Review: The Play That Goes Wrong, West End

RATING: ★★★★★

I finally saw The Play That Goes Wrong last weekend and it's wonderfully funny and a technical marvel. I went with my best friend from back home, Alex, who was in town for about 30 hours, as an early birthday present and we were both amazed. The design and the set are definitely the stars of the show. 

I couldn't be more impressed by Nigel Hook, the set designer, for the way that he built a set that is able to fall apart over the course of the play -- and still somehow pass health and safety regulations. In addition to having some amazing functional aspects, it's just a lovely set to look at as well. Kudos also must be given to director Mark Bell for navigating an impressive cast through the piece. 

The Play That Goes Wrong is about a theatre group doing a show called The Murder at Haversham Manor, but things don't exactly go as planned. Between injured actors, forgotten lines, set pieces breaking, and a missing dog, their opening night is a bit of a disaster. Each actor plays two roles: their character and the character that they are playing in the play within the play which is quite good fun as you get to see them slip between the two as mistakes occur. 

I recommend getting to the theatre a bit early as some of the cast members and the 'tech crew' (mostly the understudies and swings, I believe) come out into the theatre and chat with the audience before the show begins. One running gag that I loved was that they're looking for the show's dog, which they've lost. The hijinks continue out in the hallways during the interval: I was handed a flyer for the lost dog on my way to the loo. 

I also would recommend grabbing a programme for the show, as the first part of it is a fake programme for the show within the show which is very amusing. 

Katie Bernstein is delightfully funny as Annie, the stage manager who is last minute thrust into an acting role. Edward Howells is similarly charming as Dennis and very good at the physical comedy aspects of the show. I love Patrick Warner's top of show and top of second act speeches as Chris, the head of the theatre company in addition to playing the lead in the show. 

We also saw understudy James Watterson as Jonathan, I believe, and I would never have guessed that he was the understudy before looking at the programme. My favorite performance though was Graeme Rooney as the tech guy, Trevor, who is absolutely hilarious. 

I highly recommend going to check out this show in the West End, on UK tour, or on Broadway if you have a chance. It's worth it for the technical aspects alone and just a fun night at the theatre. I may have to go see it on tour as well... 

Check out my video review of the show as well:

Photo Credit: Helen Murray of a past West End cast for The Play That Goes Wrong

A Little Life Update

I realized that the last life chat I wrote was in January, so I thought it might be nice to give you all a little update as the summer begins. I'm moving into the last stretch of graduate school and it seems crazy to me that I'll be moving back to the States in just a few months.

I've finished all of my graduate school classes and am just waiting for the results of my second round of essays. I'll be spending the summer working on my dissertation, which questions what factors influence a theatre choosing to film a certain production over another. I'm so excited to get working on it -- and thrilled that I don't have to go to class anymore!

I've been interning at the Donmar Warehouse in the development department since the end of January and I've never been so in love with anything before in my life. I was a little worried that my expectations were too high, but it's blown me away. Not only are the productions incredible (The York Realist is definitely one of my top ten shows I've ever seen), but the people are so wonderful and lovely. I've extended my internship so I'll be staying through to the end of July and I'm already dreading my last day.

I've done some traveling over the spring, from day trips out to Brighton and Oxford to a spring break trip to Paris with my friend Patrizia. We had a great time in Paris and I finally got to visit Victor Hugo's house and burial site so I was very pleased. I've got some amazing travel planned for this summer too, including a trip to Disneyland Paris.

I've also had some lovely visitors in 2018 thus far, including my cousin Kristi and my friend from Elon, Stefanie, and my friend from New York, Julie. I also got to spend some time with my friend Skylar when he visited for his spring break and my best friend from home, Alex, was here over the weekend on a layover for about thirty hours. I'm looking forward to seeing Julie again and having Kimmy visit this summer. But mostly I can't wait for my family to come!

I've continued working at the Dickens Museum one morning every weekend, in addition to picking up the odd additional shift. I continue to absolutely adore it and some of my co-workers have become lovely friends of mine. I have developed a strange fondness for Charles Dickens that has very little to do for his work -- I suppose I'm a bit grateful to him for his former house becoming sort of like my home here in London.

I'm also doing a lot of writing for BroadwayWorld, both interviews and reviewing. I saw a poster for a musical with a quote for a review that I wrote which has long been a pipe-dream of mine, so that absolutely thrilled me.

