spend two hours in their company. Vickers and Speed in particular disappear into their roles: Speed’s Dolly-isms are uncanny, creating a character whose heart is as big as her hair (kudos to Richard Mawbey’s wig work), while X Factor semi-finalist Vickers – last seen at the New in Dial M for Murder – gets to flex her comedic chops as the stubborn-as-hell Southern belle. Main, meanwhile, gives a masterclass performance of which Sally Field herself would be proud. Harker, Carpenter and Ayodele deliver one-liners for the ages while BSL Interpreter Julie Doyle almost runs off with the whole show. It’s yet another example of how inclusive theatre can enhance the viewing experience for everyone.
When Steel Magnolias premiered on Broadway in 1987, it was unusual for shows to have an all-female cast – in 2023, outside of SIX the Musical, they are still few andfar between. As one of the characters says, “men are supposed to be steel” – but it’s the women who have real mettle. As Truvy says, “The higher the hair, the closer to God!” – and her salon does become a sanctuary: a confessional, an altar, and a site of communion and community. Steel Magnolias tells us that there’s no such thing as natural beauty, that a dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste, and that the time you put in to cultivating both good hair and good friends is always well-spent.
Steel Magnolias is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff through Saturday 22 April. It’s the last stop on their acclaimed UK and Ireland tour, so make sure to make an appointment at Truvy’s salon! More information and how to book tickets here.
What was your original inspiration behind the Rocky Horror Show?
Someone asked me to entertain the Christmas staff party at the EMI Film Studios and so I wrote a song (Science Fiction Double Feature) and with the help of some jokes, performed to much laughter and applause.
In the New Year I wondered whether it might serve as as prologue to the germ of an idea that I had for a musical. I shared that thought with Jim Sharman who had directed Jesus Christ Superstar. Jim liked the concept and away we went.
Why do you think it is still successful today, half a century later?
It is simply a Musical Comedy and as long as it rocks, and the audience are laughing what more could you wish for?
It’s very inclusive, it’s very easy to watch. It’s not rocket science as far as narrative is concerned – Brad and Janet are a couple that we kind of recognise as Adam and Eve or Romeo and Juliet, like a stereotypical couple – we can all relate to them.
It is also a fairy tale which allows us to feel comfortable with its rites of passage storyline. A retelling of Hansel and Gretel if you like, with Frankfurter standing in for the wicked witch.
The Rocky Horror Show creates an atmosphere that is different from other theatre shows.What about the show do you believe makes audiences feel comfortable joining in?
The innocent rather naughty fun of it draws not only a ‘theatre’ crowd but also people who want a fun evening and a guaranteed return on the investment of their ticket price.
What was happening in your life at the time you wrote The Rocky Horror Show?
I was a recent father of my first child and out of work when I wrote the show. 1972-73 was a moment of change. Glamrock and overt sexuality was around, gay people were coming out and there was a ‘buzz’ in the air. There are certain parts of the world where we are a little bit more free to be ourselves. London is certainly one of them. Back in the Seventies you had gay bars, but now you don’t need to because if you walk into most bars in London there will be a gay man behind the bar. That is rather nice.
How do you believe the show supports those who are questioning their identity or sexuality?
The support for the LBGT community was unintended but it is a very welcome addition to the laughter and toe tapping.
Has the show supported your own journey surrounding your identity?
It must have been, to some extent, cathartic but I have always gone my own way and played the cards that I was dealt at birth the best way that I can.
Do you have a favourite character?
I would have loved to have played Rocky, that would have been cool, wouldn’t it? But one thing is essential, you have to be rather handsome, and you know, muscular, and that ain’t going to work. I could have played Janet. They’re all so stupidly wonderful these characters, they’re iconographic.
How do you think the live shows compare to the film?
The live show has an energy that the movie doesn’t have – it wasn’t intentional, but the film was very slow. Once some fans came up to me and said, “did you leave the gaps between the lines so that we the audience could say our lines?”. I said, “Well, ok yes”. But no we didn’t. The movie is a very surreal, almost dreamlike journey, the live show is far more rock and roll.
What’s your favourite part of the show?
The noise at the end of Rocky is wonderful – it is empowering and exhilarating at the same time it is quite joyous. Rocky never fails to deliver. Each performance lifts the heart and the nightly laughter and roars of approval leave the whole cast with a sense of wellbeing and accomplishment that you rarely get from any other shows.
