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A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death Chapter Arts Centre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

What does it mean for a writer to be great? Is it measured by the amount of work they produce, or its quality? The way they are perceived by others, or how they see themselves? Perhaps ‘greatness’ is just the lie of venerating a ‘chosen’ few; a lie which inch by inch lifts that glass ceiling ever higher.

One of the few pictures that survive of Dorothy Edwards

By these metrics, a voice as brilliant as that of Dorothy Edwards (1902-1934) is lost in the maelstrom of literary machismo. The black sheep of the Bloomsbury Set, she was raised by firebrand radicals in South Wales and yet somehow dislocated from her working-class roots (she attended Howell’s private school, if on a scholarship, and later studied Greek and Philosophy at Cardiff University). In the London scene of literary greats like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, she was the ‘Welsh Cinderella’, raised from the pits of the Valleys into dazzling notoriety in her own lifetime – but after her death, her books went out of print and her suicide note became her most cited work.

Angharad Matthews in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

It is this complicated legacy that Gary Raymond’s new play sensitively examines. Directed by Chris Durnall, ‘A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death’ starts at the end of Dorothy Edwards’ life and moves backwards through twin storylines: in the past, Dorothy (Angharad Matthews) is inducted into London’s writing elite by David Garnett (Jâms Thomas); in the present, actors Meg and Byron, also played by Matthews and Thomas, debate how best to bring her story to life.

Writer Gary Raymond (left) and director Chris Durnall (right)

The play’s title – taken from a line in Winter Sonata (1928), her only novel – is an apt description of the drama, which toys with musical and emotional tempos. Matthews and Thomas are captivating, playing a convivial game of cat and mouse in which you are never quite sure who is hunting who. Thomas is equal parts charming and chilling as the Svengali-esque Garnett, who always seems to place himself physically higher in the space than his ‘ingenue’. While he might have benefitted from the same costume flourishes given to Dorothy (e.g., adding braces and a waistcoat for extra texture), Thomas’ performance is nothing short of transformative.

Angharad Matthews and in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

Matthews is radiant as Dorothy, a flame who refused to dim her glow. There is a quiet defiance to her performance that embodies the stoic passion of Edwards’ heroines; women who were pushed to the margins in the interwar period. She was an outsider even among the bohemians of Bloomsbury, whom another famous Dorothy (in this case, Parker) said ‘lived in squares… and loved in triangles’. Dorothy’s affair with a married cellist, her engagement to her Philosophy Professor, working as live-in carer for Garnett’s son: all of these relationships blur boundaries; triangles on triangles, like the sonata form which underscores Dorothy’s work. Even the stage – a square room with its triangle of wooden decking – plays with geometric shapes. The fact that it is designed by Matthews means that we are watching two hidden architects at work.

Angharad Matthews in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

And she pulls the strings from the very start. The live score by the luminous Stacey Blythe manifests Dorothy’s melodious thought processes: but as Matthews descends the steps for the first time, she slams down on the keys. This is her story, after all – at some points, she strides out in front of the audience and stares us down, as if daring us to forget it. Raymond’s soulful script, and Matthews’ lyrical performance, convey Dorothy’s abiding love for words: their codes and cadences, the way that just 12 notes and 26 letters can capture all the beauty and chaos of the world.

Angharad Matthews in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

Durnall’s direction is a live if invisible thing: kinetic and coy, like the current that pulls a river. David and Dorothy circle each other, dynamics shifting, power crystallising. The sense that she was always thinking, always writing, with pen in hand or not, is ever-present, especially in the vibrant second act. Writing is her pole star: while people flit in and out of her life, that love never leaves her. Company of Sirens have worked their magic once more, and never is this clearer than in the exquisite closing scene, in which Dorothy finds true synthesis with another Welsh wordsmith (Glyn Thomas, author of The Dragon Has Two Tongues). It is an effortless coda that leaves Dorothy at a moment of pure synthesis. It is a slip of linen on the breeze; a single sustained note, that carries on even when darkness falls.

