Tag Archives: Palace Theatre

“The Pirates of Penzance” at the Palace Theatre

Sasha Regan’s all male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have a loyal following. For full disclosure, I consider myself such a fan so an effort at an impartial blog is tricky. And after such a terrible year for the theatre, seeing one of Regan’s shows is an especial treat. A theatrical highlight of 2020, well, that isn’t saying much… but this show is perfection any year.

The genius behind Regan’s productions (I told you I was biased) is a sense of fun and innocence. The shows are stripped back to basics with fantastic charm. Robyn Wilson-Owen’s design has make do and mend creativity. The brilliant costumes aren’t really drag; they deliberately look like something grabbed from a costume box. And the music comes from just a piano, with Richard Baker’s fantastic musical direction making the most of Sullivan’s tunes. 

That ‘g’ word

A campy sense of humour works with Gilbert’s topsy-turvy scenarios and distinctive satire. We can laugh at the Victoriana… but remember, that’s what Gilbert was doing too. It’s unusual to see a radical version of a classic that will appeal so to traditionalists. I feel like using the ‘g’ word again.

The special treat for this event is seeing the show in such a large venue. Regan’s base is the tiny Union Theatre and although the shows have successfully toured, and found a second home at Wilton’s Music Hall, the majestic Palace Theatre is a much larger venue. There’s a fantastic appeal in seeing a piece that deflates pomposity in such a grand setting. Given that the high tech set for the Harry Potter blockbuster is still visible, the feeling that a troupe have cheekily sneaked on to the stage is enchanting.

A pretence of spontaneity to performances – offside remarks and deliberate gaffes – is, as such things have to be, cleverly rehearsed. The ensemble is enormously hard working, nearly all swapping roles at least once: adding to the fun as they play a pirate one moment and a lady the next.

The show’s leads are the final treat

The show’s leads are the final treat. It is a thrill to see them perform so masterfully on a large stage. Leon Craig as Ruth adds a touch of pantomime dame that is appropriate, while David McKenchie’s patter as the modern major general is spot on. Oliver Savile’s Pirate King is suitably swashbuckling, able to swish his coat tails masterfully.

Tom Senior’s performance as the “slave to duty” Frederic is truly special. Not only does Senior sound wonderful, he brings a sincerity to the role that demonstrates excellent acting skills. Frederick doesn’t think he’s a source of fun, even if the rest of us do. His love at first sight with Mabel ends up deeply moving as a result. As a final triumph for the show, Alan Richardson’s Mabel is breath-taking. Such an extraordinary voice is worth hearing at any opportunity. Richardson’s comic skills are a joy but, again, carefully controlled. We need to fall for Mabel just like Frederic does. That we do just that illustrates Richardson’s star quality; always at home on the West End stage and hopefully to be seen on one frequently in 2021.

Until 13 December 2020


“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” at the Palace Theatre

I sometimes feel as if I’m the only person to have neither read nor seen the adventures of JK Rowling’s schoolboy wizard. Which might make blogging about the two plays that form a sequel a little foolhardy. Don’t curse me, but I’ve never been that bothered. And since the Potter corpus is an extensive one, my worry about joining in was whether I’d work out what was going on. Still, you can’t argue with a record nine Olivier awards. And, while my fears were not unfounded, they didn’t spoil a show that turned out to be lot of a fun.

With a successful #keepthesecrets campaign, I wouldn’t dare reveal plot points. And I wouldn’t want to, either, as the best thing here is the atmosphere: contagious enthusiasm and excitement in one of London’s biggest venues. And it’s a bit of relief to have to keep quiet. Those steeped in Potter lore might underestimate how complicated it is. Thankfully, as a coming-of-age adventure story, it is easy to keep up with. But I suffered for my ignorance: there was some nudging amongst the audience as they recognised favourite characters, a proper gasp at a revelation that left me baffled, and lots of jokes lost. The story is by Rowling herself. Abetted by Jack Thorne (credited for the script)  and the show’s director John Tiffany, the plot thickens nicely and their combined efforts make this gripping stuff.

The show is satisfyingly theatrical. The magic illusions from Jamie Harrison are good and spaced out well. There are eye-catching effects, but nor is Tiffany scared of small touches – which takes confidence in such a big show – so props are minimal and the stage often bare. It’s clear you can do a lot with a swirling cape and this crew really works them. Steven Hoggett’s movement direction is first rate. Best of all is Imogen Heap’s music for the show, which adds pace and atmosphere.

Even I know that the original films have led to fame for several youngsters. The focus here is on the next generation, with Samuel Blenkin making an astonishing professional debut, showing natural comic skills. Theo Ancient is there to deliver the teenage angst and confusion that makes the whole affair relatable and moving – he is fantastic, too. As for those stepping into very big shoes: Jamie Glover takes the part of Harry, rising to the challenge of a play that is demanding of its cast. The theme of fatherhood and friendship is a thoughtful vein amongst the fun. This trio and the intimate scenes between them are the strongest. Where we move from wizardry to the “messy emotional world” – that’s when we get the real magic.


