Sister Act from Darlington Operatic Society

Hallelujah, rejoice and praise be to DOS

For some, the signal for the end of summer, the start of Autumn and, dare I say, the run up to Christmas, comes with changing the clocks, golden leaves and the first strains of  Slade; but for me it is always the opening night of Darlington Operatic Society’s Autumn show.  This year, the uber-talented gang bring their take on the ecclesiastical smash hit, Sister Act, and oh how the choir sings loud.

The story remains true to the hit film which starred Whoopie Goldberg as aspiring Vegas club singer Deloris Van Cartier (as in the diamonds) who is unwillingly forced to take refuge in a convent church after witnessing a gangland murder by her part time boyfriend and manager Curtis.  The underlying plot could be straight from a Disney movie, outsider refuses to bend to the ways of the establishment, finds she has some redeeming qualities to share and ultimately both sides learn more about tolerance and acceptance while the bad guys get their just desserts.

Having been to see the original show on tour, fresh from the West End, I was a little concerned – the production we had sat through at Sunderland Empire felt rushed and contrived to simply give the leads every chance to “ belt out a few” to the detriment of the story or supporting cast.  I wasn’t sure if I had seen a poor show or just a poorly directed one but I had no reason at all to be fearful. Under the expert directorship of Joanne Hand, this version is wonderfully paced, gives the audience ample time to recognise the multiple strands of story and yet still finds every opportunity to showcase what must be the best amateur cast in the country.  No stranger to tackling challenging shows (Jo brought the award winning Strictly Musicals to the stage this time last year) Ms Hand once again proves that she has the vision, the skills and the confidence in her performers to aim for the very top and then go one better.

Playing Deloris, which is a truly demanding role both physically and emotionally, is to be shared by Claire Willmer (who took the opening night) and Rhiannon Walker; the girls will alternate so I hope to go to another show later in the run and report back on Rhiannon’s performance.  On speaking to Joanne Hand after last nights opener, she confirmed that it is difficult to tell the two apart; both have an amazing vocal range, both bring their own style of sexy and sassy, and both made the decision to cast only one impossible, hence the shared role.

Of course, the show is not just about Deloris and where would DOS be without a stellar supporting cast, each of whom would undoubtedly enhance any production company in the UK.  Perennial favourite Sam Morrison as Mother Superior brings a degree of calm contemplation in her struggles with God’s choice to allow Deloris sanctuary.  As always, every note, every phrase and every emotion is right on the nail.  Beth Stobbart, Darlington’s very own Good Witch, plays Sister Mary Robert, the innocent and wide eyed novice who sees in Deloris excitement, danger and opportunity – it is amazing to think that Beth is still very young (won’t give away her actual age) and yet has played a huge part in the DOS family for many years.

The rest of the Sister-hood are all given their parts to play too, cameo characters without whom the show would simply become a soapbox for the lead and who ensure that there is an underlying comedic quality which brought many belly laughs from the audience.  I particularly liked Sisters Mary Patrick (played by little Miss Dynamite Lisa Forster), Mary Lazarus (new girl Lynne Kerr) and Mary Martin of Tours (the irrepressible Megan Robson) but as with all choirs, it’s the sum of its parts which provides the true force.

It’s not just the girls who shine and have fun in this show, DOS boys do us proud yet again with some stand out performances from the North East’s leading men.  Julian Cound, as gang boss Curtis, calls on all his acting ability to be menacing and threatening (not easy when you’re such a genuinely nice guy in real life), Michael Hirst, star of previous shows as Danny Zucco in Grease and a lobster in Strictly, plays love-struck cop ‘Sweaty’ Eddie while Curtis’s 3 stooges, Joey, TJ and Pablo, ensure that there is always some slapstick comedy sitting just under the surface.  To be fair, Ben Connor, Andrew Hamilton and Leighton Taylor are much more than just 3 patsies for Julian to play against, they are all brilliant singers, great actors and have such confidence on stage that they could easily form a breakaway show of their own.

The soundtrack for the stage show doesn’t have the well known songs of the original movie, these songs have been specifically written but what that means is there is more of a consistent feel and theme throughout all the numbers; the band, led as always by impresario Michael Trotter, get right into the 70′s groove with great funk, soul and disco acting as a juxtaposition to the nuns choral harmonies.  The stage, set & costumes too belie any suggestion that this is an amateur production and just goes to show that DOS is, from top to bottom, front to back, professional in all but name.  That’s why, when some major tours are struggling to put bums on seats, DOS can pack ‘em in and then get ‘em on their feet dancing and singing.

I could go on naming more and more of the cast and bestowing due praise on them all but rather than take my word for it, why not get some tickets and go and see what is undoubtedly the ‘Must See’ show of 2014.

Running until Saturday Nov 1st, for tickets, contact Darlington Operatic Society on 01325 244659 or check out their website at www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk

 

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April in Paris in Darlington in October

Once again, Godber holds up a mirror to us all and lets us see what we try to ignore

What happens when a couple have performed their family duties, kids have grown up and left, life has slumped into a daily routine and the state of the economy (and loss of jobs) kill any last dreams they once may have had ?  They turn to the one solace, the tiny shred of hope, the glint of light in the otherwise murky day of life and do magazine prize puzzles.

Written and set in 1992,  but apart from the lack of the Euro it could be yesterday;  the story of April in Paris focusses on a middle aged couple whose lives have reached the bottom of the ‘just existing’ curve.  Al has not worked for months after the building market collapsed and spends his days painting monochromatic landscapes of industrial wastelands.  Bets is a part time assistant in a shoe shop who lives each day in a dream of winning it big from a magazine prize puzzle.  Instantly as the play opens you know that it is another Godber masterpiece of observation, heart-aching honesty and acerbic wit.

Joe McGann and Shobna Gulati play the tiresome two with impeccable timing; it is very obvious that they have a great history and pedigree in situation comedy which suits perfectly the indifference and dismissive interactions which long married couples base their ‘loving’ relationships on.  Godber’s style could have been written with them in mind when he crafted the dichotometric duo’s first trip on a ferry – McGann acting as the stereotypical Brit abroad and Gulati bringing innocent wonder into finally being let free from the claustrophobic confines of Hull.  To me, Shobna will always be Anita, the delightful if somewhat forgetful dinnerlady from Victoria Woods long running sitcom.  Godbers northern honesty is very much in the same vein as Victoria Wood and as such, Bets character feels like Anita all grown up; she’s still a dreamer, still living in clouds of fantasy and could-be;  she’s just moved out of the canteen and into a Hull shoe shop.

The clever use of stage & props (the first act is set simply on the deck outside their tiny little house in Hull, the second uses the whole stage as a Parisienne backdrop)  adds to the eye-opening experience the couple have when they leave the UK and take in a night in the most romantic city in the world. Hilarious episodes - having a meal in a swanky and oh so French restaurant, encountering old fashioned toilets, views from the top of the Eiffel tower are overlaid on top of the seeds of recovery that their time away might just have rekindled some long lost passions (or at least stripped back some of the thick life gloss of indifference).

Last year, another Godber play, September in the Rain, focussed on a couples lifelong trips to Blackpool and just like Paris….. it was warm, witty and struck a chord (so much so that afterwards my darling wife badgered me for a trip to the North West).  I have a nervous feeling that come this evening she will return home with armfuls of city break brochures all extolling the wonders of gay Paris – I think I’d better start doing some magazine puzzles.

April in Paris is at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 18th October

 

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One Man To Tell Them All – Lord of the Rings

3 tales of lands away,

3 tales of friendship,

3 tales of life and death

and one man to tell them

 

Peter Jackson totally broke the mould when he took on the monumental task of bringing to life Middle Earth and Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings trilogy.  Filmed in New Zealand, costing millions and cast with thousands, it quickly became THE viewing for anyone remotely keen to escape to The Shire and beyond.  There was one person, however, who saw LOTR and instead of being blown away by the scale and majesty thought – “I can do that”

Enter Charlie Ross, Canadian actor, writing, painter of dreams and creator of nightmares (ok, I added the last two bits) who, fresh from his Lucas-inspired tour of One Man Star Wars, embarked on re-writing the greatest story ever told (as voted for by Tolkien Weekly) into an hour and a half solo spectacular. For this show, Charlie does it all, voices, acting, sound effects, background music and for anyone who has seen the Jackson movies, it is instantly recognisable whilst at the same time unique.  With regular knowing nods to the audience and geeky in-jokes, Charlie uses the fact that the movies are so well known to add more topical references and play on the cast members’ own idiosyncrasies - previous films they have starred in, Legolas’ obsession with his hair, Saruman’s ultra deep voice, unrequited Hobbit love ?? etc.

With nothing but a microphone, Charlie Ross re-creates the vast lands, claustrophobic dungeons, weyrs of dragons, huge armies and of course, those touching, telling moments between ’friends’.

The audience last night, tho small, were all very keen LOTR fans, well, I say all but as Charlie conducted a very brief poll at the start to see who has watched the DVDs, extras, director extras etc, there were a few ‘yeas’ to the question “Has anyone here NOT seen or read LOTR” – just what they would make of the show was open to debate, but actually, whilst some of the in-jokes would have been lost on them, there was no denying the skill, talent and energy on stage.  For those who know and love it, Charlie’s show is like the missing extra that would make the ultimate box set to end all box sets.

For those Tolkien and Lord of the Rings Fans who feel they have seen everything they can about the story to end all stories, I urge you to go see Charlie Ross’s One Man version – it is one of the funniest and entertaining shows I’ve seen at Darlington all year.  I just wish he had brought this out on DVD, it would have saved me the 15 hours of pre-show preparation watching the extended directors cut box set and learning the Silmarillion.

One Man Lord of the Rings is on tour for the next few weeks – check out the website www.onemanlotr.com

EXTRA EXTRA – For those who loved Charlie’s LOTR, he is back in the North East on the 13th October at Whitley Bay Playhouse doing his One Man Star Wars show

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Eva Cassidy, somewhere over the rainbow, but not quite sure where

Just plain wrong on so many levels

To many, Eva Cassidy is only known from her posthumous albums which, considering she is no longer able to record anything new, must be by definition collections of her best work.  As such, those charged with compiling them will be always be challenged to choose the right songs & recordings, whilst those listening will always have their appreciation and opinion ‘controlled’ by this.  There is, therefore a degree of power for anyone representing, portraying or producing Eva’s work but with this power comes great responsibility.

My view on Eva is that she possessed one of the purest voices we have ever heard; she was able to convey feelings, emotions, passion, longing, sadness and joy without ever having to stray from remaining controlled, almost to the point of being understated.  Less was most certainly more when she took to the mike and this is one of the most endearing factors that set her apart from so many others.  Unfortunately, this is where the current show, and in particular Nicole Faraday seems to miss the real essence of Eva.  Don’t get me wrong, it is obvious Faraday can sing, but to cast her as Cassidy left many of the audience puzzled to distraction.  Under Faraday it seemed every single song had to have an element of ‘belting’; either through choice or by direction there are problems with her volume control as even mid phrase she moves from smooth & soulful to loud and brash and then back again.  This was regardless of whichever song but in particular the signature ballads of Fields of Gold, Over the Rainbow and Autumn Leaves were all ‘karaoked’ up .  It was reminiscent of the early stages of X Factor auditions where the wannabee star tries too hard to showcase her complete vocal range and power to Simon Cowell et al, when all that is needed is some genuine emotion.  Even when playing Cassidy in her final hours, sick and weak, Faraday still manages to wallop out the top notes and totally ruin the heart rendering tearful end to the story.

It’s not just the lead who left many of the audience in dazed uncertainty; Rose-Marie as Mary Ann Redmond achieved what has never happened in all my years of watching theatre – I was left totally stunned and gob-smacked as to what I was watching, how it fit into the story and ultimately, why ! Likened to the Irish Bette Midler, I’m afraid it was like watching a demented step aerobic instructor with an unhealthy fixation on Tina Turner and completely interrupted the flow and feeling of what should have been an emotional story being told.

I’m aware that there has been some considerable rewriting done since the show first appeared over 10 years ago, and on speaking to many afterwards who had seen it originally, they were baffled as to why.  The story doesn’t need any embellishing, just a truthful recounting by actors who can understand and portray Cassidy’s uncertainty around her career, her love of her family and her drive to keep giving even as she was dying – instead we are treated to drama school levels of smaltz, paper-thin sentiment and an anti-climax of an ending.

As for my accompanying guest who is a huge Cassidy fan, she was almost in tears; not because of the emotional ending, but because of the complete feeling of betrayal to the memory of a true singing legend.

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Double Death at Darlington Civic

A double helping of suspense, intrigue and murder

Identical twins have always held a fascination for me; how much of one twin went to make up the other, how identical are they, what of the oft-spoken special bond they are supposed to have? Simon Williams taps into all of that and creates a brilliant murder mystery play which feels like multiple games of Cluedo being played at the same time on the same board.

Max and Ash Hennessy are the aforementioned twins, but these are not loving siblings who enjoy sharing their identical-ness. There is a deep seated loathing in both of them, no doubt borne initially from years of competitive rivalry but honed to total despising by a terrible ‘accident’ which left Ash in a wheelchair. This accident, whilst they were both rock climbing, was to many, an attempt by Max to rid himself of his perpetual shadow and as such he is now the subject of a court order forbidding him from making any contact with his unfortunate brother. Yet both brothers know that one of them is about to die, just which one and how is still open to debate.

Back story set, we are transported to the family home in remote Cornwall on a dire and stormy night, the eve of the twins’ birthday. Max has ignored the courts and made his way home in time to ‘welcome’ his brother who has just been released from hospital and into the care of his Aunt Lalla and his home nurse, Jess.

Max, it appears, has much more on his mind than simply sharing cake and candles and so starts a story of thrust and counterthrust which plays on the twins’ childhood games of “can you guess which one is which”. The plot is deliciously twisted, the use of only one actor to play both twins made totally believable by some inspired direction and the set, cleverly adorned by the Cluedo murder weapons, makes for a very claustrophobic stormy south coast retreat.

The cast, of which there are only 4, have great fun with their roles; Judy Buxton as Aunt Lalla delights in blending Shakespeare quotes with a rather impatient use of ‘real language’, Kim Tiddy as Nurse Jess manages to stay coldly indifferent to both Ash and Max for as long as possible before dropping the façade and showing her true self. Brian Capron as Detective Fergus avoids playing the bumbling Columbo styled mac wearing cop and stuck resolutely to the country DI . Tom Butcher as the twins was superb; undoubtedly he is assisted by the props and costume dept to ensure that he can remember who he is and when, but he keeps the two brothers identifiably different while still maintaining their monozygotic similarities. The twists and turns of the story give great scope for exploring the inner drivers of both brothers and Butcher doesn’t waste a moment.

For a Monday night, it was a little disappointing to see the stalls only half full, such a shame for a brilliantly funny & entertaining play which would knock spots off any TV drivel being served up at the moment.

Double Death is on at Darlington Civic 30th Sept & 1st Oct 7.30 with 2pm Matinee on Wednesday – why not leave your comfy armchair and come perch on the edge of your seat.

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Coming Soon – Over the Rainbow, The Eva Cassidy Story

Darlington Civic Theatre Friday 3rd  & Saturday 4th October

Born in February 1963, Eva Cassidy, singer, songwriter and guitarist remained unknown to very many people until after her untimely death a mere 33 years later.  Feted by her local music associations but yet to register outside of Washington DC, it wasn’t until BBC radio 2 posthumously played two of her recordings, Fields of Gold and Over the Rainbow, that people round the world sat up and asked “Who is this girl?”

Over the Rainbow is a compelling and award-winning musical following Eva’s tragically short life using projections, original footage and fabulously fronted by Bad Girls and Emmerdale actress Nicole Faraday.  From her early life to her last days in hospital,  when she was more concerned about her visitors than herself, this production will leave you amazed that for one so young she did so much, not for fame and fortune but out of genuine love to create beautiful music.

Amazingly, Cassidy’s true recognition came through a series of unlikely events.  Terry Wogan chose a couple of her songs to play on his morning radio show, prompting his loyal listeners to enquire more about the soprano songbird.  From there, Top of the Pops 2 broadcast camcorder footage of Eva performing live which became the most requested video on the show.  Suddenly everyone wanted to know more with the Guardian newspaper commenting “there is undeniable emotional appeal in hearing an artist who died in obscurity singing a song about hope and a mystical world beyond everyday life”

Her album, Songbird, continued to sell on the back of the ‘Cassidy phenomenon’ and, with praise from legends Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, it reached no.1.  A true product of social media and the new age of media commentary, each time Eva’s story was retold there was a surge in sales and demand for her recordings, so much so that following a Nightline broadcast in 2001, 5 of her albums were in the Amazon best sellers list.  This continued and in 2005 Amazon.com released their top 25 best selling musicians and Eva was placed 5th, just behind the Beatles, U2, Norah Jones and Diana Krall.