A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death is produced by Company of Sirens in collaboration with Chapter and Arts Council Wales, and performs at Chapter through 3 June. There are BSL-interpreted and audio described performances, and one matinee: more information and how to book tickets here.

REVIEW Sherlock Holmes The Valley of Fear by Barbara Hughes Moore

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.

Luke Barton in Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

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!

Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington in Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

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 in Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

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.

Joseph Derrington, Alice Osmanski and Luke Barton in Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

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.

Alice Osmanksi in Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

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.

Blake Kubena in Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

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.

Gavin Molloy in Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

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!

Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear is performing in Cardiff from Wednesday 24 – Friday 26 May 2023. There are only four performances remaining so make sure to reserve your spot: you can find more information and how to book tickets here.

ADOLYGIAD Imrie, Theatr y Sherman gan Barbara Hughes-Moore

Imrie ydy’r sioe ddiweddaraf i’w ddathlu 50 mlynedd o Theatr y Sherman. A chymaint o sioe yw e! Ysgrifennwyd gan Nia Morais (Awdur Preswyl y Sherman) a chyfarwyddwyd gan Gethin Evans, mae Imrie yw cyd-cynhyrchiad gyda Theatr Frân Wen sy’n teithio i fewn i byd arallfydol o dan y mor – a mae’n anhygoel i brofiadu.

Rebecca Wilson a Elan Davies yn Imrie. Lluniau gan Mark Douet

Mae’r stori’n dilyn dwy hanner-chwiorydd: Laura (Elan Davies), sy’n mwyn fitio i fewn gyda’r merched arall yn ysgol; a Josie (Rebecca Wilson), sy’n dawel ac yn difrifol, ac sy’n darganfod ochr arall i’i hun. Nes i’r ddechrau y stori, dysgodd Josie celwydd teuluol a diflannodd hi mewn deyrnas hudolus o dan y donnau. Yna, ffeindiodd hi ferch arall, o’r enw Imrie Sallow, a newidiodd ei bywyd am byth.

Rebecca Wilson yn Imrie. Lluniau gan Mark Douet

Roedd Elan Davies a Rebecca Wilson yn anhygoel. Dalion nhw sylw y cynulleidfa trwy’r stori, a chreuon nhw awyrgylch ddoniol ac emosiynol. Mae’r ddau chwiorydd yn trio darganfod ble mae nhw’n perthyn yn y byd, a phwy ydyn nhw; pwy basen nhw’n hoffi fod. Perthynas y chwiorydd yn prydferth ac yn cymhleth, a roedd yr actorion wedi datblygu cydberthynas cryf gyda’n gilydd.

Rebecca Wilson a Elan Davies yn Imrie. Lluniau gan Mark Douet

Doedd y sioe ddim yn troi i bant o bwnciau bwysig fel hiliaeth a rhywioldeb – ond sgript Nia Morais yn teithio trwy rhain yn haws ac yn hardd. Mae’r ddau cymeriad yn trawsnewid a tyfu fyny o’r ur amser: siwrnai anodd yw e, troi i fewn i berson chi ddim yn adnabod. Mae Laura yn ymrafael i fod ei hun ar y tir, tra mae Josie yn ffeindio ei gwir hunaniaeth yn y mor. Y ffordd mae’n nhw’n dangos deyrnas morol yw trawiadol iawn, yn enwedig gyda miwsig awyrgylchol gan Eädyth Crawford (sy wedi neud y cerddoriaeth i ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ llynedd).

Elan Davies yn Imrie. Lluniau gan Mark Douet

Mae Nia Morais wedi consurio byd sy’n realistig ac yn hud: cydbwysedd annodd, ond mae Imrie yn llwyddiannu. Roedd y tim creadigol wedi neud rhywbeth arbennig yma. Dyma sioe am cynulleidfeydd o bob oedran: a gyda chapsiynau Saesneg ym mhob perfformiad, gall siaradwyr newydd a rhai di-Gymraeg mwynhau’r sioe. Imrie ydy antur hudolus ac emosiynol gan cast a chriw dalentog iawn. Mae o amdan sut deallrwydd, cariad a chysylltiad yw’r pethau mwyaf hudolus o bopeth.

