Valentine’s Day

Jodie Prenger as Shirley Valentine (127). Photo by Manuel Harlan

Jodie Prenger as Shirley


A new revival of Willy Russell’s classic play is coming to our theatre, giving audiences the chance to fall in love with Shirley Valentine all over again.

She’s surely Liverpool’s most famous housewife: Shirley, who got sick of cooking for her husband and talking to the wall, and ran away to Greece, because – as Shirley herself says: “Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it?”

Her story began back in 1986. According to Russell himself: “It’s now 30 years since Shirley Valentine first walked onto the page, into my life and the lives of so many others. Shirley cooked her first meal of egg and chips on the stage of the Everyman Theatre Liverpool, before then hoofing it down to London where along with the cooking and talking to the wall she started picking up the string of awards she’d win in the West End and on Broadway.”

Shirley – and Willy Russell’s – winning streak didn’t end there. The 1989 film adaptation, starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti, won several BAFTA’s, and even scored several Oscar nominations. Since then, Russell says: “Shirley has had an incredibly rich and varied life, appearing in many tongues across the globe in countless productions and being performed by many great actresses. The one thing Shirley Valentine has not done of late is extensively tour the UK. There have been approaches and plans mooted but, somehow, it’s just never quite felt right and so I’ve resisted such efforts – until now!”

Russell is famously protective of his plays – so what was it that made him change his mind? The answer lies with the person who will be taking on the role of Shirley. She’s Jodie Prenger, who first came to public prominence for winning the role of Nancy in the West End production of Oliver! through the BBC television series I’d Do Anything. Most recently she’s toured the UK in the classic musical Tell Me On A Sunday. She’s also played the title role in the national tour of the musical Calamity Jane and has starred in One Man, Two Guvnors both in the West End and on tour.

Russell says of her: “When producer Adam Spiegel introduced me to Jodie Prenger I knew in an instant that here was a formidable actress, one who possessed the grit and the warmth, the drive and the vulnerability, the energy and the heart to make Shirley Valentine really live again. How could any playwright resist that or deny the whole of the UK the chance to see Jodie bring Shirley to life?”

Prenger herself feels strongly about the role: “People think of Shirley Valentine as a play about a holiday romance,” she says. “But it’s actually the story of a woman who was stuck in a rut and who dared to go out to find herself. I relate to that; it is my story. I was on the point of giving up entirely before I’d Do Anything, and I now have a life and a career I never dreamed of. I’ve also had a bellyful of bad romances so I’m a woman who has lived and learned – exactly like Shirley.”

Her commitment has paid off on stage, with the critics heaping praise on her performance. The Stage says: “Prenger’s is a joyously physical performance. Dominating the stage, she seems a force to be reckoned with, yet still manages to project the vulnerability that defines Shirley’s increasingly claustrophobic world.” The Times says that she has “warmth, comic flair and a beguiling twinkle in her eye.”

Shirley Valentine: Tuesday 16 to Saturday 20 May.  To book, go to our website.

Animal magic

India Brown as Lilly with Oona_credit Dan Tsantilis_3

We look at a stunning adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel Running Wild, coming to our theatre this summer.

If you hear the name Michael Morpurgo, the first thing that probably springs to mind is War Horse – but he’s written a whole body of novels, which have found many fans around the world. One of these is Running Wild, which is now touring after a hugely successful run at Regent’s Park Theatre last summer.

Although, like War Horse, it focuses on the relationship between a young human and an animal, Running Wild is set a long way from the war-torn fields of France. Instead, it deals with the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami, telling the story of Lily, who goes on holiday to Indonesia with her mother. The tsunami hits while Lily is riding an elephant called Oona, who charges into the jungle, with Lily clinging desperately to her back…

Fans of Morpurgo’s novel may have noticed something odd about the description of the plot above.

In the novel, the central character is a boy called Will – so why the gender swap? The story of Running Wild was based on a clipping that the author read, about a child who had been saved from the tsunami by the elephant it was riding at the time the wave hit. At the time, it was reported that the child was a boy, so Morpurgo created Will. But later reports, after the book had been published, confirmed that the child was actually a girl!

India Brown as Lilly with Frank, Baby Orangutan_credit Dan Tsantilis_3

As with War Horse, the animals in the story are brought to life using puppets – in fact the puppetry design and direction comes from two former Associate Puppetry Directors on War Horse. Only instead of horses, in this case we’re dealing with tigers, orang-utans, and, of course, Oona the elephant, Morpurgo’s own favourite: “Elephants are my favourite creatures and have been since I was a boy and my mother read Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child to me. It was loving elephants so much that made we want to write my own story with an elephant at the centre and its bond with a child.”