The Rocky Horror Show remains a huge hit around the world. Do you think the show would be as successful if written today?
Timing is very important as is luck. Zeitgeist sums it up. There are lots of variables in this equation, for instance, would it have been as successful if someone other than Tim Curry had played the lead?
How has the show developed over time? Have there been any adaptations in the past 50 years?
It has remained much the same through the years. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
How different do you think your life might have been without Rocky?
I have no idea but, I would have had a good life because I am made that way. My journey has been a different one than others. I guess some people have a game plan. I would imagine they’re rather humourless. Most of us get an opportunity and we wing it. Luck plays an awfully big part in our lives. You should never underestimate that. I am the luckiest person on the planet. I shall be happy as long as I can keep singing.
The Rocky Horror Show is currently touring the UK as part of its 50th anniversary. It plays in Cardiff’s New Theatre in April – more information and how to book tickets here.
If there’s anyone we should thank for the music, it’s ABBA. One of the best-selling bands of all time, this iconic Swedish quartet made a grand Arrival on the scene in 1974 with the Eurovision-winning Waterloo and went on to dominate pop music for the next decade. Disbanding in ’82 with a smorgasbord of songs (and many millions of dollars) under their belt, their star has never dimmed. (Songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus even went on to write original musical Chess). Forty years on, they embarked on a new Voyage, with a chart-topping comeback album and a virtual arena residency featuring concerts performed by their holographic ‘ABBAtars’.
So, who better to form the basis of a jukebox musical? Produced by Judy Craymer, Mamma Mia! premiered in London in 1999 and went on to become the sixth longest-running show in West End history. Its movie adaptation, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Meryl Streep, smashed box office records and, for a decade, was the highest grossing film to be directed by a woman. Now, this beloved show is taking off on a massive UK and International Tour to remind us all why we should Take a Chance and Have a Dream.
Written by Catherine Johnson, and helmed by Lloyd, Mamma Mia! is set on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi. 20-year-old Sophie (Jess Michelmore) is soon to marry fiancée Sky (Christopher Foley). She is determined to have her dad walk her down the aisle, but her fiercely independent mother Donna (Sara Poyzer) has never revealed his identity. So Sophie does some snooping, whittles the potential candidates down to three, and invites them to the island in secret. The players in this particular paternity lottery are Harry Bright (Neal Craig), Bill Austin (Phil Corbitt) and Sam Carmichael (Richard Standing), who each captured Donna’s heart one Last Summer many years before.
The plot is as light and frothy as the waves lapping the island shore, and the lead-ins to each ditty tenuous at best – “I’m old enough to be your mother!” Tanya (Sarah Earnshaw) says to lovestruck Pepper (Jaden Osheneye): cue Does Your Mother Know – but who cares? Benny and Björn’s songs are so iconic that they’re ironclad – and all you need to do is sing along. And I defy you not to start doing just that when the title track’s opening marimba kicks in, and the show really kicks off.
Fun is the Name of the Game here, and there’s more than enough to go round: Rosie (Nicky Swift) and Tanya cheering up bestie Donna with a one-two punch of Chiquitita and Dancing Queen; Sky and his mates’ laddish rendition of Lay All Your Love On Me; a rowdy reception that culminates in a plea to Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight). It also makes time for the smaller moments between characters: Donna singing The Winner Takes It All to Sam, the one that got away (Poyzer and Standing, a couple offstage as well as on, bring a genuine chemistry to their interactions). And rhe way Poyzer performs Slipping Through My Fingers as she tearfully does her daughter’s hair one last time brought a tear to mine.
The show’s celebration of love beyond the heteronormative was progressive for its time – though it would benefit from some updating (it’s 2023, yet Harry’s husband remains resolutely offstage). Even so, the musical is defiantly inclusive and crafts a world for itself that – save for the need to scrape for Money Money Money – is positively utopian. In Mamma Mia!, anything is possible: old flames reignite, new love blooms, and the only obstacles to ever after are just a song away from solving. For all its fluff and fabulousness, its subversive quality is perhaps its most enduring: giving its older women characters focus and agency, and the space to be sexy, messy, and fun.
Mamma Mia – you’ll want to go again! This is a show for every Dancing Queen and Chiquitita who ever had a dream. If you’re thinking ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme a ticket’, you might want to act soon – because they’re selling out faster than you can say Voulez-Vous! It might not be the most polished gem in the West End’s crown – but when it’s good, it’s gold.
