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Broadway Baby: Bash Latterday Plays (16/05/14)

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Monologues are a difficult thing – too short and it’s easy to feel cheated out of admittance to a fully formed performance, but too long and it’s hard not to become apathetic to the storyteller or – even worse – just plain bored. Thankfully the monologues and duologue in Neil Labute’s Bash: Latterday Plays are so carefully constructed that neither problem is applicable – like a certain bowl of cereal in a fairytale about a golden haired house invader, every second spent in the cast’s company feels just right.

Then with a booming maelstrom of noise it begins.

Although moving from The Old Red Lion Pub to Trafalgar Studios in the West End, Labute’s production has thankfully lost none of its intimacy. The set remains bare throughout the performance except for a wooden doorway and several sawn up chairs stuck in various angles to the floor. Appearing like flailing limbs clawing up from the underworld, it’s an intriguing choice by set builder David Houghton that brings an eerie feeling to proceedings before the performances even start.

Then with a booming maelstrom of noise it begins. And goodness, are these stories dark. If you’re of a nervous disposition you might do well to bring a pillow to hide behind – this is a play that really illustrates the power the imagination can bring to a string of carefully chosen words. The tales are just the best kind of dark however – it’s Coen brothers dark, Irvine Welsh dark – everything is tinged with a soft filter of comedy, before the chaos kicks in. Labute really has a way with words and of finding the crux of a character in a very short space of time, but a lot of credit must be given to the cast for bringing these creations to life.

Whether they’re a businessman from Utah retelling a chilling incident in a Las Vegas hotel room (Philip Scott-Wallace) or a young woman remembering an overly intimate relationship with her junior high school teacher (Rebecca Hickey), each member plays their character with insight and often great subtlety. Tom Vallen’s gripping performance as a jockish, bigoted young Mormon is a particularly terrifying highlight, his bride to be’s (Dani Harrison) nervous patter running alongside only emphasizing the dominance of her fiancé. It’s powerful stuff that noticeably, when the particularly darker elements of the story are introduced, has the entire audience on tenterhooks, crucially keeping them there until the next beat, the next storyteller.

Throughout the three separate tales Labute mixes elements of Greek mythology into the specific location of Utah to weave an enigmatic tapestry around a hot and wearied America we’ve heard examples of in the news and read about in literature from Capote to Steinbeck, but never seen so up close and visceral. It’s a primal play drawing us into the hidden evils that exist all around – yet even in its darkest moments, it’s very difficult to look away. 

5/5

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Broadway Baby: Dead At Last, No More Air (16/05/14)

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Playwright Werner Schwab was just 35 when he died from what must have been quite a drinking spree after a New Year’s Eve party in 1994. It’s maybe uncomfortably ironic that the one of the last plays he penned was titled “Dead At Last – No More Air” but then if uncomfortable is what you’re looking for, Just A Must’s English language premiere of Schwab’s play is your kind of show.

All the tropes are there – a play within a play to keep everything wonderfully meta, scatological and sexual images, social classes not behaving as they should – so far, so ticking the box of academic interest.

There’s a semblance of a plot in which an arrogant director takes on a fat and aging playwright’s work with a host of similarly pretentious actors, only for them to be replaced by old age pensioners from a nearby home – but it doesn’t really matter. There are many, many lines of dialogue between all of this happening and many of them quite delightfully incomprehensible. I say delightfully because it’s clear from the dialogue that Schwab longed to be part of the grand tradition of surrealism that hails back back to the likes of Alfred Jarry and his seminal work King Ubu, and in Dead At Last he certainly does his best to continue the lineage of nonsense at any possible opportunity.

All the tropes are there – a play within a play to keep everything wonderfully meta, scatological and sexual images, social classes not behaving as they should – so far, so ticking the box of academic interest. However this is surely the problem with Just A Must’s production; whilst the actors clearly relish their ridiculous roles, from an audience point of view there isn’t much else to take from the performance – save a feeling of intellectual inspection.

