This week has been pretty full on at work, so I deputised the press night of Madagascar the Musical at the New Theatre, Oxford to my Mum, an avid musicals fan. Here are her thoughts…

I was not sure what to expect when invited to see Madagascar the Musical, although having seen the 2005 animated film, how would this translate to the stage?  My concern was that it would be a poor man’s Lion King. I need not have worried as from the moment the curtain was up it became evident this much-loved movie was in good hands and that this colourful, energetic and whimsical performance from the talented cast was a winner and true to the original film!

Madagascar the Musical

The story begins

The story begins at the Central Park Zoo, Marty the zebra is celebrating his 10th birthday, but has grown bored with his daily routine and longs to experience the wild and so escapes from the zoo.

Madagascar the Musical

Thus begins the journey of 4 friends, Alex the lion aka “King of New York City” (a title that carries some celebrity status at the zoo!), Melman the giraffe, and Gloria the hippopotamus who pursue Marty, via Grand Central Station in an attempt to convince him to return.

Their journey leads them to Madagascar where they encounter other friendly and unfriendly animals. Seeing how difficult it is to survive with so many predators around the island and Alex, compelled by hunger turning to his predatory nature, Marty begins to regret his decision to leave the zoo and the four friends agree to return to the City.   

Madagascar the Musical

A lovely strong bond of friendship comes through in their combined performances, particularly between Alex and Marty.  X Factor winner Matt Terry shines as Alex, his voice is wonderfully strong with a flourish of falsetto. Marty played by Antione Murray-Straughan’s rapping, athletic Zebra is the perfect best friend.

Gloria, played by Timmika Ramsay gives a fine performance with shades of diva and plenty of comedy moments with Jamie Lee-Morgan’s, hypochondriac giraffe, Melman.

The very talented ensemble, who play everything else from lemurs to penguins -Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private who escape the zoo-bound for Antarctica, really shine leaping seamlessly from puppetry to keeper.

Madagascar the Musical

Star of the night

Credit for the song of the evening goes to Jo Parsons playing the lemur, King Julien, and cast, with a hilarious rendition of ‘Move it, Move it’. Jo’s madcap mannerisms had the audience singing along in their seats and chuckling throughout.  It was a popular choice for the finale.

Madagascar the Musical

A show not exclusively for kids (we were sat in an audience of very mixed ages), with something for all. Excellent cast, energetic dance numbers, great design and costumes, upbeat and fun-filled songs, with the odd ballad which helps drive home the message of friendship. A good family show!

Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting our website at www.atgtickets.com/oxford

 

Back in March, a huge group of us had a long weekend in Watchet, Somerset and we hired out a huge five-bedroom thatched, converted farmhouse, Shells Holiday Cottage, in nearby Washford.

The place had ample room for all ten of us. A kitchen large enough for multiple cooks getting their curry contributions prepped and ready for our stay-in Indian night and a table that held a feast that would do Henry VIII proud. (I’ve just finished reading Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Tamed Queen’ and it seems Kathryn Parr spent most of her married life watching the king stuff his face…) It also had five good sized bedrooms, unusually most with a double bed and the piste de resistance – a hot tub!

Two day itinerary in Watchet, Somerset

Weekend in Watchet

Weekend in Watchet

Weekend in Watchet

Mark Sowden (Instagram @marksowden)

What to do on a weekend in Watchet

It is said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived in Nether Stowey, was inspired to write his epic ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in 1797, on a walk with his pal Wordsworth. As he approached the harbour of Watchet, having walked across the Quantock Hills, he was inspired by the harbour’s rocky beach and stalwart fisherman. There’s now a seven-foot mariner created by sculptor Alan B. Herriot standing proud on the harbourside.

Weekend in Watchet

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared

Merrily did we drop

Below the kirk, below the hill

Below the lighthouse top.

