Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

When Richard Mayhew helps a stranger on the street, little does he know that this act of kindness will change his life forever and introduce him to the hidden parallel world of London Below, where there is an Angel called Islington and Black Friars living at Blackfriars.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Neil Gaiman and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s funny, original, exciting and it has fantastic characters. Richard is very likeable, but I particularly liked Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar as the baddies. I’ll definitely be reading more by Neil Gaiman in the future.

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A Christmas Carol – The Old Vic

In many ways it must be a daunting task trying to think of an original idea to tell such a well known story as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but Jack Thorne has managed it excellently for this new adaptation at the Old Vic over Christmas.

Arriving at the theatre, audience members are offered a mince pie and a satsuma by costumed actors which is a lovely touch to set the mood. The stage is set in the rounds, and the set is very minimum throughout, with four door frames onstage and lots of lanterns above as the main design.

As for the story, there are a few changes and additions. The three ghosts are all female, all in some ways echoes of Scrooge’s sister, Little Fan. None are frightening; Marley’s ghost is the only slightly scary apparition, who walks bound in chains along a walkway from the back of the stalls towards Scrooge. As well as developing the characterisation of Fan, there is also more emphasis than usual on Scrooge’s childhood, particularly his relationship with his father, who was cruel and drove the family into debt. We also see more of Scrooge’s relationship with his first love, Belle.

Rhys Ifans is a fantastic Scrooge, and his transformation from bitter and angry to forgiving and caring is very moving at times, particularly during a scene where he sees his younger self sat on his coffin. His delight when he awakes on Christmas morning is wonderfully atmospheric when he involves the audience in transferring and collecting the food to take to the Cratchits’ house.

The use of music throughout the production is fantastic, showing that the ‘carol’ element of the title is often forgotten. There is a small group of musicians and the actors sing, but the most effective music comes from the handbells used by the entire cast, particularly at the end.

A magical production that has captured the spirit of Christmas. Wonderful!

Paddington 2

Paddington Bear has settled in well to life living with the Brown family. When he finds a pop up book of London in Mr Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) shop, he decides to get a job to save up so he can buy it for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday present. Unfortunately, the actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) is also after the book as it reveals a hidden treasure, and when he steals it from Mr Gruber’s shop Paddington is wrongly sent to jail when trying to apprehend him.

This is absolutely delightful sequel which more than lives up to its predecessor. It’s full of fun, hilarity and some genuinely emotional moments. The animation is beautiful, particularly when shifting between scenes, but also Paddington himself is so lifelike and endearing. Ben Whishaw’s voice suits him perfectly. However, Hugh Grant is the star of the show as Phoenix Buchanan. Brilliantly hammy and hilarious!

The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie

Arthur Hastings is on leave recuperating during the First World War. When on convalescence he meets an old friend, John Cavendish, who invites Hastings to stay with him and his family at Styles. While he’s there, John’s stepmother, Emily Inglethorp, is murdered, and Hastings persuades John to allow his friend, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, to investigate.

This is the first of Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries and I found it very enjoyable. Some of the language is is very dated, but the mystery itself is intriguing and Poirot is a fantastic character.

Legally Blonde – Cardiff New Theatre

Legally Blonde is a fantastic feel good musical full of hilarious lyrics and catchy songs.

When her boyfriend Warner (Liam Doyle) dumps her for a more serious girlfriend, Elle Woods (Lucie Jones) decides to work hard an enrol with him at Harvard Law to try and win him back. Although people don’t take her seriously at first due to her blonde hair and love of all things pink, when she realises that she can use her new legal skills to help others she manages to prove everybody wrong.

For some reason I’m always a little apprehensive when musicals are made that are based on films, but I needn’t have worried at all here. It is such a fun and uplifting show. Lucie Jones was fantastic as Elle, showing her strong vocals whenever she could and also proved she is skilful at comedy. Rita Simmons showed that she also has a good voice as Paulette, and the scenes between her and Kyle (Ben Harlow) were hilarious.¬†The songs were great and incredibly catchy, and the choreography was slick and impressive, particularly with the skipping ropes during Whipped Into Shape.

My only small criticisms are that I didn’t feel Bill Ward did much with the character of Professor Callahan, and a couple of times the scene changes felt slightly clunky but this didn’t hamper my enjoyment at allI’m so glad to have finally seen this and would recommend it to anyone who wanted an evening full of laughter.

Tiger Bay the Musical – Wales Millennium Centre

Tiger Bay is the Wales Millennium Centre’s second homegrown production, following Only The Brave which was staged last year, and it is without a doubt bigger and more ambitious.