Perhaps that’s enough to take from a play that so clearly doesn’t want anyone to enjoy the experience too much. The actors put on and take off wigs as they please, the cleaner, a character touted as a leader for the new world old age pensioner order, enters in one scene wearing an inflatable dress, the playwright, bullied by all of the other actors, quite visibly wets himself on stage. The cast go along with the absurdity gleefully, but clearer signs of Director Vanda Butkovic and Designer Simon Donger interpreting Schwab’s play from a greater creative context might have given Dead At Last more of an edge, rather than reading the text at face value. The cast throughout the production, for example, generally use the multiple airbeds on stage as chairs or sofas. Eventually they do form part of a funny visual expression of death, but it takes until the final act for them to become anything more than stage furniture.

When Jarry’s King Ubu premiered in Paris, a riot broke out at the end of the performance, the play itself outlawed from the stage for its seemingly abhorrent concept. Sadly for all of its eccentricities and anti-theatre roots Dead At Last, or the English language version anyway, would raise at best an intrigued eyebrow rather than a pitchfork – a workshop in a form not seen often in theatres today, but not a masterclass.

2/5

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Broadway Baby: Good People (16/04/14)

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South Boston, the place of ‘cahs’ instead of ‘cars’, is the all-encompassing setting for Good People, David Lindsay-Abaire’s fascinating story of pride, poverty and the past. However, as we follow its inhabitants trudging through their everyday lives, it’s clear that rather than merely a backdrop, the city is also a restraint that grips each of them and never quite lets go, no matter how hard they try to leave it behind.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way quickly – Imelda Staunton is brilliant.

Moved from a sell-out run at the Hampstead Theatre to the glitzier Noel Coward, the play loses none of its small town heart. ‘Southie’ Margaret, played by a frenetic Imelda Staunton, is down on her luck and her rent pay when she loses her job (again). With news from her cackling friend Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) that her old boyfriend Mike (Lloyd Owen) is back in the neighbourhood and – of all things – a doctor, she decides to seek him out on the off chance he might be able to find her a job. But, as they meet for the first time in nearly three decades, they realise what different paths their lives have taken, and must face the secrets they’ve hidden from themselves.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way quickly – Imelda Staunton is brilliant. Fuming and gesticulating her way across the stage like a passive aggressive whirlwind, her performance of Margaret is one of bitterness and anger paired with straight up hilarity. She duly doles out the harsh truths and blunt put downs with gleeful impishness, which works particularly well alongside Owen’s seemingly lackadaisical, yet in reality uptight, Mike.

The rest of the cast each bring their own insightful quirks to the play – Susan Brown’s bemused Dottie and her rabbits made from plant pots notably increases the laughter levels every time she appears – but the play is ultimately about Staunton and Owen’s tightly wound Margaret and Mike, forced to pace the stage together.

As for pacing in the play itself, the first ten minutes feel as drawn out as the slightly ropey Bahhston accents. However, the second half comes alive with rage, revelations and rabbit smashings. Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue is on the whole punchy – only on certain occasions do some scenes feel overly lengthy and even then they are often brought back into focus with a quick joke or a shift in tension. Above all it is his wonderfully realised characters, the ones that we are uneasy to truly laugh at because in their desperate sarcasm we see something we recognise, that stay with us until the end. They might well yell and scream in that big brash accent, but it’s the deep seated agonies those shouts are covering that makes this a truly captivating tale. 

4/5

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Broadway Baby: Once We Lived Here (09/04/14)

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All That Jazz. Food Glorious Food. Gotta Fix The Pump. In an increasingly strange game of “guess the odd one out” most will probably come to the conclusion that the latter is the oddity, owing to the fact that the first two are songs from musicals. They would be wrong on both counts (it’s actually Chicago’s offering as I haven’t seen it performed live – I’m a cruel kind of question master) because GFTP is in fact a song from the new Australian musical now hitting UK shores – Once We Lived Here.

Although there’s mystery and intrigue and romantic triangles, there’s also great warmth and plenty of that aforementioned rough Aussie humour too.