Mae Imrie yn perfformio yn Theatr y Sherman tan 20 Mai. Ar ol hyn, mae’n perfformio dros Cymru trwy Mai a Mehefin

Rebecca Wilson a Elan Davies yn Imrie. Lluniau gan Mark Douet

REVIEW Titanic The Musical, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

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.

Titanic The Musical is playing at New Theatre Cardiff from 9 – 13 May

REVIEW Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical, Wales Millennium Centre

Sweets are miraculous inventions. With a little sugar and a dash of imagination, you can make something magical. It’s the sort of magic that suffuses Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl’s classic tale of a young boy whose life changes when he wins a Golden Ticket to meet the Candy Man himself: eccentric and elusive chocolatier Willy Wonka.

Originally made into the classic 1971 movie-musical starring Gene Wilder, the Leeds Playhouse Production now embarks on a grand UK Tour after successful stints on Broadway and the West End. Directed by James Brining and adapted by David Greig, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a feast for all the senses! Classic tunes ‘Pure Imagination’ and ‘The Candy Man Can’ sit along sumptuous new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the duo behind the musical Hairspray, with orchestrations by David Shrubsole. It now comes to Cardiff’s Millennium Centre, which seems fitting given that it’s the hometown of author Roald Dahl.

The cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical. Image Credit: Johan Persson.

The role of Charlie is shared by four actors (two boys and two girls) and was played on the press night by Isaac Sugden. He brings a real warmth to the role, caring and compassionate, and it’s a great choice to turn Charlie into an inventor-type who repurposes lost and broken things. His scenes with the wonderful Michael D’Cruze as Grandpa Joe are some of the show’s best, as are the scenes in the Bucket household. Christopher Howell, Kate Milner Evans, Emily Winter and Leonie Spilsbury beautifully portray the rest of the loving Bucket clan, and also double up as the beleaguered parents of the other four Golden Ticket holders, who are just as delectably loathsome as their sprogs.

Marisha Morgan and the cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical. Image Credit: Johan Persson.

And boy do they get their just desserts! Marisha Morgan is on top form as Violet Beauregard a gum-popping poseur rebranded as a sort of obnoxious TikTok star. Robin Simões da Silva as Augustus Gloop, Teddy Hinde as Mike Teavee, and Emma Robotham Hunt as Veruca Salt (stepping in for Kazmin Borrer) bring real panache to their roles, while Ewan Gillies and Lucy Hutchison are delicious as dynamic TV duo Jerry and Cherry Sundae. Whenever each ‘bad egg’ is hoisted by their own petard, you know the Oompa Loompas are on their way for a musical ‘I told you so’ – here, they are reimagined as dancing automatons, lending a steampunk quality to Wonka’s factory that gives it a Metropolisesque edginess (and nimbly sidesteps the characters’ problematic origins). It’s their scenes that best showcase Emily Jane Boyle’s zesty choreo and Simon Higlett’s costumes, especially in the standout set piece ‘You Got Whatcha Want’.

Gareth Snook and the cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical. Image Credit: Johan Persson.

And you’ll really get what you want with this show’s portrayal of Willy Wonka, played by the sublime Gareth Snook, who really makes the character his own. He’s got more layers than a Wonka Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight: at turns sinister, sarcastic, and sweeter than an Everlasting Gobstopper. Plus, his rendition of ‘Pure Imagination’ was truly scrumptious!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical. Image Credit: Johan Persson.

The show is a candy-coated fantasy, featuring eye-popping visual effects and illusions courtesy of Simon Wainwright and Chris Fisher. The way they convey the factory’s myriad rooms, from the chocolate river to the fear tunnel, brings real spectacle to the stage. Choc-a-block with gorgeous sets, toe-tapping songs, and more sweetie puns than you can shake a (candy) stick at, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is pure confection perfection!

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical is playing at the Wales Millennium Centre from 3 – 20 May 2023. More information on the show and how to book tickets here.

Review by
Barbara Hughes-Moore

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REVIEW The King and I, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

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, The Sound 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.