It’s set in the early 1900s when Cardiff’s docks were one the biggest coal exporters in the world and people of numerous nationalities lived in the area. Workers known as Donkeymen would push the cart loads of coal to the ships, with help from young boys known as Water Boys. The musical’s storyline includes characters that reflect the diversity of the area at that time – Rowena Pryddy (Vikki Bebb) is a shopgirl who is engaged to the nasty harbourmaster, Seamus O’Rourke (Noel Sullivan). Themba (Dom Hartley-Harris) is new to Cardiff from Africa and is looking for work as a Donkeyman and befriends Ianto (Ruby Llewellyn). A fictionalised version of the Third Marquess of Bute, John Stuart (John Owen Jones), is searching for his lost illegitimate son.

The score by Daf James is beautiful, but there are a lot of big orchestral numbers and it became difficult to differentiate between some of them by the end, but I loved the different styles and influences from Welsh and African music (this is a co-production with Cape Town Opera).

The cast are the biggest strength of this show, they work incredibly hard and there are no weak links at all. The choreography is slick and exciting to watch. My one minor quibble was that some of the dialogue wasn’t suitable for the period at all, such as Ianto exclaiming ‘Tidy!’ and someone mentioning Rowena getting ‘dumped’. I also think that the show needs a little editing – it is three hours long and although the time didn’t drag, I feel that cutting some bits here and there would make it an even better show.

I was sad to see Tiger Bay get a few very negative reviews in the mainstream press as I don’t think it deserves them at all. There have been some valid points made about the length and possibly that there are too many characters to follow, but these didn’t hinder my enjoyment and I would recommend this show to anyone, particularly anyone familiar with Cardiff.

The Constant Princess – Philippa Gregory

The Constant Princess describes the early life of Katherine of Aragon, beginning during her childhood living in the Alhambra with her parents, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and then telling the story of her marriage to Prince Arthur and then King Henry VIII.

As most people know, the basis of Henry VIII’s justification¬†for divorcing Katherine was his interpretation of a Bible passage that a man will be childless if he marries his brother’s wife. Katherine always swore that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated, but in her novel Gregory assumes that this was a lie, that Arthur and Katherine were very much in love and that she swore to him on his deathbed that she would marry his brother to become queen.

I found Katherine (or Catalina, as she was before she married Henry) a difficult character to like initially. She’s very headstrong, devout and unyielding. However, by the second half of the novel I grew to like the characterisation a lot more as she develops from a naive and stubborn princess to an informed queen. I suspect this character development was intentional by Gregory, as by the end of the novel Katherine realises that some elements of what she was always told and believed since she was a child are wrong.

I always enjoy Gregory’s writing style; this is written in a mixture of third person and first person from Katherine’s perspective. However, I did find parts of the novel a little repetitive at times, particularly when there were several consecutive passages where Katherine was telling Arthur stories from the Alhambra. Having said that, learning of some of the history of the Alhambra and the Spanish royals was interesting.

Philippa Gregory’s novels are always fun to read and informative, and she always manages to maintain interest and suspense despite the fact that most readers know what is going to happen. This isn’t my favourite book of hers, but it was definitely worth a read.

The Cherry Orchard – Sherman Theatre

The Cherry Orchard at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff was not a traditional production using Chekhov’s words, but rather a reimagining by Gary Owen who had updated the script and moved the setting to Pembrokeshire in 1982, at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership and just before the Falklands War. This was my first time seeing The Cherry Orchard, so I cannot make any comparisons with the original writing.

Bloumfield, a large country house, is in financial trouble and is in danger of repossession. The family have reconvened at the house to try and work out what the future holds for the house and for them. Denise Black was fantastic as the lead character, Rainey the mother, and was very intense. There were no weak links in the rest of the cast with regards to performances, and I particularly liked Alexandria Riley as Dottie the housekeeper. I did feel however that Morfydd Clarke’s accent stood out as being much posher than the rest of her family which didn’t really gel, and I thought that Richard Mylan’s character as a socialist questioning class inequality could have been developed further.

This production emphasised how the ghosts of the pasts can affect people, and how different individuals deal with grief. The class difference was evident when Dottie explains that when her father died she just had to carry on, while Rainey began to drink herself to a stupor. Despite these heavy themes, the play was full of witty dialogue and the evening sped by. Very glad to have seen it.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery – Criterion Theatre

Having loved both of Mischief Theatre’s previous productions, The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I was very excited to catch their newest show. This was immediately different to its predecessors, as rather than watching Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society performing, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a more traditional farce.

Set in the United States, it is the story of a diamond heist, which is being kept at the Minneapolis City Bank. As you’d expect from a farce, there was plenty of slapstick comedy but there was also lots of clever wordplay. It was fast paced, silly and brilliant.

The Casual Vacancy – J.K Rowling

The sudden death council member Barry Fairbrother is shocking for the small village of Pagford. His space on the town council intensifies several divisions in the community regarding the changing boundaries with the nearest large town, Yarvill, particularly regarding the local council estate, The Fields.

This novel was quite slow at first and nothing much really happens until the end, but as with all of Rowling’s writing her characterisations are strong. Not my favourite Rowling novel but a pleasant enough read.