Crimes on the Christmas Express – Review – Lichfield Garrick Studio

Crimes on the Christmas Express
by New Old Friends

Lichfield Garrick Studio Theatre – Friday 8 December 2017

Having seen the panto Aladdin at the Garrick on Tuesday night I went along to the Studio Theatre on Friday to see an alternate Christmas performance – Crimes on the Christmas Express by the company ‘New Old Friends’.

The New Old Friends appeared at the Garrick in December 2016 with ‘Crimes against Christmas’, set on a remote island where the body count mounts (with overtones of a typical Agatha Christie plot) and the Christmas Express also references one of Christie’s plots with a madcap, screwball comedy caper with more than a nod and a wink to Agatha’s Murder on the Orient Express.

The play is all set on a train travelling across Europe with a Christmas selection box of odd-ball characters – a troupe of Russian circus performers; French train guards; Interpol agents; a Scottish con artist and two barmy rival, stupidly rich British noblemen. Most of them are trying to steal, or protect, two diamonds, both the size of the Star of India – apart from Phillipe and Stephanie who are far too busy trying to steal each other’s hearts! As the train makes its way across Europe there is crime, passion, broken windows, broken hearts, snowstorms, cops chasing robbers, Philippe chasing Stephanie – and…murder…! But who is the mysterious master criminal Pseudonym? And who is the killer? And who has got the diamonds? And does true love prevail?

The cast of New Old Friends (Heather Westwall, Feargus Woods Dunlop, James McLean and Doron Davidson) play a bewildering number of characters, with a bewildering number of accents (from the steppes of Russia to the steppes of Doncaster…) and a bewildering number of costume changes. The stage set is basically four pieces of equipment which the cast twirl and whirl round the stage to ingeniously create train carriages, bar, sleeping car and snow-covered mountain range, and they use props such as poles, picture frames, suitcases and (lots of!) false snow to create a carefully crafted illusion of a train travelling through frozen Europe – all very clever! There is a fantastic scene, this time with a nod to a typical James Bond movie, when the Interpol agent Toverstaz chases the illusive baddie Pseudonym across the tops of the train carriage cars, set to the piano back-drop of a 1920’s silent movie – and all within the confines of the Garrick Studio stage!

The script (by cast member Feargus) is icicle sharp, with lots of one liners (including one about their ‘noisy neighbours’ next door at the panto!) and laugh out loud moments. There are visual gags and slapstick galore and some magic tricks that will make you gasp!
The direction, by out-going Artistic Director Tim Ford is spot-on, the music (by Dave Culling, also responsible for the music at the Aladdin panto) is fun and fast paced and the magical intimacy of the studio theatre allows you to interact with the actors onstage – although perhaps not as closely as one audience member on the night did, who had taken the spirit of Christmas an egg nog or two too far…

Crimes on the Christmas Express is a festive whodunit, a love story, a comic caper, a nod to Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Paul Zenon – it’s the perfect alternative to the superb panto in the main theatre and is the prickly holly to the panto’s silken ivy!

As I stepped out of the theatre after the performance the sharp, frozen, crystal-clear carpet of the December evening snow lay all around the Garrick – and that summed up the essence of Crimes on the Christmas Express to me. It may not be as comfy and reassuring as the Aladdin panto – but it has a Christmas message of sparkling wit, mischievous fun and crazy crackers about it – so if you love the idea of an alternative Christmas message this year – I’d book a seat on the Christmas Express!

Crimes on the Christmas Express is on at the Garrick Studio Theatre until Saturday 6 January 2018 and you can book tickets online at:
www.lichfieldgarrick.com
or by ringing 01543 412121 or by visiting the Box Office during usual opening times at Castle Dyke, Wade Street, Lichfield.

Aladdin at the Lichfield Garrick – Giant Genies and Giant Laughs!

Aladdin the Panto at the Lichfield Garrick – Review – Tuesday December 5 2017

This Lichfield Aladdin of the Lamp is filled with laughter, life, loons and love! Where else could you see a 20ft tall Egyptian mummy, a flying panto Dame, a genie as high as an elephant’s eye…oh…and a giant elephant too!  