A genuine and heartfelt tribute to a star who shone so brightly for such a short time and yet left a lasting and indelible mark on popular music – wonderful evening of music (just remember to bring some tissues)

Tickets available from Darlington Civic Box Office, 01325 486555 or on www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk

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Anyone for Coffee, Black Coffee ?

Quintessential Christie whodunit and thoroughly entertaining

Sick of poor portrayals of Hercule Poirot, her super-sleuth, Agatha Christie wrote Black Coffee, her first stage play, so that she could ensure he was as he should be.  In doing so, she set in place the basis for all subsequent Christie murders and created the blueprint for our best loved Belgian.

Set in a country house in 1929, the story is atypical of Christie’s murder plays; the first third sets up the characters while preparing for the actual murder, the second third shows them all unsettled by the appearance of Hercule and his side kick Hastings, and the third is the great reveal.  The claustrophobia of being set in just one room adds to the intensity of the scenes so that by the end of the show the audience is left breathing a sigh of relief that they were not accused by association.

The plot centres on the Amory family; Sir Claud, a prominent inventor bordering on megalomaniac, his sister Caroline, Richard his son and Barbara his niece. They are obviously well to do, with the usual smattering of servants associated with 1920′s aristocracy lead by Tredwell the butler and Edward Raynor, Sir Claud’s personal secretary.  Completing the houseguests are Lucia Amory, Richards wife of Italian descent and an acquaintance of hers, Dr Carelli.  Sir Claud has recently designed a formula for the creation of a super explosive and it is this formula that leads to his untimely death, a death which appears to come from drinking the Black Coffee.  Of course, I’m not going to tell who did it, save to say that there are enough potential culprits to keep you guessing right to the end.

Jason Durr, of Heartbeat fame, takes the lead and plays the eponymous detective with a delectable degree of aloofness borne only from having total confidence in his ability.  He has all the quirks and skittish mannerisms, broken by occasional knowing looks to the audience, that we have come to love from the character so famously ‘owned’ by David Suchet.  He is both unimposing yet commanding, peripheral yet central.  I am sure that there will be many linguists challenged to locate exactly where in Belgium Jason’s accent hails from, but that all adds to the entertainment of the show.

Whilst Gary Mavers as Dr Carelli continues the theme of un-placeable accents (sorry Gary but Joe Dolce sprang to mind on occasion) it was Felicity Houlbrooke, playing the delightful flapper Barbara who brought a real sense of period with her perfect take on 20′s high society – not only did she have the timing and pitch to a tee, but her girly charms coupled with the use of jazz-age slang was reminiscent of Thoroughly Modern Millie.  The way she playfully goaded Robin McCallum’s Hastings could have made for an entire act on its own.

Special mention must go to the scenery & set design – an art décor paradise which was stunningly lit and perfect in every detail – one of the best stages I’ve seen at Darlington for many years.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company can always be relied upon to produce a totally engrossing play, remaining true to her initial writings and yet somehow making it feel very modern – this stands toe to toe with any current murder mystery and head and shoulders above pretty much anything served up on TV – well worth a trip to the Civic, just avoid having coffee in the interval.

Black Coffee is on at Darlington Civic theatre until Saturday 27th September.

 

 

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Dreamboats and Miniskirts

A nice little show, but if only …..

The scene is back in Essex (this time it’s 1963), the story, a follow on from the end of Bobby & Laura’s No.1 hit song, and the cast & musicians are the same talented and energetic bunch as before but unfortunately that’s where the similarities between the hugely successful Dreamboats and Petticoats and this latest bubblegum musical end.  The program notes talked all about the emerging British pop culture, the Beatles, Stones, the influence of the Mersey sound and the London fashion scene but sadly, apart from one small scene set in Liverpool, the writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran,  decided to ignore the greatest back catalogue of British pop in favour of rolling out more Mid-American jukebox tunes.

A runaway first show sparking a huge following, spin off albums, mega marketing and thousands of fans was always going to be ripe for a follow up, but a major part of the success of the original was built on having first choice of the best songs to use to support the story.  Writing a follow-up could have gone one of two ways; same again but use songs from the ‘B’ list, or take the vibe and step it into a new direction – unfortunately the writers opted for the easier first option and in doing so missed a great opportunity – think Grease 2 after Grease and you’ve got it.

I am not suggesting that the play list is not filled with hit after hit, but what was very disappointing was the absence of British pop.  The story, which continues on from the end of the last show and occasionally gave a passing nod to the early 60′s British revolution, could have shown how the Conquests had to change their style away from the late 50′s  to reflect the new wave of England-based music which stormed round the world and spawned a totally different sound.  It could have made more about the band’s trip to Liverpool to watch the embryonic Beatles and copy the fab 4′s groundshaking style.  It could have recognised that the London fashion scene demanded its own soundtrack.  Instead, it reverted back to using the same American led formula of the original, shoehorning in more songs to ‘tell the story’ whilst actually leaving some in the audience just wishing for a few minutes of acting before the next aural assault.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a fantastic showcase for some very talented performers; the band is still as tight as ever, the girls vocals are crisp and clear and most of the boys hit their mark, nonemoreso than in the few acapella numbers.  Stand out performances were Louise Olley as Sue who lit up every scene she appeared in, Chris Coxon on bass guitar and Chloe Edwards-Wood and Charlotte Peak on the Saxes.  The sets are fun, bright and full of energy, but the creativity and possibilities are stifled by the limited story and claustrophobic plot. It seems like the writers simply opted to throw in another song instead of a few minutes story-telling which leaves it feeling like a compilation album being performed live, rather than a musical story.  Shame really, that said, if you love live music and early 60′s American pop then you’ll really enjoy the talent on show.

Dreamboats and Miniskirts is on at Darlington Civic until 20th September.

 

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Private Peaceful at Darlington Civic Theatre

Powerfully written, brilliantly acted, emotionally draining

In this year of remembrance, a year which has been, and will continue to be, commemorated by huge budget productions, Hollywood movies and lavish TV dramas, here is a simple, one man show  that encapsulates all the emotion, drama, life and death of the Great War.  It is so perfectly delivered that to watch it is to be transported through the innocent eyes of a young boy in the wide rural expanses of pre-war Devon countryside and into the battle weary claustrophobia of the front line trenches.  There are no huge sets, no painted scenes and no other cast, but through Andy Daniel’s brilliant acting you are left feeling that you have just sat through an epic life story movie.

Told as a recounting of his short life during the night before his execution, Tommy ‘Tommo’ Peaceful is a Devon country boy, growing up in a turn of the century idyllic lifestyle, exploring life and love until the outbreak of war.  The story, written by Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo (he of War Horse fame), covers everything from early school days, the loss of his father, his devotion to his older brothers, his one true love and his subsequent going to war, and yet remains wonderfully grounded by constantly returning to the cold, hard cell with only his bunk and pack.

In the first act, Andy Daniel effortlessly paints pictures of school yards, huge rolling estates and intimate haystacks, all with the warm, Halcyon days glow of eternal summer sun and the innocence of youth.  Turning to the second act, he strips bare the human emotions, darkens the skies and covers everything in mud and blood as he drops the story’s hero into the madness and injustice of the Ypres trenches.  Torn between the expected blind obedience and his love for his brother, Tommo falls not to a German bullet, but as so many other young soldiers did, to the British Army high command and their inhumane use of the charge of cowardice.   So powerful was the ending that we left the show with the hangover of unfairness still souring our mouths and a heaviness in our hearts of knowing how true this outcome often was.

A great performance which will serve as a perfect example of storytelling for young actors and seasoned hands alike, Darlington Civic theatre have opened their Autumn season with the bar set very high; here’s to many more shows of this calibre over the coming months.

Private Peaceful is at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 13th September.

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Grease is most certainly the word in Darlington

They’re the ones that YOU want !!

Following on from last Autumns spectacular, Strictly Musicals, Darlington Operatic Society launched their Spring show, Grease, last night to huge applause, standing ovations and no shortage of critical acclaim.

Every year, DOS leave their audiences wondering how they can possibly top their most recent show, and every year they go one better – well with this show they’ve totally upped the bar when it comes to professional production values, great voices and bags of family fun.  Packed with all the classic songs known and loved from the biggest musical film of the 70′s, this is much more than a simple sing-a-long stage version of the Travolta & Newton-John lengend.  The choreography keeps it fresh and lively while the slight change in the musical running orders stops any complacent viewer from shuffling “I know what’s coming next”.  As for the cast, everyone on the stage looked like they had accomplished a childhood dream to ‘sing Grease’ on stage in front of a full house.

The leads, Michael Hirst and Selena Blain managed what so many since John & Olivia have tried and failed – they really gave you the impression they were into each other and the chemistry was there for all to see, bubbling under.  Michael had the swagger of Travolta, helped in no small part by his proud jaw line, cheeky smile and smooth moves while Selena (who many will remember for being Aerial in Strictly) had all of Newton-John’s candy kitsch and faux innocence until the bg switcheroo at the end.  I don’t want to spoil just how amazing Selina looks as sexy Sandy, but I will steal a quote from a previous show, The Producers, when I say “you can’t see it but we’re giving you a standing ovation.”

Of course, there are more than just the two love birds in this show – Nick Holmes as Kinickie is perfect for belting out “Grease Lightning” and it is very clear that he has studied all the words to ensure his ‘actions match up to their meanings’.  Katie Carter, making her DOS debut as Rizzo had a great first act in which she stays very much the matriarch of the gang, slightly aloof, cocksure and more mature than the other girls, but it was halfway through the second act, with her solo of “There are Worse Things…” that Katie stopped the whole auditorium dead in its tracks.  She managed to bring out Rizzo’s vunerablilty perfectly, pealing away her protective shell to show a glimpse of the little girl underneath, before putting the barriers back up and returning to the hard Rizzo of before.

One of the great things of a stage show over a film is that there is more licence to allow some characters to relax and have bit a more fun – nonemoreso than Andrew Hamilton and Hayley Walker who, as Roger and Jan, brought the house down with their mickey taking and comedic ribbing, especially as they extol the virtues and love of lunar pastimes.  Even when she is not front and centre, Hayley adds so much to her character - at times I found myself watching her instead of centre stage and laughing at her extra little antics.

Another who made me hope she would be in all the scenes was Claire Williams, playing Patty – she is just so adorably high octane that you want to box her up, put her on a shelf and keep her for those days when you’re feeling a little low – she is a pocket rocket of energy, the perfect Little Miss Goody Goody and a great mover to boot.

The set design and choreography are all fantastic and show true ingenuity in how to make the most of stage space while the costumes remain true to the feel of the film without being mere copies – that said,  Glyn Bigham in his all white suit was a heavenly vision straight out of the (Beauty) school of Frankie Avalon.

Of course, Grease is habitually a younger persons show, it is, after all, set in High School, but that’s not to say that there weren’t parts for all ages of the society. It is a great testament to the all the cast of DOS that so many familiar faces from Strictly Musicals were present in the company, and even though they weren’t taking leads this time they looked like they were still having a fantastic time.

Looking round the theatre before curtain up and talking to many at the interval, it was obvious that the majority of the audience were there to see Grease based on a love of the film, however at final curtain everyone agreed that this performance was every bit as good as the movie and then some – there is a far better connection to the characters when you can see them live in front of you but more than that, you can feel their total enjoyment in what they are doing; the audience feed off the actors enthusiasm who in turn respond to the crowd – perpetual energy has at last been found.

The final curtain call was met with standing ovations throughout, well deserved by all on stage and even more so by Directors Martyn Knight, Joanne Hand and Michael Trotter.  I hope that this great theatre has strong foundations because on this showing there will be many more throughout the 10 night run.

Grease, by Darlington Operatic Society, is on at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 12th April – there are still a few tickets left but hurry – see the DOS website for more details.

PS – I couldn’t write a review on a DOS show without mentioning my two favourite girls – Zoe Birkbeck and Chloe Dargue – Great Hand Jiving Chloe and Zoe, that mauve sweater – Oh My !!  x

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Circus of Horrors – Being scared can be really fun

sexy, scaring and funny all at once, this is grown up theatre for adults

Darlington Civic theatre is one of the oldest and most vibrant theatres in the North East and has played a huge range of shows, events and performances BUT I defy anyone to have EVER been and seen a show as bizarre, diverse, shocking, surprising and funny as The Circus of Horrors. In our current climate of nanny state, over sensitive PC do-gooders, it was like a shot of adrenaline straight into the main vein to be treated like an adult.  True, there were disclaimers before the show started, but even these had a forked tongue-in-cheek approach and added to the anarchic build up of the show which included much scream provoking before the first beat.

Circus of Horrors is not a new concept – the show has been running in a variety of guises for over 18 years and recently spent 8 weeks residing in London.  Now, on a UK tour, they are bringing their blend of heavy rock, blood and body parts to the unsuspecting regions. The premise of this show is a tour with evil Doctor Haze of 1665/1666 London and some of the capital’s worst places in history – worst for the foul, depraved, degenerate practises that history tells us actually did happen – Cheapside, Bankside, Bedlam are all covered along with demented doctors, possessed priests and ghostly girls.

Make no mistake, underneath this macabre mayhem beats the heart of circus perfection with many acts displaying world class performances rarely seen outside of Shanghai or Vegas; a sword swallower who has remodelled his body to aid his swallowing techniques; a contortionist whose bone crunching joint manipulating was the perfect physical embodiment for a possessed inmate of Bedlam; death defying high wire and swing ‘twins’ and an acrobatic team who literally throw themselves around the stage.  There are elements of true humour, albethem in a very adult vein, some of which prompted a collective sharp intake of breath but this is what is so refreshing – we were all adults watching an adult show designed for adults and no apologies for it.

What is most impressive about Circus of Horrors is that this is not simply a one-after-the-other come on stage, perform and then leave show – the choreography and stage design keeps the seedy underbelly of 17th century London right to the fore and many times there are multiple acts all performing on stage together, blending into the telling of a story of horror, death and madness.  The constant heavy rock music, which created an almost trance-like feeling, ensured that the show enveloped the audience in a cocoon of twisted consciousness, rising and falling as one like some perverted scene from a Ken Russell movie.

Plenty of fire, certainly a lot of danger and no shortage of flesh, the show left me hating myself for wanting more, more, more. Circus of Horrors, London after Midnight, is on tour around the UK with more details available here – http://www.circusofhorrors.co.uk/tour_dates.html

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Eternal Love, The Story of Abelard and Heloise

Thought provoking, funny and enlightened

Following on from last years amazing Anne Boleyn, the English Touring Theatre last night opened their new tour at Darlington Civic Theatre and proved, yet again, that nothing compares to live theatre.

For many, the story of Abelard and Heloise is pretty much unknown; I had very little idea as to what this tragic love story was about but I think helped to ensure there were no preconceived ideas or expectations.  Indeed, it is very rare to come to a show and not have some degree of prejudged understanding leading to “I’m looking forward to the part….” or “I expect the 2nd act to be better”.  I was able to relax, sit back and allow this show to take me wherever director John Dove wanted me to go.  The cast, of which many were part of the previous tour, were again very engaging, spending time preshow to mingle with the audience, sing songs and create a very inclusive atmosphere which heightened the feeling that we were about to be told a story.

The premise of Eternal Love is the conflict between the religious zeal of the 12th Century (with all its beyond-reproach idealisms) and a new wave of challenging thought based on the philosophical teachings of ancient Greece.  Whilst there is a fundamental love story sitting beneath the eloquent yet lengthy battling monologues, the true driver throughout is the juxtaposition between accepting religion as the one true faith whilst trying to disassemble the religious teachings to ‘make sense’ of just why we believe.

David Sturzaker, who had given great life to Henry VIII last year, brought a sense of mischief, wonder, confidence and singlemindedness to Abelard.  Happy to take all ridicule for his unconventional approach to understanding the scriptures, his only real downside is his belief that everyone should question everything – this lands him foul with the established clergy whose lives, wellbeing (and in no small part, power) rest on the unswerving and unquestioning faith of their flock.  When he falls in love with a student (who subsequently bears him a child out of wedlock) his fate is sealed.

Jo Herbert, who was the stand out actress of 2013 for her part as Anne Boleyn, plays Heloise with a similar determination as her previous role; head strong, passionate and confident women are very much Jo’s forte and Eternal Love is very much the winner for it.  Heloise falls for Abelard completely, although it takes some time to establish whether it is him or his refusal to conform that she finds most attractive – even the scandal of bearing his child cannot persuade her to relent and follow her Bishop uncle.  This leads to a rather graphic and somewhat barbaric solution by the shunned & humiliated clergy which still cannot dim the flames.

True to previous productions, the ETT manage to bring humour, wit, music and a few slightly gross-out moments to the proceedings whilst keeping things feeling quite ‘grown up’ without being pretentious;  it does not pitter patter around, if something needs saying then it is said and, unfortunately for some of the male members of the audience, if something needs doing, then it is done!!  True, the dialogue and writing style mean you need to ‘get your ear in’ to really appreciate all that is being said, but for someone who has regularly questioned religion and faith I found the logical & philosophical arguments very entertaining with many a nod in agreement.

