Excuse me, but I think this is where I came in! To be precise, it is exactly 40 years since I began reviewing for the Express & Star, and the first show I ever wrote about was Bilston Operatic’s production of Chrysanthemum.

It was entirely fortunate that I was able to attend last night’s opening of Hairspray. While Chrysanthemum was a musical in the old traditional style, this current offering is bang up-to-date and shows just how well the company has kept up with modern trends.

The show, based on the 1988 film of the same name, ran for seven years on Broadway and for two-and-a-half years in the West End. It is still being toured professionally in this country.

The plot has “pleasantly plump” Tracy wanting to audition for a place as a dancer on a television show. Rebecca Luter, in her role as Tracy, sings and dances with great confidence and clearly determined to achieve her goal. 

She is helped enormously by Jason Andrew Guest, as Seaweed, who helps her to develop some interesting dance moves, and on this showing the young man should achieve much in the professional theatre.

Tracy’s mum, Edna, is played by Adam Starr, in a larger-than-life characterisation, ably supported by Phil Jackson as her husband Wilbur and their duet, You’re Timeless to Me, is a very saucy, hilarious little number.

In fact the script and many of the songs have some extremely amusing comments about American social attitudes in the 1960s, and though the show touches on the subjects of racial segregation and civil rights in general they do not dominate the show.

Jack Cottis, as Link, is the romantic interest in Tracy’s life, and his solo in It Takes Two was beautifully delivered. Tracy’s best friend is the initially nerdy Penny but she changes from Penny Plain to Tuppence Coloured as she blossoms and becomes own person as the story progresses.  Niamh Allen, as Velma, and Alicia Barnes, as Amber, make the mother-and-daughter team to be hated as they try to rig the competition for Miss Teen Hairspray 1962.

It’s all delivered at breath-taking speed in Laura Cannadine’s high-energy production, and there are some lively dance routines, while musical director Ian Stephenson’s compact ensemble provides a superbly supportive accompaniment for the singers and dancers.

Overall the show reflects the vast amount of hard work which has gone into it, as well as the obvious enthusiasm of all those - not only the principals but also the chorus and dancers - taking part.



Y’know, amateur theatre has come along in leaps and bounds in the last few years. Gone are the days of cliche’d acting, dodgy costumes and sets that would make Crossroads look like Star Wars. Those have been replaced by professional scenery, tailored outfits and professionalism worthy of any stage – and that’s the mantra subscribed to by Bilston Operatic Society for their production of Hairspray.

Hairspray is an American musical based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. Set in 60s Baltimore, plump teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance program based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show. After a bout of prejudice from the slim cast and opinionated crew, she wins a role on the show and becomes a celebrity overnight.

She launches a campaign to integrate the show, which is based around a cast of white dancers and a once monthly ‘negro day’, and bring all parties together…but it’s not going to be as straightforward as she thinks!

Hairspray is a social commentary on the injustices of parts of American society in the 1960s. Following the original (non-musical) film, the Broadway production opened in 2002 and in 2003 it won eight Tony Awards out of thirteen nominations. It ran for over 2,500 performances, spawned national tours, a 2007 musical film staring John Travolta and a West End production which was nominated for a record-setting eleven Laurence Olivier Awards, winning for Best New Musical and in three other categories.

So whilst the sentiment is universal, the fun factor is there from the start and the songs are infectious…it’s fair to say that the team behind this production had a huge task on their hands to do it justice. However, judging by the standing ovation received at the finale – they absolutely sashed it out of the park.

It’d be wrong to have favourites – every character, from the leads to the chorus, was brilliant in their role – however for me Adam Starr was a hilarious (and at times emotional) Edna who played the part to perfection!


Love Midlands Theatre

Bilston Operatic Company Served Up A Whole Damn Feast

As Motormouth Maybelle sings towards the end of act 1 “We’ll be serving up a whole damn feast.”  And that’s certainly what Bilston Operatic Company did last night with their effervescent production of Hairspray.