This epic and spectacular production was a huge hit at Regent’s Park last summer, with The Guardian saying that it had ‘animal magic to rival War Horse,” while The Telegraph described it as “a winner. The puppetry is exquisite, the magic really hits you.”

Running Wild: Wednesday 31 May – Saturday 3 June. To book, see our website.

From the horse’s mouth


War Horse will begin its new national tour in Canterbury in September. We spoke to Michael Morpurgo, its creator, about his Canterbury connections and why you might just spot him on stage.

It’s easy to imagine Michael Morpurgo as the teacher he once was. Twinkly-eyed, kind and interested in his pupils, but with just enough steel that discipline wouldn’t be a problem in his classrooms either.

He must have been a favourite at the small school in Wickhambreaux, just outside Canterbury, where he first became a storyteller: “There was a time that came, and all teachers know this, at the end of the day when you’re really tired and the children are tired, and you’re wondering how you’re going to get to half-past three.”

Head teacher Mrs Skiffington suggested Michael read a story to the children from 3pm, something he believes every school in the country should do: “If I chose the book right, they listened. And one day I ran out of stories that I really loved, is the truth of it. I started one with these kids that I knew was wobbly, and I could see the look on their faces, they were  picking their nosed, looking out of the window, and I could see it wasn’t working.”

With 14 more chapters of this ‘stupid book’ to read, Michael asked the advice of his wife, Clare, also a teacher: “She said ‘Well, don’t bore them again. Make up a story. You’re quite good at telling lies, make something up.’ So I did that, and it worked.”


It was this story which led to his career as a writer: “I realised they [the children] were listening, and they liked it, and oh boy, did I like that, because that’s power. So I realised,’you can do this stuff’, and I went on the next day. And it went on all week, and at the end of the week, Mrs Skiffington, came in and sat at the back, because she’d heard about Mr Morpurgo’s stories.

“She came up afterwards, and said ‘Michael, that was wonderful. Here’s what I want you to do for me, I want you to write it out over the weekend and give it to me on Monday morning.’

“No one had talked to me like that since I was about five or six, but I did it. She had a cousin or something who worked at Macmillan, and she sent the story to them and they wrote me a letter, which I’ve still got. ‘Dear Mr Morpingo, [he rolls his eyes at the publishers’ mis-spelling of his name] we’ve just read your story, could you write five more, and we’ll pay you £75.’ Eat your heart out, Roald Dahl.”

When Michael chose to leave teaching, it wasn’t to be a full-time writer, but to start the charity Farms For City Children, which he and Clare still run. It was one of the children who visited the charity’s farm in Devon, who provided him with the impetus to write War Horse.

The idea for the story had come from a conversation with a First World War veteran in Michael’s local pub (The Duke of York in Iddesleigh, Devon), along with the idea that a horse would be the perfect vehicle to tell the take with neutrality, not taking one side or another.

What held him back, he says, was the worry that a story told by a horse would be too sentimental. What convinced him otherwise was coming across a young boy on a visit to  the charity, who was usually almost mute, talking non-stop to one of the farm’s horses: “And the horse was listening, and it understood that this was important. I knew it didn’t understand what he was saying, that would be stupid, but it understood that this was important.”

War Horse was published in 1982, and initially saw only modest sales – it wasn’t until the National Theatre adapted it as a play, complete with the famous puppet horses, that its popularity soared.


It’s clear that Michael has a huge affection for both the play and the people who perform in it: “I go on stage from time to time. I put on a costume and I become part of the crowd. You wouldn’t recognise me and no one does, I’m part of a crowd at the auction scene, and I sing a couple of songs. I love to feel part of it.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that night after night after night, these guys, 60 of them, go out there and they work their socks off, every single night, and matinees as well, and they’re exhausted.

“You should hug the puppeteers – there is nothing there to hug except muscle and bone! They work so, so hard, and I’m conscious every night that I’m sitting there having my cup of tea or whiskey or something and they’re out there working their socks off. So I make a pilgrimage, go and act it with them. I wait until I’m asked, I don’t force myself on them… I don’t force it. What I say is, I’m ready to come when you want me, and then I get a phone call ‘you can come now Michael’ “.

It’s not surprising that Michael relishes the chance to appear on stage – as the child of two actors, acting is clearly in his blood. Not only that, but Michael’s parents fell in love while working at the old Marlowe Theatre on St Margaret’s Street: “They met at RADA, but they fell in love at The Marlowe Theatre, in 1936. I’ve got a photograph of them standing outside the theatre, with a whole troupe. In those days they did rep, so they did about three different plays a week.”

