Posts Tagged ‘Grange Park Opera’

I can’t think of a better way of marking International Women’s Day than visiting a women’s prison to see sixteen of their residents perform in Hairspray, with musical theatre professionals as creatives, musicians and in some of the lead roes. This is the sixth time I’ve witnessed Pimlico Opera’s therapeutic, rehabilitative work, in five different prisons, and each time the standard gets higher. I’ve had a soft spot for this particular show since I saw the original production in preview on Broadway eighteen years ago. I saw it in the West End three times and a new production in Leicester six years ago, but I can honestly say none were as uplifting as Sunday in HMP Bronzefield.

As the prison director reminded us, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is equality, so what better than a show about a feisty teenage girl fighting fat shaming, racism and segregation. Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with the Corney Collins Show, a TV dance programme featuring local teenagers, and infatuated with its lead dancer Link Larkin. When a vacancy arises for the show ensemble, she’s turned down because of her size. She meets up with Seaweed J Stubbs, a black boy whose mom runs a record shop, and becomes friends with his. Black kids aren’t allowed on the show, but are given an occasional ‘negro day’. Tracy is determined to get on the show, to get it integrated, and to get Link, a journey that involves protest and prison.

It’s such a feel-good show, its tongue firmly in its cheek, often hilarious, with great moral messages and so many catchy tunes and clever lyrics and lines, you hardly stop grinning. Nikki Woollaston’s terrific production has bags of energy and a superb sense of fun; her nifty choreography is a particular high. Alex Parker is as fine an MD as you can get and his 12-piece band sounds fantastic. Alex Doige-Green’s set makes great use of the space, on two levels, and Bek Palmer’s costumes are a period delight. Chloe Hart played Tracy in the West End for the last part of its run, before she’d even graduated, and she shines again here with particularly gorgeous vocals. Christopher Howell as mom Edna and Darren Bennett as dad Wilbur are pitch perfect and make a superb double-act. Amongst the rest of the professionals, Andre Fabien Francis and Sam Murphy impress as Seaweed and Corney respectively.

There is much talent amongst the sixteen resident performers. Dhonna Campbell-Grant brought the house down with I Know Where I’ve Been; if she’d been on The Voice, all four chairs would have turned! Mandy Webb played baddie Velma Van Tussle with great confidence, Christine Callaghan was very assured and appropriately bitchy as her daughter Amber and Tiffany Smart was so good as Tracy’s friend Penny I thought she was one of the pros. These are big roles and these women rose to the occasion with great aplomb. If this were a fully professional show, we’d have still been standing and cheering; by any standards, a joyous and uplifting evening.

On until Sunday 15th March. Catch it if you can.

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Sugar is the 1972 stage musical adaptation of the 1959 film ‘Some Like It Hot’ – if you haven’t seen the film, your life is incomplete so you’d better get the DVD sharpish! It didn’t get its UK stage premiere until 1992 and I don’t think it has been seen since. It takes the enterprising and unfunded Pimlico Opera, whose work with prisoners is now in its 11th year, to present us with the opportunity to see what its like on stage.

This was my fifth time in prison – twice before with Pimlico opera in Wandsworth prison for Guys & Dolls and Carmen – but the first in a women’s prison. On this occasion, the chorus of c.20 and some of the backstage staff are prisoners; the four leads and two male dancers are professionals. Reading the self-written biographies breaks your heart and the prisoner thank you speech at the end brings you to tears. This is much more than a worthy project, it shines a light into broken lives, bringing just a glimmer of hope for a few weeks.

Peter Stone’s book, based on Billy Wilder & I.A.L Diamond’s screenplay, is faithful to the film and very funny. Jules Styne’s score and Bob Merrill’s lyrics aren’t great, which is presumably why it isn’t often revived, but its good enough. The story of course is of a couple of musicians who innocently witness a Chicago gangster crime and go on the run to escape their elimination. Disguised as women, they join an all-girl big band on tour. One falls for the singer and one bags a millionaire and it all ends happily (if somewhat bizarrely). Delightfully preposterous! The traverse staging has the band at one end and the beach at the other with other scenes played in-between.

It must be hard to step into the shoes of Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon, but Victoria Ward, Duncan Patrick and Rob Gildon do it very well indeed. Deryck Hamon is also good as Sir Osgood Fielding. The prisoners play all of the other roles – male and female – and do so with considerable enthusiasm and energy; I was particularly impressed by the confidence and stage presence of Gaillene Young (AKA Ella!) as band-leader Sweet Sue, who stood in at short notice when the original Sweet Sue was released! The 17-piece professional big band under Toby Purser make a glorious sound.

Any thought that you were in a real theatre was dispelled at the curtain call with the announcement ‘please stay in your seats whilst we check we’ve got all the cast back’!

It’s running again next weekend if you fancy a spell in prison (and if there are tickets left – http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk) – go on, it’s fun!

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