Thursday, 21 November 2019

& Juliet at the Shaftesbury Theatre | Review

Show rating: ★★★★★
Accessibility rating: ★★★

What do you get when you mix together an album of chart topping hits written by Max Martin and the iconic romance of Romeo & Juliet? Well, in my eyes, a hit musical that is sure to leave you laughing and smiling, as well as checking your bank account to see when you can book again. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hesitant before seeing one of the newest musicals on the block but every single nerve disappeared before the show even began. The set and staging enchanted me immediately and as more and more of the cast arrived on stage to set the scene, I knew I was in for a wonderful night. So, what is this larger than life musical all about?

I'm sure we all know the infamous love story that is Romeo & Juliet, as well as the fate that awaits the characters at the end of the play and I'm sure we can all agree that things don't end too well, particularly for Juliet. But, what if she didn't die? What if there was more to her story? These are the questions that this musicals asks and explores throughout the course of the show, where the audience watches as the story is rewritten right in front of them. If you're walking into this show thinking you can predict the new twists and turns, think again. I had my own ideas but my expectations were exceeded and I found myself revelling in the beauty of seeing a show and having no idea how the story ends.

You can expect to hear some of your favourite 90s and 00s hits re-imagined in a fresh way throughout again, not all of them are used as expected! The start of each song was met by a chuckle from the audience as they realised how cleverly they'd been used, with I Want It That Way really setting the tone of how these songs tell each characters story. I think some may be surprised to hear that Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway play a large part in this story, given that Romeo & Juliet was written by the famous playwright, not performed by him, but the way they are woven into the narrative is genius. I love any show that recognises it has an audience sat in front of them and this show does it beautifully, it really is a masterclass on how to balance a show. I think there was potential for this to be quite a cheesy production, in a bad way, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, there are cheesy moments but they are clever and self-aware, they add to the piece rather than taking away from it.

As for the cast, as soon as they were originally announced I think we all knew that this was going to be something special. There are big names from some of the most well loved shows on the West End, but not just familiar faces, this show is packed full of new talent and those making their West End debuts too. Everyone on stage is as good as the next, each bringing their own flair and personality to make this show the joyous celebration of musical theatre that it is. When Bat Out Of Hell closed at the start of 2019 I quickly began to realise that I really love dance heavy shows and nothing since has quite delivered on the level of dance Bat had, however, enter & Juliet. I was absolutely loving the dance breaks and how they showcase the incredible dance talent in this cast, for me it was just as impressive as the big vocal moments. The ensemble for this cast, in my opinion, are one of the strongest in the West End right now. The balance in this show between dancing, singing and acting is perfect, as well as the balance between the quieter moments and the louder moments being just as ideal. There really is no box left un-ticked.

Photos by Johan Persson 

If you've read my previous reviews you'll know I'm definitely an appreciator of a good set and stage and from photos of the first performance of & Juliet I just knew I wouldn't be disappointed. I adore revolves, when used well, and this is a show that really understands how a revolve can add to a production. I won't spoil everything but there is certainly more than meets the eye when it comes to their revolve though and I adored being surprised by their set again and again. As for highlights, seeing Jordan Luke Gage seemingly rise down from nowhere to make his big entrance is up there for me, as well as the staging and set used in 'Everybody'.

Miriam-Teak Lee shines as Juliet, I couldn't think of a better person to lead such an empowering show. Her vocal talent is out of this world and she just exudes confidence, truly she was destined to be a leading lady. Alongside her, for me it's Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway and Melanie La Barrie as Juliet's nurse who steal the show. Both of them get some of the biggest laughs, with Cassidy truly shining as Anne, who fights to get Juliet the story she deserves. Melanie is just a true light, she looks like she is having a ball on stage and as always, that transfers into the audience. Her and David Bedella's (who plays Lance) performance of Teenage Dream/Break Free is one that I am just itching to see again. Total joy!

