“All in all this is a lovely little show with the feel good factor”
Grab your stetson, pull on your cowboy boots, it’s time to dosey doe your way down to… Swindon. Yes, you heard right. In comedian Tony Hawks’ infectiously loveable new musical, the ‘tourist-free’ town plays host to the action. Following the everyday lives of its locals, who have a penchant for Country and Western, it’s a warm and relatable tale. What starts out as a wobbly and nerve-filled beginning to the show gives way to an assured, barn stomping second half.
Jane (Debra Stephenson) and Stuart (Tony Hawks) are a married couple who run the dwindling Swindon Country and Western Club, which is at a crossroads – much like their marriage. With only one other member, the socially inept Graham (Duncan Wisbey), they are in dire need of some fresh blood, especially if they want to win the coveted Railway Museum Gala Evening prize for best reenactment group. When two new members arrive, the vivacious Penny (Georgina Field) and kind natured Dan (James Thackeray), it certainly helps to shake things up, for better and for worse. Following the personal ups and downs of this motley crew, can this bunch of West Country cowboys put their issues to one side and show Swindon just what they can do?
It’s a welcome change to have a storyline about middle-aged relationships, especially when musicals are littered with young or first love. The writing and performances can turn a little melodramatic or predictable at times but nevertheless it’s still enjoyable to see a couple stuck in the mud, demonstrating how relationships aren’t always rosy. It’s even more refreshing witnessing Penny and Graham trying to find love again, later in life, forced to use such modern necessities as dating apps.
Tony Hawks and Debra Stephenson don’t quite have the acting chops that the other three supporting roles of Penny (Field), Graham (Wisbey), and Dan (Thackeray) have, but they seem fully aware, as a wonderfully tongue in cheek one liner about the ‘characters’ acting ability proves.
The songs certainly carry the show, highlighting Hawks’ comedy writing talent at its best. While some follow the generic Country music themes of love and heartbreak, others unconventionally ponder over Tinder and the joys of Swindon. The musical talents of the cast are admirable, particularly of the the supporting three who all alternate between playing drums, keys, guitar, bass, sax and oboe to name but a few. Stephenson also shows off her delicately pretty voice that suits her character well.
All in all this is a lovely little show with the feel good factor. It takes the cast time to find their feet but when they do it really does click. The story in Midlife Cowboy may be fairly slight with room to find more depth within relationships, but at the end of the day it’s a musical, there to entertain and play some catchy tunes, which it succeeds in doing. A well and truly yee-hawing good time!
“The cast were in fine voice throughout what must be something of an operatic endurance test”
The Pirates of Penzance, along with The Mikado, is probably the most well known and loved of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. ‘I am the very model of a modern Major General’ and ‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one’ have long since become part of the English cultural kit-bag, and Wilton’s is the perfect setting for Sasha Regan’s revival, imbued as it is with nostalgia, and the ghosts of early revue, vaudeville and musical theatre. The plot is utterly nonsensical, involving a crew of sentimental pirates (they have a soft spot for orphans), an indentured crew member there under false pretenses (his nursemaid thought she was apprenticing him to a pilot), a Major General and his bevy of daughters, and a well-meaning but terrified posse of policemen. Amidst this chaos, our hero Frederic (the pirate-by-proxy) falls in love with Mabel, one of the Major-General’s daughters, and, predictably, after various travails, finally marries her. Suffice it to say, that no-one goes to a Gilbert and Sullivan for the plot!
Gilbert and Sullivan’s enduring appeal lies in the marvellous marriage of music and lyrics that this extraordinarily brilliant duo brought to the stage, and Sasha Regan’s talented cast – with superb musical direction from Richard Baker – performed with skill and evident relish throughout. The opening number smacked a little too much of all-boy burlesque, but ‘I am a pirate king’, two songs later, brilliantly delivered by James Thackeray, steadied the ship and it was pretty smooth sailing henceforth. For the most part, the production successfully trod the delicate line between affectionate high camp and embarrassing caricature, though there were moments, in the first half particularly, which needed to be reined in. Each of the play’s female leads (Alan Richardson as Ruth; Tom Bales as Mabel) was at their most compelling when at their least performative, and Tom Bales beautifully captured the yearning and romance in Mabel’s duet with Frederic, ‘Stay, Frederic stay’. David McKechnie was a splendid Major-General – full of pomp and pathos; and Sam Kipling gave a lovely comic cameo in the role of Edith.
The cast were in fine voice throughout what must be something of an operatic endurance test, particularly for the female leads; Alan Richardson as Ruth stood out in particular in terms of vocal strength and clarity. Lizzie Gee’s choreography was full of fun, and the ensemble work was terrific. Particularly memorable were the young ladies’ fluttering entrance through the gallery, the antics of the moustachioed policemen, and the fast and furious ‘A paradox’. The show cracked along and seldom lost pace, and although some of the lyrics were lost in the bigger ensemble numbers (‘Stay, we must not lose our senses’), the judicious combination of well-articulated singing and Wilton’s acoustics ensured that W.S.Gilbert’s sparkling wordplay delighted as it should.
The Pirates of Penzance was Gilbert and Sullivan’s fifth collaboration, which premiered in New York in 1879. One hundred and forty years later, its loony plot, catchy tunes and witty lyrics still have the power to entertain a packed house, and reduce an audience to tears of laughter. A great deal has happened in that time however. Ironically, Sasha Regan’s all-male production actually takes the sting out of some of the book’s more toe-curling moments with regard to women – I’m thinking particularly here of Frederic’s early treatment of Ruth – but it does seem dated in all the wrong ways to see an all-white cast in 2019, and it is to be hoped that this issue will be addressed when taking the show forward. Let’s get some more pirates on board!