Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

I saw ‘Miss Saigon’ on its run at the Prince Edward’s theatre in London, and I’m fairly confident I forgot to breathe throughout the entire performance it was so energetic and heartbreaking. So when I heard it was touring, going again wasn’t even an option.

It’s a show that clearly travels incredibly well, given the right theatre. The sets were stunning, and despite a moment where I doubted it would happen, the infamous helicopter escape from Saigon was there in all its glory and it was absolutely magnificent. What struck me about the set in last night’s performance were the colours; they make the atmosphere what it is, and you follow them through the journey metaphorically as it progresses.

The standout actors had to be Kim and The Engineer (Sooha Kim and Red Concepcion respectively). Kim broke my heart with every word she sang, everything resonated and showed her heartbreaking hopefulness until the bitter end; she is what we all want to be, someone believing that a better day will come, and it’s gut-wrenching to watch that hope being played out so cruelly in such a horrific time. The Engineer is perhaps equally a more veiled version of ourselves: he’s our inner desires and ambition, albeit hilariously over-exaggerated. He’s the comic relief such a musical needs, but with a tinge of fear at the world not working out how he planned; he’s just a brilliant character and Concepcion plays him masterfully.

An underrated actor for me had to be John (Ryan O’Gorman) – he nearly had me when singing Bui Doi, which was possibly my favourite number of the show, especially the male acapella part which had me shivering it was so emotional.

It’s a timeless plot of love, loss and seeking a better life, and a wonderful night out – just make sure you pack some tissues! ‘Miss Saigon’ is on tour for the foreseeable future and at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 23rd September – the hour is now to get your tickets!

 

Review: ‘My Not-So-Perfect Life’ by Sophie Kinsella

I’m not afraid to admit that I’d lost a little faith in Sophie Kinsella following ‘Mini Shopaholic’ – I still haven’t plucked up the courage to try any more Shopaholics at least! However, ‘My Not-So-Perfect Life’ was half price at WH Smiths at a time when I was craving a good book, and I remembered my love of ‘Undomestic Goddess’, ‘Twenties Girl’ and the first three Shopaholics and thought ‘why not’?

And I was right to trust in those books!

Katie Brenner (definitely not Cat!) is one of my new favourite modern heroines, she’s trying to fit into a confusing world with her ambitions at her side and I loved her for it. She’s the most human character I’ve come across in a while, and it worked well against the few stereotypes used to sustain smaller characters, making them seem more realistic than just stock. It was like lifting the lid on what we all think: we need to appear to have it all together, when in actuality finding someone who does have everything in hand is rarer than a flying monkey. It linked to our social media lives without being cloying or preaching, and it was a relief to see someone finally admit that the thousand words behind a photograph might not necessarily be pleasant!

The plot wasn’t trying to be anything over-complicated, and again it was a pleasure for it. We’re so used to everything having tangents and sub-plots and subterfuge, it was refreshing to just be able to follow a (fairly) straight line. You never think about bullying coming from the bottom ranks to the top, so it was an interesting take on an old story, and watching Katie and Demeter, the big scary boss, become allied against this injustice was empowering. Everything was what it was, and that’s a rarity in modern fiction, and a delight.

Talking of Demeter, I liked how the big scaries of the company Cooper Clemmow (Demeter, Alex, even Adrian) weren’t overly imposing or difficult to comprehend; they were the big shots, but you were able to get them without feeling like they were deviating from their characters too wildly in order for them to be seen as humans, not robots in the machine. There was one bit in particular I really appreciated, and that was the small moment between Demeter and her husband; it wasn’t all a veneer, they did really care about one another, it was just as it is in real life – a bit chaotic at home! Kinsella’s wonderful at that though, remembering to keep her situations real and recognisable.

I think that’s what makes this book superb; it’s not trying to be profound or over-the-top, it’s just holding up a mirror to life in an attempt to make us remember it’s ok to be not-so-perfect all the time. In fact, if anything, its the imperfections that make us better – look at Demeter having to admit to her staff that she wasn’t as glossy as she projected at the end, where they liked her all the more for it! We could learn a lot from the Katie-Demeter combo – ambition is great, but reality can be better.

Review: ‘Dream a Little Dream’ by Giovanna Fletcher

I was so excited for a break from some of my heavier-going reading with a bit of light, throwaway chick-lit. After this? Bring back the heavies.