Eternal Love is at Darlington Civic Theatre, with tickets available through the box office

 

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The Buddy Holly Story at Darlington Civic

25 years and no sign of stopping

There’s not many shows that, on their 25th anniversary tour, can still sell out opening night on a Monday but Buddy has done it again – there wasn’t a spare seat in the house, although by the 3rd encore there were very few being used as the audience stood as one to enjoy another fantastic night.

The show is a great story of Buddy’s life from his initial song writing, his first radio play, first aborted attempts with a contract with Decca and how he & the Crickets finally broke into the national & international music scene.  What many don’t realise is the speed in which the bespectacled one turned out the songs – less than 3 years from start to tragic end and yet there are over 20 songs in this show, all of which are classic toe-tappers.  His speed in the music writing was only matched by his speed in courting – he proposed to his wife after knowing her for only 5 hours !  Of course, we all know about the terrible early end to his life in a plane crash; this too had a touch of the inevitable about it; they weren’t due to fly at all, but Buddy wanted to get to the next venue ahead of the rest of tour to help get things set up and so they chartered that ill-fated flight.

The production for this tour is wonderful with some great use of scene fades to help keep the sense of time in the studio moving along, while the stage shows are full of energy.  The depiction of Buddy & the Crickets’ 1st show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem was wonderful & funny, the interval scene up at Clear Lake was very humorous and the final show at the Surf Ballroom, complete with larger than life Big Bopper and an ultra lithe Ricky Valens was a perfect way to showcase the amazing talent throughout the whole cast.

Approximately 85% of the audience were of an age who would have remembered Buddy Holly 1st time round (in fact I spoke to someone who I believe interviewed Buddy on Radio Teesdale when he came to England) and this became even more evident as the show moved towards it’s climax – a thrilling, high energy medoly of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs of the time.  Whilst there may have been a few stiff hips stopping too many dancing in the aisles, the singing was loud and the handclapping in complete unison.

If you enjoy live music, if you love rock ‘n’ roll and if you want to see a great story with a great cast then Buddy is most definately for you - it’s until March 1st at the Darlington Civic so get your tickets & Rave On !  Tickets from the box office on 01325486555.

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Fascinating Aida coming to Darlington Civic

Exercise your mind muscles as well as your laughter ones.

In the middle of this long, wet & dismal winter any glimmer of light, warmth or even, dare I say, sunshine would be very welcome.  Sadly, the forecast is not good with even more storms to come so why not cast off the winter blues, take a trip to Darlington Civic on Monday and have your hearts and minds lifted.  Fascinating Aida, the worlds best all-female satirical song group, specialise in very witty word play, catchy tunes and more than a little “wink-wink” naughtiness and this show guarantees to give you 2 hours of rib aching laughter.

Fascinating Aida was founded way back before the internet and social media gave rise to the over night ‘celebrity’ and their longevity, which many of todays so called ’satirists’ can only dream of, has been built on intelligence, keen observation and no little talent.  The ever youthful Dillie Keane and Adele Anderson, who started the group in 1984, built an impressive pedigree of songwriting for TV following a spell of performing in wine bars but it was their dedicated stage show that presented an opportunity to combine their musical prowess with an ever increasing stage presence.  Joined on this celebratory tour by Liza Pulman, the ladies are back on the road bringing their unique take on life to audiences new and old.

Songs such as ‘Doggin’, ‘Cheap Flights’ and ‘An explanation of Bulgarian Folk Music’ gave rise to one wag declaring “they sound like Absolutely Fabulous meets Noel Coward as sung by the Andrews Sisters”.  Always looking to reflect current social trends, (but in an often brutally honest way), nothing is safe from their keen observations and ascorbic wit; the economy, sex, love and even Ofsted fall under their watchful gaze.

Make no mistake, this show is not simply a jukebox of song after song, the ladies are ever engaging and know how to put on a show with visual humour complimenting their obvious musical talents.

If you’re looking for a fun packed evening where your thinking muscle will get as good a work out as your laughing muscles then head over to Darlington Civic on Monday night, sit up straight (don’t be late in, Dillie has a very keen eye for latecomers) and enjoy banishing the winter blues.

Darlington Civic Theatre box office is available on 01325 486 555 & Fascinating Aida, Charm Offensive is on 7.30 Monday 17th February.

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Rumours of Fleetwood Mac coming to Darlington Civic

Undoubtedly the best tribute band in the land at Darlington Civic on Monday 10th Feb.

Anyone who loves music from the past 40 years will have no doubt enjoyed at least a handful of Fleetwood Mac’s songs; from their first hit Albatross right through to the 80′s smashes Big Love and Little Lies. Likewise their albums have always managed to deliver on every occasion but the history books will show that it was their eponymous ‘Rumours’ album that does, and will continue to, stand the test of time as a true classic.  The songs are masterpieces in their own right but when the story surrounding the band (the in-fighting, love triangles and months of silence) are added there is more than a frisson of extra edge and pathos to the words.  Rumours, and the original live tour to accompany the album, was used by some band members to sarcastically remind others of their infidelities, betrayal and disdain.

Having seen ‘Rumours’ previously I can testify to the musical prowess of all on stage whilst the vocals and  harmonies are pitch perfect to the originals.  Louise Rogan as Stevie Nicks delivers power and presence which defies the laws of physics from such a small frame while Amanda Kostadinov is as sultry and seductive as Christine McVie has ever been.  Alan Hughes takes the Lyndsey Buckingham role with the perfect blend of amazing guitar and punchy vocals backed by James Harrison on iconic basslines (watch out for his amazing end to the first half with The Chain’s middle refrain).  Ben Hughes, a mere baby compared to the rest of the cast brings a real blues feel to his guitar playing and is the perfect foil to the wonderful trance-inducing keyboards of the legendary Mr Dave Goldberg (whose performance is a great reason to have him age-tested – no way did someone so active & sprightly play keyboards on Radio 1 in the late 1960′s).

If you look in any music press listings you will find many tribute bands covering almost all the big name acts from the 60′s and 70′s – The Counterfeit Stones, The Bootleg Beatles, Abbaesque, the Pink Floyd Experience but I challenge any of them to be as good as Rumours; in fact I will go so far as to say they rival the original Fleetwood Mac even after their most recent reunion tour.

Rumours of Fleetwood Mac are at Darlington Civic Theatre on Monday 10th Feb, tickets available from the box office on  01325 486555

 

 

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Fallen Angels at Darlington Civic

Deliciously risque and hilariously naughty Crowe and Seagrove provide comedy gold Last night saw the opening of Noel Cowards Fallen Angels at Darlington Civic Theatre and provided for the almost sell out audience a real tonic in this damp and cold February.  … Continue reading

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Elementary, Sherlock Holmes is in Teesdale

A good old fashioned thriller for a cold winter’s night.

Way back before the advent of TV, wannabee celeb shows and million channel digital networks, local amateur theatre was the mainstay of Saturday evening entertainment for the majority of people. Performers, cast and crew were members of ‘Am Dram’ who, for weeks before, had practised and rehearsed their lines whilst running the local post office, teaching at the village school or delivering milk & bread. Performances were usually given in the village hall, with its own soundtrack of creaking beams and whistling windows added to heavy tobacco smoke to give an extra frisson to the atmosphere (especially when the show was a good old fashioned ghost story or thriller).  Whilst audiences didn’t expect RSC or Doyle Carte standard, they felt a ‘oneship’ with those on stage and as such forgave the wobbly scenes and oft fluffed lines.  I thought that such shows were now consigned to the social history books but on Saturday I took a step back in time and watched a retelling of the famous Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Barnard Castle’s renowned The Castle Players.

This production, which is currently touring around Teesdale during January, was delivered on the very small stage at Scarth Hall, Staindrop, yet, with minimal use of props, sound and lighting, was a captivating example of good story telling.  Directed by Sarah Fells and Chris Best, and with a surprisingly large cast of over 14 Players (quite how they all managed to get on stage at the same time is still a bit of a mystery), the story opened with a riveting monologue by Andy Moorhouse who, in recounting the initial Baskerville legend, set the tone for the night before bringing the audience into Baker Street and of course Sherlock Holmes (played with a mix of excitable genius and dismissive disdain by Steven Bainbridge).  Interestingly, for a Holmes story, it is Dr Watson who takes the majority of the lead in this production and Andrew Stainthorpe was cool, calm and very accomplished in the role – with more than a passing resemblance to Higgins from TV’s Magnum, he excellently maintains the detective element in the story in the absence of the Deerstalkered one.

There were a few occasions where the directors seemed to play to the lowest possible audience intelligence – literally signposting the scenes (including ‘FOG’) was more off putting than helpful and appeared a easy out instead of devoting a little more effort into
the set dressing, after all, there are only so many places one can put their only hatstand.  Likewise, the use of newly bought bright blue clip boards (not the norm for 19th century London) left a few puzzled faces in the audience. The script, edited and abridged by Jill Cole was on the whole, very good, though some of the carefully built intensity and atmosphere was lost when the cast were allowed to drop into almost pantomime comedy.  That said, as entertainment goes, the whole evening was most certainly a great night
out and far better than anything being offered on the hundreds of TV channels.

Sherlock Holmes is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, especially with the excellent BBC series making a return this month complete with clever graphics and elaborate plots, but this version was very much more in tune with the original tales and delivered with an honesty and genuine enjoyment – a great step back in time both on & off the stage.

Further productions of The Castle Players Hound of the Baskervilles are listed on their website www.castleplayers.co.uk

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Aladdin at Darlington Civic – to me, to you

A 5 star night of songs, sketches and all out silliness

It’s funny how some traditions live long and strong, year after year.  Take Panto season, which is here again (oh yes it is); the usually demure and sedate theatre going audiences are suddenly turned into and accompanied by screaming kids sporting all manner of flashing appendages; the knowing whispers when an actor misses a line are swapped for roars of laugher both on & off the stage and the 4th wall is torn down and ceremoniously trampled on as young and old are encouraged to great the cast with cheers, boos, chants and giggles.

This years offering at Darlington Civic is yet again a riotous mix of song & dance which will have everyone in tears of laughter (tho not always for the same reason).  Starring Barry & Paul Elliott, better known as the Chuckle Brothers, they bring their hilarious and very clever blend of daftness to the stage with some quite brilliant visual routines – for some, the Chuckles are marmite, you either love ‘em or you hate ‘em but I defy anyone not to marvel at their timeless comedy – their opening song set the pace for a rollercoaster of audience fun while their homage to Wilson, Keppel and Betty (Google them, you’ll know who I mean) had me literally gasping for breath.  Masters at their trade, they should be rightfully mentioned in the same sentence as the very best of panto headliners, just remember to strap your ribs tightly, otherwise they are likely to burst.

Of course, Aladdin is not simply a Chuckle Brothers vehicle and the casting manager has assembled a superb group who clearly relish the freedom and relaxed nature panto allows.  Philip Meeks, as everyone’s favourite Aunty, widow Twanky, must rival the record for the most costume changes in one night and brings a touch of modern pop culture with some very fetching Miley-esque twerking which left many on the floor in tears of laughter.  A genius of comedic timing and with a Geordie accent that immediately puts everyone in mind of ’someone’ they know, the dictionary definition for pantomime dame should just have a picture of Mr Meeks.  Phil Corbitt, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Harold Meeker from Rentaghost, plays Abanazar, the baddy we all love to boo, with plenty of menace and just a touch of camp cruelty.  Entering to a flash, bang and puff of smoke, he grabs the attention immediately and never lets it go.  If there is one small criticism it’s that perhaps more could be made of Danny Potts as the Emperor; Danny is no small guy and is obviously very fit (I mean physically although there were quite a few around me who meant more in an eye-candy kinda way) and his role could be much more than as a foil to Jasmine & the Widow.

The starring role of Aladdin is played admirably by Gary Amers, with plenty of energy and a decent voice, although at times he looked a little star struck by the calibre of those around him,  unsurprising as many of his scenes were played opposite Darlington’s own supernova- Beth Stobbart.  Beth, of Darlington Operatic Society fame, is well known to regular patrons of the Civic and once again her qualities stand out, this time as the magnetically beautiful Princess Jasmine.  Melting guys’ hearts with her smile and knowing little winks and wowing all with her wonderful voice, Beth adds local pride to the festive smorgasbord of emotions being served up and in the process must surely be adding to her huge number of fans.

Panto is a very English form of theatre – many of my foreign friends just don’t know how to approach one and consequently they struggle to accept the ‘anarchy’ that ensues, but that’s what this tradition is all about – forget the quintessential British reservedness and grant yourself one evening of self indulgent silliness – if laughter is the best medicine then Darlington Civic audiences will be the healthiest in all the land.

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51 Shades of Maggie – OMG, TotesAmazeBalls

Okay, for most people, 50 Shades of Grey was a wonderfully liberating, if somewhat naughty book which allowed women across the country to spend their lunchtimes at work escaping into the realms of erotic BDSM without having to hide the book inside a copy of Womens Realm.  I have not read it, nor any of the many spin offs and knock offs that sprung up in a ‘summer of sin’ but I know those who have so I took a couple of them with me to see this one woman show which takes the 50 Shades themes and rams them deep into the back alleys of the East End.

Firstly, Adele Silva, who for many is the brattish teen from Emmerdale, shows that she is a truly gifted actress – she can sing, she can dance, can cover many different accents and characters and has impeccable comic timing.  Whilst the story she was retelling didn’t ring many bells for me, the way she brought each character to life was undeniably brilliant.  It is easy to see why this show has sold out so many venues – I found myself thinking of the Godbar play Bouncers and the way that brings real life front & centre.

Now, the story – well it’s almost your typical girl meets boy, girl falls in love, girl realises that this an isn’t for her and returns to the fold of her friends and kind – I said ’almost’ a typical story as the focus very rapidly shifts to whips, chains, blindfolds and submissiveness.  There is a very funny gypsy party and a hilarious if somewhat cringe worthy encounter in the dole office.  What Silva does is ensure that her main character, Maggie, never loses her grounding, helped throughout by a smattering of non-expletive words amongst the swearing, cursing and ‘chav-talk’.  This is certainly NOT a show for anyone who is easily offended by ‘industrial’ language, especially when spoken by a beautiful and demure lead, but it’s possibly more shocking because deep down everyone knows that Maggie is stereotypical of so many young women (think TOWIE when the cameras stop rolling).

Ms Silva only breaks character once, prompted by the audiences reactions to a rather graphic statement featuring John McCririck, showing that underneath the coarse and brash persona of Maggie lies a brilliant actress who, for almost 2 hours, has solely and totally owned the stage.

Would I recommend this show, yes if you are a group of girls looking for a laugh filled evening, yes if you are a fan of character acting and want to see a young lady performing some of the very best, yes if you enjoy lifting up the dirty sheets of modern culture to see what is still there from the night before – just go prepared !

51 Shades of Maggie is on at Darlington Civic theatre until the 30th November

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Strictly Musicals – A Post Script

“You’re the names in tomorrow’s papers”

And so, after months of preparation, weeks of rehearsals and hours of dancing feet, Darlington Operatic Society signed off their 10 night run of Strictly Musicals to a huge standing ovation.  The rapturous applause and heart-felt cheering will ring long into the night and beyond, well deserved by everyone involved in what surely must be their best loved show ever.  Not only has there been something to suit all tastes in the audience, the whole cast have had a rare chance to star in a show in which each & everyone has had a major part to play.

Right at the start of this journey, I was invited by Joanne Hand & Julian Cound to come along and watch some of the rehearsals.  At that time, back when the days were long and the school hall hot & sweaty, it was difficult to imagine just how spectacular the end result was going to be – well difficult for me, but Joanne’s experience and expertise meant that once the individual numbers were set, learned and perfected the show would most certainly become greater than just a sum of its parts.  Considering that at times there were 47 people on stage, Jo’s planning and directions needed military precision to ensure everyone ended up where they needed to be, when they needed to be there and were still singing and dancing along the way.  Those who have been to see Strictly will surely agree that they have witnessed direction and choreography at its very, very best.

It has been my absolute pleasure to write this blog;  as opening night neared I interviewed Samantha (who made my mum cry) and Leighton (undoubtedly the cheekiest cockney funster I’ve met), and then followed the show through its amazing 10 night run.  Along the way I have met many of the society, both on stage and off, and I cannot pay them a bigger compliment than to say they have welcomed me as one of their own into this amazing DOS family.   Likewise, my thanks go to Gillian Shevels as Chairman of the Society for her continued support and permission in allowing me to watch the show to help write up the reviews.

I would like to take this chance to thank Michael Trotter, Musical Director, and Sarah Carruthers, pianist, for not only their musical prowess and amazing skill through rehearsals and the live shows, but also for not forcing me into playing 3rd keyboard – I did watch Sarah a lot but my finger skills are rather rusty these days (tho I can play a mean triangle).  (And to Zoe and Michael, thank you for helping me discover my feminine side)

Having watched & reviewed over a hundred shows in the past few years I can, without a shadow of doubt, say that Strictly Musicals has been one of the very best; not just for the content, the style, the variety of emotions but because it has been performed and produced by people who honestly and truly love what they do.

