Tag Archives: David Shields

“But I’m a Cheerleader: The Musical” at the Turbine Theatre

Musical theatre and Jamie Babbit’s 1999 cult film are an easy fit in this new show. If it seems a stretch to make a rom-com movie about teens undergoing gay ‘conversion’ therapy, adding show tunes only aids the quirky appeal. Camp as can be and a lot of fun, this show has a serious aim that makes it utterly heart-warming.

These teens are confused and unhappy, so of course you feel for them. They are being treated terribly. And, for all the stereotypes on stage, Bill Augustin’s book makes sure this is a set of characters we care for. It’s a firm base for the show.

Megan Hill - But I'm a Cheerleader - The Turbine Theatre - Photo Credit Mark Senior (2)
Megan Hill

Cheerleading Megan, whose parents pack her off to the True Direction camp before she herself understands her sexuality, is simply sweet but Josie Kemp (stepping up to the role for Jessica Aubrey) does a great job. The romance with a girl called Graham is made more interesting by performer Megan Hill’s carefully controlled angst.

As for the comedy – that’s OK, too. The show has to play with being tasteless (those stereotypes aren’t going to please everyone) and that’s tricky. Take the ‘Simulated Sexual Experience’ that is part of the therapy – it’s flat, despite a good number and a lot of effort.

But I laughed – and the delivery of the jokes will probably improve during the run. The dialogue itself is tight (having the cheerleaders as a kind of Greek chorus could have been explored more). And the show has a great villain (another good move) in Mary Brown, who runs True Direction… with mixed motivations! Another Cover, due to Georgina Hagen’s indisposition, Freddie Love gives a star performance to be proud of, delivering Mary’s many insults with relish.

There is a feelgood factor to But I’m a Cheerleader that proves winning and extends to the cast – this is a show that enjoys letting performers shine.

Doubled-up roles allow cast members Ash Weir, Michael Mather and Kenneth Avery-Clark time in the impress. In superb voice as the camp’s instructor Mike, Noel Sullivan gets to don a wig as a drag queen. And Ciaran Spencer – a third cast member stepping into a different role – should also be pleased. Best wishes to those ill and well done all on working together so well.

It helps that what the cast has to work with is solid as well as upbeat. The music by Andrew Abrams is heavy on preppy, with neat cheerleading touches, although ballads show further skills. The opening numbers are strong and the finale of the first act excellent. Augustin’s lyrics are clear, sometimes a little too easy, but getting Gertrude Stein and Georgia O’Keeffe into a song scores points. Best of all, this is more than a collection of songs – Abrams has written a coherent score that will please anyone who loves musicals.

The show is cramped, despite the clever set by David Shields, so the choreography from Alexzandra Sarmiento doesn’t get much of a chance. I take this as a good sign. There’s a confidence to the piece that bodes well and creates a great atmosphere. But I’m a Cheerleader is begging for a bigger venue, and plenty would cheer if it got one.

Until 27 November 2022


Photos by Mark Senior

“Straight and Narrow” at the Above the Stag Theatre

Jimmie Chinn’s sweet sitcom-style play is a pleasure. A closeted gay couple, Bob and Jeff, having fallen out on holiday, have to patch things up in front of their family. Sisters and brothers-in-law all provide laughs, as well as Bob’s formidable mother, Vera, who doesn’t even realise the men are together.

Written and set in the late 1980s, and a West End hit in 1992, the play has dated in an interesting way. Chinn was (over)keen to present the men as “normal and naïve”, you might even use that first word from the title to describe them! They are, in effect, married and share the same problems as other couples. Yes, there was a time this was an important point to make! Tension comes from the narrowness of their lives… Jeff is getting bored.

Further drama proves tricky and slows the play down: be it coming out or considering – gasp – becoming a parent. Nor does the play even mention bisexuality. And knowing how to end the story seems impossible: was Chin issuing a challenge to his audience? I’d love to know what ‘Generation Heartstopper’ makes of it all and hope the production gets the diverse audience it deserves.

First-time director Mark Curry and his designer David Shields are smart to play on nostalgia, and the show has a comfortable, campy air. Making an appearance before the start of the press night, Curry explained that rehearsal time had been limited and asked indulgence for performances with the script. Nobody should be worried. While there were moments that need tightening, most will surely come naturally. The production and the script are sound – Curry and his cast are to be commended.

The play’s structure has charm and there are good twists. Where Straight and Narrow has dated best is with its fine comedy. Chinn wrote some very good punchlines. Lewis Allcock’s Bob benefits from direct addresses to the audience that approach stand-up comedy. Todd Von Joel grows into his role as Jeff nicely. It’s an irony that the best laughs come from the women. Bob’s two sister are great roles for Kerry Enright and Harriett Hare, while his mother is a firm comic creation brought to life by Carol Royle: this “wily”, deliciously blunt and downright rude character is easily recognisable and a pleasure to giggle at. Curry has a clear ear for comedy and the play is straight up full of big laughs.

Until 28 August 2022


“Fanny and Stella” at The Garden Theatre

After 149 days of live theatre lockdown – yes, I have been counting – I was always going to love the first trip back to a show. Thank you, thank you, LAMBCO Productions, for the first fringe production since March. But, sincerely, Glenn Chandler’s play with music is a jolly affair that is well worth seeing. It’s entertaining, interesting and a lot of fun.

Chandler takes on a lot, and admittedly over-reaches. Based on true events, a show-within-a-show format tells the story of performers Ernest Boulton (AKA Stella) and Frederick William Park (Fanny), who dressed as women offstage as well as on and were arrested for doing just that in 1871. The history is light: there’s not enough shock about the men’s “painted faces” and not much peril. It is in questionable taste that the medical examination Boulton and Park had to undergo is played for laughs. And the idea of either man as a transwoman is not explored. Chandler’s decision is to entertain, and this is what he does.

Alex Lodge in Fanny and Stella at The Garden Theatre Vauxhall
Alex Lodge

Going for pleasure makes the setting of The Eagle pub garden in Vauxhall appropriate and the audience were clearly smiling under their face masks. All manner of crudity and old jokes are allowed and the cast camp it up considerably (David Shields’ clever costume designs are useful here). Special mention to the hard-working Mark Pearce, who takes on so many roles and accents. And to Alex Lodge, who plays one of the (many) loves of Fanny’s life, injecting some romantic moments and also doing well as a gutter-press journalist.

The evening’s stars are Jed Berry and Kane Verrall in the inimitable title roles, which both the script and director Steven Dexter balance nicely. The chemistry is great and there’s a convincing sense of sisterhood along with some fine comic timing. Both work the crowd wonderfully. All of this is accompanied by Charles Miller’s clever little songs – all, importantly, performed live. It really is a great night out… the best I’ve had in 149 days, actually.

Until 25 August 2020


Photos by Alex Hinson