Oliver Tompsett makes the perfect Shakespeare, he matches Cassidy's fire perfectly and they bounce off each other with such ease that you'd almost believe that they are married in real life! I have to give special mention to Tim Mahendran and Arun Blair-Mangat who delivered on the beautiful LGBT+ story I was hoping for from this musical, they tackled themes such as coming out, gender and sexuality so sensitively, it was some much needed representation. Of course as I've already mentioned Jordan Luke Gage's entrance as Romeo was quite something and his vocals are out of this world, I adored him in Bat Out Of Hell and it's wonderful to see him back on a West End stage, proving why he's one of the best young talents around.

I think the West End might have just found it's next big thing, I hope & Juliet receives the reception and long life it deserves. It's a guaranteed fun night out and a treat for musical theatre fans with performances from some of the best talent we have. All I can say is, buy your tickets, you won't regret it!

As for the access, this was my first visit to the Shaftesbury Theatre so I was a little apprehensive, although my excitement of the show soon took over. Whilst the information on their website about accessibility is fairly detailed, there were a few surprises that are worth noting.

Those requiring step free access can enter the box office/foyer area to pick up tickets and buy merchandise, but from there to access the step free seats in the Royal Circle patrons have to exit the theatre and re-enter via a side entrance. From here I was able to enter the second part of the foyer, where there is a bar. Now, this is where things got interesting. The website says boxes F and E (I was in box F) are accessible via ramp for wheelchair users, in my mind I was imagining something similar to the kind of size and steepness of train ramps, how wrong I was. There are in fact 2 sets of stairs that must be negotiated to be able to reach the box I was in. I wish I had taken photos and counted the stairs but I was so focused on getting up and down them safely that I didn't think to. They are steep, very very steep. Going down wasn't so bad but going up was daunting.

Photos by Shona Louise

On the first ramp I needed a shove to get some momentum and on the second I felt like I was tipping back and I think my front wheels came up slightly at the top. I can't fault the staff during all of this though, I reached out to grab one of their hands on the way up and they did so willingly. We took things slowly and they did everything they could to ensure my safety. I think if you're a manual wheelchair user this wouldn't be so bad, I believe staff are able to push you up and help you down but electric wheelchair users should be wary. I have a powerful mid-wheel drive powerchair, but I'd be concerned for those with smaller powerchairs or rear wheel drive powerchairs. Thankfully the theatre seems to have plans to install a lift to allow access to the stalls but this is likely years down the line so this is certainly something to be wary of and I'll be sure to take photos and add them to this post/tweet them when I next visit.

There is a spacious and modern standard accessible toilet however, this is at the top of the stairs. It quickly became apparent to me that using the toilet during the interval could potentially be an issue. The ramps take a long time to put down and they have to stop the flow of foot traffic to do so, which means 20 minutes potentially just wouldn't be long enough to do all of that to enable access to the toilet. I was very glad I had gone before the show and hadn't drank a lot! This is certainly an issue though and something I will have to be aware of for future visits when drinking any liquids. It also means at the end of the show I had to wait quite a while for the theatre to empty so they could place the ramps down.

The view from Box F

As I said though, the staff were sensational and couldn't have been more helpful. They understand the access isn't ideal and that the ramps are quite frankly terrifying and they do everything they can to ease any concerns. I felt like I was in safe hands! As for the view from Box F, I have no complaints! It's sold as a restricted view but I can't think of a single moment where I missed any action, the only restricted view I'd say is set that is cut off from view, but nothing in terms of the action on stage. I imagine the view from Box E, situated further towards the stage would be more restricted though. I did especially enjoy how close to the stage the box was! My only grumble is the ticket price, even after being discounted to access rate, with booking fees my ticket was about £40. I'm aware in the grand scheme of things this is cheap for the West End but for an access rate it's not. It's frustrating that friends can day seat for around £20, something that just isn't accessible to me. This is a show I could watch again and again but the price and lack of options will be a barrier for me.