The song title may give clues as to what to expect from this original production – its brash, in your face down to earth cheerfulness is so Aussie I almost expected Harold Bishop to pop by asking if he could borrow the Vegemite, mate. It all occurs (give or take some dreamy flashbacks) over a long hot weekend in Victoria, as the three children of the McPherson household are united for the first time in years at their family home, a sheep shearing station in the outback. Their mother Claire (Simone Craddock) is quietly falling deeper into illness, whilst Amy (Melle Stewart), the headstrong eldest who has battled to save the farm through drought, bush fires and recession, must finally face up to the reality of her situation, and some family truths along the way.

So far, so Australian Chekhov, those with a theatrical disposition may think. But “The Kookaburra” this is not – for although there’s mystery and intrigue and romantic triangles, there’s also great warmth and plenty of that aforementioned rough Aussie humour too. Whilst slacker brother Shaun (Iestyn Arwel) jokes about not having any herbs “in liquid form”, wannabe socialite Lecy (Belinda Wollaston) greets old flame Burke (Shaun Rennie) with the to the point “Well thank God I got a Brazilian last week”. Each actor deals well with hopping from light comedy to brooding solos to quirky numbers, Wollaston in particular nailing the self-centred Lecy to hilarious effect.

The songs in themselves range from the toe tapping to the somewhat indistinguishable, but given some pep by a live band. It’s unlikely that people will be holding up the song list in years to follow as the benchmark for all musicals to come – apart from GFTP, obviously, which will become Australia’s new national anthem.

By the time the second act comes the plot begins to feel more predictable, and everything rushes quickly into a melodramatic conclusion. Writer and director Dean Bryant’s script shines most when the characters are given space and time to reveal their quirks and eccentricities, which are nearly forgotten amongst the ramped up drama of the final half hour, saved only in the last few reflective minutes. However, the sheer enthusiasm of all on stage, and the likability of the characters created makes this musical a hugely enjoyable watch, and certainly the best musical about pump mending I’ve seen in at least a year. 

4/5

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Broadway Baby: Joan Collin, One Night With Joan (04/02/14)

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The claws may not be fully out for this night of name dropping and gossip mongering with the Queen of Dynasty, but there’s certainly still a lot of fun to be had, especially if the crowd is full of as many cheering and slightly delirious fans as its first night.

The premise, as the title may suggest, is fairly simple. Over the course of two hours (and there’s an interval included in that too), Hollywood star Joan Collins recounts her life to us enraptured folk in the audience, whilst naturally sipping a white wine in-between. There isn’t much else to the set to speak of, apart from a phone used slightly over zealously as a prop by Collins on several occasions, but when you’ve come to see the woman who’s rubbed shoulders with the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, everything else onstage is probably going to pale in comparison anyway.

And there are indeed plenty of stories of said shoulder rubbing, some of them genuinely intriguing, others not quite hitting the punch lines as hoped. It takes a while for Collins to settle into her groove, moving at first uneasily between her quite clearly scripted lines, and the video clips and pictures of her days of glory. This almost threatens to make it feel less like “One Night With Joan Collins” and more like “One Night With Joan Collins Reading Some Prepared Statements About Joan Collins” but, thankfully, as the night carries on, and we move into her Dynasty years, things seem to come a little more naturally for our onstage confidante, and everything flows much better.

However, the night doesn’t focus entirely on American soap operas. Although it’s hard to call the evening an entirely personal performance, as polished and scripted as it is, we do also get a general picture of Collin’s life alongside her memorable roles – from her early fixation with acting, to her father’s worry that she would never settle down, and, of course, her numerous marriages and divorces. There’s also room for some wonderfully British self-deprecation, rare to find now in most Hollywood actors, as our host bigs up the many “serious” roles she’s taken on as an actor, whilst clips from flop The Empire of The Ants flash up in screen.

