REVIEW: Dirty Dancing, Theatre Royal Newcastle – “All the ingredients to give you the Time of Your Life”

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It’s been called “the biggest live theatre sensation of all time” and judging by the reaction from the audience in Newcastle last night – that wouldn’t be such an outrageous statement.

Based on, of course, the iconic 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, this stage adaptation has been a hit throughout Europe, North America and Australia. The year is 1963: America is still innocent, JFK has yet to be assassinated and Martin Luther King Jr. is preparing to deliver his landmark “I have a dream” speech. The plot here follows Frances “Baby” Houseman on vacation with her family at Kellerman’s resort up in the Catskills, as she falls for Johnny Castle, the sexy dance teacher, who teaches her how to move and pair up with him for the big end of summer dance show.

The film is not a musical – so here, the plot is interspersed with songs from it’s legendary soundtrack. Tunes like Be My Baby, Hungry Eyes, She’s Like the Wind and Do You Love Me? are chock full of nostalgia and save the show from becoming your run-of-the-mill jukebox musical. They are performed primarily by supporting players Tito Suarez, Daniela Pobega and Michael Kent, although it would have been nice to see the main cast in vocal action. Some songs aren’t performed at all, but rather just played as they were in the film, which again is something I wasn’t expecting and didn’t necessarily want. Kent gives a touching rendition of In the Still of the Night, though.

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Where another Swayze film-to-musical, Ghost, uses ultra-modern technology and contemporary music to tell its story, this production uses good old-fashioned nostalgia and a hark back to simpler times with great success. It’s quaint set turns and twirls, from dance hall to cabin to the lake, like it could be one the dancers who hoof across it. The K emblazoned on it could as easily stood for ‘kitsch’ as it does for Kellerman’s.

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Lewis Griffiths plays Johnny with pure sex appeal. He has the majority-female audience eating out of his hand right from his entrance and gives great Swayze swagger as he seduces Baby, stands up to Robbie and faces off against Mr Houseman in his daughter’s honour. One scene in particular, where Griffiths rises from bed in barely-there underwear caused genuine squeals from women old enough to know better. He’s a force to be reckoned with, whether on the dance floor teaching Baby the Mambo or comforting Penny off.

Katie Hartland – in one of her first major theatre roles – shines as Baby. She blossoms from awkward beginner to bona-fide dancing queen in front of our eyes and takes us on a touching journey of growth with her. Baby’s sister Lisa’s hula number in the talent contest is performed with great gusto and comedic flair by Lizzie Otley, who gradually becomes more of a scene-stealer throughout.

Carlie Milner’s Penny is, for me, the star of the piece. Not only is the statuesque siren a phenomenal dancer, best shown in the early scenes of hers and Johnny’s fierce partnership, but her truly heartbreaking portrayal of a woman in tearful torment, left with an unplanned pregnancy by a man who doesn’t care was unexpectedly searing, but more than appreciated.

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One of the (many) perks of a show with an ending that the audience is expecting and so passionately wants, is that when it finally arrives, it makes quite an impact. The infamous closing number, (I’ve had) The Time of my Life ends the show on a dizzying high, the film’s iconic choreography matched step by step here and that lift executed flawlessly.

I wasn’t expecting to love it quite as much as I did but there’s something to be said for a show that can reduce a grown woman to teenage pandemonium and a grown man to goosebumps, within the same number. The time of your life? Without a doubt.

Dirty Dancing is at the Theatre Royal Newcastle until Saturday January 28. For more information and for tickets, call the box office on 08448 11 21 21 or click here

Photos: Wizard Productions

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REVIEW: The Unexpected Guest – “Alison Carr is mesmerising. A great cast help save an adequate story”

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As far as ‘whodunnits’ go, I’m far more used to being laid out on the sofa with a cup of tea (gin and tonic) watching them unfold on telly. So, to be in the theatre watching the drama unfurl live on stage is an intriguing novelty in itself. Also intriguing is that The Unexpected Guest, written by the grand doyenne of detective stories Agatha Christie, has never been adapted into a television series or film in the UK. And there’s an argument for and against this.