The other big development of the spring is that I fell head over heels for a musical called The Grinning Man. It's based on a lesser-known Victor Hugo novel and integrated semi-immersive theatre, beautiful puppetry by some of the same people who worked on War Horse, and stunning vocals by an actor called Louis Maskell.

I ended up seeing it six times: the most I've ever seen one production. It also makes it tied for my second most seen show (Les Mis is still number one, but The Grinning Man is tied with Kinky Boots for the number two spot). While it closed earlier this month, I have high hopes that it'll make it to Broadway one day.

I've also been spending a lot more time around the RADA with my friend Rhiannon who studies technical theatre there. I'm looking forward to seeing more of their shows in a couple of weeks.

I'll definitely check back in at the end of the summer, before I head back to the States and end my time in London. What have you all been up to in 2018 thus far? I'd love to hear in the comments below or on Twitter. 

Review: Bright Star, US Tour

A.J. Shively, Carmen Cusack, and Patrick Cummings
RATING: ★★★★★

While I was home in April, I was lucky enough to catch Bright Star on tour with my mom, sister, aunt, and uncle. It was my aunt and uncle who told me about the bluegrass musical a couple of years ago before I spent the summer in New York. I saw the show on Broadway and fell absolutely in love with it and then shared that love with my family (the cast album CD is always in my mom's car now), so it was great for us to be able to treat them to actually see the show.

The show is set in North Carolina from the 1920s to 1940s, so it was really special to get to see it in my home state. (You could tell the audience loved hearing town names that they knew.) The show follows two separate but connected storylines. The first is about young headstrong Alice Murphy and her beau Jimmy Ray, the son of the mayor of the rural town they live in. The second follows an aspiring writer recently returned from World War II named Billy, the girl who loves him, and his editor...Alice Murphy.

It's a charming story that will pull at your heartstrings and might even make you cry. Written by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell, it uses bluegrass music to evoke the North Carolina of the last century. The tour shares the same creative team, including director Walter Bobbie, as the show's original Broadway run in 2016.

A. J. Shively and Carmen Cusack 
Having seen the original Broadway cast and fallen in love with every member of it, I was a little bit nervous about seeing the tour cast. However, for the most part, they absolutely are as brilliant as the original cast and make the roles all their own. Audrey Cardwell plays Alice Murphy and she has a gorgeous, strong voice, even if it's not quite as bluegrass twangy as original Alice, Carmen Cusack. Her acting is similarly strong and I was particularly impressed by how she manages to differentiate her character's young and older versions. She brings a vulnerability to the role that I found compelling and her songs like "If You Knew My Story" and "Way Back in the Day" are definite highlights.

Patrick Cummings is wonderful as the charismatic Jimmy Ray. His two solos, "Whoa Mama" and "Heartbreaker" are my two favorite songs in the show, though they sit at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, and he absolutely does justice to both. While Henry Gottfried has a great voice as Billy Cane, I felt that his acting occasionally is a bit lacking. In a few scenes, Billy ends up feeling goofy rather than charming.

My favorite performance is definitely Liana Hunt as Margo, Billy's childhood friend. I saw Hunt as Katherine in Newsies a few years ago and was excited to see her in another role. Her big solo, "Asheville", is one of the most tender, lovely moments of the show. She makes me wish that Margo had more scenes!

Carmen Cusack 
Alison Briner-Dardenne (who also played the role in the original Broadway cast) and John Leslie Wolfe are very lovely as Alice's parents. Jeff Austin makes the small role of Mayor Josiah Dobbs, Jimmy Ray's father, actually a bit terrifying. I definitely recognized something in him that I see in many politicians in my country currently, unfortunately.

One of the best parts of the show are the staff at Alice's magazine's office, Daryl and Lucy (played by Kaitlyn Davidson). I remember adoring Jeff Blumenkrantz's hilarious performance as Daryl when I saw the show on Broadway, so I couldn't be more thrilled that he's a part of the tour cast. The pair provide the comic relief, which is much needed are certain points.

The show features beautiful choreography by Josh Rhodes, in particular the swing dance parts and the entire scene around the song "Asheville". The scenic design by Eugene Lee is similarly stunning, with the bluegrass band being located in a small cabin that's moved around the stage and sometimes used by the characters are well. I also love the small train that occasionally goes across a rail at the top of the stage. The costumes by Jane Greenwood are just wonderful; I wish I could wear every single one of Margo's dresses. 