More information about access at the Shaftesbury Theatre, including information about captioned, BSL interpreted and audio described performances, can be found on their website. & Juliet is booking until May 2020.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Stop Kiss at Above The Stag | Review

Show rating: ★★★★★
Accessibility rating: ★★★★

It's clear to see that LGBT+ representation has been improving on our TV screens, in films and on stage over the years but as a queer woman, I often feel as though I'm still not getting the representation I'd like. One of my favourite theatres are making strides to address this though, I've loved everything I've seen at Above The Stag previously, the UK's only LGBT+ theatre, but it's fair to say that in the past things have been more directed to a male audience and whenever I've visited I've been one of only a few women in attendance. So, when me and my girlfriend, Jemma, spotted this production we wasted no time in booking our tickets in the hope of finally seeing some accurate representation that spoke to us as women.

After Callie meets Sara, the two unexpectedly fall in love. Their first kiss provokes a violent attack that transforms their lives in a way they could never anticipate. Written and first performed in 1998, STOP KISS is still as potently relevant now as it was back then. - Above The Stag

It is unbelievable to think this play was written in 1998, as it easily could have been written this year. It wasn't that long ago that a story hit the news about two women having been attacked on a bus, but this time for refusing to kiss for a man's entertainment. It was a sobering reminder of how far we have to go still and I think that is what makes this such an important production. Whenever I hold Jemma's hand or kiss her in public I am always thinking about who is around us in the back of my head and potential consequences of showing a little affection in public, so as difficult as it was at times to watch such a realistic story play out, it was also comforting to see such accurate representation.

The majority of the play revolves around Callie and Sara as we watch as they fall in love. This show is packed full of heart warming moments and it felt so personal to watch this romance unfold on stage. Kara Taylor Alberts and Suzanne Boreel fulfilled these roles perfectly, their chemistry is a dream to watch and I really felt myself being invested in their story and rooting for them at every turn. The show switches between them falling in love and the aftermath of the attack, the result of them sharing their first kiss in public. These transitions are smooth and work beautifully, they really utilise the small space of the studio theatre with ease. Kara and Suzanne are supported by a strong ensemble, most of whom only appear in the scenes after the attack which adds an important dynamic, particularly to Callie's story as she tries to come to terms with the situation mostly on her own, the unfamiliar faces represent that perfectly. It also really beautifully shows how challenging it can be to have to come out to people again and again, especially during the era that this show is in set in.

One of the first things I remarked on once we'd left was that they didn't show the actual attack, and I really applaud them for that. I had a little anxiety during the show as we led up to the moment but, they know their audience well and know that showing the attack would serve no purpose to the story. This was more about their love story before and after, how each character reacted and dealt with various situations and about how complicated love can be. Everything was handled sensitively, this was truly such a refreshing production that means a lot to my girlfriend and I. There was a sweet moment in the aftermath of the attack where Callie helps to dress Sara during her recovery and she ends up falling on her and her wheelchair, a moment that will always mean a lot to us I think because that kind of sums up our relationship and I honestly never thought I'd see anything on stage that resembles our relationship. The writing feels so reflective of everyday life and the struggles that LBGT+ people face, but also that we fall in love and feel awkward just like everyone else, it's so relatable and it really showcased the importance of theatres like ATS.

It's difficult to put into words how much this show means to us both, the sheer joy it brought into our lives was just wonderful and we've already booked to go again. I can't recommend this show enough, but particularly to any LGBT+ women out there, I would love to see more shows like this at Above The Stag in the future and so it's so important that we show our support and demonstrate there is demand for our stories to be told authentically.

As for the access, this plays a big part in the theatre earning itself a spot on my list of favourite theatres to visit. Every part of the theatre is step free, I can see shows in the main theatre or the studio theatre and I can book those tickets online. The bar is accessible to me and there are a mix of high and low tables, as well as there being a decent sized accessible toilet. The only reason I haven't awarded them 5 stars is because they sadly don't offer a free or reduced price carer/companion tickets. However, other than that I truly cannot fault their access and I always feel welcome there.

