Theatre & Music Reviews & Interviews

Spotlight On… Star of Follies, Sarah-Marie Maxwell

Last year I saw an outstanding young actor in the ensemble of The Fix at The Union Theatre, Sarah-Marie Maxwell stood out for all of the right reasons and somehow I knew this was just the start of a fantastic career for her. Since then she has appeared in The Braille Legacy and She Loves Me. However, until 3rd January 2018 you can see her in The National Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of Follies and I’m so excited for her! Sarah-Marie was interviewed for Break A Leg last year and I’m delighted that she agreed to chat to me again, so without further ado…

Thank you so much for talking to Break A Leg again. Tell me about Follies and your experience so far.

Follies has been an incredible experience so far. At 24 having the opportunity to work with such fantastic people and in The National Theatre of all places is so overwhelming. I honestly pinch myself most days I’m in the building. 

What are the challenges of the show?

This is a mammoth show with moving set, a revolve, huge costumes and a cast of 37 strong so it does come with its challenges. I think, certainly for myself anyway, staying completely connected with my older self purely by observing throughout the first 45 minutes of the show, wearing a relatively heavy headdress is a challenge but one I enjoy and discover new things during each performance. 

What are your personal highlights?

It’s so difficult to choose just one highlight as the piece is stunning in its entirety. If I narrowed it down to 4 moments they would have to be the duet between our gorgeous Alison Langer and Dame Josephine Barstow. ‘One More Kiss’ is so haunting, so beautiful that it goes straight through you and Alison and Josephine’s voices are pure perfection together. It’s very moving and has had us all crying since rehearsals.

The second is singing ‘Beautiful Girls’ at the top of the show after we’ve seen the Follies ghost showgirls take the space and the Follies ladies re-enter the theatre after many years. Every single cast member is on stage and it feels like a phenomenal celebration of the past and present. It’s magical! A truly special moment. 

I just have to mention Imelda Staunton’s version of ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s hard to put into words how fascinating she is as a character to watch and she has been my idol for many years so it’s madness I get to share the stage with such a fiercely talented woman. She blows the roof off the Olivier stage after that number and with her performance it’s inspiring. 

And my very own highlight would have to be opening the show as a 1930’s Swarovski encrusted, feather wearing showgirl. I feel nervous every time standing at the top of the tower waiting for my green light to go. I can’t quite describe the feeling when I step out onto that high balcony and see the faces in the audience, it’s hard to put into words but it’s certainly a feeling I’ll never forget. 

Did you have any ideas of what you wanted to bring to the character?

When I learned I was the younger self of one of the Follies ladies I did a fair bit of research to bring as much to the room as I possibly could, mostly on the 1930’s era in Paris as that’s where Solange is from. But after working one to one with Geraldine who plays Solange, we discovered things together and made choices based on what we both thought of the character. I felt I had a responsibility to capture all the things my co-worker envisioned her younger self to be before leaving the Follies. It was interesting and lovely to work closely with the lovely Geraldine Fitzgerald.

What do you think the strengths of the show are?

The show has so many strengths. I think not having an interval is the biggest strength in this particular piece. I know as an audience member having no interval seems daunting but Follies was originally written this way and it’s great that we at The National get to honour Sondheim and how he intended the show to be. It keeps the audience invested in every character till the very last beat. They come out really feeling like they have been on the journey with us.

Which character could you see yourself playing in future years and why?

If I could be one character in the show in the future I would really love to play Phyllis. She is such a complex character and has a huge emotional journey that I would love to explore and delve into in future years when I have more life experience. Watching Janie Dee as Phyllis in the show is mesmerising. I just constantly want to know what she is thinking as her character it’s so detailed.

Finally, sell the show to me – why should everybody beg, borrow or steal a ticket? 

The show really does sell itself but I can tell you, you do not want to miss it. From the set to the sensational costumes, the storyline and out of this world performances from industry legends. It’s a no brainer. 

Follies is the must see show of this year. So make sure when it comes to January 3rd 2018 you haven’t missed out! 

Team Break A Leg are in on 19th December and we can’t wait! Thanks again to ‘Young Solange’ for her time, Sarah-Marie Maxwell, you deserve every success and I can’t wait to be able to see you where you belong. 

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Spotlight On… Actor, Matt Houlihan

Matt Houlihan is an actor I’ve recently been introduced to, he’s a busy man! Next year he’ll be treading the boards as Claudius in Hamlet, you can catch him in a web series called A Lesson Learnt and he also appears in a short film, Saving Me From Me. There are many more projects coming up for Matt, too – so I’m delighted that he had time in his schedule to chat to me about everything that he’s up to.