If I’m honest, I forgot who half of the characters were at points in the story. When one character (a generic male/lad type) referred to ‘Sarah’, it took me ages to realise they were talking to the main character. I think that sums up the book; it was forgettable. It didn’t even hold up on the dream sequences, and I imagine this was because Dream Brett was becoming Real Brett and dreams weren’t necessary any more, but it just felt like the concept had been forgotten about. The characters were boring and had no substance to them, and I think if I’d heard Sarah ramble on about how beautiful and wonderful her friends were any more I’d have screamed; we all think our friends are the best, but that’s because we know them, and we never get to know any of these allegedly alright people.

The storyline, like the characters, was practically non-existent. There were bits of story that held promise but they were all a bit hurried in the end and neglected. The recce disaster could’ve been a real drama, the sad miscarriage of Carly could’ve been a heartbreaker, but nothing had been built up enough for me to give a damn. The latter was a little tacky in that respect; to marginalise something so painful didn’t leave a good impression.

Overall, it read like someone writing their diary (especially with the embarrassing reference to ‘Tom from Mcfly’ in one dream which just felt awkward) and trying to be a little too cool for themselves which left me cringing. I was sad because I love Giovanna Fletcher, and I’ve seen that her other books might be worth more of a try, so I won’t despair for too long – hopefully it’ll be second time lucky with Fletcher’s books!

 

Review: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

I won’t go into too much detail on this one because part of the thrill is in ¬†unravelling the truth from the lies, the real from the fake, and I’d truly hate the spoil that suspense for anyone.

What I will say is that you have to plough through the first few chapters, where I really took against the narratorial style and Nick’s character in particular, and then suddenly you’ll find yourself unbearably and frustratingly hooked. When you reach the crescendo of part one, part two comes along and smashes it into piece and completely ruins your mind whilst you try and reconcile good and evil with the twisted plot that lies before you. Hint: good and evil are proven to be nothing compared to the unfolding of this story.

Nick is not a likeable character, and I’ve never said that directly about a protagonist before; there’s normally something that makes them into your hero or, at the very least, your anti-hero, but Nick is just so self-conscious you can’t like what he does because it all feels so formulaic and calculated, and at time ridiculous. He sets himself up at the perfect candidate to be responsible for his wife’s disappearance, in short.

Amy…there’s little I can say, but I’ve never come across a character I was repulsed by and secretly admired in equal measure as much as Amy Elliot Dunne.

It’s a road so full of twists and turns in will make you feel exhilarated in your dizziness, but make it through the warped road ahead and you’ll be rewarded with an explosive and breathtaking thriller that will struggle to be topped…

Now where’s my next Gillian Flynn book…?

Review: ‘Funny Girl’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

Birmingham Hippodrome played host to Sheridan Smith starring in the iconic musical, ‘Funny Girl’, in May, and there are few words to describe just how brilliant it was.

I have long been a fan of Sheridan Smith, ever since her days on ‘Two Pints’ (!), but I never knew what a set of lungs she had on her. Not only this, but she keeps in character when singing; her accent and mannerisms remain despite coming to the big musical number of the piece, and its refreshing to see a character stay true to themselves despite having to reach vocal crescendos. Her voice was stunning and her portrayal of Fanny Brice was amazing; she was, in every sense, a very funny girl.

The storyline is simple but I personally like that; I’m a bit fed up with convoluted stories with eight different plot lines to try and keep hold of. Fanny’s story, from childhood to her older age, is one of finding stardom and fame and coping with being a strong, financially secure woman in a man’s world. And ultimately, it’s this that brings part of her world down towards the end of the play, and it’s so fascinating because (I imagined at least) I’d be screaming at Arnstein to get over not being the biggest and best, but you do understand why he’s desperate to maintain his status; he has nothing else and it’s how he found Fanny in the first place, it’s all he has ever known. I suppose the equivalent is seeing an older generation fail to adopt new fads and levels of political correctness; Arnstein just isn’t ready to evolve into the new age man, and it’s rather sad to see.

The musical numbers themselves and choreography are dazzling, and there’s not a lull in the story as you lurch from show to show, following the rise and rise of Fanny Brice.

The tour continues throughout the year and, whether it’s Sheridan Smith or another leading lady, get yourself to the theatre for a night of laughter, emotional highs and lows, and to end your night with a big old smile on your face.