Based on the 1988 John Waters’ film, the musical first danced onto Broadway in 2002 and has been hoofing it’s oversized dresses and shoes in theatres all over the world regularly since. Rarely has a musical comedy got so many things just right, that it almost guarantees a sure-fire hit every time it’s performed.

However that does not mean it’s easy to perform. Far from it. The script may be sharp and witty, the excellent score a series of great pastiche numbers in various 1960s styles, but the whole show requires real commitment from a large cast, particularly as almost all the songs feature backing vocals, either on stage or off. It is a great credit to MD Ian Stevenson and his talented group of (largely very young) performers that, a few technical balancing glitches aside, were confidently handled on the first performance.  They will only get stronger as the week goes on. 

Also this is a massive dance show, and in this production the dancing is very much the star of the show. Producer/Choreographer Laura Canadine presents a series of stylized numbers all catching the mood of the period, and also helping to tell the story, which is no easy feat. Welcome to the 60s was a particularly good example of this, bringing several characters to the fore, while allowing the company to shine as well.

The only downside of a review like this is I cannot possibly do justice to every performance, but leading the company as the perennially cheerful and optimistic Tracy, Rebecca Luter easily holds the story together as she sings and dances her way seemingly effortlessly through the endless routines.

The show is often remembered for the part of Edna, Tracy’s mother, always cast with a male performer. Here Adam Starr seemed slightly uneasy at the start, and early dialogue (a lot of which has to be very carefully timed with the music, never an easy task) was rushed and barely comprehensible. However, in the scene leading up to Welcome to the 60s he found his feet, and from the moment be appeared in his great feathered dress in the middle of the number there was no looking back. From that moment he delivered an assured and charming comedic performance that always stayed the right side of Drag Queen grotesque. His duet with his jovial, loose limbed husband Wilbur, played by the excellent Phil Jackson, will long live in the memory for it’s great interpretation of old school Vaudeville and low comedy.

Jack Cottis (a sweet voiced Link Larkin), Niamh Allen (BOOOO!!), Laura Wynter (what a great soul voice), Adam Lacey (so cooly smooth) and Alicia Barnes (a classic WASP bitch!) all made very strong contributions, but for me the show was stolen by Francesca Holt’s nerdy Penny. It was a performance of brilliant physical comedy, giving just a hint of the voice and dance talent that emerges with the butterfly-like transformation at the end of the show. 

Final mention must go to the whole ensemble, who work tirelessly to bring the fun classic to endless life. The audience reaction at the end of the show was thoroughly deserved.

Peter Pan 2014

Jerald Smith - Wolverhampton Express & Star

This relatively modern adaptation with music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, as well as a witty book by Willis Hall, certainly has the pantomime elements of the story well highlighted in Laura Canadine’s production, but there were occasions when the audience could have been more directly involved

For instance, when fairy Tinkerbell swallowed the poison last night it was only a quick sentence from Peter Pan which saved her, rather than the traditional appeal to the audience to clap or shout.

Phil Jackson played the swashbuckling but dastardly Captain Hook (but where was the crocodile?) and Zac Hollinshead gave his side-kick Smee an amusing Black Country character, with their duet A Pirate with a Conscience being one of the best songs in the show.

Lucy Follows gave a mature performance as Wendy, acting as mother to the Lost Boys in Neverland, Sarah Houghton provided an important narrative link as the Storyteller and Alex Clark, as John, and Tom Horton, as Michael, played their parts very confidently.

In the title role Maison Kelly might be considered rather too tall to fit Barrie’s perception of the character, but he does exhibit a boyish charm.

The ensemble supplying the accompaniment, under musical director Ian Stephenson, produced some quirky, but interesting sounds, and while the production was generally fairly lively there were times when the choreography seemed rather one-paced.