Thank you DOS, you’ve made the town and the whole region very, very proud !!

 

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Strictly Musical – Shake your fanny muscles one more time

“One Day More……”

So, here we are, heading into the last show of the run, a show which has given so many people a fabulous night out, revisited old favourites and introduced new shows.  For those who have been following these blogs, you will know by now that Strictly Musicals is a smorgasbord of musical theatre barely letting the audience settle from one great number before hitting them again with another.  Chatting to some of last nights visitors, they were particularly impressed by the youthfulness of the cast, one wag stating that there’s no way anyone over 30 could perform in this as it’s too energetic…. well, I’ll let you make your own minds up, but I think there may be a few on stage tonight who will be quite delighted to be grouped into that age demographic.

It’s true that Strictly does showcase the younger members more than usual, but, with so many opportunities to share the spotlight, Joanne Hand and Michael Trotter were able to explore everyone’s talents and give them a chance to shine.  There is actually a wonderful blend across the cast which, even in the short numbers is essential to give depth to the production, as an example Fran Hague gives a hard-worn belief to “Living on the Never Never” which wouldn’t be there if sung by a teenager.

What is very encouraging is the way that the younger members have tackled the traditional songs with just as much vigour as the more modern numbers; Naomi Potts, as Nettie Folwer sings “June is busting out all over” and gives the audience a real sense that indeed, warm weather is just outside; Andrew Hamilton and Laura Rowlands duet on “Shall we Dance” is a magical blend of voices and a great example of their ranges – Andrew also takes a lead in both Barnum and Les Mis, Laura is a delightful Mary Poppins in Spoonful of Sugar, while Natasha Magee continues the King & I theme with a brilliantly acted cameo of a nervous Anna in “Whenever I Feel Afraid”.

Continuing with the conversation about the age of the cast at full time, one number, above all others, stood out and really summed up the current DarlingtonOS – ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along.  Female leads Megan Robson and Georgina Cornelius, together with a host of other younger members, left us in no uncertainty “We’re the movers, we’re the shapers, we’re the names in tomorrow’s papers”.  A true insight into the future of DOS, and what a very healthy future it is,  Megan and Georgina are perfect examples of the depth of talent throughout the society.  With future leading men Hamish Sams and Ethan Hurworth both keeping the current top boys on their toes,the competition for future shows will be intense and that can only be good for everyone.

So, that brings me to the last number of the last show – for those of you who have been and seen you will know what a breathtaking spectacular it is, audiences have been on the edge of their seats desperate to get up and join in.  As the cast demand of Joanne Harker and Joanne Mason “Come on you Vantussles go and shake your fanny muscles” (and, after 10 shows, the two Jo’s have the best fanny muscles on stage) so if you’re going tonight then take your cue from the cast and give it everything you’ve got – after all “You Can’t Stop the Beat!”

Strictly Musicals has it’s final showing tonight but there will be one extra performance – The Mayor’s Gala on Saturday January 18th at 7.30 – tickets available at the box office or from 01325 486555

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Strictly Musicals – Super Heroes and Alter Egos

noun; alter ego – a person’s secondary or alternative personality

Look back through history and very best super heroes all had alter egos – Clark Kent was Superman, Peter Parker was Spiderman, Diana Prince was Wonder Woman and Eric Wimp was Bananaman. In Strictly Musicals we are treated to performances from some of the society’s young superheroes and get to glimpse both sides of their performing personae.

Mark Lamb, in his first DarlingtonOS performance provides the gritty and menacing opening to “Tonight” from West Side Story – explaining that “the Jets are gonna have their day, tonight” he is totally believable as a gang leader ready to tear up the town.  Coping admirably with the difficulty of this piece (this song is notable for its prominent perfect fourth intervals and pentatonic scale) Mark gives a stirring demonstration of the concentration needed to maintain his piece in a 5 way ensemble.  Flip that to his duet with the delightful and perfectly cast Hannah Lambell in Disney’s “Can you feel the love tonight” and we see Mark’s alter ego – soft & smooth harmonies and a vulnerability which draws on the audience heartstrings.

Another couple who too have “split personalities” are Chloe Dargue and Jason Slater.  Chloe might be a little bundle of energy and fun, but she fills the stage with presence and draws eyes towards her regardless of the part she is playing.  In Matilda she is the epitome of a 5 year old girl; pouting, sassy, stroppy and desperate to be older than she is (and with two daughters of my own boy do I remember what 5 year old girls are like).   Likewise in the Disney medley Chloe bounces round the stage with youthful exuberance which has only gotten more with each show.  Exit stage left innocent Chloe and enter stage right sexy, sultry and slightly dangerous Chloe.  As a dancer she has moves that are hypnotic and hips that could give you whiplash.

Jason has the unique position in the show of becoming just what he is looking for - in the Rogers & Hammerstein medley he bemoans the lack of ’dames’ in his deep rich baritone voice (which is like molten chocolate) as the guys collectively extol their virtues ‘South Pacific’ style.   In the Disney montage he takes a step further and is encouraged by the gang to “Kiss the Girl”.  By the time the Hairspray finale comes alive he has obviously decided the best way to get a girl is to become one – as Edna Turnblad he gives a hilarious glimpse into his Christmas ham loving, “I don’t give a damn” mama.

Continuing with the ‘second selfs’, Zoe Kent proves that strong acting is required just as much as singing for musical theatre.  In the Cell Block Tango she has all the sinister woman-scorned anger you’d expect from a murderess but keeps it bubbling just under the surface, making it all the more threatening.  Then, mid way through the second act she joins with Debbie Barrigan and Samantha Morrison as Alex, Jane & Sukie in the soul-searching, childhood reminiscing “I Wish I May” with some of the most moving harmonies in musical theatre.

Our final pair of dichotomic duals are Ben Connor and Zoe Birkbeck.  Ben has a wonderful comedic quality which he delivers perfectly as Will Parker, explaining that ‘Everything’s up to date in Kansas City’ in a real Mid-American twang (especially when praising the new fangled ray-dee-ay-tors).  Zoe is a true Gemini, twins in one person - in Matilda she sings with a childlike voice (reminiscent of Bonnie Langford as Violet Elizabeth Bott-sorry, that’s showing my age) full of attitude and stubbornness , but when she and Ben join together for ‘Solo Saxophone’ from Miss Saigon the hairs stand up, the goose pimples rise and the heart beats faster – the chemistry is almost palpable and you can hear the audience holding their collective breath.  She is a brilliant example of everything that is great about DarlingtonOS – an obvious enjoyment of performing, a genuine love for the audience and a smile that lights up the stage wherever she stands.

So, whilst there are almost 50 stars on stage through each performance of Strictly Musicals, there are really over 100 star performances.  How lucky we are !

Strictly Musicals comes to a close tomorrow night – Saturday 2nd November – but there are still a few tickets left – call the ticket hotline on 01325 486555.

ALSO – For One Night Only – Darlington Operatic Society will perform Strictly Musicals for the Mayor’s Gala – Saturday January 18th 2014 at the wonderful Darlington Civic Theatre.  Tickets available from the Box Office or via 01325 486555.

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Strictly Musicals – Tears and Tap Shoes

“My eyes were still full of tears at the interval, I couldn’t see my ice cream!”

Continuing with the in-run reviewing of Darlington Operatic Society’s Strictly Musicals, I spent time on Monday evening talking with members of the audience to get their thoughts on this spectacular selection of musical theatre.  With such a variety of styles on offer it was very interesting to see what appealed to whom & whether there were any synergies between specific acts and sections of the audience.

Firstly, everyone agreed that this show is a fabulous showcase for the talent throughout the society;  a multitude of performing riches which any production company in the country would be blessed to posses.   What was noted too was how refreshing it is to see a group of people on stage who did not all fit the media portrayed stereotypical ‘performer / dancer’ model – these are real people with real lives outside of the theatre and this made them instantly relatable while at the same time even more in awe.

The emotional power that this cast have is quite scary at times; whether it is a solo/duet or a rousing ensemble.  Tears were once again shed throughout the show, firstly as Samantha Morrison delivered a breathtaking “Don’t Cry for me Argentina” (which I have to admit is every bit as good as Julie Covington / Elaine Paige).  Just as the cheeks were starting to dry, Tina Davis led the cast into the Blood Brothers medley which, with its heart wrenching signature tune Tell Me It’s not True, was guaranteed to prick at the tear ducts again.  Not wanting to let up,  the audience were whisked away to revolutionary France for One Day More which ends in a full company chorus stirring even the hardest of hearts.  Never has the Civic Theatre echoed with the rousing voices of almost 50 performers singing as one, a real call to arms.   One member of the audience was still in tears when she went for her interval ice cream, so much so that she needed a little help in seeing the right change through watery eyes.

The 2nd act is a little easier on the tissues until Claire Willmer takes to the stage with Someone Like You.   In the first act Claire gives a stunning rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone but it is this song, from the lesser known Jekyll & Hyde, that really showcases her unique voice.  It’s hard to describe, think if Amy Winehouse had ever sang musical theatre – sexy, smoky, sultry and yet still innocent and a little naïve.

The brilliance of Joanne Hand’s directing is that whilst there are undoubtedly some amazing musical numbers with powerful and moving voices, the dance routines give and take equal place – they are not schedule fillers allowing time for costume changes but demonstrations of collective cohesion, timing and style which have complete stage filling impact.  The choice of routines is very impressive; the opening overture is a throw-back to the Busby Berkeley directed blockbusters of the 40′s with grace, glamour & feathers galore; the Fosse inspired numbers Hot Honey Rag and Sing, Sing, Sing are perfect examples of the style renowned the world over for demanding absolute precision and coordination (a style which tests even the most professional of dance troupes) but the payoff for hours of  dedication in rehearsals is there for all to see.  Selena Blain, Claire Monaghan, Lisa Forster, Annika Tang, Susy Kelly, Becky Nelson, Colette Serrechia, Karen Stone and Claire Williams are the core of this amazing dance group and again demonstrate the breadth and depth of talent (especially when you realise that these girls are on stage for many of the other numbers too in one guise or another).

The real success of this show lies with the fact that there truly is something here for everyone; traditionalists will love the Rodgers & Hammerstein Medley, modern fans will instantly recognise Wicked & Matilda, kids will sing & clap to the Disney mix and everyone can get up & shimmy to the Hairspray conclusion.

There are still a few tickets left for the remaining shows so don’t spend November wishing you had been, spend it recounting the great things you’ve seen.

www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk for ticket details.

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Darlington Operatic Society battles with Grand Theft Auto

There’s no better show in town !

Darlington Operatic Society is battling against Grand Theft Auto, FIFA 14, Sky Movies and Netflix to grab the attention of local people and prove that a trip to the theatre is more fun than simply staring at a TV screen, and you know what – they are winning, hands down !!

In an ambitious attempt to demonstrate theatre is available for all ages and backgrounds, Darlington OS started their Autumn show last Wednesday to rapturous applause.  Strictly Musicals is a 2 hour spectacular of 25 of the best known & loved show tunes, performed by over 40 of the North Easts most talented amateurs.  Evita, Les Mis, Blood Brothers, Wicked, Hairspray, Phantom, Miss Saigon and many more of the biggest shows in the history of musical theatre provide the numbers with Director and Choreographer Joanne Hand providing a completely unique show.

Normally, for a show review it’s easy to focus on the lead characters and give a passing ‘well done’ to the support; well for this show every single performer is a lead, they are all given their chance to take centre stage and none of them disappoint - there’s not another show in the UK that can boast of having almost 50 leading actors and what a wonderful acknowledgment for the huge talent Darlington is blessed with.

Over the course of the run I am catching time with the audience to get their thoughts & feedback; speaking to those at last nights performance, their highlights were The Disney Medley and One Day More.

Disney (see if you can guess which shows are covered……..) opens with Hayley Walker sending shivers down everyone’s spines as she calls for the Arsenal Manager (well it sounds like “Arsen Wenger” to me & her mum, who apparently used to be a Spurs fan).  You could well imagine Hayley’s voice carrying right across the Serengeti and is a perfect call to anyone late back from the interval that” you’re missing it”.  From there we have homage paid to some of Walt’s most endearing musical movies including; Leighton Taylor’s chirpy cheeky cockney Burt (with a far more believable accent than Dick van Dyke); Michael Hirst’s totally mischievous Jamaican calypso as Sebastian the crab and Selena Blain playing the epitome of a mermaid,  a gorgeous & angelic Ariel;  and some quite brilliant casting – Eddie Jones with a wonderful faux French accent as Luminaire, Neil Gooding and Stefan Curtis as Timon and Pumbaa, who seemed to have a fascination with potatoes!  Ending with a real demonstration of verbal dexterity and physical coordination led by the delightful, pocket dynamo Angela Chapman,  Walt himself would have been chuffed to bits.

The casts’ rendition of One Day More is as rousing as any of the full Les Miserables productions – there were many who commented that it had all the West End impact and was quite amazing to think that it was performed by an amateur team.  There were more than a few in last nights audience who commented on Suzie Harvey’s Eponine as being quite hauntingly beautiful and that Kat Newman, playing Madame Thernadier stood out, not just for her voice but also that as an inn keeper’s wife, she was far foxier than any of her predecessors in previous versions of Les Mis. (Granted they were all men that I asked but I’m sure the women were just as appreciative).

What is most impressive is that all these actors are involved in almost all of the other numbers too; this is not a talent show where people are wheeled out to perform their number, not to be seen again – if they are not leading in one number then they are chorus line, dancing, supporting or performing one of a multitude of costume changes ready to launch into another high octane tune which in most musicals would be a headline in it’s own right.

This is a fabulous story of local pride, a tremendous amount of hard work & dedication and some very seriously talented  people (bearing in mind that these are all amateurs with day jobs & studies too) all aiming to give the Darlington audiences a wonderful evening and further promote the Civic Theatre as one of the best venues in the North East.

There are still tickets available for this weeks performances so put down that game controller, hide the Sky Remote and call Graeme on 01325 244 659 to not only have a magical evening, but also give your support to one the UKs best loved amateur theatre societies – and it’s all ours !

 

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Strictly Musicals – Simply Amazing

A credit to Darlington and the North East – 5 stars to everyone.

What promised to be an evening full of show tunes, great music and stunning choreography most certainly didn’t disappoint.  Strictly Musicals is a real mood lifter, guaranteed to banish any Autumn blues, make you forget about the weather and fill you up with a feel good factor which will last way past the final curtain.

On the build up to tonight’s show I stated that this would be THE water-cooler moment of the year – well, I apologise to any employers right now because anyone who goes to see this 2 hour spectacular will probably spend the whole of the next day at said cold beverage dispenser.   From the opening overture to the finale there isn’t a moment to draw breath with hit following hit following hit.

Huge ensemble numbers like the Les Mis, Rogers & Hammerstein and Blood Brothers medleys are interspersed with intimate melodies from Mack & Mable,  Phantom and Evita; new tunes from Matilda and Wicked balance perfectly with timeless classics from Chicago and Sunset Boulevard; and the dance numbers from Fosse and Dancin’ are just mesmerising - in fact I think I spent the whole show in a state of goosepimples.  Heart warming and heart breaking in equal measure, there’s not a single number that fails to move you.

Solo stand out moments from tonight were; Hannah Mundy as a hilarious good fairy singing ”Popular” from Wicked, Neil Harland explaining where the money went in “Rollin’ In” from Evita, Glyn Bigham’s super powerful performance of the title song from “Sunset Boulevard” , a beautiful “I could have danced all night” by Rebecca Feary, and Beth Stobbart & Nicholas Holmes with an emotionally charged “All I Ask of You” from Phantom.   As for the best group number, the Cell Block Tango, from Chicago was stunningly choreographed and lit in such a deep vibrant red that it made you feel quite guilty watching and a tad scared of the 6 murderesses.  Joanne Mason, Angela Chapman, Selena Blain, Claire Williams, Tina Davis and Zoe Kent give powerful, confident and brilliantly acted performances worthy of any full production of the Fosse penned blockbuster.

Joanne Hand (Director and Choreographer) has brought together the very best that musical theatre has to offer, but rather than simply present a selection box of songs she has produced a show with an energy that flows throughout and a continuity which means it never feels disjointed  – truly a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Special mention to Michael Trotter as the Musical Director who has assembled a wonderful orchestra, and to Gillian Shevels, the DOS chairman, for whom Strictly Musicals is a show to be very proud of.

Keep watching for more Strictly Musical blogs in the next few days.

Strictly Musicals runs until the 2nd November with tickets available from www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk

 

 

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OPENING NIGHT, IT’S OPENING NIGHT

After months of prep, weeks of intensive rehearsals, a few bruises and a couple of dropped flags, Darlington Operatic Society’s Autumn spectacular, Strictly Musicals, opens tonight and I’ve not been this excited for a show to start.

