A Revue of Reviews: What we’ve been watching since (some) theatres re-opened

It’s been a busy few months here at The Family Stage. After finally bidding a fond farewell to homeschooling, we spent most of August trying to give the munchkins something resembling a normal summer holiday. As soon as theatre was given the green light to open outdoors, our attempts to salvage the summer were clearly going to involve us squeezing in as many socially distanced shows as possible. After months of an empty calendar, Mummy was thrilled to be able to get back to meticulously scheduling every scrap of free time with organised fun. But it turns out that this “work hard, play hard” mentality leaves little time for actually writing up reviews, and the blog backlog worsens with every show seen. Although we managed to get a few August reviews out, September turned into a nightmare month at work for Mummy, meaning the blog had to take a bit of a backseat. Now that we’re well into October, Mummy has conceded that it is probably a bit too late to write proper reviews of everything we’ve seen over the last six weeks. So, instead, here is a bumper blog rounding up what we watched while the weather was warm…….

Alice in Lockdown, Heartbreak Productions (Brighton Open Air Theatre)

Our first foray into outdoor theatre this year was a trip to Brighton Open Air Theatre to see Alice in Lockdown. Clearly such a momentous occasion demanded a blog post all of its own, and Mummy did manage to find the time to write up a review which you can read here: REVIEW: Alice in Lockdown (Heartbreak Productions) at Brighton Open Air Theatre

The Alice in Lockdown set at Brighton Open Air Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar The Concert (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre)

A few weeks later, Mummy and Mrs Mummy actually went to the theatre together without the munchkins, to see the stunning ‘concert’ production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Another momentous occasion for which Mummy managed to cobble together some gushing praise that you can read here: REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar The Concert (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre). As an addendum to that review, Mummy loved it so much that she went back a few weeks later, and it was every bit as amazing as the first time (with the added magic of getting the full effect of the lighting)!

The Jesus Christ Superstar set at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

BarnFest (The Barn Theatre)

The Bank Holiday weekend saw us do something that seemed almost inconceivable earlier in the year. Not only did we manage a two show day, but we actually saw five shows in four days! Three of those shows were at the inaugural BarnFest at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, which Mummy (eventually!) managed to pull together a blog about here: REVIEW(S): A weekend at BarnFest.

Then it was home to London for drive-in dinosaurs and a puppet picnic.

Dinosaur World Live at The Drive In

Our first ever trip to a drive-in theatre was infinitely more fun than our experience of the drive-in Covid test site (which very nearly derailed our trip to Brighton a few weeks earlier). The Drive In is a contact free venue which allows you to tune into films and shows using your car radio (with an assurance that they will come and jump start you if the battery goes flat!) Spaces are first come, first served so you need to get there early if you want to be near the front. Taller cars are also sent to the sides, making it advisable to take off the roof box if you have one! There is even space for those without cars, with walk-in seating available (which is being updated for the winter with igloos and chalets). And drive in visitors can choose to get out of the car and plonk themselves in front (or even on top) of it for the full outdoor experience.

Even before the show itself starts, The Drive In is great fun, with karaoke and plenty of horn honking. There is also food available to order online which gets delivered directly to your car. We had actually been organised and taken sandwiches with us but ended up ordering hotdogs and fries for the full American experience!

The big screen at The Drive In, showing Dinosaur World Live

Dinosaur World Live was a great show to have on in this venue as it’s full of large dinosaur puppets that can be seen from a decent distance. (It’s all also beamed to a large screen anyway.) It’s not so much a show with a story as introduction to different dinosaurs, staged as an educational talk at a park where dinosaurs have been brought back to life. (Think Jurassic Park with fewer rampaging raptors!) It’s far more engaging than the sort of thing you might get at a museum (although we can’t comment on the respective scientific or historical accuracy…) Despite social distancing, there is also plenty of scope for audience participation – Which pretty much just means that you have to accept that the children are going to commandeer the car horn! We had a great time and are looking forward to a repeat visit to The Drive In soon.

Arbor the Tree, Smoking Apples (Little Angel Theatre Puppet Picnic)

Our final show of the Bank Holiday weekend saw our inaugural visit to Little Angel Theatre in Islington – Well, sort of. Despite having seen quite a lot of Little Angel productions at other venues and online, we have never actually made it to the venue itself. Technically we still haven’t as their summer shows took place outdoors (on socially distanced picnic blankets in a cute little alley nearby) but at least we got one step closer!