A Christmas Carol 2011

Jerald Smith - Wolverhampton Express & Star


Getting the festive season off to a flying start is Bilston Operatic’s presentation of that ever-popular Charles Dickens’ tale of miserly misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge.

Creative team Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens gave it a lighter touch and some upbeat music to make it more family-friendly.

There is, of course, corporate greed, dysfunctional families, worker-exploitation, child poverty and a dreadful health service-just to keep it topical, but Scrooge seems simply eccentric and his ghostly tormentors appear diverting, rather than terrifying.

Musical director Paul Woodhall draws an excellent account of the music from his orchestra, but Janette Cole’s debut production has cast and chorus very slow-moving and often with little to do, though there are some lively tap-routines from the dancers.

Stephen Harper gives a powerful performance as the hard-hearted miser. Tom Winfield, as Christmas Past, shows a tremendous voice, and John Halford’s Christmas Present is full of character.

Annie 2013

Alf Rai - NODA

The iconic story of the orphan Annie has to be one of the best introductions to theatre a child or adult can have and it tugs at the heartstrings no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

A lot depends on the leading “lady” and the two little girls sharing the red wig in Bilston’s production proved to be just the ticket.

Both Annie’s set the bar high for the more experienced members and both had the necessary cheeky rapport and endearing qualities to capture the heart of bachelor billionaire Oliver Warbucks who eventually adopts her.

First to capture the audiences’ hearts was little Phoebe Bruerton whose beautiful voice and mature acting didn’t disappoint. Her New York accent never slipped once!

Second night it was down to Amber Hughes to maintain the high standard set by Phoebe and she too didn’t disappoint with her very different style of singing.

The young girls who portrayed the orphans were simply fabulous, especially the two smiley faced Molly’s, Freya Poulton and Helaina Yardley who never put a foot wrong on the both nights I had the pleasure of watching, particularly during the best number in the show “it’s a hard knock life” which was brimming with wonderful choreography performed to a T by the girls. It’s hard to believe that at seven and eight years of age they were capable of producing such confident enthusiastic performances. (Well done girls!)

The adult members were not to be out done; John Halford, a naturally gifted singer, gave an assured hearty performance as the wealthy respected Oliver Warbucks. Lucy-Ellen Parker (Miss Hannigan) was superb as the evil, drunken orphanage boss as were Beth Berwick-Lowe (Grace) and John Sheard (Rooster), two very talented local up and coming musical theatre stars in the making. John’s daughter Emily Halford (Lily) was also suitably impressive in her first Principle role as Rooster’s partner in crime.

Some great cameo performances, particularly from Gregg Yates (Drake) the hilarious goofy gurning butler and the evergreen Eric Page (Roosevelt). The dog (Sandy) was very relaxed with everyone on stage and his finale walk down in his bright red Christmas coat with Drake was a nice touch!

The show ticked all the right boxes with some splendid production from Andy Poulton (Producer/Director) and well drilled choreography by Laura Canadine (Choreographer) all blended together with some lovely iconic tunes under the musical directorship of Jonathan Hill.

I must also thank to the wonderful Front of House team for their hospitality and for looking after me and my guest so well.


I was at Wednesday’s matinee performance of Peter Pan and feel I must write to you to say how wonderful the show was.  I am a Friend of the Grand and try to support as many shows as possible, particularly the am-dram. Everyone involved with the show should feel really proud, particularly the cast who were amazing.  I think there are “stars” in the future on the stage yesterday and it was heart warming to see so many confident youngsters taking part in a wonderful hobby.
Well done to ALL, including back stage and everyone involved in the production.
Frances Hobbs

I just wanted to mail you and let you know that me, my husband and two girls 8 & 5 came to see your performance of Peter Pan last night and we all thought that it was truly magical. An amazing cast performed perfectly, full of energy and bounce  - so much fun and laughter, too. My girls were absolutely entranced throughout and haven't stopped talking about it since :-) Thank you all so much!

Thank you once again for the magic, good luck with the rest of the performances, 

Rebecca Palmer