Hallelujah! Following three West End runs and a sold-out UK tour, the original Death Drop took the theatre world by storm by filling the stage with an all-star cast of drag queens and kings. It was easily the filthiest and funniest thing I’d ever seen – and the sequel promised to be even more anarchic, swapping out Dragatha Christie for Dragnus Dei. Produced by TuckShop and Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Death Drop: Back in the Habit centres on a gaggle of glamorous nuns who occupy the remote convent of St Babs. With a gamut of ghostly goings-on, and a potential serial killer slashaying their way through the sisterhood, the Vatican sends Father Alfie Romeo to sleuth out the truth – though he’s no Sis Marple.
Written by Rob Evans and directed once again by Jesse Jones, Back in the Habit is the newest entry in the self-proclaimed Death Drop Cinematic Universe (DDCU), created by Christopher D Clegg. The sequel is blessed with the presence of drag royalty, including two returning stars: RuPaul’s Drag Race US Superstar Willam (the only contestant to be disqualified!) as Sis Titis, and award-winning Drag King LoUis CYfer as Alfie Romeo. They’re joined by a holy trinity of Drag Race UK stars: River Medway as Sister Maria Julieandrews, Cheryl Hole as Sister Mary Berry, and Cardiff-based Victoria Scone (the first cis woman to compete in the franchise’s history) as Mother Superior. Blessed are they who pun in the name of the lord.
The cast are on top form and bring glamour, gags, and gravitas to a script that isn’t quite as tight as the costumes. There’s a lot of camp, comedic potential in Christianity – for further reference, see the Met Gala’s 2018 bash – and its ecclesiastical extravagance is suitably eviscerated here. In true Death Drop fashion, the jinks are high and the brow is low, with no innuendo left unturned. Despite throwing shade at the ‘cheap’ production values, Peter Mackintosh’s set and Rory Beaton’s lighting are extremely effective, especially in the scarier scenes (demonic possession, ghostly apparitions, and a ghoulishly good reprise of Flo and Joan’s ‘Oopsie Whoopsie’).
The characterisations are top-class – but I must make a confession: while the performers are truly doing the Lord’s work, the material they’re given is far from divine. Cheryl Hole’s Sister Mary Berry and Willam’s Sis Titis are brilliantly named and performed, but their comedic potential isn’t mined as much as it could be – Mary Berry isn’t even the resident chef! If we already have Sister Maria Julieandrews, why not have her be joined by other onscreen nuns: can you imagine Willam donning Deborah Kerr’s iconic white wimple from Black Narcissus while Cheryl Hole channels Debbie Reynolds’ guitar-strumming Singing Nun? In recent years we’ve even had Saint Maud, Warrior Nun, and The Conjuring movies – but there’s one obvious omission: to not have a queen take on the role of Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Mary Clarence here is practically blasphemous, especially as its her film which lends this show its subtitle. Its second-to-none cast, though, is its saving grace.
While it might not be the answer to all your prayers, Death Drop: Back in the Habit is a Joyful, Joyfulslay ride that features a heavenly host of drag performers that put the ‘original’ in ‘original sin’. Can I get an Amen?
‘I told you I was ill’: this is the epitaph of one Terence ‘Spike’ Milligan, who holds the rare honour of being able to make people laugh long after shuffling off this mortal coil. Milligan was the man behind The Goons, a satirical radio show broadcast by the BBC between 1951 and 1960. As co-creator, chief writer and one third of the titular trio along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, Milligan took postwar Britain by storm and influenced comedic greats from Monty Python to the Muppets. Premiering at the Watermill in January and now ending its successful UK tour at Cardiff’s New Theatre, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s SPIKE celebrates the man behind the madness.
Directed by Watermill AD Paul Hart, SPIKE takes place during the tumultuous making of The Goons, which was just as chaotic and surreal behind the mic as it was in front of it. This trio of working-class lads had a penchant for the surreal and direct line to your funny bone – but, as with anything creative, tempers flared and egos clashed. Robert Wilfort (aka Gavin and Stacey’s Jason – he of the infamous fishing trip) is nothing short of stupendous as Spike, no small feat when considering that the man was a one-off who was always ‘on’. Determined not to play him as a ‘Tears of a Clown’ caricature (for more, check out our interview with Robert here), Wilfort plays Spike as the beleaguered eccentric he was – a loyal friend, a frustrating colleague, and a loving if distant husband. Wilfort captures Spike’s soul in all its anarchic, defiant glory, and has the comic chops to make his iconic quips soar.