Arbor The Tree was a fun show featuring another incredibly impressive puppet (as well as an array of smaller ones), which had an important message about deforestation. This was our first experience of a socially distanced show that had very young children in the audience, which had the added danger factor of a nearby toddler trying to make a break for freedom! It was amazing to see her stop and stare in wonder when the tree puppet appeared and a clear reminder of the value of live performances for even the youngest of audiences.

The giant Arbor The Tree puppet

The cast did well to perform with face shields on, incorporating topical jokes neatly into the performance, and there was even an opportunity for socially distanced photos with the puppets at the end. It was a very short show, but definitely worth the trip up to North London.

Hair in Concert (Turbine on the Jetty)

Another theatre we’ve been meaning to visit for a while is the new Turbine Theatre in Battersea. Again, we got one step closer to this in September when we booked to see their concert production of Hair. Staged on a jetty with a stunning view of Battersea Power Station, it was an amazing venue with great social distancing procedures and cute deckchair seating. We didn’t originally manage to get tickets but were thrilled when they released some single seats, allowing Mummy and Mrs Mummy to do our usual trick of taking in in turns to see the show while the other stayed at home on munchkin duty. It was a fun night although both of us felt a little underwhelmed. Our seats were towards the back of the jetty, which meant we were quite far away from the action (and we are normally front row types!) Neither of us has seen Hair before and we did wonder whether a concert production was necessarily the best introduction. But it was received very enthusiastically by most other people in the audience on both nights, so we wouldn’t take our word for it.

Sleepless: A Musical Romance (Troubadour, Wembley Park)

Six months after we last sat indoors in a theatre, we found ourselves back in an auditorium to see Sleepless: A Musical Romance. Starring Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh, it’s based on the hit film Sleepless in Seattle which – like many supposedly classic films – Mummy has never seen. After all, why see a film when you can watch a show? It was recommended for ages 6+ so we took the munchkins along too, which resulted in us having to splash out on Sleepless branded face shields (surely the most 2020 souvenir yet!) It was a really enjoyable show, with some nice easy listening (albeit fairly forgettable) music and a few rather risque moments which made us question the age rating!

We had been unsure whether to book this one but had been convinced by our bubble friend who is a big fan of the film. (She then ended up in isolation and missed it!) We were pleasantly surprised by Kimberley Walsh in particular, who proved to be a very good musical theatre actor. Jay McGuiness was slightly more awkward but this actually suited the role well. The stars of the show, however, were child actor Jack Reynolds and the absolutely stunning set design. We also thought that the Troubadour did really well with their safety measures, especially given the audience numbers. With temperature checks, one-way systems, compulsory masks and well-spaced seating, it felt about as Covid secure as you are going to get at an indoor venue.

Pippin (The Garden Theatre)

Our final show of September was Pippin at The Garden Theatre (an outdoor space at the back of The Eagle Pub in Vauxhall). Mummy and Mrs Mummy saw the Broadway revival a few years back and were really excited to see how the show would be done with a cast of six in a much smaller space. And we weren’t disappointed. The production is fantastic and there is not a weak link in the energetic cast, who switch roles at breakneck speed while also performing some incredibly exciting choreography. We were especially impressed with Joanne Clifton, who was hilarious in a range of roles, most notably Pippin’s feisty Grandma. She was also great at audience interaction and had some good topical one-liners!

The space is really cute and the production is just the sort of up close and personal experience that we would normally be raving about. Unfortunately, rather like raving, up close and personal is frowned upon these days. Although there are extremely well organised safety measures within the pub itself, the theatre space is just too small for the number of people sitting in it. And although people are seated in ‘bubbles’, there is no real space between them at all. Unlike all the other shows we have seen, there is also no attempt at keeping the cast anything like 2m away from the audience. It’s outdoors and everyone wears masks but we did feel that those who are nervous about Covid would not feel nearly as safe here as in other venues we’ve visited (although it does feel an awful lot safer than a lot of other hospitality venue). It does seem like the sort of issue that could be solved by some strategically placed perspex though. And we would definitely recommend a visit to The Eagle for the Pornstar Martinis!

The show must go in!

Given how things were looking earlier in the year, we’re very grateful that we managed to get in 10 shows across August and September (11 for Mummy with her repeat trip to Jesus Christ Superstar, which has been an absolute highlight of this year). All these fantastic outdoor productions (and the many others that we didn’t make it to) have clearly shown that there is an appetite for live theatre and that there are many ways in which it can be done safely. Sleepless has also paved the way for the safe return of indoor theatre, with other venues (most notably the wonderful Barn Theatre!) also opening up indoors in recent weeks. With the weather now looking distinctly wintery, we’re looking forward to heading to more indoor shows. And we can’t wait to see what this season has in store. Ok, we’ve actually already seen one this week, but that’s another blog….