The evening ends with a quick Q and A picked by Collins’ fifth husband Percy Gibson, who also directed the show. Several beaming fans stand up to ask their question, and really, amongst all the staged anecdotes, this is what the show is all about – devotees getting to meet and learn a little bit more about their idol. Even if you have heard all the tidbits and tales before, there’s still something exciting about hearing it from the same mouth that spitted “I’m glad to see that your father had your teeth fixed; if not your tongue” in full scale multicolour bitchiness. If you’re an Alexis addict then add an extra star to the rating, but if you’re only mildly curious about Collins, then this probably isn’t going to be enough to change your mind.

3/5

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Broadway Baby: Francis Rufelle (10/10/13)

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Ah, Paris. The bright lights, the secret passageways, the.. Aristocats. Tony Award winning singer and story teller Frances Ruffelle gives voice to these and many more of the City of Light’s nuances in a night of surprises, soliloquies and smoky nostalgia. Set amongst the stunning backdrop of underground cabaret venue The Crazy Coqs, Ruffelle swoons and parades for the audience in ripe old coquettish French style, whilst her upbeat live house band funk and trill in the background. And whilst there are occasional moments of soloing from the impressively put together group of musicians, their role is clear – to provide the rhythm and beat that Ruffelle needs to put on a spectacular show.

And put on a show she does. It’s not a surprising fact to learn that Ruffelle played the very first staged performance of Eponine in Les Miserables some years ago – she was born to interact with an audience and tell a story on stage. The story she has to tell us this time around may be a very simple one – her love of Paris through the ages – but she does this in remarkable song snapshots that represent both the old and new France, an auditory scrapbook of faded glamour and wistful romance.

The eclectic list of songs don’t always rest on the familiar Gallic tones of classic French songstresses like Édith Piaf either, as Ruffelle also stretches the theme to include songs from Paul Simon and yes, those famous symbols of France, the Aristocats. In the main this doesn’t distract from the night – France is a varied place afterall, with many influences and influencees, although it would have been pleasant to hear a few more French melodies alongside the more poppy and rocky elements of the evening, if only to watch the amazing Art Deco stylings of the performance space come alive with some appropriate music.

There are also moments when Ruffelle’s theatricalities slightly grate, so caught up in the ooh la la and va va voom of French living is she that the audience, slightly more restrained individuals, can’t always keep up with the exhibitionism. However, if the finale is anything to go by, where the majority of onlookers were shouting for an encore louder than a group of French Revolutionists bellowing for an uprising, it’s clear that, en generale, Frances Ruffelle and her backing band illuminate Europe’s most enigmatic city with wit and colour, and only a hint of garlic.

4/5

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Broadway Baby: The Speed Twins (09/09/13)

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Three undead lesbians walk into a bar. It’s not quite the joke we were expecting, but this surreal new play from Maureen Chadwick, the bolshy writer and creator of TV dramas Bad Girls, Footballers’ Wives and Waterloo Road follows the trials and tribulations of two women in love who have been fighting their feelings for each other against the need to live a “normal” heterosexual existence all their lives. So far not so surreal you may say, until you factor in that the debates over sexuality and normality are raging as our characters have indeed died and are trapped in the mysterious purgatory of “The Gateways” nightclub, otherwise known, as drunken Charlie Chaplin lookalike Ollie remarks as “dyke heaven”.

The stage’s battered old bar and clanky old jukebox serves as an effective backdrop, then, to three very different women united by their issues caused by being gay and female in the modern world, each with their own coping strategies. The aforementioned Ollie (Amanda Boxer) is happy to drown her sorrows in drink and cigars, whereas Queenie (Polly Hemingway) at first appears reluctant to admit she has ever had feelings for another woman – that is until the secret love of her life Shirley (Mia Mackie) pops into the homosexual shindig. Isn’t it always the case that of all the undead lesbian hangouts in all the underworld she had to walk into mine?