Review: ‘Foreign Fruit’ by JoJo Moyes

I have to be honest: the first couple of chapters of this book made me think it wasn’t for me.

But then comes the rest, and the realisation that this is something beautiful yet corrupt in the most intriguing way. Moyes does her usual thing with brilliant style: she underplays, doesn’t push too far, and shows the fragility of the human condition.

Lottie is a re1172549al anti-hero: dark, moody, short-tempered, you shouldn’t like her. But you will; she’s hurt and damaged but doesn’t demand sympathy for it. In fact she asks for nothing; she doesn’t know what she wants – it’s what makes her so likeable and relatable. Her actions are that of an uncertain young girl, then young woman, then elderly woman – and the change is palpable when she finally becomes certain of her life right in the closing pages of the book.

The storyline behind Lottie is simplistic yet artfully handled. The complexities of love are nothing new in literature, but Moyes captivates with the constant hopeful tension mixed with a dreadful longing throughout. Guy, for being a critical incident for Lottie, is underused and rightfully so; the enigma element aids the uncertainty and unknowability of what life hands you perfectly. Likewise, although we’re convinced we know, it’s never explicitly stated what Adeline does, or what Celia concocts in her warped version of perfection; we’re left in the simmering tension making our educated guesses throughout, and its this that drives you through the book and leaves you longing for more.

Another honesty moment: the switch to a more present-day scenario halfway through did not sit well with me at first. It took a good couple of chapters for me to come to terms with why this had been done, to show the unending nature of both Lottie’s problem and the problems faced by the new Lotties of the world. It also helped that you ended up rooting
for Daisy in particular; the jilted new mother brought out the fighter in me, and you can’t help but cheer her on as she stops being dull old Daisy and becomes something better than she’d ever been.

So yes, there are a couple of hiccups, but the core of this novel is so strong that the current will wash you away with it before you know what’s happening, and take you from tumultuous waves to safe shores and back again throughout. It’s a brilliant book (albeit with a rather forced title) and another Moyes classic.

Review: ‘Julius Caesar’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Having seen an offer for discounted tickets, I couldn’t resist seeing my second play of the Rome 2017 trilogy at the RSC, and I was rewarded for spending my time and money in a turbulent Rome.

Brutus – yes, of et tu fame – was stellar. Alex Waldmann showed us the epitome of the man in conflict; it was obvious that Brutus wasn’t a murderer of a man but a murderer of the corruption coming through the man. His fight with ideology was evident in every action, from his cringing at the first thrust of the knife to his willingness to die in the failure of a Roman democracy. Brutus was an honourable man indeed, just perhaps a man too led by his peers in achieving that honour.

And seeing emotions laid bare wasn’t exclusive to Brutus – the cast were brilliant in their subtle and less subtle mojulius-caesar-production-images_-2017_2017_photo-by-helen-maybanks-_c_-rsc_214266-tmb-img-1824ments, expertly weaving between these for maximum effect. One of my favourite moments has to be at the end, when Mark Anthony (James Corrigan) can barely hide his dislike of Octavius Caesar (Jon Tarcy) – it’s blindingly obvious to everyone apart from Octavius how he has been used by Anthony to exact vengeance, despite finding him a churlish youth.
Caesar (Andrew Woodall), of course, cannot go unmentioned. He had majesty without royalty, and ambition whilst remaining grounded. You saw glimpses of why he had to die but not enough to justify this, and certainly not enough to prevent the horror at his brutal murder.

Speaking of which, the staging was spectacular and yet minimalist. The murder was a highlight, bloodbags aplenty and yet no one betrayed this theatrical trick in their realism. I especially loved the second half scenery, with the broken ruins of war lying around the stage and acting as plinths from which characters could rise and fall. It was incredibly thoughtful and, unlike some productions, not over the top in any manner, which made it all the more resonating.

The only thing I’ll say – and this is at Shakespeare and his era than the production itself – is the lack of women. They were well used by the director, Angus Jackson, despite this, but it seems incredibly sad that Calpurnia (Kristin Atherton) gets no resolution after her desperate pleas to Caesar, and we don’t see more of Portia’s (Hannah Morrish) conflict between her husband and her country. But this was not an age of women, and so we’re left with a lot of men (and a lot of six packs) around the stage (not complaining!).

‘Julius Caesar’ hits cinemas on Wednesday 25th April for the live screening of the performance, and I urge you to see this gripping production and live through the trials and tribulations of an empire on the edge.