He’s supported by a rabble-rousing, gag-tastic cast who collectively had the audience in stitches. While this is Spike’s show through and through, Mischief Theatre alums Patrick Warner and Jeremy Lloyd as Peter Sellers and Wales’ own Harry Secombe, not to mention Ellie Morris as Spike’s first wife June, all have their time to shine. Warner and Lloyd are uncanny as their comic counterparts – and when they share the stage with Wilfort, they nail the Goons’ very particular magic: they’re just three (extra)ordinary people who enjoy making each other laugh. Robert Mountford does a brilliant job as both a haughty BBC Executive and as one third of a toffee-nosed trio of critics, along with James Mack and Margaret Cabourn-Smith (who also plays enthusiastic sound engineer Janet). It’s no surprise that cast and crew have been nominatedfor multiple Broadway World UK awards.
While the show focuses on a relatively narrow portion of Milligan’s life, it covers a lot of ground, from his service in the Royal Artillery during World War II to his struggles with PTSD and bipolar disorder and the breakdown of his first marriage. Most vividly, it captures his infamous battles with the BBC: you see, the war never really left him, and neither did his rebellious attitude to authority. When he discovered that the Officer Class were to have command over him again, this time as the pen-pushing Heads of Department who nixed anything vaguely novel, Spike took up arms anew.
In the excellent post-show talk (of which the New should do more, if possible), co-writer Newman admitted that the play gave him and Hislop (The Wipers Times) the chance to ‘steal all of Spike’s best jokes’. While the play lacks something of a dramatic through-line, the love for Spike is in every second; there’s a reverence about his irreverence that makes it as moving as it is hilarious. Even Spike’s daughter, Jane Milligan, expressed how much she misses her dad’s ‘anarchy’, and his ability to hold power to account – remember that even the reigning monarch did not escape unscathed from Spike’s cutting wit.
While Peter Sellers went on to great success in movies like The Pink Panther and Dr Strangelove, and Secombe (iconic as Oliver!’s Mr Bumble) went into music, Milligan became a prolific memoirist (Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), poet, and children’s author – but never reached their flashy heights. His influence, though, is immortal – and SPIKE is, in true Goonish fashion, an eccentric celebration of a man who, even after a lifetime of making the world laugh, was still gone too Goon.
SPIKE concludes its UK tour at the New Theatre Cardiff this week – make sure to catch it between 22 – 26 November before it’s Goon forever! More information on the show and how to book tickets here.
Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with actor Robert Wilfort, who plays the title role in SPIKE, a new play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman which charts the rise of Spike Milligan and The Goons. Milligan was the head writer and one third of The Goons, a working-class British comedy trio which also comprised Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (and, later, Michael Bentine), who took the nation by storm in the 1950s. Despite frequent run-ins with the BBC, The Goons’ avant-garde silliness inspired countless comedic greats from Monty Python to Mischief Theatre. The UK tour ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here). Robert chats about what it’s like to play such a beloved icon of British comedy, and why Spike aficionados and newcomers alike will leave the theatre laughing!
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, Robert!
Thank you for having me.
Tell us a little bit about SPIKE.
The Spike of the title is Spike Milligan, played by me. It’s a new play written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman written about Spike and The Goons, particularly focusing on the time round about when they were starting to become popular in the 1950s. For those of you who don’t know who Spike Milligan is, he’s a hugely influential comedian, writer, poet, performer who burst onto the scene in the early 1950s with this anarchic radio comedy show called The Goons which was quite unlike anything that came before it. It was hugely popular and hugely influential, so this play is exploring the development of that time and a celebration of his work.
How surreal does the play get? The Goons toyed with that kind of comedy.
They did! They were absolutely mad; they took these huge surreal logical leaps. We’re not too surreal: we try to tell the real story of his life, but we do have some fun surreal moments in the playing of it. Spike breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience quite a lot, and the staging is quite fast and fluid, and funny, strange things happen; we mix scenes together. There is a nice surreal thread running through the show.
How do you bring that into the creative process: is the comedy quite regimented or do you keep it quite loose?