Maureen Chadwick has certainly had some fun writing the script of The Speed Twins as it’s full of zingy one-liners and bitchy putdowns that keep the pace fresh and the laughs steady. Alcoholic Ollie gets the lion’s share of funny material but when needed, Polly Hemmingway’s Queenie can rip anyone to shreds with just a flick of the hair and an evil stare. Mia Mackie occasionally comes across as wooden compared to the other two, and for all the embraces and lovelorn looks, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine her character and Hemmingway’s in any kind of lustful whirlwind romance – Mackie’s Shirley is a little too earnest to find entirely endearing and the chemistry between the pair isn’t quite there.

Still, Chadwick has done it again in creating a fully rounded world based on intelligent and for the most part interesting women, rather than the all too often two dimensional cardboard cut-outs that can sadly stand for female characters even now. Whether it quite manages to hit the mark between entertaining and thought provoking or not all the time, there’s a lot to like in The Speed Twins, whether it’s the witty quips, copious amounts of onstage drinking or simply the bizarre picture of Charlie Chaplin and a Beauty Queen having a waltz to some retro 60s pop music.

4/5

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Broadway Baby: The Improsarios (26/07/13)

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As of late there has been an increasing number of acts hopping onto the improvised performance wagon at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, to the extent that you might start to flinch at the amount of well rehearsed spontaneity you can find around just about every corner. There’s improvised trials (Instant Order: Trial By Audience), an improvised Newsnight (Marcus Brigstocke Presents Unavailable For Comment) and naturally, improvised performances of Jane Austen classics (Austentatious). So with more people than ever making a living out of making things up, where do The Improsarios, an improv group from London that have been performing since 2008, fit in?

I watched The Improsarios at an Edinburgh preview show in London rather than their main show at the Fringe but, as with all improvised shows, it shouldn’t really matter where you see them – every show is supposed to be completely different from the next anyway. The gimmick here is that the audience comes up with a one-word title and the group then perform three very different short plays based around that word. For us the word was “Danger” – something you’d think any self-respecting improviser should be able to make an interesting hour out of (I really wished they’d picked a more sadistic audience member’s suggestion of “Chicken”).

Indeed the first playlet was full of danger, as a man met with the kidnapper of his wife and found out that the kidnapper wasn’t quite as unfamiliar as he first seemed. Our second slice of surprise didn’t work quite as well as the actors struggled to find a main dramatic issue to focus on – was it a sister’s admission she was being hit by her partner or the fact that a pair of siblings’ parents and family life were falling apart?

It was telling that the final play that really showed off the actors’ skills and clear experience in working with each other was also the most comedic one of the night. Whilst elements of the first two mini scenes were involving in their own way, I still feel improv works best as it was conjured up all those years ago on TV in Whose Line Is It Anyway?, with witty off-the cuff and often absurd moments that a script writer would never have thought of. That’s not to say that serious drama doesn’t have its place with improvisation, but it’s a much more difficult beast to get right – the skill becomes less in thinking of something ridiculous than of something realistic, which there are already plenty examples of in Edinburgh without the element of surprise. Saying all that The Improsarios should be applauded for their decision to not just take another improv comedy vehicle to the Fringe, and there are glimmers of something really special at the heart of what I witnessed in a basement in Dalston – I just wish that they sprinkled a few more gags here and there to pacify my inner Clive Anderson fan.

3/5

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Broadway Baby: Mat Ricardo’s London Varities (29/03/13)

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Variety shows were once all the rage – make or break performances where talent was snapped up and audiences were left almost bewildered and stunned by the wonderful trinity of lights, noise and action. Things have changed. Today their most public outing is Britain’s Got Talent, a cynical show that allows women singing Phantom of the Opera in the style of a dog and a flatulent man called Mr Methane to ridicule themselves in front of an audience that may well be confused, but only at whether the word “Talent” is actually a codeword for “Problems” that had accidentally been left in during a late night production meeting. Thankfully there is still someone out there that “gets” the power of a proper variety show, and his name (or at least his stage one) is Mat Ricardo.

Ricardo is known by the strange moniker of “The Derren Brown of Juggling” and whilst there weren’t any instances of convincing us that the apocalypse had arrived by throwing some coloured balls in the air, the patter is as polished as any practised showman and his tricks (especially one involving juggling bowling balls in the air) do have a definite element of theatricality to them. It’s all very professional and snappy, and gears the audience towards what’s to come, as any good compère should.