Michael has promised us that he will be visiting the current Marlowe Theatre during the run of War Horse: “The ghosts of my mum and dad wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t.”

War Horse: Friday 15 September to Saturday 14 October 2017.  To book go to


We are Family

Morticia_with background_Amend

Samantha Womack as Morticia Addams

With The Addams Family due to arrive at our theatre soon, we talk to Samantha Womack, who plays Morticia.

Tell Samantha Womack that she looks like death warmed up and these days, she’ll take it as a compliment – it means she’s got her make-up right. Because if meeting a watery demise earlier this year in EastEnders wasn’t enough, Samantha’s latest project also sees her dabbling with death as she tours in the British and Irish premiere of the Broadway hit musical The Addams Family, playing Morticia Addams, the monster mum of a family of ghouls.

The Addams Family is based on the cartoons of Charles Addams. First published in The New Yorker magazine in the 1930s, the subsequent TV series spawned several spin-off shows, movies and books.

Now the show has made its way across the pond, but Samantha, whose career includes leading roles in South Pacific and Guys And Dolls, admitted that the idea of doing another musical at this point in time wasn’t high on her ‘to do’ list.

“I agreed to go to the initial meeting, but I wasn’t convinced,” she told me.

But preparing for that meeting entailed a certain amount of research, during which Samantha found her mind being changed.

“Immediately I got a very clear sense of how I should play the role. I’d never played a character that was so deadpan before and as I read the script I really started to enjoy it. I also really liked the character-style of singing, which was different to me. Suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about it; I was being seduced!”

So the role chose her, not the other way around? Laughing, she nodded: “When I realised I really wanted to play Morticia I was as surprised as everyone else, although it helped that the producers and creative team were just the warmest group of people I had ever come across. There’s something very infectious about people who are so passionate about something.”

Samantha Womack

Samantha as herself

Bagging the role, she found herself in expert company. As well as a stunningly talented cast, who between them have appeared in  just about every major musical of the past twenty years, The Addams Family has been written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the creators of multi-award-winning Jersey Boys, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa.

“We’re really lucky,” sighed Samantha: “It’s a show with a credibility that is really exciting. The cast is phenomenal – musical theatre royalty –including Les Dennis. Les has starred in loads of musicals, including Spamalot, but he is also a really knowledgeable comedy buff. He is going to be great as Uncle Fester.”

The musical tells the story of Wednesday Addams, a princess of darkness with a shocking secret –  when her father Gomez learns that she has fallen in love with a sweet, smart young man from a respectable family, he must do something he’s never done before: keep a secret from his beloved wife, Morticia. Inviting Wednesday’s ‘normal’ boyfriend and family to dinner, meeting Lurch, Pugsley, Uncle Fester and the rest of the clan will ensure that it’s a night that nobody will forget in a hurry. With lots of laughs and terrific music along the way, Samantha hopes that families will come and enjoy a really good night out together: “My daughter, who is 12, especially loves the character Wednesday and I think most young girls will really be drawn to her. The age guide is seven plus, but it is very much a family show that will really entertain people and send them home with a light and happy feeling. It’s just that kind of piece.”

By dint of her career Samantha’s children have grown up in and around theatre, but all children having access to live performance is something she actively champions: “Engaging in live performance is something that should be possible for all children. There’s a lot of debate about theatre being elitist at the moment and I’m trying to set up a relationship between children in care and production companies so that when there are empty seats these children can benefit from the experience.”

Thoughtfully, she added: “As I get older, the need to have a bit more creative control is important and I am passionate about exploring ideas and telling stories that need to be told. Making theatre and film that is inclusive is something that I seem to be gravitating towards. I’m not sure how it’s going to manifest itself yet, but I’m definitely being pulled in that direction.”

As for touring, living out of a suitcase doesn’t worry Samantha: “EastEnders meant that I was stationary for a long time. Going back to treading the boards was appealing. I stop myself tail-spinning by staying fit and healthy and by keeping to my own little routines, but touring is exciting and each theatre gets a slightly different production, because architecturally and acoustically every theatre is a different experience.

“I also like to know where I am at, so I do excursions where I can and I do endless walking,” smiled Samantha, who is particularly looking forward to visiting Canterbury.

“I was there a couple of years ago [starring in our panto, Jack And The Beanstalk] and the kids were with me. We absolutely loved it and spent a lovely day exploring Canterbury Cathedral. My daughter was really taken with Canterbury and we are really looking forward to going back.”