Helen George and the cast of The King and I

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’.

Darren Lee as The King of Siam

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!

Cezarah Bonner and the cast of The King and I

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.

Run, Eliza, Run! The show-stopping ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ sequence

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.

Dean John-Wilson and Marienella Phillips as the Romeo and Juliet of Bangkok

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.

REVIEW Romeo and Julie, Sherman Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

For fifty years, the Sherman has made it its mission to be a theatre of Wales and for Wales. In the last few years alone, it has boldly reinvented the work of Ibsen, Chekhov and Shakespeare and carved a space for budding Welsh and Wales-based creatives to shine. Its anniversary year is packed with a triple crown of creative artistry: first there was Ghost Cities, a reworking of Gary Owen’s Ghost City performed and with new material by the Sherman Youth Theatre; coming up in May there is Nia Morais’ Imrie, a Welsh-language odyssey co-produced with Frân Wen; and this month we are treated to Romeo and Julie, which sets its star-cross’d love story in Splott.

Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy in Romeo and Julie. Image credit: Marc Brenner

Co-produced with the National Theatre, Romeo and Julie is the latest collaboration from writer Gary Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan, the powerhouse creative duo behind Iphigenia in Splott, The Cherry Orchard and Killology. Rosie Sheehy (King John, RSC) is Julie, a budding astrophysicist on the fast-track to Cambridge. Callum Scott Howells (It’s a Sin, Cabaret) plays Romeo, a young single dad struggling to raise both a newborn and an alcoholic mother (Catrin Aaron, flawless). He meets Julie not at a starry party but in the STAR Hub Tremorfa, where sparks fly and fates align. Their chemistry is in the physics and the physical: in Julie’s explanations of quantum theory to a starry-eyed Romeo, and in the brawny balletic interludes that literalise their connection. It’s a muscly, messy love; one that seeps into the cracks.

Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy in Romeo and Julie. Image credit: Marc Brenner

Sheehy and Howells are magnetic both together and apart. There is a striking synergy between the pair which keeps the audience invested in their doomed love, even as the choices they make turn from the sublime to the ridiculous. Fabulously bolshie and oozing bravado, Sheehy has shades of the original reckless Romeo, while Howells’ performance as the sweet young romantic gives the play its beating heart.

Rosie Sheehy as Julie and Callum Scott Howells as Romeo. Image credit: Marc Brenner

It’s a testament to the skill of the ensemble, and to Owen’s script, that the play is ultimately as comedic as it is tragic. Its distinctly Cardiffian sense of humour finds the light in the darkest of moments. Much of its finest quips can be credited to Catrin Aaron’s aptly-named Barb, who certainly throws around a fair share of gin-soaked jibes. Meanwhile, Paul Brennen and Anita Reynolds complete the thrilling ensemble as Julie’s concerned parents, whose lifelong sacrifices for Julie’s future might be derailed by the choices she’s made in her present.

Rosie Sheehy and Catrin Aaron in Romeo and Julie. Image credit: Marc Brenner

Owen’s script navigates the thorny complexities of social mobility, working-class aspiration and intraclass conflict: while both teens were born and raised in Splott, Julie goes to a Welsh-speaking comp and owns a laptop, which puts her in a very different social site to Romeo, who is struggling even to afford nappies for baby Niamh.

The cast of Romeo and Julie. Image credit: Marc Brenner

The set is spartan: designed by Hayley Grindle, it is a black hole of sweeping greys, overhung by a flashing neon constellation, its geometric swirls flashing like comets’ tails. It seems to illuminate two very different futures: is it a prelude of Julie’s bright career to come, or merely the twirling mobile above a baby’s crib? Can we ever reach the stars, or even change our own?

Romeo and Julie is the perfect show with which to celebrate the Sherman’s 50th year: small-scale and specific, yet sweeping and universal, which upends a classic and makes it anew.

Romeo and Julie is playing at the Sherman Theatre through to 29 April. Check the website for details on relaxed, captioned, BSL-interpreted and audio described performances.

REVIEW Steel Magnolias UK Tour, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

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.