We keep it fairly loose – if we interact with the audience we do have room to go off a bit, but we do tend to stick to the script! It’s a great script – the play is very fast and snappy so that was the thing we were trying to capture the most, because The Goons have a huge energy to them. Most of their clips are on BBC Sounds. They’re fast, snappy, they don’t let up with the jokes and we try to capture that energy in the play. If you don’t like one joke, there’s always another one along in a minute! I think what Ian and Nick wanted particularly to capture is that, when we see things on tv that talk about comedian’s life it’s often quite dark, tears of a clown – and Spike did have that side to him; he did have that side to him. He got shell shocked in WWII and had serious mental health issues throughout this life which he was always very honest about. We deal with them but we don’t dwell on them: the tone of the show is joyful and silly and happy, because I think that’s what people need at the moment.
Was it important then to bring those two tones together in the show?
That’s been the big challenge: finding when Spike is ‘on’, which he kind of always was. He was always funny and always telling jokes, he just couldn’t help it. But he could also be quite argumentative and difficult to work with and worked himself into a breakdown. He used to write an episode a week, thirty episodes in a series, and he pretty much did it on his own. It was his passion project, so he would just work and work and work. We showed the effect this had on his marriage. For me as a performer it was about finding the moments of being real as opposed to the jokes.
There are a lot of jokes, a lot of Spike’s jokes – Ian and Nick will freely say that they wrote this show because half of it was written already! We do also act out parts of Goons’ shows as well, with the microphones as if we’re recording them. So there’s a lot of original Spike material in there. It was all about finding the pattern, finding a real person in amongst all the jokes and the tomfoolery.
How do you even begin to approach playing a real person who is so eccentric, unique and beloved? What is your way into that?
When I was offered it, I thought ‘what a great part!’ then I started to get slightly worried because he’s one of the funniest people who has ever been – no pressure! I tried not to let that worry me too much. It helped that I was a fan and I knew his work, my dad was a big fan and he grew up listening to it first time around. I felt like I knew the style of the comedy and then I read and watched a lot about him. I knew his performing style but I wanted to try and find footage of him from the time. I think a lot of people have an image of him as a grumpy old man figure, but he was quite young when he started. So it was about trying to capture his energy and essence without trying to do a picture perfect impression. It’s our version of Spike, our story we’re telling. Ad it was really good fun to research – lots of silly videos!
How do you interact with the other cast members playing The Goons, and get that sense of camaraderie?
Luckily, everyone in the company is really lovely and naturally funny themselves, so it hasn’t been that much of a challenge to look like we’re having fun. It’s about getting the speed and the timing right so it feels like it’s flowing. We have some scenes where they are just messing about in the pub, because that’s how it started (and how a lot of great comedy starts: good friends messing around together in a pub!) Jeremy who plays Harry Secombe is fantastic; Paddy Warner who plays Peter Sellers is fantastic too – so it’s not been hard, we just kind of keep throwing things around and see what works. We still try and play around with it, never try to do it exactly the same every night but tweak it a bit and catch the other person off a little bit. It’s about trying to make other people laugh!
Is that one of the joys of touring this kind of show? That you not only play the different interpretations on the stage every night but different audiences react differently?
They do! That’s the fun: that every theatre presents a new challenge, and a different space and size. You have a different experience depending on where you are. We definitely notice that different towns have different feelings to them – I’m sure Cardiff’s going to be the best, though!
All my friends and family are coming to the Cardiff shows – I’m from Porthcawl so I grew up only half an hour down the road.
Have you ever performed in Cardiff before?
I haven’t performed onstage in Cardiff since I was in the National Youth Theatre – I’ve done TV and radio in Cardiff since but never a play, so I’m really looking forward to it. We’re there the last week in November, we finish on the 26th.
Just before Christmas!
Come and do your Christmas shopping on Queen Street and then see our show – it’s a great day out!
Even if people didn’t grow up with The Goons, they will have grown up with those who were influenced by them, like Monty Python, Mischief Theatre and the Horrible Histories crew.
We acknowledge that at the end of the play, actually: just how many people have been influenced by him. The Goons started in 1950, so you had people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney listening to it, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as well as all of the Pythons. I don’t think you would have had Monty Python and all of these people without Spike. You can hear the influences in later classic sketches, like ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike!’, there’s a version of that on The Goons twenty years before Dad’s Army. People would gather round listen to it on the radio. It was like the rock and roll of comedy: the parents didn’t understand it, but they did. I think Ian and Nick thought Spike may have been forgotten – I’ve actually explained who he was to a lot of people my age.