Watch the vlog to hear all from the man himself…

 

And Then There Were None ~ Stoke Repertory Theatre

And Then There Were None was produced by United National Productions Limited, they will be producing further pieces at Stoke Repertory Theatre in 2018. Watch this space…

Star rating: *****

Having reviewed The Hollow at Stoke Repertory Theatre earlier this year, also care of United National Productions Limited, and thoroughly enjoyed the exceptional staging of one of Agatha Christie’s masterpieces – I anticipated great things from their version of And Then There Were None. I was not disappointed, in fact the production blew me away and had me on the edge of my seat with a constant eye on the mantelpiece!

The story chillingly centres around the Ten Little Soldier Boys rhyme and involves ten individuals arriving at a grand house on a remote island in Devon. Aside from the servants (who are married), none of the ten are related to one another or have prior knowledge of one another, or do they? The upshot is that there’s a murderer on the island who knows a piece of information about each one and he’s got a plan. A plan which includes the demise of each soldier figurine as the death toll rises.

In my opinion, it’s one of Christie’s most translatable stories as I have read the book, seen a few television adaptations and now I’ve seen it on stage – none of the mystery, intrigue or tension is lost at any point in any of the versions I’ve encountered. Its testament to Director, Robert Marsden and his cast that this production has lived up to that expectation, though.

There’s a set which lends itself to the comings and going of a fast-paced whodunit and also represents the grandeur of the building to which each ‘soldier’ has been summoned. The lighting provides an eerie tension in itself and the scene transitions are minimal yet seamless.

The cast boasts an impressive ensemble of actors at the top of their game; John Highton has one wondering if it was the butler whodunit with a bizarre air of mystery surrounding him as Thomas Rogers. Deborah Cornock (who impressed me as the murderer in The Hollow) played a timid yet assertive Ethel Rogers. Ashley Andrew was perfectly cast as Vera Claythorne, elegant, occasionally allowing fear to seep through while appearing far too calm considering the circumstances. Chris Wollaton cut a dashing figure as Philip Lombard, flirtatious and flippant, while in contrast, Patricia Jones was quiet, considered and disapproving as Emily Brent. Steve McTigue put in an excellent performance as the troubled General MacKenzie, equally James King was an ideal choice for the short-lived role of Anthony Marston – far too jolly and a speed demon. David Bowen captivated me as William Blore, his energy and verve were spot on and he drew my attention throughout, as did Ray Johnson as Justice Wargrave – a commanding presence indeed. A special mention must go to our Break A Leg Awards nominee Nigel Peever who played Dr Arnstrong. Peever was undoubtedly one of the stars of The Hollow, for me personally and his performance still resonates. However, as Dr Armstrong I felt that he was an even better fit (if that’s possible!) he underplayed his part and brought the character to the fore only when it was necessary.

Five stars for a piece which has become one of the highlights of my theatre critiquing year! Well done United National Theatre Productions Ltd, you’re putting Stoke on the map as a producer of amazing theatre.

 

 

 

Disney On Ice Passport to Adventure ~ Arena Birmingham

Disney On Ice is on UK tour with Passport to Adventure – click here for tour dates and to book tickets: Disney On Ice

Star rating: *****

Disney is a firm favourite in our household and having been to Disneyland Paris this year (third time for my husband and I, first time for our three year old son) Disney on Ice seemed like the ideal outing to keep the magic going until we can return to the place that our boy can’t stop talking about!

What the Passport to Adventure show brings you is four different films brought to life by incredible ice dancers in character costumes. Providing the ‘narration’ are Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck and a hapless Goofy who delighted our child with his antics. It’s a non-stop cornucopia of Disney hits and scenes played out in the most extraordinary style.

The shows we were treated to included: The Lion King, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid and Frozen. We were also joined by Judy Hops and Nick Fox from Zootropolis, before the main event – they were getting us all on our feet in a Fit to Dance session. Which is a brilliant idea and was embraced by all in the arena.

The Lion King featured some exceptional skating, with jumps, tricks and one skater in a Pumba costume – no mean feat! Peter Pan included flying in their section, naturally, as well as another member of the cast in a cumbersome outfit – dressed as Nanna the Dog. The Little Mermaid showcased superb ensemble dances with ‘Under The Sea’ being a particular favourite, plus there was a giant Ursula taking up the rink as she glided out in a clever move. Frozen remains as popular as ever, and what better show to perform on the ice than Frozen? It’s where Olaf belongs isn’t it? Even if he is still singing about ‘Summer’! Of all the tales told, I felt that the setting, scenery and stunning performances provided us with the perfect finale.