Bringing the hits of Broadway & The West End from over 50 years of musical theatre, the North East’s premier amateur theatre company are guaranteed to receive a huge reception – lets face it, with almost 100 people involved in one way or another, there’s a lot of family & friends to come and support the 1st night but what is testament to the pedigree of this group is the number of tickets sold to those from outside the area.  Sister amateur companies, Darlo ex-pats, stars from professional touring companies and repeat visitors who happened on previous shows almost by chance are all coming to see one of the 10 shows.  With local & national radio, BBC & Sky TV and of course the social media networks all buzzing about this 2 hour extravaganza there is no shortage of focus and rightly so.  With songs & dance from Chicago, Blood Brothers, Evita, Les Mis, Phantom, Miss Saigon, Wicked, Carousel, Disney’s Lion King, Hairspray, Matilda plus many more, it’s like the best ever pick ‘n’ mix musical.

Director and choreographer Joanne Hand has created a celebration to musical theatre paying homage to the great and the good whilst retaining an individuality which will leave the audience in awe at how you can pack so much action into a small, intimate stage.  Add to this some simply stunning vocal performances and the 10 piece live orchestra and everything is in place for the water cooler moment of the year – just make sure you’re the one talking about it at work the next day.

There are still some tickets left – see the website www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk for full details and come have the best evening of your year so far.

A full review of opening night will be posted here very soon

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2 Weeks and Counting – Strictly Musicals is coming to The Civic

It’s like a Pick ‘n’ Mix Musical

Browse the listings for UK theatre this autumn and I defy you to find anywhere else that promises songs from Miss Saigon, Blood Brothers, Wicked, The Lion King, West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and The Beast, Mary Poppins, Chicago, Les Miserables and many, many others, all in one show stopping, foot-tapping spectacular.  That is what’s coming to Darlington Civic Theatre later this month.

Darlington Operatic Society’s Autumn show, Strictly Musicals, is only 2 weeks away and this year promises to be the very best – each musical featured in Strictly Musicals has been nominated for either a Tony or an Olivier Award, so audiences are guaranteed to be entertained.  With brilliant choreography, stunning costumes, a live band and innovative set design, theatre-goers will be amazed to watch a show which, impressively, is being produced and performed by an amateur theatre company.  Think of when you have left a show with that one tune playing in your head all night long; well this is a full evening of such numbers – it’s like a pick and mix musical with all the favourite flavours and no coffee creams.

Julian Cound, from the Operatic Society, said: “We are very excited to bring Strictly Musicals to Darlington this year.  It’s taken a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment but we are now adding the final touches to what will be a truly memorable evening”

“Darlington is fortunate to have some of the best musical theatre performers in the North-East and this is a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase the talent we have as well as offering audiences something they rarely get a chance to see – all their best-loved musical theatre songs in one spectacular show.  If you are interested in musical theatre then you will love this.”

Having had the opportunity to watch from the wings as the show has come together, I can testify to the hard work and relentless dedication which has been needed to get this symphonic smorgasbord ready.  The lines are learned, the moves perfected and the band is warming up, all that is missing is YOU – don’t hesitate, get your tickets now and make sure you don’t miss out.

The show runs from Wednesday, October 23, to Saturday, November 2, at Darlington Civic Theatre Tickets are priced at £13 for children (14 and under) and £16 for adults.

Check out the website www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk for full details and tickets.

 

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Here They Go Again – The Hollies new tour

Looking around Darlington Civic on Tuesday night, I reckon I was, for once, one of the youngest in the audience.  The show was “The Hollies, We Got The Tunes” and was the start of their latest, and amazingly 50th anniversary, tour.  What was very clear from the sell out gathering is that their popularity is as strong as ever with not a spare seat in the house.

For one who was (certainly) not around for The Hollies’ first hits, I have only really known their works from 60′s compilation albums and movie soundtracks but you don’t manage to tour every year for 50 years non stop by just replaying a Rock ‘n’ Roll back catalogue.  Granted, the majority of the audience were there to hear “Bus Stop”, “I’m Alive”, “Carrie Anne”, “Just One Look”, and “Stop, Stop, Stop”  but to think of The Hollies as simply being a 60′s pop band is to completely miss the essence of a group which has clearly influenced bands as diverse as Genesis and The Beautiful South.  I was enthralled by the folksy “On a Carousel”, the bluesy ”Gasoline Alley Bred” and the anthemic “The Air That I Breathe” and seeing them played live gave such an insight into the graft and craft that goes into creating a cultural soundtrack.

I don’t think the Darlington stage has ever played host to as good a guitar and drum combo as Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott (except for previous visits by the band); Hicks has such freedom and amazing dexterity and you can clearly see where guitar heroes of the modern age get their inspiration from – without his pioneering style of play people like Slash, The Edge, Mark Knopfler would never have had the belief that guitars could lead a band.  As for Mr Elliott, take a bow Britain’s best ever drummer, such diversity of style and technical prowess is unparalleled.

Lead vocals for The Hollies have changed since Alan Clarke left in 1999 but since 2004 Peter Howarth has brought a vocal range and power which can cope with the huge variety of songs, together with a stage presence and obvious enjoyment of performing.  He takes centre stage for two stand out solo acoustic numbers, a beautiful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Sandy” and a unique take on the Hollies standard “Here, I Go Again”

This show was the first night of a national tour and one which will undoubtedly sell out very quickly – for traditional Hollies fans, go see your heroes again and enjoy reliving your youth; for those who enjoy great live music, phenomenal songs and a fab night out, go, and be amazed at how you haven’t seen them sooner.

Tour dates and more information is available on their website www.hollies.co.uk

 

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September in the Rain at Darlington Civic

Thompson and Sweeny are utterly believable and totally charming

The latest in a long line of John Godber plays to be staged at Darlington Civic, September in the Rain is a delightful memory trip back to days of pre-M62, pit weeks, the tower ballroom and, ultimately, what is there to do in Blackpool, in September, in the rain?.

Told in flashback, Liz (Claire Sweeny) and Jack (John Thomson) relive instances over the years from their annual summer trips to Blackpool; the wide eyed innocence of their first holiday together, the playful arguments as they settle into a knowing routine, the challenges of trying to keep their relationship together once the kids have grown and left and then the resigned acceptance that they really are perfect for each other.

Don’t think for one moment that this is simply a love fest charting an unrealistic ideal of prefect harmony; the arguments will ring true with everyone who has ever been in a relationship and gone on holiday and provide a delicious yet sobering recognition that we’ve all been there, done that, said those things.  Acutely accurate in even the tiniest of details, September in the Rain is never preachy about how relationships should work, it simply provides a mirror upon which the audience can see themselves.

Claire Sweeny once again proves that she is a wonderful actress, her performance never seeks for pity or sympathy and remains, with an inner strength enough for the both of them, still obviously in love with Jack despite his seemingly lack of romance or feelings.  John Thomson has in Jack a perfect role through which he can deliver his northern ‘charm’, often slipping towards one of his early stand up characters of Bernard Righton but never played simply for comedic effect and always remaining truthful and believable as a hard working, hard playing guy (especially his offering of a ‘oncer’).

If you have ever taken a break to a British seaside resort or have family members who have a routine of doing so year after year (I have!) then you will instantly recognise Liz & Jack – depending on your age they maybe the couple who used to come on the works coach trip, they might be the couple who you see every year at the same boarding house or they just could be you, yourselves.

September in the Rain is on at Darlington Civic until Saturday 28th September.

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DOS – Strictly Musicals, you can’t stop it

“It’s like the motion of the ocean and the sun in the sky”

There are some things in life that you just can’t stop; Sun rise in the east, newspaper headlines denoting “Phew, Wot a Scorcher!” when we’ve had a reasonably warm Saturday, Sunderland’s inevitable slide down the premier league,  Christmas TV adverts in September (yes, I’ve already seen one this week).  Well now add another to the list – the momentum and excitement surrounding Darlington Operatic Society’s autumn show, Strictly Musicals.

Following on from my previous blogs, I popped down on Sunday to watch the latest rehearsals, and once again I left with a childlike impatience for opening night – one which is probably not shared yet by the cast & crew as there are still 4 full weeks of rehearsals, dress, set & tech to run through.

The first number was a duet from Phantom which halted everyone coming into the hall mid step.  Whilst many of the pieces in the show are big, stage filling show tunes, this one is as intimate as you can get in any theatrical production and yet, instead of it providing a respite from the intensity of the high octane dancing, will serve to only heighten the audiences’ involvement and embrace with the stage.  It wasn’t until after the last note had ended that I realised I had been holding my breath and that will undoubtedly be the same effect come opening night.

The second number we watched was the stage filling finale; a riotous conclusion to the
2 hours of singing and dancing worthy of closing any production.  Once again, Jo Hand has produced a number which is so very much more than the sum of its parts (and there’s 47 on stage by the end) – I was lucky to be able to see it built and then ran through a few times and I needed a few watches just to catch sight of all the layers of movement, interaction and timing – this one will give the audience every opportunity and reason to get up out of their seats and will be, without doubt, a water cooler moment for the day after.

While at rehearsals I caught a quick chat with one of the Society’s newer members, Leighton Taylor who kindly answered a few questions:

AB - Firstly, when did you start with DOS and what prompted you to get involved ?

LT – I joined DOS in 2011 though due to work commitments in Cleethorpes I did not take part in a show until Titanic in 2012.  The reason I joined was due to the fact that my partner had moved back to the north east and was looking for something to fill the void left by not performing during his studies. As a performer myself I came along to tap class and chorus rehearsal and found the people very welcoming. This might be because I somehow managed to tap dance into a wall backwards.

AB – Which of the shows that you have been involved with has been your favourite (and why) ?

LTIt’s hard to say which show has been my favourite as they each have very special memories.  Titanic was my first show which makes it very significant. It was also a show where not only did you want to entertain the audience but honour the memory of those who you are portraying. As it was also 100 years after the actual event it made it even more special.  Footloose was an amazing experience. The atmosphere throughout the whole of rehearsals was electric. Every member of the cast was excited to be in the show and the reaction from the crowd every night was nothing I had ever experienced before. The Sound of Music was a show which I had to be a part of due to the sheer popularity of the musical. Even though it there was not much to do, I enjoyed the backstage banter with other cast members and had a chance to shine by hosting the warm up for the sing-a-long, drawing on my experience as a presenter for Haven Holidays.

AB – What do you find the biggest challenge when starting prep for a new show?

LTThe biggest challenge for any actor is perfecting the character you have been given to play. You can learn the words, harmonies, dance routines and direction, but without a convincing character, the performance can fall apart.  The support we receive over the months and weeks of rehearsal makes the learning less stressful.

AB – ‘Strictly’ is a different type of show with so many musical numbers – how are you coping with remembering the setting for such a variety of different styles ?
LT – Luckily for DOS, we have a very talented cast for Strictly Musicals. We also have a director who understands that people have different capabilities and strengths that are stronger in different areas of performance.  The only things I am having trouble with at the moment is the dance moves (ED really ? cos your freestyle in the finale looks spot on good). But hopefully they will be smoothed out in the next five weeks.

AB – Which number are you most looking forward to  (don’t worry, I won’t give any secrets away  ) ?

LT – If I tell you I would have to kill you. (ED – gulp!)

 

AB – What would your dream role be, and just as importantly, which leading lady would you most like to star alongside?

LT – My dream role would be the Emcee in cabaret. I wouldn’t like to choose just one
leading lady as I feel it would make the others jealous.

AB – What advice can you give to someone who is interested in theatre but doesn’t feel that they can sing or dance well enough to be in a show ?

LT – If you have the passion and the willing to learn then I would always say that a society like DOS is always a good place to start. You will find people that have the same interests as you and are passionate about the same things as you are.

I have met some of my best friends through joining DOS.

Thanks to Leighton for spending time out of a hectic schedule to give an insight into life as a ‘DOSser’.

This next week the cast will be performing the first full non-stop run through and also finalising their costumes.  Things are certainly moving at a pace so if you haven’t got your tickets yet , don’t delay – miss it, miss out !

Strictly Musicals is on at Darlington Civic theatre from October 23rd until November 2nd.  Tickets are available through the website www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk

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Darlington Operatic Society – Strictly Musicals –

It won’t be long now …………………….

Time is ticking and the excitement is certainly building.  Continuing on with my preview of the build up to Darlington Operatic Society’s Autumn spectacular, Strictly Musicals, this week there have been plenty of tears shed as rehearsals for one of the shows most emotional numbers took place.  This piece comes from one of the more modern shows and whilst I might be slightly biased as Becca played the lead in her GCSE production, I have to admit that it’s hard not to cry when you hear this one, especially when it follows the high tempo, upbeat numbers.

Whilst at this weeks rehearsals, I was really lucky to bump into Samantha Morrison, a well established member of the Operatic Society and a real favourite leading lady of mine.  Sam was just waiting to start her rehearsal of …… (come on, should know by now I won’t give too much away) but I managed to grab a few minutes to find out what it’s like to be a part of the North East’s {premier Amateur Theatre Companies.

AB – When did you join Darlington Operatic Society and what prompted you
to ?

SM – I studied performing arts at Stockton and Billingham College.  After that I took a year out to decide if I wanted to pursue an acting career full time and move down to London.  During this time I got a job and started to enjoy the freedom of life.   It was around this time I joined Darlington Operatic Society and took my first part as a chorus girl in Sweet Charity.  This gave me the avenue to continue performing without having to take the plunge and make it my career.  It also meant I could act without the pressure of it being my job and I think that has helped keep it more enjoyable.

AB – You have been a member of the society for quite a while now (obviously starting very young means you are still young!), what was it like when you joined?

SM – When I started, the Operatic Society was like many other societies in Darlington; the WI, the Round Table, the Lions etc – they were all made up of Darlington people and were social and cultural hubs.  Members of the operatic society were very active in the community and our audiences were heavily made up of members from these other groups.  We were supported because we were Darlington Operatic Society, the town’s amateur theatre group, and felt quite a connection to and with the town.  As such the shows we staged were quite traditional to appeal to the audience we had.

AB – How has the society changed over the years ?

SM – Culture in general has changed an awful lot over the past 10 or so years.  Theatre has had to compete with so many other leisure pursuits all vying for time and money; cinema, home movies, the change in drinking habits, even video gaming have all drawn on people so theatre in general has had to up its game and come up with more innovative shows to grab the audiences’ attention.  Being an amateur production company means we really have to be on the ball in show choice to try and appeal to as many people as we can.  When the society’s long standing director left we had a series of guest directors, each of whom had to try and appeal to new audiences whilst not alienating our traditional fans.  It’s not been easy as there is a real fine balance between staging the long established shows (Sound of Music, Guys & Dolls, Sweet Charity) which will appeal to a more mature audience with the more modern ones (Full Monty, Footloose, Blood Brothers) needed to capture the younger theatre goers, but with Jo (Hand) and the team we have a great understanding of how to deliver the best and most exciting shows.

AB – Picking up on your point of being an amateur company, how difficult is
it to compete with other, professional theatre productions?

SM – we don’t have the time and resources to compete directly with the professional touring companies, yet when someone comes to see our show they need to feel that they have had a great evening, value for money and want to come and see our next production.  We are very lucky to have a wonderful theatre to perform in which always give us such a buzz come opening nights but with it comes the pressure to make sure we don’t disappoint (ED Which you never do!).  Like any production company we are reliant on our cast being committed to putting in the hours in rehearsals, the back stage crew building and running the sets and of course our Director and Choreographer giving us a great show to present.  It is perhaps because, rather than in spite, of us being an amateur company that we can tackle the shows we do as everyone is here because they want to be not because it is their job.  We have a great team and whilst many of the society have been with us for years, we still attract a good number of people auditioning to join.

AB – For someone thinking of applying to join Darlington Operatic Society, what is it like to be a member?

SM – I guess we are the epitome of one big family; we are such a diverse group of people that there will always be someone around to talk to, laugh with, help with steps, practise, rehearse or just listen.  There are times when you’ve had a really bad day at work but when you walk into rehearsals you can forget all about it and just throw yourself into performing.  Often when we start preparing for a new show we will spend time at
someone’s house, watching DVDs and just practising steps or singing.  Think of the fun you had at school with your group of friends extended into adult life – in fact after the thrill of performing on stage it really is the best part of being a member.

AB – Personally, I loved your portrayal of Vi in Footloose but which has been your favourite role to play ?

SM Having been a Chorus girl first time around, it was great to be able to play Charity in Sweet Charity when we next performed it.  I really enjoyed playing Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and also as Mrs Barnum opposite Julian (Cound) – me & Julian have played opposite quite a few times now so we have a good understanding of each other’s’ style.  I do find that I am getting offered the ‘more mature’ roles now ….. (ED – yeah but these young girls need someone to show them just how it’s done!)

AB – Finally, rehearsals for Strictly Musicals are well underway – without giving away too many secrets, what’s it going to be like?