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“The Commitments” at the Palace Theatre

The Commitments isn’t the kind of show that recommends itself to reviewers – I can’t think of a more lamentable coupling than a jukebox musical riding on the tails on a popular film. But the critics have been kind. And the public has already voted with its feet. The Commitments is now booking until September this year.

Roddy Doyle’s book (the film came in 1991) is set on a council estate in Dublin well before any talk of Celtic Tigers. A group of locals form a band and, well, that’s it, really. There’s plenty of class-consciousness and the generally inspiring idea is that music changes lives, but very little else.

It’s no small achievement that director Jamie Lloyd manages to mask how thin the whole thing is and make it entertaining. Working at a terrific pace, he brings out plenty of humour and utilises Soutra Gilmour’s stunning set so that the whole thing has a slick West End feel.

And the performances will win you over. Denis Grindel has great stage presence as the band’s instigator and manager – you really believe he could get this thing going. Killian Donnelly gives a tremendous performance as Deco, the most naturally accomplished performer, with the arrogance to match. Joined by a host of talented others, including Sarah O’Connor, Stephanie McKeon and Jessica Cervi, who all sound great, and the band’s skinhead bouncer (Joe Woolmer), who gets the biggest laughs. It’s an achievement for such a large cast to individuate themselves.

As billed, The Commitments is hard working and there’s plenty of noise and action, with lots of crude gags that are more hit than miss, even if the ratio is a close call. Quickly into the second half any idea of a story is abandoned in favour of a concert. It seems an honest move that could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if adopted from the start. From hereon in, if soul music is your thing, you are bound to join in the fun.

Booking until 19 April 2015


Written 23 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“Singin’ in the Rain” at the Palace Theatre

Now well into its second successful year in the West End, director Jonathan Church’s acclaimed production of Singin’ in the Rain is a reverential remake of the beloved MGM film. Determined to create the feelgood factor and equipped with enough simulated showers to make sure it does just that, recent changes in the cast mean a new set of talented performers drench and delight those in the front rows of the Palace Theatre.

The newest cast member is Jennifer Ellison in the role of silent movie star Lina Lamont, whose career is endangered by the introduction of talking pictures – incompatible with her hilarious Noo Yawk accent. Ellison reproduces the voice in fine style, with a larger-than-life delivery perfect for the role.

Also a recent addition to the show, Louise Bowden plays the female lead Kathy Selden to whose vocals Lamont lip-syncs. And what a beautiful voice it is. Even better, Bowden’s dancing is divine. Adding the comedy to the show is Stephane Annelli as Cosmo Brown, who gives an appealing performance and an athletic rendition of my favourite number, Make ‘em Laugh.

Despite the wonderful songs Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed wrote for the film, Singin’ in the Rain is really all about dancing. Thankfully, still in the main role, the fantastic Adam Cooper is more than up to the job. Making the whole thing look as easy as anything, he is a joy to watch. The accomplished ensemble join him and have plenty of fun with choreographer Andrew Wright’s clever renditions of the famous numbers. But all eyes are on Cooper as, amazing as it sounds, he gives a performance of which even Gene Kelly would have been proud.

Until 8 June 2013

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 7 March 2013 for The London Magazine

“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” at the Palace Theatre

Priscilla Queen of the Desert has been running in London for nearly two years and, presumably on the grounds that you can never have too much of a good thing, the Palace Theatre has now launched Priscilla Parties. There are drinks before the show to get you in the mood, with goodie bags containing feather boas and specially commissioned cakes. Perhaps best of all, these packages give a substantial reduction on the price of seat.

I feel compelled to declare now that Priscilla isn’t really my cup of tea. Any show that sells a cocktail looking like a slush puppy is likely to alarm rather than excite and feather boas are not part of my wardrobe. But it’s hard not to enter the spirit of things when fellow audience members are clearly having such a good time.

The story of three drag queens who travel across Australia in a bus has a plot so thin it seems to have been abandoned en route. A juke-box musical format blasts out pop songs everyone will know incredibly loudly and we are treated to a series of dance and lip sync routines from an energetic cast.

Priscilla is hugely impressive on a technical level. Simon Phillips directs with military precision, and all the praise you have heard about Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s costumes is well deserved. But this feels more like a tribute show than anything genuinely theatrical, and slight attempts at ironic appropriation never quite work.

The talented cast certainly doesn’t have the time to form an emotional connection with the audience. Don Gallagher, as the ageing transsexual Bernadette, manages well, but desperate stabs at sentimentality fail for his colleagues, whose characters simply drown in their sequins.

Drag just doesn’t have the charge that it used to. Priscilla can be brash and beautiful but it can’t really be bold. The  manner of cabaret currently so fashionable in other venues has performers that abandon impersonating women to flirt with fantasy and obscenity. When Priscilla’s players reminisce about the past in a flashback scene, the show excels. When they try to be edgy, it fails to convince. This may disappoint you, but the chances are you’ll be having too much fun to notice.

Until 31 December 2011

Written 25 January 2011 for The London Magazine