Although this hasn’t been an altogether good year for theatre, it has been the year when things started to get moving again after the privations of lockdown.
Who would have guessed that with just a couple of weeks still to run in 2022, the undoubted theatrical highlight would appear in an unassuming barn in Wembley?
That barn – a soulless black box – is the Troubadour Wembley Theatre, now thoroughly made over to become an all-enveloping, immersive theatre space. And that theatrical highlight is the Menken/Feldman/Fierstein musical Newsies, brought to us by Disney Theatrical Productions, which I’m very happy to say is the best dance show to have appeared on a London stage since 42nd Street.
It also couldn’t be more topical. We’re now mid-way through a winter of discontent, with strikes left right and centre, as people withdraw their labour in the quest for better pay and conditions after a decade of politically instigated austerity.
The story that Newsies tells, the 1899 New York newspaper boy’s strike (‘newsies’ being the newspaper sellers who would stand on the street hawking the paper, in this case Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World) mirrors our times. Only in 1899 the defining characteristic of the strikers was their youth, and their actions brought at least some employment protection laws to the famously unregulated US employment market.
Newsies is based on the 1992 Disney film of the same name which actually didn’t set the box office alight on first release, but grew something of a cult following from video sales. So much so that Disney theatricals developed it for the stage where it debuted in 2011, hitting Broadway the following year where it won two Tony Awards, and played more than a thousand performances before touring.
And now it’s in London. Well, it’s nearly in London. It’s in Wembley, which is a suburb about ten miles from The West End as the crow flies.
So… What’s so great about this show? In a word everything.
There isn’t enough room here for me to rhapsodise as I’d like to, so I’ll pick just a few of the highlights, the first of which is the choreography for which we must praise Matt Cole. The largely young cast (and LARGE cast). There are approaching 40 actors here) have clearly been drilled to be a mix of a corp de ballet, and a sports tournament. There are pirouettes and leaps, flips and rolls, tap dances and company numbers like nothing I’ve seen on the professional stage.
However, that would be nothing without the acting and singing, and Michael Ahomka-Lindsay’s Jack Kelly, the leader of the striking newsies, gives us both to magnetic effect, paired as he is with Bronte Barbe as Katherine ‘Plumber’, the love interest, and a sweet yet sassy Disney Princess in all but name.
I’ve alluded to this being an incredibly energetic show, and that’s facilitated by the staging. The show is played on a thrust stage with no proscenium arch (there is audience on three sides of the stage) but with a multi-purpose architectural set by Morgan Large that is so majestic it put me in mind of John Napier’s original designs for Les Miserables, only here, through the use of ramps, walkways, and trolleys, the set can metamorphose in an instant, and the cast really do use the whole theatre.
The lighting’s great. The casting’s great. The music’s great (nicely engineered ‘show-stopper’, Nigel Lilley – it genuinely did bring the audience to its feel to re-energise the first act an hour in). The show is great. Oh, hell. Don’t listen to me burbling on. Go and get a ticket and see it while you still have the chance.