The other statue overlooking the harbour is of Yankee Jack. Born locally in 1839, he first went to sea out of Watchet as a lad and in the 1860’s joined a Yankee ship in the American Civil War. He sang as he sailed and when he retired at the age of 61 he brought his songs home with him. These were collected and collated by Cecil Sharp and Sir Richard Terry for our English musical heritage.

Watchet is a quaint fishing village and village life centres around the working marina.  The village dates back to the dark ages when St Decuman arrived from South Wales on a raft with a cow (don’t ask). The natural harbour made it an early trading centre and the place gets its name from ‘Wacet’, the blue dye found in the cliffs.

Weekend in Watchet

Watchet’s Fossil Beach

We took the coastal path that starts from the tip of quayside up to Splash Point and then along the cliffs towards Helwell Bay (also known as Fossil Beach). About a kilometre along, after the Helwell car park and across the field, there’s a set of steps leading down to the beach.

The concrete steps mark the site of some interesting geology – known as the Watch Fault. You can see in the cliff face the different rock layers: the red and green are Mercia Mudstones when the landmass as a huge desert near the equator and the grey mudstones belong to the Helwell Marls. These marls are the youngest Jurassic rocks exposed on the Somerset coast and date from 200 million years ago when sea levels rose and Watchet would have been submerged under the sea. An ancient earthquake distributed the layers, causing the geological formations we see today.  

This also makes the beach prime fossil hunting ground. The oldest ammonites in Britain, over 201 million years old, have been found on Watchet’s beach.  It’s possible to walk and scramble along the beach back to the quayside, but I’d advise decent footwear; at parts, it’s quite slippy. There’s a final set of steps back to the top.

After a brisk coastal walk, a scone from Chives went down a treat.

Dunster Castle

On our second day, we had a walk round Dunster, famous for the castle. Unfortunately, due to the adverse weather conditions, it was closed, but the medieval town has some picturesque streets and independent shots worth killing a couple of hours in.

 

We’ve had quite a spate musicals recently at the New Theatre in Oxford, last week we were at Rock of Ages starring Kevin Clifton. This week, we sat down to watch the Rocky Horror Show which is on until 30th March and where Kevin’s sister, Joanne, takes on the role of Janet.

The best thing about going to see the Rocky Horror Show is the audience. At Oxford, the audience turned out in their best fancy dress, fishnets, knee-high boots, corsets, wigs and maid’s aprons. (I could not persuade Tom to wear a feather boa and we were both desperately underdressed!)  And they knew every line when it came to audience participation.

Since it first opened in London in June 1973 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show has become the world’s favourite Rock ‘N’ Roll musical, having been performed worldwide for 45 years in more than 30 countries and translated into over 20 languages.

If you didn’t know, The Rocky Horror Show tells the story of Brad and his fiancée Janet, two squeaky clean college kids who meet Dr Frank’n’Furter by chance when their car breaks down outside his house whilst on their way to visit their favourite college professor.

My favourite character has always been the narrator, who was played by Philip Franks in this production, and Franks managed the heckles with great comedic skill.

The current touring version stars Blue singer and Hollyoaks actor Duncan James who makes a very sensual Frank, with just a touch of the panto dame about him. Strictly Come Dancing Champion Joanne Clifton plays Janet and a1’s Ben Adams is Brad. Kristian Lavercombe also reprises his role as Riff Raff, following more than 1300 performances in The Rocky Horror Show around the world.

Directed by Christopher Luscombe, the smash hit show features all of the famous musical numbers which have made The Rocky Horror Show such a huge hit for over four decades, including ‘Sweet Transvestite’, ‘Science Fiction/Double Feature’, ‘Dammit Janet’ and, of course, the timeless floor-filler, ‘The Time-Warp’ – and everyone, including Tom, was on their feet doing their best pelvic thrusts.

I don’t normally include chunks straight from the press release, but these facts illustrate the shows enduring appeal…

“The Rocky Horror Show first began life in 1973 before an audience of just 63 people in the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. It was an immediate success and transferred to the Chelsea Classic Cinema, before going on to run at the Kings Road Theatre, 1973-79 and the Comedy Theatre in the West End, 1979-80. In 1975 it was transformed into a film called ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. This film adaptation took over $135 million at the Box Office and is still shown in cinemas around the world more than 40 years after its premiere, making it the longest running theatrical release in cinema history.

