First night: Chicago, New Theatre Oxford
On the hottest night ever in the UK, I headed off to central Oxford to watch this iconic musical starring Fay Brookes and Lee Mead. But was it sizzling for all the right reasons?
The last time I saw Chicago, it was with Denise van Outen in the title role at the Adelphi in London in 2001. Though she was lauded in the press for her role, the thing I most remember about the show was how hot the theatre was, and that my husband fell asleep half-way through – quite a feat with a semi-naked cast belting out show tunes for two hours. So yes, I was a little worried to be heading to another rendering of Chicago, this time at Oxford’s New Theatre, on one of the two hottest nights ever recorded in the UK.
Firstly, let’s deal with the heat – good news, the New Theatre air con system works! It was cooler in the theatre than out on the street, and I didn’t see anyone having to fan themselves with their programmes, so if the heatwave is stopping you from booking, don’t let it.
Secondly and more importantly – the show. We all know the story: Roxi Hart, an ambitious chorus girl in 1920s gangster-crazy Chicago shoots her lover, gains notoriety, climbs the greasy pole of vaudeville entertainment and comes crashing down again as the world moves onto the next tabloid sensation. New Theatre’s Roxi is played by Fay Brookes, the ex Corro Star who is now making a name for herself in musical theatre (I’ve seen her previously as Princess Fiona in Shrek and she was great) and she really does have a belter of a voice and great presence – it’s hard to take your eyes off her, even when she’s on stage with Djalenga Scott, a leggy, persuasive Velma.
Lee Mead, that familiar and safe pair of jazz hands, is probably the most experienced member of the cast, along with Sinita (yes, SINITA!), who stepped in for Brenda Edwards a few weeks ago – I hadn’t realised that Sinita had actually had leading roles in Cats, Little Shop of Horrors, Hair and Mutiny (opposite David Essex!) before she was swept up into her Eighties pop phase.
There’s very little staging in this production, with centre stage dominated by the orchestral band (phenomenal by the way, and clearly loving every moment with the conductor, Andrew Hilton, interacting with the cast and audience). Props are just a few chairs where needed, a ladder each side of the stage that are used for comedic value or as a vehicles for solos, leaving space for the well-drilled cast, all in black in a variety of fishnets, transparent chiffons, suspenders and mini-dresses (bar Sinita, who rocks a suit) to expertly deliver musical number after musical number.
One thing I’d say about this show is how funny it is – I don’t remember Denise van Outen making me laugh as much. Brookes and Scott as Roxi and Velma spar for best performance of the night – I think Brookes might just edge it for her comic timing, but it’s a close call. Lee Mead’s Razzle Dazzle showcases his warm vocals and on-stage charisma, Sinita has a much stronger voice than So Macho ever suggested (though she’s no Brenda Edwards), and Jamie Baughan does a great job of pulling the heart strings as the hapless ‘see right through me’ Amos when he sings Mr Cellophane.
The Muddy verdict? The best musical I’ve seen this year, and money well spent if you make it along.
Chicago is at New Theatre Oxford until Saturday 23 July. Tickets from £20