A. J. Shively, Kaitlyn Davidson, and Jeff Blumenkrantz 

While the show was missing a bit of the magic of the original Broadway production, it's still a wonderful heartwarming show and definitely a tour worth seeing. As a North Carolinian, it is so special to see such a beautiful story set in my own state and based on the true story of the Iron Mountain Baby (look it up, but beware that it contains spoilers for the show). If you can't make it to the tour, I recommend checking out the album on iTunes. I personally would love to see the show come to the West End one day...I've already got a dream cast all worked out.

If you live in Texas or North Carolina, you've still got a chance to see the show on its last two tour stops later this summer. 

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz of the original LA tour cast 

All About

One of the biggest struggles that I have when booking tickets for shows is not knowing what the view will be like from a specific seat. Theatres are structured so differently that sometimes a seat in one theatre is great, while in another theatre that same seat might be terrible. Stages tend to be different heights (influencing the view from the front row), seats are spaced differently, and some theatres have columns that obstruct views.

Recently, I was booking tickets to The Play That Goes Wrong as an early birthday treat for my best friend when he comes to visit London later this month. I've never been in the theatre, but I stumbled across while trying to find out what the inside of the theatre looks like. Imagine my delight when they contacted me only a few days later to ask if I was interested in reviewing their sight!

The site has seating charts for a bunch of theatres from across the UK, including London, Edinburgh, Milton Keynes, and a few others. (You don't even need to know the name of the theatre; you can search by show.) You can click on specific seats to see reviews of them, complete with star ratings of comfort, legroom, and view. A lot of the reviews also feature photos from the seat which are incredibly helpful.

I recently used SeatPlan to check out the seat that I bought for when I see Heathers at The Other Palace later this summer.

The Other Palace
 You can sign up to the site to submit reviews of your own. If you upload a photo with your review, then you get points which you can later cash in for theatre tokens. I haven't done this yet, but you can bet I'll be doing it in the future! You can also buy tickets directly through SeatPlan which is a great feature.

The Queen's Theatre
Have you guys tried out SeatPlan? Whether you actively submit reviews or just use it to check your seats before purchasing, it's a great resource for the British theatre community.

Advice for Theatre Reviewers

Recently, my editor at BroadwayWorld UK sent out a request for some advice about writing theatre reviews for a new initiative that is starting up. We ended up with a long email chain of advice, much of which I wish I'd heard when I first started writing reviews.

Of course, a lot of theatre reviewing is learning as you go, but I wanted to share with all of you what I sent in response in case any of my readers are thinking about becoming reviewers. I have four main tips:

Don't worry about what other reviewers are saying. 
When I first started writing reviews, I worried if mine differed from other reviewers' and if I was giving a show the same star rating everyone else was. However, I've since come to realize that I often enjoy when reviewers disagree about a show because it gives you a more holistic view of it as someone who hasn't seen it if you hear both the positive and negative opinions of it. Occasionally, I'm at odds with the rest of the critics on something, but I'm accepting that that's okay.

Don't try to take tons of notes during the show.
The first show that I reviewed for BroadwayWorld UK, I was surprised to see lots of other critics scribbling down notes furiously during the play. For the next few shows I saw, I tried to do this too but found it didn't help me that much -- and was disruptive to those around me. Now, I'll have a notebook within reach in case I want to quickly jot something down but most of the time I wait until interval and then the Tube ride home to write down notes. (My exception to this is when I review concerts as I note down who sang what songs.) 

Prepare before you go. 
Before I go to a show, I always make sure that I have whatever production photos I need from the PR and have read the whole press release. If I have time, I'll set up my review documents and even write down the names of the cast and creatives or write my paragraph about the production's history (example: is it a new play? Has this playwright done anything else recently? Is it a revival? If so, when was it last produced?). This makes my job easier when I get home to write my review.

Review the show for what it is. 
Nothing makes me more annoyed than when I read a review that clearly didn't take the show for what it was. For example, a lot of the other critics bashed Ruthless the Musical but I thought it was rather good...for a campy musical. In my review, I said that while it's not for everyone, it's a bit of good fun if that's what you want. Basically, don't review a panto as though it's a serious musical. I always try to acknowledge if something just isn't to my personal tastes, but is still a good production for what it is.

Do you have any tips for reviewing shows? What do you prefer to see in a review? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
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