SM – ‘Strictly’ is an amazing show, packed with some of the biggest stage numbers which normally we wouldn’t get chance to perform.  Jo (Joanne Hand, Director & Choreographer) has worked so hard on designing some really fantastic numbers, challenging to perform but really exciting and powerful – the audience will be amazed and moved throughout the show. The best thing is that in a normal show there will be perhaps 5 or 6 lead characters with the rest of the cast taking chorus line roles etc, in this show there are over 24 numbers which are shared around so lots of us get to take centre stage for a bit – it gives the younger members a chance to lead without the pressure of carrying a whole show.

So there we have it from the lovely Sam;  the Operatic Society is much more than just a production company putting on two shows a year, it’s a club, a school, a family, an institution and one which Darlington should be very proud of.

Strictly Musicals, a show packed with the biggest hits from the biggest musicals of the past 70 years is on from October 23rd until November 2nd at the wonderful Darlington Civic theatre.  Check out the website for tickets and make it a night to remember.  http://www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk/

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Strictly Musicals – the countdown continues

5 weeks to go ……………

Following on from last weeks initial preview of Darlington Operatic Society’s forthcoming production, Strictly Musicals, I was allowed back to watch another number being set.  This time is was an evocative and rousing piece from Evita.  Director Joanne opened the session by exclaiming that this was one of the easier numbers (!?!) but nonetheless needed absolute concentration to ensure it continued to look easy.  All I know is that after a 2 hour workout of both the mental & physical the component parts came together into another stunning and exciting number adding to the already bulging set list.

Again, I marvelled at the ability of the cast to focus on their stage positions, remember their dance moves (which for this piece have a tango/flamenco feel) and still manage to sing, in harmony and in breath.  Of course, this is only one of over 24 numbers that will be performed, proving that staging and performing a show like this is as much a test of memory & mental ability as it is of song & dance.  I couldn’t help but feel a swell of excitement akin to the build up to Christmas – you know it’s coming, you know it’s going to be great but you still aren’t sure exactly what you’re going to get (well, I have a better idea than most but I’m not telling !)

As promised last week, I was able to grab a little time out of Director & Choreographer Jo’s very busy diary to ask a few questions:

AB – Strictly is a full-on musical review / concert – how different is it to design & set this type of show compared to a traditional show with dialogue and a few musical numbers ?

JH – the main difference is that from the outset you have no set parameters to work from.  For normal ‘book’ shows eg ‘The Sound of Music’ you are provided with the libretto and associated songs and for this kind of show you are literally starting with a blank page.  For a book musical you know the songs come in a particular order, there are certain key companies who provide the set, the orchestrations demand a set number of instruments and musicians, the parts are fairly defined for the performers and the costumes need to fit a set period or look demanded by the piece.  In this kind of show none of those are in place.  You determine the songs, the order, the theme, the look, the staging and set and cast required.  In many ways its a lot more work than a book musical but provides great opportunities for large numbers of performers to be featured.  In most musicals there are a limited number of lead players whereas this kind of show allows us to showcase the breadth of talent that exists within the company.

AB – What was the process for deciding which numbers made it into the show, were there any you knew immediately to avoid, and any which you wished you could have included ?

JH -I think this was probably the hardest choice.  There are so many great songs in musical theatre and I could have easily had a show that lasted 6 hours if I wasn’t careful!  I worked the concept around a loose theme of songs from shows that were nominated or had won Tony and / or Olivier awards.  If nothing else it helped me to start cutting things down.  In a show like this its important to consider the balance of content so – ballads vs upbeat numbers, dramatic pieces vs lighthearted pieces, full company numbers vs solos, duets and trios.  You also have to consider what will work for the band you have.  We wanted there to be a comfortable balance of the classics and also provide some pieces from lesser known musicals to give the audience something new as well.  You also have to consider what songs work ‘out of context’ of a show.  There are many shows that I adore but the songs are quite specific to the storyline and therefore don’t necessarily work in a concert style setting.  There are still songs now that I wish I had been able to include but they would have had to be at the expense of another number – maybe we will have to consider ‘Strictly Musicals 2′ (ed - you heard it here first, folks)

AB – You’ve worked with DOS since Oliver! in 1993, what changes have you seen in the past 20 (gulp) years ?

JH – The society has changed a lot since my initial association but the constant has been the quality of productions which has always been incredibly high and something the society has prided itself on.  Like any good organisation, DarlingtonOS had had to modernise to keep up with things like technological changes.  20 years ago I am not sure we even knew what a website was – now I don’t think we could do without it.  We communicate with the cast in a number of different ways as well regarding social events, changes to rehearsals etc eg SMS messages, Facebook, online surveys etc which solely relied on someone making loads of phonecalls when I first started.  I think we try to celebrate our heritage and are very proud of where the society has come from but at the same time know that we all have a duty to make sure the society is here in another 50-100 years.

AB -The ratio of girls to boys looks around 2:1 – does this have any influence when deciding on which shows to put on ?

JH – The cast for Strictly Musicals is only a selection of our full membership.  As we stage 2 musicals per year we hold auditions for each show and then select the cast to meet the specific demands of that show.  We are quite fortunate in Darlington that we have a relatively high number of young men involved in the society.  Women still outnumber men but we always get new men wanting to join us every 6 months when we hold our new members auditions.

AB – I’ve watched as you set a couple of numbers and the preparation is phenomenal – What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in getting Strictly ready for rehearsals ?

JH – I think as with most musicals 50% of the work is done before you even get to the first rehearsal.  By the time it comes to setting you have to have been able to visualise how the number will look in its finished state with the lighting, staging, performers and any other effects.  In Strictly Musicals we have a cast of 47 so the full company numbers take a lot of planning of how to move the cast from A to B ensuring the soloist is where they need to be by a specific bar of music.  I think the biggest challenge for Strictly has probably just been ensuring that the running order allows for costume changes, mic changes and balancing out the voice parts in the various numbers.  As I love a good spreadsheet once that was cracked it really is just business as usual

AB - Do you have any superstisions or lucky routines for opening night ?

JH – No – I don’t believe in superstitions.  I think I am too practical.  I believe more in hard work and organisation and those things will see you right on the night.

AB – If you could stage & direct one show (regardless of cost, venue needed, production etc) which would it be ?

JH – Probably a few different ones for different reasons so its difficult to tie it down to one.  Les Mis as a ‘biggie’  - its the show that really turned me onto musical theatre and I love the various interweaving storylines and the music and of course to stage this with a fantastic full working set and large company would be fantastic.  On the other extreme I would love to direct ‘Parade’ in a black box with a small cast or ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ which is a fantastic show within a show.

ABHave you any advice for someone who is interested in theatre but feels that they could never sing, dance, act well enough to take a part ?

JH – There are so many ways to be involved other than being on stage which are just as rewarding if not more so.  As well as the people taking part on stage, DarlingtonOS has a range of backstage helpers ranging from props and costume departments to crew, lighting and sound.  All of these departments are vital to the final production that the audience sees and we are always on the look out for willing volunteers.

AB – Which number are you most excited about

JH – Gosh – not really sure.  I think I am looking forward to just in general seeing all the bits coming together so when you get the choreography on stage with the lighting, costume and LED screen and it looks somewhat like it did in your head then thats always exciting.  I liked xxxxxxxxx when I was setting it and am pleased with how that is turning out as I have a solid group of really good girls.  I also like how the xxxxx number is coming along from a dance perspective.  Of course the sheer power of 47 people singing ‘xxxxxxxx’ always brings a tingle to my spine. (ED – you really didn’t think I was going to let you know which ones Jo chose – you’ll just have to come and see for yourself !!)

Well folks, that wraps it up for this blog, the excitement is definitely building and we have yet to see costumes, set and the use of some very clever tech - look out for the next preview blog where I will have caught up with some of the society’s members & cast to get their thoughts on preparing for autumn spectacular.

Strictly Musicals is on at Darlington Civic from 23rd October to the 2nd November – check out the website for more details and to purchase tickets (better hurry, they are selling like the proverbial cakes of heat)  http://www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk/

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Dreamboats and Petticoats at Darlington Civic

 

A fun filled show packed with the songs of yester-year and starring Mr Fabulous, Mark Wynter.

Dreamboats has been around for quite a few years and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down – I’m not sure by now how many new fans it will be attracting, but it has very loyal patronage , many of whom go to relive their youth to the soundtrack of over 50 all time classics (Apologies if I sound like the adverts from Shopping TV that play continuously from 2am till breakfast news).   The story is the usual fare of teenagers in love, rivals, unrequited attraction, new kid rebel and of course the big happy ending.

The script and the story are reminiscent of a game we used to play – see how many song titles you can get into your English essay.  I’m not knocking it, in fact, given the current economic and political climate there is need for more escapism, so whether you remember how life was when these songs were first penned or have come to know them from film scores, adverts and parents (grand parents ?) there is no denying that you will leave this show feeling like you’ve had a few hours without a care in the world.

Songs in the 60′s were written and performed with radio and jukebox in mind and had to compete with thousands of others; as such they needed an instant hook and, often only lasting 3 minutes,  were hi octane, hi energy – easy to perform one at a time, but when there’s over 50 to do a test of stamina which those running the Great North Run this weekend would probably avoid.  As expected for a teen-based story, most of the cast are clearly in their late teens, early twenties but they were totally eclipsed by the star of the show, the ever young Mark Wynter.  Although Mr Wynter has a very impressive resume covering nearly 50 years of theatre and TV roles, it is his singing career, started back in the early 60′s, that the majority of the audience remember him for – 9 top 40 hits including Venus in Blue Jeans, Go Away Little Girl and It’s Almost Tomorrow.  Still as silky smooth as ever and demonstrating energy and athleticism which puts the younger cast to shame, my only regret last night was not taking my Mum to see it – Mark was one of her all-time favourites and still is.

There are some who disparagingly refer to these type of shows as ‘Jukebox Operas’ – shame really as the term is quite fitting in a complimentary way – operas were always seen as a clever way to set a story to music (sometimes popular, sometimes eclectic) and carried quite a reverence bordering on snobbery;  Dreamboats is no less of a show than Carmen or La Boheme or Aida, it’s just set in a different time, plays to a different audience and it’s easier to remember the words.

Dreamboats and Petticoats is on at Darlington Civic until Saturday 14th September, tickets from the Darlington Civic website, so dig out your winkle pickers, bobby socks and Brillcream and bob till you drop.

 

 

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Strictly Musicals – Darlington Operatic Society’s Autumn Show part 1

Let the countdown begin …..

With only 6 weeks to go before curtain up, this is the first of a series of blogs giving a peek behind the scenes as Darlington Operatic Society prepare for their Autumn show - Strictly Musicals, all your favourite musicals in one spectacular show - and to meet some of the stars of what is undoubtedly going to be yet another mega smash hit in their long line of fab productions.

For some, Sunday mornings are all about having a lie in, lazily reading the papers, perhaps a leisurely walk to the pub or catching up on the weeks Sky+, but not for the dedicated cast & crew of ‘DOS‘;  they are working mighty hard to ensure that their latest musical extravaganza is practically perfect in every way, and on todays showing it’s going to be breathtaking from curtain up to their last encore.  Many had been up well before Dawn*, stretching, flexing and readying themselves for the physical and mental tests ahead.

The task of taking some of the biggest West End and Broadway show tunes from the past 80 years and moulding them into a unique song and dance review full of energy, passion and excitement lies on the slender, but no less strong shoulders of Director and Choreographer Joanne Hand .  Make no bones about it, such a review is far more demanding than any usual production – each number needs to capture its essence, emotion and purpose but has to do so without the preamble of the original production from which it is taken.  Song choice is therefore uber important to ensure that there remains a flow throughout and Joanne has styled a show which will not only bring hit after hit to the Civic stage, but will serve to showcase the depth of talent which the Society has in its ranks.

I was unaware just how hard it is for adult ’amateur’ production companies to get permission to stage some of our most famous musicals; schools and youth theatres have relatively easy access to them, but as Julian Cound, marketing manager and one of the leading men at DOS explained, once you move into adult production the performing rights owners are very guarded about who & what they allow; so much so that even recognisable dance steps and costumes are often prohibited from being ‘copied’.  All this adds to the challenge faced by Joanne, but on todays showing, it’s a challenge which she not only relishes, but overcomes with aplomb.

Todays rehearsals focussed on running through 4 key numbers (I could tell you which ones, but then I risk being shot) plus the ‘setting’ for two more (I’m already learning the terms).  The cast already know their singing parts so this was very much focussed on the dance & stage routines; at over 4 hours rehearsal today covering approximately a 5th of the overall show, and being only one of 3 rehearsal sessions this week,  it was a clear demonstration of the amount of time and effort everyone puts into ensuring the show will be ready for first night.  Lest we forget, this is an amateur production company but with dedication and passion that would put many professional groups to shame.

What was very evident is the genuine enthusiasm with which everyone approaches their parts; forget any preconceived ideas of rehearsals being a quick watch from the front and then everybody is step perfect;  these numbers need the utmost concentration coupled with precision timing (and knowing your left from right – and whose left & whose right) while singing, acting and being aware of the audience.  With upto 40 people on stage, many of the numbers are multi-layered with multiple cues,  harmonies and counter points so it is testament to the dedication of the cast that they very quickly grasped their directions for each number and did so while still smiling – after all , it is meant to be fun.

I left todays rehearsals with a head full of tunes (which no doubt I will be humming in my  sleep), a greater insight into the complexities of choreographing (it’s all done with numbers and letters, like A level maths, only much harder)  plus I now know the difference between my Dozy Doe, my Grapevine and a Shadows Step, just don’t ask me to show you.

“Strictly Musicals” will be a night filled with music & dance from the nations favourite shows including Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, West Side Story, Chicago, Beauty & The Beast, Matilda, Blood Brothers and many, many more.  The show runs from 23rd October to the 2nd November at Darlington Civic and tickets are available from the website http://www.darlingtonoperaticsociety.org.uk/tickets/

Next time :

“One day more” - Life as a DOSser, an interview with some of the society’s established cast

“How do you solve a problem like Maria” – just how do you chose which numbers to do and which to leave well alone?.

Previous reviews of DOS shows are here:

http://www.whatsonnortheast.com/blog/andybramfitt/?p=565

http://www.whatsonnortheast.com/blog/andybramfitt/?p=478

http://www.whatsonnortheast.com/blog/andybramfitt/?p=228

*(Dawn is my next door neighbour, renowned for staying in bed until well past 11am).

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It’s Just a Jump to the Left at Darlington Civic

Still the sexiest, raunchiest, funniest show in town

Way back in 1973 Richard O’Brien captured all the essence of his favourite horror, sci-fi and musical films, mixed them up with a heady dash of teenage sexual awakening and slapped the resulting show into a tiny upstairs theatre in the backstreets of London – and so, in keeping with the movies he was paying omage to, the monster was born.

Fast forward 40 years and the Rocky Horror Show is unparralleled in it’s cult following.  Fans take great pride in dressing up as their show heroes, there is an expected etiquette for both Vamps (regular watchers) and Virgins (first timers) and there is even an audience participation script which runs through the whole show with collective responses, props and approved heckles.

The story, for those who have yet to enter the seedy world of Transyvanian Transvetites is about a young couple who find themselves in the clutches of the weird and wonderful Dr Frank ‘n’ Furter – a cross dressing mix of Dracula and Gok Wan – and their descent from wholesome, mid-americans to depraved, sex-crazed hedonists.

For the majority of fans, the first introduction to this show was through the movie version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it is to this that they constantly compare any stage productions.  I have to admit, I do too (having at the latest count seen the movie over 450 times) - I have seen 16 different stage productions across the country and whilst they have all been thoroughly entertaining, there was always something missing which meant they just didn’t match up to my favourite film – that was until now.

This 40th anniversary version is simply the very best I’ve seen – period.  The direction stays so true to the original, the cast are perfect in every way and the set captures every nuance of the movie and original stage show.  From first curtain to the last encore it never misses a beat – there’s no attempt to change things for personal expression, there’s no experiment in modernising and there’s no straying from what has made this the most famous and beloved cut musical ever.

Dani Harmer as Janet is a divine blend of virginal innocence mixed with simmering vamp and boy, what a voice she packs into those little lungs of hers.  Her accent was perfect mid-west which never faltered as she moved from cutesy to raunchy.

Ben Forster playing Brad managed to keep his geeky nerd on the right side of believable without straying into lampooning.  He too has a great voice and was equally comfortable in belting as he was in ballads.

Of course, in every version of Rocky Horror, it’s Frank ‘n’ Furter who holds centre stage – there has been an illustrious list of previous wearers of the man-sized basque; Jason Donovan, Jonathan Wilkes, Antony Head but again its the original, Tim Curry, who is always held as the best – well move over Tim for your tiara has been well & truly stolen.  Oliver Thornton has everything the role requires, a gorgeous figure, handsome yet mischievous face and legs that should be used in hosiery adverts.  Coupled with a stunningly good voice and a real sense of the history and expectations that go with the role Oliver plays Frank with all the respect it deserves.