The sensational ensemble of Steel Magnolias

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 costumes, designed by Susan Kulkarni, capture the fun, fabulous feel of the era – special shout out to Truvy’s white jumpsuit!

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.

The set, designed by Laura Hopkins, captures the wigs ‘n’ wood panelling of 80s salon couture perfectly, coupled with Howard Hudson’s nostalgic neon lighting

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 and far 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.

REVIEW Ghost Cities, Sherman Youth Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The Sherman Theatre turns 50 this year, and there’s no better way to celebrate than with the golden line-up they have planned for their anniversary: Gary Owen’s much-anticipated Romeo & Julie, Nia Morais’ magical Imrie – and the Sherman Youth Theatre’s Ghost Cities. It’s a new take on Gary Owen’s 2004 drama Ghost City, directed by Justin Teddy Cliffe and incorporating new material by the Sherman’s Introduction to Playwrighting Participants Mared Seeley, Loki Skyrme-Croft, Lauren Hindmarsh and Emma Phelps.

The cast of Ghost Cities. Image credit: Chris Lloyd

Set in Cardiff over a single night, Ghost Cities follows the capital’s lonely souls in a series of interconnected vignettes. There is little to link them directly, save a postcode and a prayer: a universal yearning for connection, understanding, and empathy. I haven’t seen the original play, but there seems to be a nice synergy between the original and its additions. You might be able to spot some of the new material, but it synthesises well with Owen’s text into a cohesive and rewarding whole. And while not every story carries the same sway (some seem as weightless as ghosts), others linger like spectres – largely due to the skill and enthusiasm of its cast and creative team.

The cast of Ghost Cities. Image credit: Chris Lloyd

Designer Ruby Brown (supported by The Fenton Arts Trust) and lighting director Rachel Mortimer have worked wonders with the set. Fragments of what’s happening onstage are projected onto an imposing pyramid, distorted and partial; casting doubt on whether what we’re seeing is what’s really happening. At one point, the pyramid becomes the inner core of a Matrix-like computer algorithm; at another, the live feed of an increasingly sinister political broadcast. These are just some of the many striking images that make the play gripping: a hooded stranger leaning against a door, a phone line stretched across the void, a eulogy illumined by a single beam of light as if from heaven.

The cast of Ghost Cities. Image credit: Chris Lloyd

After The It in 2020 and Treasure Island last year, this is the third Sherman Youth Theatre production I’ve had the privilege to attend – and it’s incredible to see such talented young actors continue to grow in their skill and their craft. They navigate brilliantly through drama, comedy, and even tinges of horror, creating a very specific world for the stories to inhabit: the standouts for me were a teacher explaining her gender transition to a previously scornful student, a hilarious night out at Walkabout that ends in both hope and disaster, and a Deliveroo rider philosophising on the meaning of life. All the while, a disenfranchised young man haunts the stage, very much alive and very much at our elbow – we, and the characters, may just overlook him at our own risk.

The cast of Ghost Cities. Image credit: Chris Lloyd

Ghost Cities is a celebration of Cardiff in its hidden corners. It begins with a single voice and ends with many: in doing so, it seems to say that a city is a living thing, and we are its lifeblood: our lives, our stories, the connections we make and the ones we might miss.

Ghost Cities is performed by Rashid Ali, Lily Cole, Rhys Evans, Theo Greenwood, Daisy Griffiths, Twm Llwyd, Edith McCarron, Maya McDarren, Orrin Niziblian, Pringles North, Elian Owen, Jim Pesticcio, Lucia Taher, Brooke Thomas, Nia Thomas, Rory Tune, Indigo Wernick, and Jett Wood.

Ghost Cities is performing between 2 – 4 March at the Sherman Theatre. More information and how to book tickets here. Tonight’s production is a double bill with the Youth Theatre’s ‘Chaos’.

The cast of Ghost Cities. Image credit: Chris Lloyd

REVIEW Mamma Mia! New Theatre Cardiff

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.

Mamma Mia! Is playing at the New Theatre in Cardiff through to Saturday 4 March