And what is to come is anyone’s guess, as each monthly instalment, as is the nature of variety shows, has a completely different mix of entertainers and comedians. On this occasion we were treated to comedy musician Elliot Mason bemoaning us in strained tones on the rebranding of Jif to Cif and Magic Circle member and award winning magician Pete Wardell confounding us with illusions in the first half alone. The real highlight of the night however was undoubtedly the headliner The Boy With Tape On His Face, who, although running through some old material, still brought the house down with his style of mimed comedy and witty household props, especially due to many of his invited audience member guests being partially inebriated by this point in the night.

In-between the magic and the miming, Ricardo turns Parkinson and interviews a celebrity performer of some sort on stage. On this occasion, his guest was comedian and intermittent pub landlord Al Murray. Whilst it was interesting to learn that Murray can do an exceptional sound effect of a car boot opening and that he used to know Stewart Lee from his time studying at Oxford University, amongst all the hilarity and kookiness of the rest of the show the slow talk show pace doesn’t quite fit in. It also means that the special guest doesn’t actually perform anything in the show, which if anything just feels like a missed opportunity when the guests are generally from show business.

The success of a variety show resolutely depends on the combined quality of talent throughout the night and here The Mat Ricardo Show fared very well, with The Boy With Tape On His Face sharply bringing up the average. In the end it’s a polished, enjoyable tour de force with the occasional dip, but a damn sight more talent on offer than anything Simon Cowell’s produced in years.

4/5

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Broadway Baby: The Route To Happiness (22/02/13)

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The Route To Happiness is a musical in its purest form, in that it is purely music. It’s a feat tricky to pull off even if you’re BBC comic songwriter Alexander Bermange and have been writing songs professionally for donkey’s years as the pacing has to be just right – otherwise the songs begin to all sound the same and you start to wonder whether you’ve accidentally walked into the choral version of purgatory. Thankfully Bermange’s skilful composition never reaches those Dantesque lows and generally achieves the varied musical styles he is looking for between each character. However, with songs names such as “A Fateful Meeting” and “Better We’d Not Met” by simply reading the list of musical numbers through you’ve pretty much already digested the ins and outs of the plot, a fault not due to the lack of spoken dialogue in-between but because the songs in The Route To Happiness commonly don’t progress any further than the one idea that their title is written from, although there are some witty one liner lyrics.

Indeed, there are several witty lyrics, helped immensely along with the calibre of cast in tow. We follow the interweaving lives of three present-day Londoners in pursuit of their perspective dreams, whether it’s love for Lorna (Shona White), money for Marcus (Niall Sheehy) or fame for Trinity (Cassidy Janson). Each actor has had a score of successful West End roles before from Wicked to Les Miserables and it definitely shows, with everyone hitting their notes easily, no mean feat as Bermange has not written a musical that keeps the actors always safely within their musical comfort zone (and rightly so). Whilst it’s great seeing and recognising the same overly ambitious dreams that we all secretly share brought alive on stage, the problem with focusing each particular dream on one specific character is that it makes everyone very one dimensional. This is just about acceptable for wealth obsessed Marcus and fame-mad Trinity – played with absolutely hilarious melodrama by Janson – but it becomes a lot clearly stereotypical when Bermange is writing for lovesick Lorna. It’s not really the fault of actor Shona White; she gives the role her all, but rather the character of Lorna herself. Lorna is fed up of men who cheat, are gay, steal the remote, watch football, and oggle porn. Lorna loves shopping, has loads of handbags and wants to dance to Take That all day long. Lorna is a little dull.

If you can look past the clichés especially surrounding your typical woman and just take The Route To Happiness as a fun, mildly catchy collection of songs then you’re in for a great time. I’m not sure I found complete happiness at the end of the night but I did find a way of passing an evening rather enjoyably, and who could really want for more than that anyway?

3/5