We can’t wait to return to Disney on Ice, next year and see what Mickey Mouse and his friends have in store for us. It’s such a fantastic family fun event and one of the highlights of our year.

Out Of The Blue ~ Women In Comedy Festival, Manchester

Star rating: ****

Stand Up Comedy is as subjective a performance as Music, Plays, Musicals, you name it, everybody will have an opinion on it and what suits one person’s taste might not necessarily suit the next person’s. It’s a brave individual who takes up a career in Stand Up Comedy, however Sallyann Fellowes has just done that having left careers in both the Police and as a Nurse behind her.

Her one hour long show ‘Out Of The Blue’ made a shorter debut at the Edinburgh Festival this year and was incredibly well received at Women In Comedy Festival in Manchester this week.

It’s clear from the outset that Fellowes has a dry, quick wit and she’s not afraid to pick on members of the audience either. She brings visual elements to her piece and the occasional prop breaks up what could be one hour of talking to the audience about her weird and wonderful experiences as a Nurse, a Copper and indeed her dalliance with internet dating. However, props or no props, I could have listened to more from this talented new Comedian and I feel she has a lot to offer the Stand Up Comedy ‘world’.

I have also worked in the NHS so I could identify with a few of the gags, however you don’t need to have worked in the NHS or indeed the MoD to find the humour in her stories. From the list of in-joke abbreviations in the Casualty Department, to the presentation of a library card instead of Police I.D. – if you listen to the content of the tales, you’ll be able to find an alternative situation in your own life where such silliness, mayhem and chaos has ensued.

Sallyann converses with the audience articulately and is able to get them ‘on side’ from the start. Her material contains stories which she builds upon superbly and I was belly laughing on more than one occasion. She’s one to watch, that’s for sure – a new talent who’s sure to fly out into the blue.

Milkshake! Live The Magic Storybook Tour ~ Stafford Gatehouse Theatre

Milkshake! Live is touring the UK theatres and you can find out where to see the Channel Five Television programme live on stage, here: Milkshake! Live

Star rating: *****

This show has been on my son’s radar since it’s regular advertising on Channel Five each morning. It’s a favourite of his and the selection of programmes all meet with his approval, so it’s win/win!

At each tour venue there are two of the Milkshake! presenters telling the story of The Magic Storybook with the help of backing dancers and other familiar television favourites. We had Derek and Olivia leading the magic in Stafford and their energy could not be faulted, it was clear that the vast majority of the young audience were well aware of who they were and that alone engaged them straight away.

The story which features Milkshake! Monkey at the hub, revolves around the Monkey’s quest to become a fairy tale Prince and to have his story forever captured in a magic book. Along the way he encounters television characters such as; Fireman Sam, Wissper, Shimmer and Shine, Noddy and Winnie and Wilbur to name a few. Each character features in a song, dance and the audience are encouraged to get up and get involved.

Yes, this show works because there are so many television characters that it blows the young minds of the gathered crowd, but it’s also a simplistic story with a message at the heart of it. Plus every character that’s introduced is also providing a message for the children.

My three year old plus one and I were thoroughly impressed with this fun extravaganza and recommend the show to everybody – whatever your age!

This article is also shared on TV & Movie Scene

 

Sarah Jane Buckley ~ My Mrs J (Blood Brothers ‘Review’)

This isn’t a review as such, more of a collection of thoughts following another fantastic trip to see Blood Brothers. This time I made my ‘debut’ in the audience in De Montfort Hall, Leicester and I wasn’t there in my usual capacity as a reviewer. The opportunity to see Sarah Jane Buckley, (who usually has a breakdown on stage eight shows a week as the well to do Mrs Lyons) play Mrs Johnstone was too good to pass up and words can’t describe how excited I was to finally be able to see her in the role.

Had I been officially reviewing I would have given the show five stars, without a shadow of a doubt. Blood Brothers is one of my all-time favourite musicals and I still jump at the end of the show, every time! Of course, I cry too – great big fat tears because of the sorry ending which we are being led towards from the opening scene and because the music is so beautifully moving. Last night I was moved to tears because Sarah Jane was so spectacular as the leading lady.

Mrs Johnstone is the lynchpin in the story, there wouldn’t be a tale to tell without her, after all. The musical numbers that she sings are classics, from Tell Me It’s Not True to Easy Terms and every actress who’s taken on the coveted role has put their own stamp on the part.