Confessing that her dressing room tends to look more like someone’s sitting room than a place of work, Samantha finds home comforts, well, comforting: “I have lots of photographs around me and wherever possible I have the kids and the dogs with me. That makes me very happy.”

Before we said goodbye we marvelled again at the incredible longevity of a family that started life as a magazine cartoon almost 80 years ago.

The Addams Family is really ingrained in American history. I remember watching a repeat of the TV series in the 80s and I loved it. I especially loved the wistful quality of Carolyn Jones, the actress who played Morticia; it was as if she was trapped in another age. Regal but wistful is how I see her.”

She might have left the clan-clashing of Albert Square behind, but for the next few months Samantha is going to be surrounded by another wonderfully odd family. Still, a ghoul’s gotta do what a ghoul’s gotta do…

The Addams Family: Tuesday 23 to Saturday 27 May.  To book, go to

A Funny story


Natasha J Barnes as Fanny


With Funny Girl, which tells the story of the singer and comedy performer Fanny Brice, due to arrive at our theatre next month, we take a look at the real life behind the story.

In the best tradition of performers, Fanny Brice acquired a new name to go with her performing career. She was born Fania Borach in October 1891, in New York, the third of four children. Fanny’s prosperous parents owned a chain of saloons in New Jersey, and she and her siblings grew up with servants and regular holidays in Europe.

Not that the family’s life was trouble-free: Fanny’s father drank and played cards, leaving her mother to run the family business. She eventually got a legal separation from her husband, and left him, taking the children with her. Even after the couple’s separation the family were never poor – Fanny’s mother made a good living buying and selling real estate, and lived in a prosperous part of Manhattan – nothing like the lower class area Fanny is shown as living in Funny Girl.

While truth should never be allowed to get in the way of a good story, there are other reasons why the truth was bent for the story. Both the famous movie starring Barbra Streisand and the play which proceeded it were produced by Ray Stark, Fanny’s son-in-law – who had to keep the rest of the family happy. Although Fanny herself was dead by the time the play was first produced in the 1960s (she died aged 59 in 1951), many of the other characters in the story were still very much around – including Fanny’s former husband Julius ‘Nicky’ Arnstein.

Funny Girl

Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein

Far from the suave professional gambler in Funny Girl, the real Arnstein was little better than a crook who enjoyed spending Fanny’s money. He had been arrested for swindling in no less than three European countries, and not long after the couple met, he was convicted of wire-tapping, but the devoted Fanny visited him every week in Sing-Sing Prison. Her devotion survived even the knowledge that he was still married to his first wife. They eventually married seven years after their romance began, just two months before the birth of their daughter. Five years and another child (this time a son) later, Arnstein was arrested for involvement in a multi-million dollar Wall Street bond theft. Rather than handing himself in, as in shown in the film, he went into hiding, leaving Fanny to face press and police scrutiny alone. Despite spending large amounts of Fanny’s money on his defence, he was convicted and spent three years in jail. On his release, he disappeared from Fanny and his children’s lives. She eventually divorced him in 1929. Funny Girl whitewashes Arnstein partly to spare the family’s embarrassment (probably the same reason why it makes no mention of Fanny’s early and short-lived first marriage) and also because it was apparently feared he might sue if the truth were told.

The film also alters some of the details of Fanny’s career – for example showing her performing as her most famous character Baby Snooks, on the night Arnstein is arrested, although the character wasn’t even created until 1933, long after her divorce from Arnstein, and outside the scope of the film. But perhaps the temptation to portray what became Fanny’s best known work was irresistible. The Baby Snooks Show was a huge success for Fanny, running on radio from the early 1930s until her death in 1951. But while her career was successful, her personal life didn’t always run smoothly. Although she married for a third time in 1929, she divorced her husband – songwriter and producer Billy Rose – in 1938.

Funny Girl: Tuesday 2 to Saturday 6 May. To book go to

Dancing shoes


Sir Matthew Bourne’s new version of The Red Shoes comes to our theatre later this month. We take a look at the famous film, and what to expect from the new version.

The Red Shoes began life as a folk tale by Hans Christian Andersen, telling the somewhat gruesome story of a girl who is punished for her vanity by being condemned to dance forever by the cursed shoes – she eventually escapes them only by begging a woodsman to cut off her feet with an axe (I told you it was gruesome). It then became the inspiration for the famous 1948 film, written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (the former of whom was raised in Canterbury, a fact marked by the seat in our theatre sponsored by the Powell & Pressburger Appreciation Society).