“Many stars including Russell Crowe, Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Jerry Springer, Jason Donovan and Meatloaf have appeared in The Rocky Horror Show over the past 45 years.

“In 2015, as part of a sold-out season at London’s Playhouse Theatre, a special star-studded Gala charity performance in aid of Amnesty International was broadcast to over 600 cinemas across the UK and Europe.

“The live screening – featuring a host of celebrities playing The Narrator including Stephen Fry, Mel Giedroyc, Emma Bunton, Ade Edmondson, Anthony Head and Richard O’Brien – smashed box office records and was the biggest grossing film in cinemas across the UK. The performance was subsequently screened on the Sky Arts channel.”

Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting our website at www.atgtickets.com/oxford

The second stop on our cruise aboard the Viking Sea was Barbados and we were embarking on the ‘Panoramic Barbados’ tour, organised by the good people of Viking, with the warm and gregarious Alison as our guide. Here’s what we did in five hours!

Here's what we did in five hour on the island of Barbados

Barbados is probably the most British island in the Caribbean; afternoon tea is a daily ritual and cricket is the national sport. The island is home to the commonwealth’s second oldest parliament, having been beaten to the top place by Isle of Man. It has 300,000 inhabitants and a 99 per cent literacy rate.

How to spend five hours in Barbados

Here's what we did in five hour on the island of Barbados

Guest lectures onboard

As part of the cruise on board the Viking Sea, the boat hosted a number of guest lecturers, who gave seminars about the destinations we visited. I loved these – it was just like being at university again, but with better food, better accommodation, better weather and no exams!

By far the best lecturer was Dr. Sherry Hutt, a former judge, she trained archaeologists, law enforcement and attorneys on heritage protection cases and holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution. Now she is the author behind the ‘Cruising through history’ series. Her lecture on Barbados was top notch.

Her lecture looked at Barbados’ history, which is inextricably linked with that of the slave trade in 16th and 17th centuries. African slaves were brought to the island as part of the three-way triangle with sugar and rum.  Before the Brits came along, the island was virtually uninhabited. Early settlers in 1627 attempted to grow tobacco with little success. They also tried cotton, but that went much the same way. Then when Portugal took hold of Brazil, Dutch settlers with their sugar production knowledge moved from Latin America and settled in Barbados. And so the three-way slavery triangle found its origins.

Bridgetown was the first town to be founded in 1628 and unlike the American colonies, where Englishman needed a royal grant for land, Barbados was open to all commoners with enough funds to establish themselves. So here you could live like royalty, without the royal connection.

St James Parish Church, Holetown

Our first stop was St James Parish Church in Holetown, which was founded by the first settlers who originally built a wooden structure to accommodate their growing congregation. The church was rebuilt in stone following a hurricane on 1780. The church includes the original 16th-century baptismal font and bell, the oldest in Barbados, which was manufactured by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry that also produced Big Ben.

Planter’s Punch

Richard Ligon, an intelligent royal courtier escaping the English civil war, became a plantation manager on Barbados and wrote a comprehensive guide to making rum. He couldn’t stand slavery and remained baffled by his fellow plantation owners who spent most their time at banquets and getting rat-arsed on a punch made with crude rum (lethal levels of alcohol), tempered with sugar, lemon, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, water and maybe pineapple juice.

Meanwhile, as Ligon noted, the knowledge of sugar and rum production was cultivated and refined by the slave workforce. Slavery ended in the 1830s and descendants of Africans and new free African immigrants continued with the sugar production and the distillation of rum – still a mainstay of the economy.

Mount Gay is the island’s oldest rum distillery, established in 1703, and at Highland Adventure Centre on Harrison’s Plantation, we enjoyed our first rum punch whilst enjoying the view of the east coast 1,000 feet above sea level. As Alison, our guide said, ‘us Bajans, we’re all social drinkers – ain’t no one drivin’ today.’