There is a time honoured tradition of the audience heckling the oft appearances of the narrator, moving the role away from simply stitching the story together and instead acting as master of ceremonies and house manager.  The roll call of previous narrators is almost as heady as the previous incarnations of Frank ‘n’ Furter but tonight Philip Franks was the best armed, best prepared and genuinely funniest of the lot.  Philip managed to use every heckle to reinforce the reason for him being there while delivering hysterical yet none- dismissive comebacks which kept the whole audience on his side.

I unashamedly state that the Rocky Horror Show is my favourite show / film ever, so it is testament to the whole cast that I believe this version is as close to perfection as possible – for anyone who has ever enjoyed the movie and wished they had seen the original stage show you MUST go and see this.  Darlington Civic is a great venue for this show; even though it was first night, on a Monday in July, it was a sell out with well over half the audience dressed for the occasion in basques, stockings, biker jackets, medical scrubs and no end of tattoos and bow ties.  So, come up to the lab, see what’s on the slab and enjoy shivering in ant-i-ci-pation.

The most fun you can have with half your clothes on.

 

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The Castle Players Midsummers Nights Dream

Surely just as Shakespeare intended !

There’s little that can compare to a British summers’ eve; the smell of cut grass, the smack of leather on willow, the distant drone of a tractor bailing hay.  Well, that’s the idealistic view, the one we all hold dear as a lifelong memory, but all too often the reality is made up of dodging the rain &  shivering in the cold breeze.  Now after last nights show I have a new benchmark for an ideal summer night - sitting in the open air watching the Castle Players perform yet another masterpiece of Shakespearian majesty.

I don’t think there could be anywhere in the world that would have provided a better venue for this show; the magnificent Bowes museum behind us, the dappled sunlight over the open air ‘stage’ in front and the sense, even before the show started, that we were in for something quite magical.  The Castle Players, quite rightly, have built a reputation for being one of the very best companies when it comes to producing open air theatre; their use of the natural surroundings is quite brilliant and their ability to draw in the audience into an intimate space and yet to preserve the grandure not limited by curtains, wings and stage screens is unique in the modern day of technical gadetary. Add to this the complete joy and enthusiasm with which each and every cast member performs and it leaves you feeling quite humbled in the fact that they are, after all, an amateur production company (although purely only in name).

I learned from watching last years show that it’s very difficult to single any of the cast out for individual praise; this is not me being conditionally sycophantic, they all DO play their roles to the highest level and ensure that the show overall is much much more than the sum of it’s parts.  Having said that, the Director, Simon Pell deserves credit for his vision, creativity and willingness to allow a more organic flow to the show than previous versions I have seen – it was this which added to the magic of the evening and drew out the essence of Shakespears most fantastical of plays.

The soundscape produced for this latest offering was simply stunning – I had doubted that it would be possible to produce a soundtrack in the open air which would be wide and deep enough to truly envelope the audience but I was very wrong indeed.  Composed and recorded by Andy Yeadon, we were held in awe from the very first note, not once did the sound distort or feel strained and the acoustics, for all that we were sat outside, were as crystal clear as from any high fidelity multi speaker surround sound system.

As they proved last year by being invited to perform for the RSC Cultural Olympiad Open Stages Festival in Stratford, The Castle Players are recognised across the country as one of the very best; on the strength of this years production that reputation can only be further enhanced – a true credit to the North East and one which we can be very proud of.

Shows sell out almost as soon as tickets go on sale (and rightly so) so I’m afraid that if you haven’t got tickets for this summer’s production then you may be out of luck – check out their website at www.castleplayers.co.uk for details.  What I can say is that there are two more productions confirmed – The Hound of The Baskervilles for their Winter production and Romeo & Juliet for next Summer’s outdoor show (which is already writ large in my diary).  Till then, I can but dream of a midsummers eve, not too distant but one which will live long in the memory.

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Last Night of the Proms

No excuses for being proud to be British

Last night Darlington Civic hosted the Last Night of The Proms, a celebration of British composers, traditional classical music with addition of a few interesting renditions of Abba, showtunes and movie themes.

Most people will have seen the world famous LNOTP from the Albert Hall and this, albeit on a smaller scale, managed to capture all the pomp & ceremony.  Ageless favourites including Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and the Selection of Sea Shanties were enthusiastically and energetically performed by the British Philharmonic Concert Orchestra while the audience lapped up every possible opportunity to wave their Union Jacks, clap and of course sing.  It was quite obvious that there is an expected degree of knowledge and etiquette when attending a ‘Last Night’ performance; the conductor (who for this show was the wonderfully energetic ’Lord’ Anthony Kraus) will play to the crowd, trying to keep them in time and at pace, the leading soloists will deliver their finale bedecked in Red, White & Blue and the audience will bring kazoos, whistles, bells and rattles to ensure their audio cues are hit with as much noise as possible. To this end, there is, for the uninitiated the need for a compare just to guide us along.

For this evening we had Gary Wilmot as the master of ceremonies who immediately gave the proceedings a wonderful air of fun, humour and cabaret; it is such a shame that we don’t see Gary on TV these days, there are none better at combining genuine humour, impeccable timing with a great singing voice  – I had almost forgotten just how easy he makes things seem while clearly enjoying himself on stage.  When you watch the usual TV drivel we are served up labelled as family entertainment there must be a vehicle somewhere to get Mr Wilmot back on our screens.  Throughout the evening Gary interjected with telling facts, trivia and of course jokes (some new, most old but all were funny) all focussed on the theme of anniversaries.  He also helped to keep the lead singers, the delightful Anna Clare Monk and the mischievous Andrew Forbes, in line as both were tempted to throw away the running order and just join in with the audience.

You don’t have to be a classical music buff to appreciate Last Night, nor do you have to be worldly wise in regards to traditional patriotism; all you need is to be able to enjoy a great evening of music, laughter and a sense of pride at being British.

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The Pitmen Painters at Darlington Civic

A extraordinary tale of ordinary folk

The Pitman Painters is a wonderful story, written by Lee Hall, based on true events and charting the life & times of a group of coal miners (and a dental mechanic) from Northumberland who decide to broaden their skills and embrace art &  painting.  Initially hoping to be taught how to understand the messages hidden in classic paintings, this bunch of pitmen found that the professor they had engaged through the WEA had a different idea – no lectures and slide shows, instead they would be the  ones doing the painting.  Through this, they learned to appreciate the emotional attachment between artist and canvas and how the true meaning of any painting lies within the person observing it.

The play builds on the real spirit of the North East; set in the 1920s to just after the 2nd World War, the language, culture and sheer reason-for-being all lie in the pit village microcosm which was so very prevalent until the  closure of the mines in the mid 1980’s.  Everyone knew everyone and acted just like one huge family; strengths were exploited, weaknesses mocked and those who dared to break the mould were reminded in no uncertain terms of their place – but it was all done with love & affection as only a family can.  The play obviously has to pick and choose which elements to include to progress the story and which to leave out to avoid clichéd stoicism but by centring the action in the miners army hut there is good reason for it to just be the 5 lads and their painting.

Being a miner in the early 20th century was the most dangerous occupation in the country – men often had to witness their colleagues, friends and family killed and maimed in horrific accidents yet inspite, or maybe because, of this their humour shone through.  The script captures this perfectly and the laughs are delivered through the realistic actions and reactions, not from scripted jokes.  In particular the scene where Susan Parks (played by Catherine Dryden) a young lady, is due to pose as a real life nude model for the guys is hilarious.  Each character is so well formed and instantly recognisable that you feel you know them personally but more importantly the core values & drivers relevant to the [ost war years all hold up to scrutiny; thankfully it doesn’t try to subject modern day morals on the audience and there is still a sense of pride, of decency and of ‘being proper’ regardless of the accents and slang used.

Hall can be sentimental, as anyone who has seen Billy Elliot knows. But here, sentiment is kept in check by political reality, raw as the Northumbrian wind. In the play’s final moments, after the pit is nationalised, the cast sing “Gresford”, the miner’s hymn and look forward to a bright new tomorrow of socialism – of course, we know how the future really panned out.

If you haven’t seen this play yet (where have you been ??) then take a trip down to Darlington Civic Theatre, enjoy the very warm welcome & hospitality of the staff there and sit back and be thoroughly entertained by the Pitmen Painters.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham

The best historical comedy show and not just for ‘local’ people

Most people in the North East are aware of St Cuthbert, either from Durham Cathedral, Lindesfarne or by having a local church named after the well travelled saint.  What they probably don’t appreciate is just how we know so much about the regions patron saint, especially as he died in the 700′s AD.  This insight is due to the tales, stories and recounting all held in the fantastic Lindesfarne Gospels (or as it is more favourably known, Cuthbert’s Book) which are currently on display at Durham Cathedral.  What is perhaps even less well known is the journey this unique book had to take before it made it’s way back to the North East.

This show, written by Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood, is a wonderful recount of the past 1400 years of local history relating to the ‘big dusty book’, told as a play within a play and performed by Chris Connel, Viktoria Kay and Robert Hudson.  Starting way back in the days before the Vikings and progressing right up to the modern day, we are treated to a hilarious romp around the North of England; as educational as the BBC series Horrible Histories only funnier and much more local.  There’s lots of monks, even more cows, a hoard of Vikings and a ghost who helps to guide us through the facts, the legends and the downright dubious.

The cast manage to bring to life all the main chapters in the Gospels’ story and keep the pace moving briskly along without ever feeling that they’ve rushed over anything.  The jokes are undeniably corny at times but this all adds to the engaging way in which the audience are sucked in and taken along for the whistle-stop ride.

For those who are familiar with Ed & Trevor’s work (Alf Ramsey knew my Grandfather, Dirty Dusting, Amazing Grace) this is another great example of comedic interplay,  instantly recognisable characters all painted with a broad North Eastern brush.  They are masters in the oft ignored art of storytelling making this a show to be seen by young & old, rich and poor, clever or …… not-so clever.

A Funny Thing Happened …. is on tour throughout July – check out the website www.funnygospels.co.uk for the full tour details, dates and venues.

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Coming Soon – A Midsummer Night’s Treat

If the weather forecasters are to be believed, summer is finally here, indeed as I write we have quite aptly just moved past Midsummer’s day, the sun is shining and everything is warm and calm.  Whether it stays this way throughout the traditional summer holidays is open to debate, but so long as the weather maintains a warm & dry outlook for the next couple of weeks we will once again be able to enjoy the annual open air production from the renowned Castle Players of Barnard Castle.  This year, from 9th to the 13th July, they will be presenting Shakespeare’s tale of love, deception, betrayal, honour and loss – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which is undoubtedly one of the Bards most endearing works.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most popular comedy. It portrays the adventures of four star-crossed young lovers and a group of amateur actors, their interactions with woodland fairies and a duke and duchess. Taking place in a mythical Athens and an enchanted forest, there is a powerful fairy king and a bewitching fairy queen, a weaver who is transformed into an ass, and lots of other strange characters and events.

Previous performances by this dedicated production company include All’s Well that Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It – pretty much staple fare for many theatre groups, but one of the key ways in which the Castle Players differ is that their productions are held outside in the grounds of the wonderful Bowes Museum, which gives the whole evening a somewhat surreal and magical atmosphere.  Starting with the sweeping driveway and leading to the hidden theatre area, the woodland setting in the rear garden of the museum is perfect for the forest outside Athens where the majority of the action of the play takes place.

As a theatre production group, The Castle Players constantly set their standards high, in fact last year they were invited to perform their production of As You Like It as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages Festival (they were one of only 14 companies out of 750 nationwide to be chosen to attend in Stratford)  and this year promises to raise the bar even higher.  Midsummer Night’s Dream will feature the first soundscape, especially commissioned by director Simon Pell from Andy Yeadon, 38, who is one of the region’s influential musicians/songwriters. The soundscape is in addition to eight original pieces of music in 42 separate compositions and will surely create an envelope of aural delight in which we will be transported to the magical forest home.

Tickets are still available for some nights, for full details log onto the Castle Players website – http://www.castleplayers.co.uk/ – we are always being told that it is healthier to spend time outdoors so come along and celebrate summer, see a wonderful production and leave feeling good about yourself too.

Posted in Barnard Castle, Classical, Comedy, Museum, Park, Shakespear, Theatre | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Governess @ Darlington Civic

 

Set in 1860, the tale of The Governess centres around the disappearance of a young infant from his bed and the ensuing turmoil which befell almost everyone concerned.  As is par for the course for Victorian drama and mystery, not is all it initially appears to be, and very soon we are given an insight into some of the usual rather shadier goings on in houses of wealth and prestige.  I’m not sure why, but most tales of this period take great pleasure in portraying the now sterotypical blend; driven master of the house who has at least one lover ‘on the staff’; the put upon/ ill /misunderstood wife; a couple of older children who cry out for their parents attentions (usually in the form of rebellious behaviour) and of course the all seeing, all knowing but never saying housekeeper.

Written by Patrick Hamilton (who is perhaps better known for Gaslight) this tale follows the aforementioned formula very, very closely, which is a shame as it means it also follows the now cliched telegraphed plot, lack of twists and monotonously paced slow-burn lead to the final, fully expected reveal.  There is never quite enough depth to each character to allow the audience to form an emotional attachment and because of this they also have no opinion on the outcome.

The first act plays out the relationships between the Ethel Fry, the titular Governess (Jenny Seagrove) , her young charge Ellen (Lydia Orange) and Mr George Drew (Colin Buchanan).  There are glimpses of some repressed sadism in the way Ms Seagrove portrays Fry, but not enough to really feel that she is dangerous.  Likewise, Mr Drew is a driven, succesful, no nonsense ‘master of the house’ yet he seems lost and unsure of what he is when alone with Fry.  It is somewhat unfortunate for the attempted building of tension that Ellen turns out to be an all-seeing somnambulist who, despite the best endeavours of Fry, manages to pretty much give the end game away before the close of act one, leaving the audience just waiting to collectively murmour “thought so”.

The 2nd act is somewhat better, all for the introduction of Peter Bowles as DI Rough – the Victorian version of Columbo without the brown mac.  Mr Bowles brings his much more insightful character to life with humour, matter of fact deductions and timing which held the audience even though they still knew whodunnit.  The end scene, with Fry confronted by her crime, sees her descend into a bizarre, poetry quoting regression – a sort of lite version of a mental breakdown.

If you’re looking for something to rival Oscar Wilde’s wordplays, or The Woman in Blacks scares, or Dickens depth of characters then this play really isn’t for you; if however you want another good Victorian tale set in an Upstairs/Downstairs style house which won’t tax the brain then this will certainly fill your evening (or at least part of it).

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Ricky Ross at the Sage, Gateshead

Following announcement of the largest Deacon Blue tour in over a decade, frontman Ricky Ross has also added his own, intimate & personal tour to the 2013 agenda.  Taking both Deacon Blue standards and Ricky’s solo work, the playlist is an eclectic mix of pop, blues and a more political commentary on the modern age but it does nothing to alienate the casual listener, remaining open, honest and accessible.

Ricky has purposefully taken this tour back to it’s barebones of simple accompanying guitarist – the focus thus remaining on the music, but he is not so pretentious as to believe that his ‘messages’ are worthy of total focus, more that they just don’t need any of the bells & whistles & over production that could have been too tempting to ignore.  The stage at first seemed very large, but you get drawn by the music and the conversation, as though meeting a long lost friend with whom you realise you still have so much in common; so that by the end of the evening the intimacy is quite startling.  There were many times where I found myself perched right on the edge of my seat, blissfully unaware that I was leaning so far forwards as to be hanging over the seat in front.

The title track of his new album, Trouble Came Looking, is quite conversational; an urban styled tale about the dangers inherent in the appeal of acquisition (“I was just giving my kids the best of all things when trouble came looking for me”) and how steep and slippery the slope into over stretching and debt ridden angst (“don’t just say yes when somebody tells you it’s free”).  There are great comparisons between Ricky’s melancholic acceptance of the social ills of our current austere landscape and those of the blues borne from previous depressions (Mid West, Wall Street, Black Thursday) but fear not, this is not a depressing set, it is much more powerful and thought provoking than pitiful wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The album is certainly worth a full listen – the pared down approach to the studio performances sit equally with the live show, so much so that it is refreshing to attend a concert where one and the same feel & sound so alike.  Faves must include “Any Drug Will Do” which has a pseudo chart feel suggesting that in the hands of a dance/pop promoting producer (Norman Cook, Martin Solveig, Calvin Harris) this could easily become an underground radio hit.  At the other end of the culture scale “A Strange & Foreign Land” tugs on the heart strings as an eye witness account of the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers drownings.

Fans of Deacon Blue need not fret; Ricky has not sold his soul to the dark devil of Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan, but he has found another persona with which to weave his stories and take us on journeys.

Most certainly worth finding the album, and, if you’re lucky enough to be in a town where the tour is showing, take the night off from whatever you had planned and treat yourself, you’ll thank me later.

