Reviewing a show with its second cast is a tricky matter. Comparisons are inevitable, yet these are both unfair and pointless. Contracts expire and a show must be kept fresh, so comparing the current cast to their predecessors serves no constructive purpose. In this instance, though, the new interpretations are so fresh and distinct that similarities are just not possible as the production has been moulded into an entirely different format. The combination of the changes implemented on the show’s transfer from The Theatre Royal Drury Lane last March and an injection of charisma and sparkle from the cast has resulted in a shift of focus which benefits the show enormously.
The charasmatic Clarke Peters takes centre stage as Darryl van Horne, the man responsible for corrupting the village of Eastwick. With a rich voice, dripping with chocolate, and his panther-like movements, Peters takes true command of the stage, demanding the attention of the villagers and audience alike. His strong characterisation draws the focus truly upon van Horne as the central protagonist, and rightfully earns him the final bow; something that before audience members would have been forgiven for thinking should have gone to the trio of witches. The choreography of “I Love A Little Town” superbly illustrates the spell he casts on the village of Eastwick, and this is extended into the solo numbers, such as “Eye of the Beholder” and “Words, Words, Words” to great effect. With this power emphasised, the story achieves a more coherent form and we can quite understand exactly why the characters become so influenced by van Horne.
The magnificent Joanna Riding remains as Jane Smart and is joined by Josefina Gabrielle (Alex Spoffard) and Rebecca Thornhill (Sukie Rougemont) to create what can only be described as a dream trio. The three have a terrific chemistry with each other, and the staging of “Make Him Mine” really brings across the close relationships through very subtle touches. Each has individual numbers, giving them the opportunity to shine, and they rise admirably to the task. Gabrielle’s “Another Night At Darryl’s” is a joy to watch, full of pizzazz and personality, whilst Riding’s acid tongue and superb rendition of “Waiting For The Music To Begin” is worth the ticket price alone. Thornhill presents Sukie as a type of “Big Brother’s Helen”, the blonde bimbo with a magical quality that endears the audience to her. Whilst “Words, Words, Words” displays an assured control of comic timing, “Loose Ends” is remarkably touching with the subtle difference to the final lines (“You are loved”). The crucial success of these individual moments, however, lies in the fact that they form part of the unified show; it is not one actress taking centre stage for five minutes, trying to seize the crown from the others. This is underlined by the perfect balance in the stunning closing number, “Look At Me”, complete with sublime voices working in harmony together rather than against each other.
Rosemary Ashe and Stephen Tate continue to enchant in the supporting roles of Felicia and Clyde Gabriel. Ashe battles with Peters for control over the town, (superbly demonstrated in her leading the crowds during “Dirty Laundry” in a parallel to “Little Town” or “Dance With The Devil”), and displays an astonishing level of energy throughout the performance, even when coughing up spiders or tennis balls!
The delightful Caroline Sheen is now joined by Paul Spicer to play the teenage sweethearts. After a shaky start at the beginning of the run, Spicer has matured into the role and his gawky portrayal works very well against Sheen’s sweet nature. Sarah Lark is another stalwart of the production, who continues to act her socks off. The reworking of the show has taken a quibble from the critics concerning her character and turned it into one of the funniest lines in the show!
The cast of principles is supported by an exceptional ensemble. From the very opening, we are presented with a true collection of characters rather than a lumped chorus, giving 150% energy throughout. “Dirty Laundry”, “Dance With The Devil”, and the fabulous “Glory of Me” are superbly executed, with clever and imaginative choreography. Standing out are Darren Carnall, Kieran Jae, Louisa Shaw and Sophia Ragavelas for their commitment and active participation in their scenes. These four display a fluidity and sharpness of movement, indicating future stars in the making. Over the last few months I have also seen Carnall, Shaw and Ragavelas as understudies, all of whom proved worthy replacements and confirm their likelihood of future success.
Credit must also be given to the tireless band of swings, especially Sarah Bayliss, Jennie Dale, Gemma MacLean and Nick Searle, whose work often goes unnoticed. Since June, I have seen these four play a variety of parts due to absences, and their versatility is amazing, their performance being entirely governed by the specific character being covered.
As a show, Witches works incredibly well in The Prince of Wales. There is a huge degree of intimacy due to the proximity of the audience to the stage. In the individual scenes, the audience feels part of the action, whilst in the showstopping numbers, the energy generated onstage is transmitted instantaneously to the crowd. No review would be complete without a mention of the flying scene, to which superlatives are not enough. The effect is stunning, and a moment of sheer theatricality; a touch of magic that adds to the wonder of the show. Having one of the leading ladies virtually land on your head, urging you to go and fly too, is a memory to be cherished! The pared-down approach to sets has caused some criticism; yet this is a show that does not depend upon gimmick or lavish extravagances. The emphasis is placed firmly on performance and characterisation, and this is the production’s triumph. The audience’s imagination can kick in, and is not distracted by ornate sets, allowing them to focus entirely on the cast.
Dempsey and Rowe have provided a wealth of witty and tuneful material which, combined with some ingenious visual staging from director Eric Schaeffer and choreographers Bob Avian and Stephen Mear, results in one of the most refreshing musical comedies in the West End for a long time. Talent oozes from every pore, begging the audience to just go and shout from the harbour about the glory that is The Witches of Eastwick.
Most of the popular press like the new version better than the original... BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “The show has been somewhat rejigged…… I thought the music was still bright and brisk, if not acerbic or inventive enough, the lyrics remained above-average, and the repartee funnier than I recalled.” CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “Now it has transferred to the smaller Prince of Wales, McShane has been replaced by the great Clarke Peters, and The Witches of Eastwick looks like a brimmingly confident smash hit.” THE DAILY MAIL says, “Did I enjoy it more this time round? Well, yes, actually. Not a lot, but a bit. “ THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This comic operetta has been given a shot in the erogenous zones through its casting of Clarke Peters as the devilish seducer....Eric Schaeffer’s production bustles with ardent singing, dancing brio and broad humour." SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT says, "It still looks, a year on, like work in progress and that is what gives it such fascination: in here somewhere are about five quite different musicals." ROBERT HEWISON for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "Josefina Gabrielle, Joanna Riding and Rebecca Thornhill are warm and sexy." He goes on to say, Clarke Peters is "entertaining", but "what had been a musical comedy has become a comedy musical". RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT was not too impressed saying, “After his promising entrance, Peters turns out to be about as sexy and subversive as Burt Reynolds trying to embarrass a female guest on a chat show.”
Links to full reviews from newspapers...
The Following review is from the original opening at the Drury Lane Theatre
Review by Darren Dalglish
20th July 2000