The Unexpected Guest isn’t the most fast-paced of Christie’s plays. We are introduced to the central characters, mean old Richard Warwick (Spoiler alert: he’s dead in his armchair) his wife Laura (Spoiler alert: she’s holding the pistol that killed him) and Michael Starkwedder, a stranger who just so happens to have walked in on a crime scene, all in the first few seconds. The plot, however, is a slow-burner. Starkwedder bizarrely offers to help Mrs Warwick cover up the murder by framing an old rival, whose son was knocked over and killed in a drunken hit and run by Richard years before. This wouldn’t be a whodunnit if it were that straightforward, though, and a slew of suspects come into the fray to muddle with their plans. Slow it may be, but it still has all of the ingredients for a fine drama, so it’s beggars belief why it’s not more well-known. It’s classic Christie; interesting, uncertain and deliciously over-the-top. It keeps the audience’s attention straight through to the finale, or at least it did mine.

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Alison Carr is mesmerising as the unhinged Laura. It isn’t clear to the audience whether the murder of her husband is a crime of passion or pure malevolence, or whether she’s even behind it, and Carr has them hanging on her every movement. Carr is also an award-winning playwright and it is probably these skills, an eye for detail and the understanding of a character’s being, that aid her in giving such an understated yet rich performance, which begins right from her fabulously camp entrance wielding a pistol. Sam Hinton is also great as Starkwedder. His swagger is impressive and his cool, conniving demeanour is a grounding presence in contrast to Carr’s nervous Laura. Richard Gardner is on great form as Sergeant Cadwallender, his broad Welsh accent down to a tee. He was spectacular in the People’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors a few months back and he impresses again here. Callum Mawston also puts in a sweet and studied turn as young Jan, a lad with learning difficulties.

A rich set utilises the stage well, the chair in which the victim is discovered the focal point throughout. Jess Chapman and Vanessa Aiken’s direction is simple and allows the story to unfold without too many distractions. Other than a few gunshots and cigarettes being chain-smoked, the play is played straight.

Not the most obviously thrilling of Christie’s works, but a perfectly good display of her talents as a murder mystery writer. In this case, a great cast help an adequate story become something a little bit more, well, mysterious.

The Unexpected Guest is at the People’s Theatre until Sat January 21. For more information or to book tickets, call the box office on 0191 265 5020 or click here

REVIEW: Lads and Lashes, Boulevard – “the perfect antidote to the January blues”

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The grand stage of Boulevard can be a daunting place for the most established of acts. For a relatively new double act still building a fan base, it could be terrifying. But if Lads and Lashes, aka Dixie Swallows and Penny Arcade, were feeling the pressure, they could have fooled us.

Their Christmas show, performed in the ‘purple palace’ for the first time, was a whirlwind of classic drag performances in parts; everything from Cher and Tina Turner to Grease and Rocky Horror, via Frozen, Abba and a bevy of festive frolics and it was these Christmas numbers that were the highlight for me. Although a little odd (it being almost mid-January) they were slick and stylish when necessary and hilariously funny when they needed to be. Rocky Horror and Grease also proved popular with punters, a room full of people doing the Time Warp and swaying in sync to Hopelessly Devoted To You not to be sniffed at. Dixie’s Cilla Black also brought the house down, a number which took in swinging 60s Cilla as well as Surprise Surprise TV host Cilla.

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For me, however, the real revelation here was Penny. Having been unfamiliar with her cabaret act (after having her own act in Turkey a few years back, she was strictly a DJ in the bars of Newcastle by the time I got to them) I wasn’t sure what to expect. She was fantastic. A true pro, great mover and had the lip-synching down. Her version of Jingle Bells was a riot and her take on Danny in Grease was the perfect accompaniment to Dixie’s pill-popping Sandy. An out-of-control Amy Winehouse was predictable but saved by a sped-up, chipmunks-esque version of Valerie which genuinely had me in stitches.