Sarah Jane played the role with brashness yet gentility, she was straight-talking yet with an obvious heart of gold and she magnificently highlighted every nuance and trait which Mrs J encompasses. Not only was her characterisation remarkable in itself, but Sarah Jane’s vocal ability appears to know no bounds. I particularly noted how incredible her version of A Light Romance, was. I often feel that the song blends into the background as our attention is focused on Linda and Eddie, however I was drawn to Mrs Johnstone and the stunning rendition of the song being performed.

Tell Me It’s Not True is, of course the piece de resistance, and like all who have gone before her, Sarah Jane put her own stamp on that number and indeed, on the role itself. I never say no to a return visit to watch Blood Brothers, I’m always happy to run back for another amazing experience at the theatre. However, I will sprint to the theatre at top speed if Sarah Jane is playing the lead again. I have thoroughly enjoyed the performances from all the Mrs Johnstones that I have had the great pleasure of watching through the years – but I can safely say that Sarah Jane Buckley is MY Mrs J.

Shane Filan ‘Love Always’ Tour ~ Town Hall Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Shane Filan is on UK Tour and you can catch him at any of the venues on this list: Shane Filan Tour Dates

Star rating: *****

Well-known as the frontman of boyband, Westlife, Shane Filan is currently on a solo tour off the back of his new album ‘Love Always’ and he was certainly well received when he appeared at Town Hall in Birmingham last night.

The excitable crowd were entertained with a selection of original solo numbers having opened with ‘When You’re Looking Like That’, my personal favourite which is a great upbeat song and had the audience on their feet. It set the tone for the evening.

Supported by a four piece band, we were treated to some amazing cover versions: Eternal Flame, Uptown Girl and Hey Now Hey Now (Don’t Dream It’s Over) to name a few. He offered the right mix of slow ballads and numbers we could all get up and dance to.

Considering that he is so well know as a boyband singer, he held the stage brilliantly as a solo artist. I’m a self-confessed Westlife fan anyway, but what stood out for me last night was the overall format of the concert and the verve of the atmosphere that Shane created effortlessly. His popularity never wanes and his fan base remains as strong as ever. The defining moment for me was ‘Beautiful In White’ which is my all-time best loved ballad and one of my over-riding memories of the evening.

Catch Shane Filan on tour while you can, I’d go back to watch him again if I could!

Reviewed by Guest Reviewer: Jenny Woodward 

The Real Thing ~ Malvern Theatres

The Real Thing stays at Malvern Theatres until Saturday 21 October 2017 before continuing with the UK tour, book tickets here: Malvern Theatres

Star rating: *****

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard is not a piece I was readily familiar with, however the themes and intricacies of the script certainly don’t cover unfamiliar territory.

The opening scene is set in one of Henry’s (Laurence Fox) productions, although that’s not evident until the action moves on from the set to which Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) and Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) are portraying. Henry is essentially a romantic and we first meet him while he is searching through records for his Dessert Island disc choices. Henry’s taste in music could be described as ‘corny pop’ which his wife, Charlotte is ready to point out to him. The pair have a mutually mocking relationship and they don’t shy away from it when Max and his wife, Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) – who is also an actor, arrive to indulge in a spot of Bucks Fizz. The assumption in the offing when the couple arrive is that Annie and Henry are having an affair. Which of course, they are – it’s predictable from that perspective. However, not so predictable is that Annie and Henry make a life together out of the affair and despite plenty of room for jealousy, what they have is ‘the real thing’.

It’s a fascinating exploration of relationships, not only romantic ones but friendships and the parents/daughter dynamic too. There’s also the recurring undercurrent of politics as Annie supports her controversial jailbird ‘pal’ Brodie (Santino Smith).

The set is contemporary chic and moves smoothly with the action. The simplicity of it allows the dialogue and interaction to take the lead and with a wordsmith such as Stoppard at the helm, I feel that’s necessary.

Laurence Fox is exceptional in the role of Henry, he gives the character an air of vague nonchalance while simultaneously bearing his feelings with raw honesty. His chemistry with Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte is particularly notable and their scenes set the pace for the piece. Johnson embraces the absurdities and quirks of Charlotte and embodies the character completely. I always enjoy her work and this another example of her remarkable talent. Adam Jackson-Smith gives a strong performance as Max, coming into his won when he realises his marriage to Annie is over. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is also a revelation as Annie, a character who could almost be played as a flighty, yet it’s reigned in to allow the journey to unfold steadily. Kit Young is definitely one to watch, he plays Billy, a youthful actor who develops a crush on the leading lady he’s working with – the leading lady being Annie.

Stephen Unwin has worked his magic again and directed a play which challenges, questions and leaves plenty of room for analysis. A fine production of Stoppard’s work which I could watch multiple times and not tire of. Go and see it – there are a few weeks of the tour remaining.

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