Christmas in Bridgetown

Bridgetown’s centre is a Unesco World Heritage site and includes many colonial buildings including the parliament. From the port, it is an easy twenty-minute walk by foot.

You could brave the queues in the popular ‘Chefette’ chain for a burger, Bajan’s answer to McDonald’s – Alison was very proud that there wasn’t a single golden arch on the island. They attempted to open a branch and it lasted six months, as it wanted to charge over $20 for a burger – a good example of the high cost of living on the island. It’s now used as a car showroom.

The Barbadian’s are fond of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry’s recent visit went down a storm and they are proud to belong to the commonwealth which was being wildly celebrated as part of their Christmas festivities. Organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society Barbados Branch, Independence Square hosted Christmas trees decorated by different school children from across the 53 countries.

Viking Sea’s destination menus

The main restaurant on the Viking Sea would often feature a destination menu, a sample of local fare. In Barbados, we tried Bajan fish cakes, breaded flying fish and ‘conkies’ – a pumpkin-coconut cake steamed in a banana leaf.

[Gifted] I feel like since we received the invite to see the new UK tour of Rock of Ages at the New Theatre in Oxford, that Kevin Clifton, who stars as Stacee Jaxx, has been everywhere.

On Saturday, I caught his interview on Graham Norton’s Radio 2 show and then he appeared as a critic on ITV’s All Star Musicals on Sunday night (judging Alan Titchmarsh singing ‘An Enchanted Evening’ from South Pacific – check it out on catch-up!) So on Tuesday, I was greeted with a 10ft version of his face on the theatre’s side.

Rock Of Ages is an LA love story lavished with over 25 classic rock anthems including ‘We Built This City’, ‘The Final Countdown’, ‘Here I Go Again’, ‘Can’t Fight this Feeling’ and ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’.

I’ve seen the film but already knew that the story would work so much better on stage. It’s got the two fame-hungry teenagers who head to LA, one to make it as a rock star, the other an actress. The pair meet whilst working as a waitress and janitor in the fictional, fabled ‘Bourbon Lounge’ – the birthplace to many a rock megastar.  And so we see their rise and fall in the bid to make it big.

My favourite character was Lonny, played by Lucas Rush, who acts as narrator, clown and fool. To use a technical term, the character of Lonny, ‘breaks down the fourth wall’ to address the audience directly and to let them in on the joke – whether that’s Drew friend-zoning himself with Sherrie or how Stacee Jaxx ends up in Nicaragua.  

Lucas picked a member of the audience from the front row to be his comic muse and before you know it ‘Debbie from Row 1’ becomes the evening’s running joke. It’s Lucas who points out that Alec Baldwin has played the same character, Dennis, the owner of the Bourbon Club, as Kevin Kennedy or better known to soap fans as Curly Watts from Coronation Street (who was excellent as the faded rocker by the way!)

I enjoyed the whole score but Zoe Birkett, who plays Justice, did a rendition of ‘Harden My Heart/Shadow’s of the Night’ which was spectacular. She most recently appeared as Rachel Marron in the UK tour of The Bodyguard The Musical.

And as for Kevin Clifton, Strictly Come Dancing Champion 2018? I wasn’t surprised to find that he had both a great voice (we will be seeing his sister, Joanna, in Rocky Horror Show next week and equally has a great singing voice which we witnessed when she appeared in Flashdance) and excellent comic timing. The Clifton siblings definitely have performance in the blood.  His scene with Sherrie, played by Jodie Steel, as they belt out ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ was hilarious as the pair make out in the gent’s lav.

Rock Of Ages has a book by Chris D’Arienzo and Arrangements and Orchestrations by Ethan Popp. It is directed and choreographed by Nick Winston. Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting the website at www.atgtickets.com/oxford

A warning though, this show contains serious rock ‘n’ roll debauchery!