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The pair weren’t backed by a troupe of dancers or any over-the-top SFX, but did the best with what they had. A 20-foot Christmas tree and beautiful costumes were all they to help their numbers along.

The show could definitely have been cut a little shorter but didn’t matter too much as it was interspersed with breaks and witty banter from hostess Phyllis Tyne on the mic.

Was it generic in parts? Absolutely. But was it thoroughly entertaining and the perfect antidote to the January blues? Without a doubt. The show may have been unpolished in parts but that’s the fun with diamonds; and these two are definitely diamonds in the rough. I genuinely look forward to seeing what else they have up their sleeves, whether that’s Easter in June or Halloween in August – count me in.

People’s Theatre to host Agatha Christie whodunnit The Unexpected Guest

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The Unexpected Guest, Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery, is the next play in the Heaton theatre’s new season.

The plot sees a young man’s car breaks down one foggy night near a remote country house. Seeking help, he finds his way into the study via the French windows, only to discover the murdered body of its owner Richard Warwick.

But all is not what it seems in this house full of secrets and there’s no shortage of suspects. Was it Richard’s bitter wife who killed him? Could his own mother have fired the fatal shot? Or maybe it was his unscrupulous manservant.

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Christie is one of the best-selling writers of all time, outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible. She wrote The Unexpected Guest in 1958, with The Guardian writing that the applause on the opening night “was the equal of that which welcomed her record-breaking triumph, The Mousetrap”.

A recent BBC TV adaptation of her Witness For The Prosecution was watched by millions. The two-part drama starred Andrea Riseborough, who started her acting career at the People’s Theatre.

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Tickets are £13.50 with £11 concessions and are available from People’s Theatre box office or on their website.

Audiences are advised that this production contains smoking and language that may be offensive.

The Unexpected Guest is at running Tuesday January 17 – Saturday January 21. For tickets, call 0191 265 5020, or click here.

WATCH: James Corden takes on Neil Patrick Harris in a Broadway riff-off

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Both have hosted the Tony Awards, performed on the Tony Awards – hell, both have won Tony Awards. But last night, on The Late Late Show, host James Corden and Neil Patrick Harris went toe-to-toe in a Broadway-inspired sing-off.

Tackling hits from shows like Guys and Dolls, Chicago, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (for which Patrick Harris garnered his award) and current Broadway super-hit Hamilton, the pair were accompanied by a cappella group The Filharmoni and had every theatre geek in the land FREAKING out.

Patrick Harris, who will next to be seen in Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, won Best Lead Actor in a Musical at the 2014 awards, whilst Corden won Best Lead Actor in a Play for One Man, Two Guvnors two years prior.

Watch the video below:

Lads and Lashes to serve up a post-Christmas festive spectacular at Boulevard

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If you’re not ready to accept Christmas is over and can’t quite face those January blues yet, there are a couple of lad-ies who might be able to help.

Lads and Lashes, the cabaret act made up of drag performers Penny Arcade and Dixie Swallows, are gearing up to keep the festivities going with their one-off Christmas show next week.

Described as “a mix of old and new, Christmas and camp” it is the most recent of the Lads and Lashes shows. The north east-based act has performed previously at the Quayside Exchange in Sunderland and Newcastle’s Pink Room nightclub, amongst other venues, but this special festive show will see Penny and Dixie take to the grand stage of cabaret venue Boulevard, usual home of Danni Dee and the Broadway Dancers. It will be hosted by fellow drag queen Phyllis Tyne.

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“It’s going to be an evening of traditional camp fun with all the usual favourites you’d expect from me and Penny,” said Dixie, who when not performing cabaret, can also be found DJing in The Bank Bar and The Pink Room. You can read our interview with Dixie from a few months ago, here.

Tickets can be purchased by contacting their Facebook page here or in person at The Bank Bar on Scotswood Road. Standing tickets are £5, seated £15 and front premier are £20.

Lads and Lashes Christmas Special is at Boulevard on Friday January 13. For more information and ticket details, click here