Is that part of the impetus behind the show: to find out more about this person who influenced so much?
Yes! Also, it was an interesting and important time: all the Goons were in the army, and they would go and entertain the troops. The Second World War helped to create this whole generation of working-class actors, writers and performers. I can’t think of the same happening now: three working-class lads having their own sketch show seems like it would be rare now. It was an interesting and important time, and we want to celebrate that. Spike died 20 years ago, a whole generation have grown up not really knowing him, other than maybe doing his poems at school. We have had all ages in the audience! It’s a good night out for anyone whether you know the Goons or not.
Why is theatre suited to telling this story?
You get the instant reaction, the laughter. It could absolutely work as a TV project, it might have originated as that. Because there’s been no theatre for such a long time, and because there’s that communal feeling you can sense as the show goes on. Being in a space with other people all enjoying the same thing, I don’t think anything is quite like that.
What’s your favourite moment that’s happened so far?
We had a couple of drunk ladies in the front row the other week! That’s the joy of live performance – they were really enjoying it, and joining in. we had a strange moment in Brighton where a few kids broke into the theatre and were running around the royal boxes trying not to get caught! That’s all part of the joy: you never know quite what’s going to happen. The best moment for me is just having an audience being happy and entertained.
What makes you laugh like that? Who are your comedy influences?
My favourites are Vic and Bob! They were my heroes, along with people like Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye) and Steve Coogan. They have a special place in my heart: pure silliness, pure nonsense.
Speaking of Chris Morris, I often quote “Peter, you’ve lost the news!” out of context, totally unprompted. Do you have a favourite Spike Milligan joke that you find yourself dropping into conversation?
His poems always make me laugh: he has one that goes ‘There was a young man called Wyatt, whose voice was incredibly quiet, and then one day, it faded away, [mimes the rest of the line silently]’. It’s always the strange experimental moments in The Goons that make me laugh most: there’s a scene where a spy has been sent to the Secret Rendezvous, and the code is to knock the door six thousand times. It goes on for ages and the knocks get faster, then the door opens and he asks ‘Is this the Tea House of the Orchard Moon’? ‘No, next door’, and then he does it all over again! What the show deals with is how much Spike had to fight the BBC to get stuff like that on, because the bigwigs at the BBC didn’t understand the comedy. The core of the play is Spike’s battle with the BBC to get the show, and its special effects, how he wanted it.
He ended up transforming BBC sound effects. He’d ask for the most ridiculous things like Big Ben falling off Beachy Head, or a Wurlitzer organ travelling through the desert as fast as it can go. He was constantly pushing and challenging, and out of that came the radiophonic workshop and all the amazing things they did on Dr Who. He wasn’t just an influence on comedy but on radio and sfx as well.
What do you think is the secret of comedy: is it that boundary-breaking rebellion against authority that Spike embodied so well?
I think it is that. It can be saying the least expected thing or breaking the boundaries. Spike would find the surreal or the silly in anything: any turn of phrase he could make a pun out of. I think it is having a way that looks at the world that turns it on its head, that makes it come to your point of view. It doesn’t have to be taboo busting, though there is a place for that in comedy.
Spike wasn’t an overnight success: like all the best kind of artists, he spent years out on the comedy circuit and then people slowly came round to his style. I think the world came to Spike as opposed to the other way round; he didn’t emerge fully formed. He was aways funny; his war memoirs are always a great read because they’re very silly.
He has a joke even on his grave – “I told you I was ill!” – there’s not many people who could do that, and make you laugh long after they’re no longer with us.
And there’s not many people who could have got away with saying what he did to Prince Charles!
What do you want audiences to come out of this play, this theatrical comedy experience, to feel when they leave the theatre?
If we send people out there to explore his work who maybe wouldn’t have before, and to go back to The Goons as a lot of people haven’t listened to them. We just want to send people out happy, really. I want people to go out and say “That was the best actor I’ve ever seen in my entire life! Nothing will ever top that!” Send them out happy, and then dip their toes into this amazing world of comedy.
I’m sure they will, Robert – we can’t wait to see SPIKE!
Please come and see us, we’re really looking forward to Cardiff. My mum’s bringing a coachload of her friends to the Wednesday matinee. Fifty pensioners from Porthcawl!
I don’t think you could have a better audience!
The UK tour of SPIKE ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).
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