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Ricky Ross Untold Stories Tour at the Sage – Tuesday 23rd

Best known as the frontman for 80′s band Deacon Blue, Ricky is back on a solo tour this year and bringing with him not just the Deacon Blue hits, but also his own material in what I am sure will prove to be a fabulous night.

Ricky says “this is a great opportunity for me, its going to be an adventure for one thing, Gregor Philp will accompany me on guitar and the two of us will set off driving ourselves around the country. The idea was to stop pretty much anywhere that had a piano, so that we could set up with minimal fuss. I’m looking forward to playing places we couldn’t get to
with Deacon Blue, and sharing the untold stories behind my songs in village halls and churches”  We are also promised a selection of songs from Ricky’s forthcoming solo album “Trouble Came Looking” as well as some Deacon Blue songs we don’t usually get to hear.

It is not as well known that Ricky has written for & with some of pop’s biggest names; James Blunt, Ronan Keating, KT Tunstall, David Sneddon, Cathy Burton, Gareth Gates, Emma Bunton, Will Young and Jamie Cullum among others and it is testament to his song writing prowess that he is constantly being sought out for collaborations.

Deacon Blue have announced a huge tour this year, their biggest in over a decade so why not come along and enjoy a more intimate set of great songs, captivating stories and wonderful tunes.

Come back later in the week for a full review after the show

Ricky and Gregor are on at The Sage, Gatheshead on Tuesday 23rd April

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Bishop Auckland Food Festival – it’s Not a Local Shop, you know !!

Rapidly becoming one the most eagerly anticipated events in South Durham, Bishop Auckland, and in particular Auckland Castle, opened its doors to the gastronomic adventurers this weekend.  Having been to most of these events I was very keen to see how it had evolved from last year – not that last year needed any revolutionary restyling, more of the same would have sufficed for most of the patrons I spoke to as we walked down Newgate Street.

First big change that was noticeable was there were many more stalls and concessions in the market place itself – this, I expected, was to cater for the increased demand in local producers who wanted to be a part of this now 2-day extravaganza.  As we neared the Palace gatehouse there was another definite improvement no doubt based on feedback from last year – the way in was now segmented so that there were clear routes for those coming in and those leaving – no more the feeling of swimming against the tide through the inevitable bottleneck of the medieval gateway. So far so good, and that’s when it started to disappoint.

The first show area was given over completely to “This is Cumbria” – a selection of stalls which were very clearly from the North West and, looking at their wares (and prices) they were well used to catering for the coach trippers who spend their summers visiting the Lake District; probably well-to-do people of leisure who journey up from Cheshire. Well, my geography isn’t the best but I am darn well sure that Cumbria isn’t near Bishop Auckland, nor is it near Durham or the North East Dales – what it looked like was that our local producers, many of whom had been told there was no room for them at this year’s show, had been ousted by the hoi polloi of Lakeside tea rooms and Cumbrian venison.  Such a shame when the appeal of previous years was the localness of the stalls and the chance to have a chat with the owners about all things local.

Moving on to the Palace green itself it was again clear that the previous years’ stalls, including a local pub who brewed ales especially for the shows, were all missing, replaced with very much more of the same and whilst it was labelled as Durham Producers, there was little sign of real Durham- think Waitrose food hall with an almost pretensious belief that as we were in the ‘Palace grounds’ it was therefore just and proper to pretend to be by Royal Appointment.  It’s all well and good to have some element of rural delicacies, but I fear for the northern population of deer, boar & rare breed pig as almost every carnivourian stall tried to outdo each other with their take on the landed gentry’s hunting hamper.

The lower field is now out of bounds and as such removed the two show marquees which had been very well attended.  Likewise, any chance of getting a simple coffee, a hand pulled pint, an normal ice cream (which wasn’t styled as the latest super deluxe taste sensation of wild grape infused with essence of alfalfa) was out of the question BUT the worst part and one which I must have heard over 80% of those around me comment on was quite simply “there’s nowhere to sit down !”

Walking round the stalls is not a quick gallop, and, with parking quite some distance away ( the ‘Park and Ride should really be renamed ‘Park, Ride and then Walk a bit’) by the time we got to the last area we were ready for a rest.  Add to this the hope of most stall holders that people will purchase their freshly cooked treats to consume as they walk and there was even more need for some seats. We went with our friends who had only recently had a baby – this was their first trip out since the birth but it became quite uncomfortable for mum to continue to walk without having a quick rest but her option was simply to sit on the floor. Many of the more mature visitors were also not happy or able to just flop down on the slightly damp grass – a missed trick which would have certainly helped to create a more inclusive, family atmosphere (if that was ever what was intended).

It wasn’t until we were about to leave that I noticed one more missing element from previous years – no music.  There was no music at all and the two demonstrations, one in each area, were played very low with little noise carrying across the show.  It was the jazz/brass bands last year which gave the festival a party feel and got everyone dancing with a lighter step (despite the rain). This year it felt more like we were all on a guided coach trip to a stately home – look but don’t touch, walk don’t run, follow the designated path only, don’t talk too loud, stop having fun, buy something expensive and leave.

One very valid point made to me later was that there was no Local Charity concessions at all, previous shows had beenwell attended by many local charities and voluntary movements including the Scouts. These have gradually been moved out of the main grounds, then into the Newgate Centre and finally ommitted altogether – no doubt to makeway for fee paying stalls or corporate lah-de-da’s. Likewise, the local radio and local colleges were all missing too.

Sadly Bishop Auckland’s Food Festival has stopped being for Bishop Auckland people and Bishop Auckland traders; in fact it didn’t feel like it was for County Durham people at all - it seemed to me it was an over-manufactured attempt to cajole would-be visitors into believing it would be worth coming back to Bishop Auckland and that “Tindale Crescent retail park doesn’t have one of these!” .  I doubt that it will be as well supported next year, I for one won’t be holding the date free in my diary.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

 

A wonderfully witty and erudite play from the master of clever words

Set over 3 acts, The Importance of Being Earnest avoids delving into serious social and political issues and instead focusses on the light hearted shannigans of two London based gents who enjoy living double lives, free to create alter-personas through which they can enact their fantasies safe in the knowledge that they can, at any time, ‘kill off’ their dopplegangers and revert back to their true characters.  The story however has twists aplenty, coupled with the juxtaposition of both leads wanting to assume an ‘Earnest’ character to capture the affections of their betrothed but realising that neither is very earnest at all.

We are introduced to John Worthing, who takes the name Earnest for his alter-ego, and learn that he is an abandoned orphan, left in a hand bag in Victoria station.  It is perhaps because of this that he enoys the annonymity derived from having a London city character and a Hertfordshire country role and ‘ne’er the twain shall meet’ – that is until he becomes bessotted by Gwenoldine and has to wrestle with her affections for ‘Earnest’ and his desire to tell her the truth.

Enter Algernon, John’s best friend, who too enjoys a certain degree of freedom with his personalities.  He learns that John has a pretty ward, Cecily, esconsed in his country house and decides that he must go visit her.  Cecily believes that John is her Uncle Jack and that ‘Earnest’ is indeed Jacks brother – this is the rouse which John uses to effect his weekend trips to London however for Algernon to pull off his deception he too must become Earnest – confused ?  don’t be, all is quite simple as it unfolds.

The play itself leans close to farce at times but always manages, through very clever words and cutting observations, to wrest away from total slapstick and retain the parlance of typical Wildean satire.

As always, The Middle Ground Theatre Company provide stunning set design and a brilliant cast.  While Corrine Wicks and Tom Butcher take lead billing, the whole ensemble deliver masterful portrayals of their characters, firmly held in their social pigeon holes but quite recognisable in todays society.   Lest we not forget it was  who brought us The Holly & The Ivy and On Golden Pond and if you were fortunate to see either or both of those productions then you will certainly enjoy their latest.

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Rumours of Fleetwood Mac – Truly Amazing

Anyone who loves music from the past 40 years will have no doubt enjoyed at least a handful of Fleetwood Mac’s songs; from their first hit Albatross right through to the 80′s smashes Big Love and Little Lies. Likewise their albums have always managed to deliver on every occasion but the history books will show that it was their eponymous ‘Rumours’ album that does, and will continue to, stand the test of time as a true classic.  The songs are masterpieces in their own right but when the story surrounding the band (the in-fighting, love triangles and months of silence) are added there is more than a frisson of extra edge and pathos to the words.  Rumours, and the original live tour to accompany the album, was used by some band members to sarcastically remind others of their infidelities, betrayal and disdain.  I can’t see the current crop of ‘pop stars’ ever having the mastery of English to be able to write such cutting sentiment into such catchy songs.

The show is, in effect, split into 3 parts (although there is only 1 interval); part one is a complete rendition of the Rumours album culminating in a spine tingling rendition of ‘The Chain’.  Part two, straight after the break, allows the boys to take the stage and treat us to the more psychedelic repertoire of late 60′s prog rock including a jaw dropping version of ‘Rattlesnake Shake’. Then part three welcomes the girls back for a final foray into the more recent catalogue, ending with an almost tribal immersion in ‘Tusk’.

The musical prowess of all on stage is simply mesmerising whilst the vocals and  harmonies are pitch perfect to the originals.  Louise Rogan as Stevie Nicks delivers sheer power and presence which defies the laws of physics from such a small frame while Amanda Kostadinov is as sultry and seductive as Christine McVie has ever been.  Alan Hughes takes the Lyndsey Buckingham role with the perfect blend of amazing guitar and punchy vocals backed by James Harrison on iconic basslines (he stole the first half with The Chain’s middle refrain).  Ben Hughes, a mere baby compared to the rest of the cast brings a real blues feel to his guitar playing and is the perfect foil to the wonderful trance-inducing keyboards of the legendary Mr Dave Goldberg (whose performance is a great reason to have him age-tested – no way did someone so active & sprightly play keyboards on Radio 1 in the late 1960′s).

If you look in any music press listings you will find many tribute bands covering almost all the big name acts from the 60′s and 70′s – The Counterfeit Stones, The Bootleg Beatles, Abbaesque, the Pink Floyd Experience but I challenge any of them to be as good as Rumours; in fact I will go so far as to say they would rival the original Fleetwood Mac if someone could ever get them on the same stage.

Rumours of Fleetwood Mac are on tour and back in the North East at The Sage, Gateshead on Friday 1st March – get yourself there and I guarantee you will have the best live music evening of your year.

Posted in Darlington Civic, Music, Theatre | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Gilbert & Sullivan, Abridged but too much

Masters of light opera and the pastiche and parody of the 19th Century British class systems, Gilbert & Sullivan wrote many productions which played on ridiculing the foundations of the Empirical society and, as such, were loved throughout the world.

Their clever word play, lampooning of classical works and of course, catchy tunes made them a must-see for theatre goers from the late eighteen hundreds right up to the modern day.  It is widely accepted that they are a staple favourite for AmDram companies across the world, giving great scope for visual humour to compliment the lyrical joviality which runs through all of their operettas.

Whilst I am aware of many of their ‘hit’ numbers, I have to admit that I was a G&S virgin and so last nights production of “Gilbert & Sullivan Abridged” was to be my first true experience.  What I saw however left me baffled and quite unsure as to whether G & S are really for me.

The premise of the show is an AmDram production, (well 3 actors) taking their G & S review on tour to raise funds for their austerity-hit theatre. The intention, I believe, is to take the audience on a journey through the greatest works of the much-loved duo with renditions of their greatest tunes and explanations behind their operatic story-telling.  What transpired was 2 acts of parlour renditions accompanied by a pre-recorded piano and punctuated by a nonsensical recounting of an ‘orphaned’ boy looking for his mother.  Speaking to many G & S aficionados at the interval they kindly explained that many of the operas’ in-jokes were lost as key songs were delivered in isolation with none of the pretence or narrative needed to give the witticisms their substance.

Ask anyone about Gilbert & Sullivan and they will most likely remark on their extremely witty word play delivered in tongue-twisting speed and operatic variety – indeed it was this Anglicising of traditional Italian opera that set them apart and created a much loved following – simply listening to the phrasing in “ The Modern Major General” is great example of the vocal dexterity demanded by their works.  The tolerance for error is therefore minuscule, miss one word or beat and the whole verse is lost – it is a must that whomsoever tackles these songs is blessed with flexibility of tongue and elasticity of mouth.  Sadly this was not the case and many of the headline numbers were lost in stumbled mumblings and frantic catch ups. When coupled with off key harmonies and a stuttering use of props the show resembled more the out-takes from an early Monty Python rehearsal session (apologies to Messrs Cleese, Palin et al); as for the ill-advised and mis-placed inclusion of a street rapper, well some cultures are just meant to stay far apart.

I expected an evening of discovery which would stimulate my desire to seek out more G & S works, what I got was very ‘Am’ much less ‘Dram’ and sadly worse than most X-Factor auditions – for me it was a No!   If you already love G & S, or have a passing interest than I suggest you seek out a full production of one of their operas and experience their wonderfully clever, erudtite and astute writings as it is meant to be.

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Coming to Darlington Civic This Week

What a real variety of fantastic theatre experience we have this week at Darlington Civic -

Tuesday I will be enjoying the wonderfully witty and cleverly concise works of Gilbert & Sullivan (abridged).

Whether you are a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado, a passing fan, or you’re still not even sure you know who they are, this show will have you laughing in the aisles. Gilbert and Sullivan Abridged brings you as much fun, zaniness and humour as can be found while performing all fourteen operettas in ninety, hilarious, topsy-turvy minutes!

Wednesday it’s the world famous Rumours of Fleetwood Mac.

After the phenomenal success of their 2012 UK tour, Rumours of Fleetwood Mac is back to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of Fleetwood Mac’s 11th studio album, Rumours.

One of the decade-defining albums of the 70s Rumours, described by Mick Fleetwood as the most important album we ever made, has since transcended its era to become one of the greatest and most compelling pop albums of all time!

Featuring the Rumours album in its entirety, including ‘Dreams’, ‘Go Your Own Way’ and ‘The Chain’, plus other timeless classics such as ‘Gypsy, ‘Rhiannon’, ‘Little Lies’ and many, many more, Rumours of Fleetwood Mac take you on a nostalgic evening of breathtakingly outstanding musicianship.
and then Thursday it’s the modern day rock god himself- Steve Steinman in The Meat Loaf Story.

Known for his performances in the hit shows VAMPIRES ROCK, Steve has a fan base most rock stars would be proud of. He has performed at the London Palladium and arenas and concert halls all over the world.

This show delivers the best of the best from Meat Loaf incredible back catalogue of albums and with its video projected scenes, incredible stage set, superb band and Steve Steinman’s unique sense of humour and stage presence, the show will have you up on your feet and dancing in the aisles to all the greatest Meat Loaf hits – Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Took the Words Right out of my Mouth, Anything For Love, The Monster is Loose and Bat Out Of Hell, to name just a few.

Of always I will provide a show review afterwards, but don’t wait to see what I think, get in touch with the Box Office today and get yourself some tickets – there’s guaranteed to be something to take your fancy.

Darlington Box Office is available on 01325 486555.

  • Gilbert & Sullivan abridged is on Tuesday 19th Feb
  • Rumours of Fleetwood Mac is Wednesday 20th Feb
  • The Meat Loaf Story is Thursday 21st Feb
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The Woman In Black – truly frightening

 

With the current trend for immediate visual gratification, be it in the movies, online or via ultra-realistic video games, good old fashioned ghost stories are often thought of as relics of days gone-by;  the telling of tales around a log fire, the wind howling at the windows and the shadows playing havoc with the imagination are a long way from the glossy, ‘served-on-a-plate’ style of titillation we have become accustomed to.  And yet when done properly, a good ghost story uses the most powerful form of visual imagery available, the human mind.  Ghost stories let the listener make their own decisions as to what they can & can’t see, what they expect to happen and ultimately how it makes them feel and this play is, without doubt, the very best ghost story there is.

The Woman in Black has been playing to full theatres for over 25 years now and despite, or perhaps because of, it’s sparse set and 2 person cast, it still has the power to worry, scare, haunt and shock everyone who comes to see it.
The premise of the play is that of a story within a story; Arthur Kipps (played by Julian Forsyth) wants, nay needs, to tell his tale of what happened to him when he went to settle the affairs of a lonely widow who had been living as a recluse for the past 50 years.  In doing so he hopes to exorcise the demons that have plagued him ever since.  He approaches a young actor (Antony Eden) to help him prepare and deliver his monologue to his family and friends and so we are led through the story as the two men recount and re-enact the fateful days Arthur spent at Eel Marsh House.
I could go on and tell more of the ‘play within a play’ but to do so would possibly stray towards giving too much away.  What I will say is if you have seen the recent Hammer movie production starring Daniel Radcliffe then be warned; the movie was a little jumpy, a little scary and a little shocking – this is truly terrifying, the atmosphere builds and builds and the shocks when they come are so real that you crave for the house lights to come up so you can retreat to the safety of the real world.

The Woman in Black is at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 9th February – go and see it, it’s like a 90 minute workout for your heart.

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