I think I saw my first pantomime aged 5 and must have seen well over forty through the years, from school productions right through to the massive, TV and film star-filled affairs of the 1980s – but the best pantos I’ve ever seen have been right here in Lichfield at the Garrick!

Last year’s production of Sleeping Beauty hit all the right notes – and Aladdin hits them all over again – but this time with an even more assured striking of the chords! It has everything you’d ever want in a panto – laughs, slapstick, slick dance routines, sing-a-long songs, groan-a-long gags and gizmos galore!

The key to the success of this panto is, undoubtedly, the experienced actors, production team and backstage theatre group many of whom worked on last year’s Sleeping Beauty and so ‘know the ropes’, know exactly what works – and know what a Lichfield theatre family audience wants.

The fabulous Sam Rabone, as Widow Twankey, and livewire Ben Thornton as Wishee Washee both return after their amazing performances last year and throw the same enthusiasm on (and rolling around!) the stage again, they clearly enjoy working together and the laughter levels always increase when they’re on stage. The quick-fire record (vinyl!) switching scene is fast paced and very clever and this, and the slippy-slidey water routine which results in everyone getting covered in gunge, water and foam (if you’re going to the performances I’d watch out if you’re in the front three rows – wear a hat!), provide two of the biggest cheers of the evening. There are also some ‘mistakes’ in timing, words and scene changes when Sam and Ben laugh at each other’s foul-ups – but you know what, I just can’t work out if they are for real or staged – so if you go to one of the shows let me know what you think!!!

The (very) strong supporting cast includes the lovely Cat Sandion from the children’s TV programme Cbeebies, Adrian Bevan as Aladdin, Robin Johnson as the baddie Abanazar, Ian Billings as the Emperor of China and James Mitchell as the knock-a-bout PC Pongo who rides a number of unlikely looking bikes, juggles and joins in the Dame’s and Wishee’s slip-sliding around stage act. Local Lichfield actress Lizzie Wofford is the Spirt of the Ring and Cameron Johnson is the Genie of the Lamp. I last saw Lizzie playing Emma, a troubled teenager, haunted by the spirit of Lichfield poet Anna Seward in the dramatic, spooky ‘Letters to Emma’ – but her Spirit in Aladdin is entirely different – a funny, lively, action packed yam-yam of a role played with a Black Country accent! Cameron Johnson as the Genie is a real hit of the show – he’s 6ft 7in tall and has a lovely strong, soulful voice as well as some body-popping dance movies – so I think a real hit with the ladies in the audience too!

The script, written by Paul Hendy, is fast, snappy and full of local references (local councils’ budget cuts and the Lichfield ice rink get mentions!), the production (Evolution Productions) value is very high and the direction is in the very capable, experienced hands of the Garrick’s Artistic Director Tim Ford. There are some great songs, with popular hits and original ones too, with musical arrangement by Dave Culling (the ukulele sketch in particular is cute and funny) the choreography by Ashley Nottingham is spot on (watch out for some of the young dancers in the ensemble pieces – I just love their enthusiasm, they love every second) and the lighting and special effects, including the flying magic carpet, and giant action figures are all really well done and have the audience gasping as well as laughing.

A great night’s entertainment, there is something for everyone and all good, clean family fun. The three year old sitting next to me was bouncing up and down on his chair, eyes as wide as saucers and laughing along with the slapstick – and I think that is what a good panto is all about.
It was a full house last night and I’m sure that they will have full houses for the whole of the run so I have two Garrick Genie Gems of advice for you:
1/ See if you can book In to the limited seats available for the rest of the run

2/ Whether you can or can’t get in to see Aladdin – book in for the winter 2018 production of Dick Whittington now – you’ll be able to get the best seats in the house for the best Panto in the Midlands!

Aladdin at the Lichfield Garrick runs until 6 January 2018 you can book online at their website: www.lichfieldgarrick.com ring 01543 412121 or call into the Box Office (during normal opening hours) on Castle Dyke, Lichfield.

Dick Whittington runs from 30 November 2018 to 31 December 2018 – and 2017 prices are held if you book by 31 December 2017.