Stop Kiss is playing until 1st December, tickets are £22.50 each.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Only Fools and Horses The Musical | Review

Show rating: ★★★
Accessibility rating: ★★

I like to think that as a theatre goer I'm open to seeing anything, minus a few exceptions, but there are definitely shows that sit pretty far out from what I usually find myself gravitating towards. The shows I find myself returning to again and again tend to be pretty similar, usually quite modern and with some kind of dance element so, when my Mum wanted to see Only Fools and Horses the musical I was a little hesitant! West End Live came about though and their performance really had me hooked and wanting to see a little more. I grew up with the TV show constantly on in the background and my Mum adores the show so, off we went to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to see what it was all about.

I'll start off by saying that this is a definitely a production for fans of the show, you really do have to know the show quite well to be able to follow it all. They rely on the assumption that the audience already knows the characters and some of the iconic moments quite heavily so I think a regular theatre goer who just fancies checking it out might struggle a little. My Mum knew every single moment and I knew enough to get by, and it was clear from the audience reactions that most people there knew the show inside out. As such, whilst this is a musical, it's definitely not one that relies on it's music. It felt at times that some of the songs were definite filler songs, props to move things along to the moments that the audience are there for. There were a few standouts though, such as The Girl and the music I already knew such as Only Fools and Horses/Hooky Street and Margate were staged and performed incredibly well. Also, any songs that featured the dating agent/theatre announcer played by Oscar Conlon-Morrey were hilarious moments for me and really picked up the show when things had started to plateaued a little.

I really loved the staging of this production, they used their revolve in such a clever way to transition between each set, with most of the show being across a few key locations such as the market, the pub and Del Boy's home. Any moment the car was brought on stage seemed to be a highlight for a lot of people and it really showcased that this show knows it's audience and I really think that has been the key to their success. This isn't a show for musical theatre fans necessarily and that's okay because it seems there are more than enough Only Fools fans to fill the theatre night after night. I have to say, I think I would have been more disappointed had I paid more for our tickets than we do, most of the seats seem to cost more than £70 and I don't think I would have come away quite as impressed had we paid that.

Overall though, the show was a lot of fun and I'm really glad I branched out and saw something a little different! The use of the stage, the iconic moments and a few special moments made for a great theatre trip, sometimes all you want is just to watch something fun and not too deep for a few hours and this ticks that box perfectly.

As for the access, if you read my Heathers review last year you'll know that my experiences with the Theatre Royal Haymarket really haven't been great and I have to say I was really looking forward to them redeeming themselves, but it was not to be. The extent of the help of the staff started and finished with them letting us in the theatre and then showing us where the accessible toilet is. During this time the member of staff directed absolutely everything they were saying to my Mum, even when I was the one responding. I have never felt so small as when they were looking straight over my shoulder, as though I wasn't there. As was the case last time I was then left to struggle alone with the heavy double doors that led to the accessible toilet. Without my Mum having been there with me I've no idea how I would have bought a programme either and there was no offer of staff asking if they could get me a drink or if I wanted any merch. I was truly reminded of why I haven't rushed back to this theatre, I am left disappointed every time.

The wheelchair spaces in this theatre are at the back of stalls, with the overhang of the dress circle obstructing the top half of the stage/set. I missed a few things during Heathers last year because of it and missed even more with this show, with some of the more sweet moments happening up on the top part of the set, there were times where people were laughing and I had no idea what they were laughing at. The seat doesn't feel too far away from the stage but the restricted view was definitely an issue at times. The accessible toilet is still tiny and try as I did, I still cannot turn around in it so it's a difficult reverse out to make my way back to my seat. Wheelchair users can only access the auditorium so cannot access the box office, bars or merchandise.

Overall I'm glad I went along to see what this show was all about, and my Mum thoroughly enjoyed it! If you're a fan of the show then I think this musical is the one for you, it delivers on the iconic moments perfectly and the characters are brought to life in an authentic way. It was a fun show to see, it's just a shame that once again TRH let me down when it came to the access!

Only Fools and Horses the musical is booking until April 25th 2020, with Paul Whitehouse returning to the role of Grandad from January 2020.
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