In the film version, the fairy story becomes a ballet, performed by the film’s heroine, Victoria Page, a brilliant dancer who is torn between her dedication to her art and her love for a young composer. It’s this story that has now been adapted for his New Adventures company by choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne.

Speaking about his new production, Sir Matthew said: “Set in the theatrical world of a touring dance company, the story is actually about dance and dancers. The film’s genius is to make that theatrical world at times surreal, larger than life and highly cinematic. My challenge will be to capture some of that surreal, sensuous quality within the more natural theatre setting.”

While the original film of The Red Shoes had a score, it didn’t contain enough music for a full-length, entirely danced piece, so Bourne has raided the cinematic archives of Hollywood’s Golden Age, stitching together a tapestry score from the work of one of its greatest composers, Bernard Herrmann, who composed scores for many Alfred Hitchcock classics, and the music for Citizen Kane, some of which features in The Red Shoes.

Bourne says: “I’ve loved the work of Herrmann for many years and I’ve toyed with finding a project to work with it… I feel it’s neglected and that theatrically it could be used to great effect… The marriage of this work with his music seemed to work beautifully and I feel I am on a mission to introduce his music to a new audience through this piece. It’s glorious music but I like the fact that it’s tinged with a kind of darkness even when it’s at its most beautiful… which is great for this story.”

The formula certainly seems to have worked: The Red Shoes has been enjoying sell-out runs, and receiving rave reviews. The Guardian described it as “deft and sensuous”, while The Independent praised Bourne for creating “his own swirling world of colour and illusion, luscious in its period detail.”

 The Red Shoes: Tuesday 25 to Saturday 29 April. To book, go to 

Family values


With the world’s kookiest family preparing to visit our theatre in a few months, we look at their origins.

The Addams Family first saw the light of day (probably reluctantly, given their penchant for darkness) in 1938, on the pages of New Yorker magazine. They were the creation of Charles Addams, a suitably odd character in his own right. He’d previously worked for True Detective magazine, touching up pictures of corpses which were too bloody for inclusion in the magazine. He reportedly said of this job: “A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were.” With perhaps a certain level of understatement, a friend of Addams’ said of him: “His sense of humour was a little different from everybody else’s.”

A slightly kooky sense of humour isn’t the only thing he had in common thing with his creations – his first two (out of three) wives are both described as bearing a striking resemblance to Morticia Addams, while his third marriage took place in a pet cemetery. As if that wasn’t enough, he decorated his apartment with genuine, working, medieval crossbows, telling a worried visitor: “Don’t worry, they’ve only fallen down once.” He also owned a coffee table which had begun life as a nineteenth century embalming table, and was known to reply to fan mail on paper headed ‘The Gotham Rest Home for Mental Defectives’.

The family came to a mass audience in 1964, when the ABC TV network created a television series based on Addams’ cartoon characters. It was only a result of this that the characters gained their now familiar names, having been nameless in the original cartoons. Fleshing out his characters for the TV series, Addams wrote: “Gomez and Pugsley are enthusiastic. Morticia is even in disposition, muted, witty, sometimes deadly. Grandma Frump is foolishly good-natured. Wednesday is her mother’s daughter. A closely knit family, the real head being Morticia—although each of the others is a definite character—except for Grandma, who is easily led. The house is a wreck, of course, but this is a house-proud family just the same and every trap door is in good repair. Money is no problem.”

The Addams Family TV series only ran for two series, ending in 1966, but they never entirely went away. As well as frequent repeats of the series, there have also been animated versions, and a TV movie special. In 1991, an Addams Family feature film was released, starring Raul Julia as Gomez and Angelica Hudson as Morticia. A sequel, Addams Family Values, was released two years later.

The latest incarnation of the family, which arrives in our theatre in May, is a full-blown original musical, which began life with a hugely successful run on Broadway. In this latest take on the weird family, Wednesday Addams, the original princess of darkness, is all grown up, and has – shock, horror! – fallen in love with a boy from a ‘normal’ family. When she decides to invite her potential in-laws to dinners at the family mansion… well, what could possibly go right?

This new production stars Carrie Hope Fletcher (who was hugely popular with our audiences as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang last summer) as Wednesday, alongside Samantha Womack (another Marlowe favourite when she appeared in Jack And The Beanstalk) as Morticia and Les Dennis as Uncle Fester.

This latest incarnation shows the staying power of Charles Addams weird and wonderful creations… this family is unlikely to be leaving the neighbourhood any time soon!

The Addams Family: Tuesday 23 – Saturday 27 May. Book here.