Calamity Jane, Bristol Hippodrome

playsCalamity Jane_1RETURN to the Forbidden Planet, the rock and roll Shakespeare musical by Bob Carlton, first came to my attention in 1989, when it had arrived at the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End and was selling out at all performances, with long standing (and dancing) ovations. What was completely innovative was not the use of well-known rock songs and famous quotations from many different Shakespeare plays, all based on the 1950s film Forbidden Planet, but the fact that all the music was played live onstage by the actors. This was the arrival of what can only be called the quadruple threat – not only could this cast act, sing and dance, but they could also play at least one musical instrument each.

The actor-musician show has developed gradually over the past 25 years, including John Doyle’s direction of such shows as Into the Woods at York Theatre Royal and various musicals between 1997 and 2008 at Newbury’s Watermill, culminating in his Sweeney Todd transferring first to the West End and then to Broadway, where it won two Tony awards.  Doyle’s original MD and arranger was Kate Edgar, who had worked with Carlton on Forbidden Planet, and one of his regular cast members, Jeremy Harrison, now lectures in actor-musicianship at Rose Bruford Drama School.  Doyle was succeeded at Newbury by Craig Revel Horwood, who carried on the actor-musician tradition for a further five years, including such shows as Spend, Spend Spend and Sunset Boulevard, and last year toured Fiddler on the Roof in this style nationally to great critical acclaim.  The current production of Calamity Jane, directed with style by Nikolai Foster before he heads off to artistically direct the Curve Theatre in Leicester next year, began with a couple of months at its Berkshire home before a national tour beginning this week in Bristol.

It is fascinating to hear the reaction when an audience realises that all the music is being played live on stage by the actors, and to see how the instruments, originally seen as a clever gimmick, are now just part of the show. It seems natural that the vicar officiating at a wedding ceremony is also playing the banjo, or that the leading man sings his love song to his own strummed guitar accompaniment.

CJ-068_clmty jane-76Jodie Prenger, in the title role, is just right, and even joins in with a little of the instrumentation from time to time, but the rest of the cast, including former Emmerdale star Tom Lister as a charming “Wild” Bill Hickock, form a tight, accurate, fourteen-piece orchestra, directed onstage by Rob Delaney whilst he also plays the part of entertainer Francis Fryer. With wonderful set-pieces and beautiful musical arrangements by Catherine Jayes, another link to the past, having worked with Doyle at Newbury in the late 1990s, this show works well on the Hippodrome stage, from small, intimate exchanges to huge production numbers, and even the musical interludes during scene changes were a delight.

From a small converted watermill seating 220 people  to huge touring venues seating over 1900, this show works on every level, with hit songs such as Secret Love and The Black Hills of Dakota made famous by Doris Day, a cast of just 15 people, including links to former actor-musician shows with Jon Bonner, who has worked with the aforementioned Carlton and Doyle, and Paul Kissaun, who was in Fiddler at Newbury in 2002 and again on tour last year, and a band to make many other shows jealous. Catch it where and when you can between now and August next year, and if you ever get a chance to visit the Watermill, near Newbury, go!


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