By 22nd November 2019 January 6th, 2020 News & Reviews

Petersfield Theatre Group must have been first off the blocks in this area to grab the rights to the musical Chicago as soon as it was released back to amateurs. It is one of my all-time favourites, with is great music and dark humour and, having seen it several times during its London run, was I going to be disappointed with this, inevitably, lower-budget version? Not in the least. This production oozed quality and thoughtfulness which you felt as soon as you entered the theatre.

The Festival Hall is a lovely venue and this group always uses it imaginatively. The normally rather austere bar had been converted into a Speakeasy, playing period music and set out with tables and cloths, racks of period costumes, wanted posters and many other ingenious touches. The bar was offering special cocktails, snacks and the most tempting looking cakes! The table theme continued in the auditorium with the flat seating area converted to cabaret-style tables, in all giving a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. The programme too was of excellent quality, packed full of interesting information and featuring delightful monochrome drawings of the cast and creatives instead of the usual photos.

The stunning but simple set was limited to a staircase on either side of the stage leading to a high level promenade, and further steps from the centre of the stage down into the auditorium, all illuminated with strips of lights. It looked very professional and sturdy, and was designed by Roger Wettone and Director Libby Stockel and built by members of the company. Props were limited to six sets of stepladders, a chair and some prison bars. That was all that was needed, making set changes by the efficient crew very swift. The cleverly designed lighting (Michael D. Finch) provided the perfect atmosphere and the picture was completed by spot-on costumes and wigs (Val Hart and Jayne Elsey).

The twelve-piece band, expertly led by MD Philip Young, was placed centre-stage, somehow crammed in under the promenade. They produced a fabulous brassy sound redolent of the jazz age in which the show is set. Positioning the band at the rear of the stage probably helped with the sound balance and, thanks also to a good sound system, we heard everything, the band never overwhelming the singers. It also gave us the pleasure of watching the band play.

All this scene-setting would be to no avail without a strong cast to do it justice and Director Libby Stockel has chosen well. Sarah Jupe gave us a very gutsy Roxie Hart, determined to use every trick in the book to be released from jail. Her singing and movement were both top-notch and she was nicely matched by Hannah Osborne as Velma Kelly – another strong performance, and a beautiful voice to match – amazing for someone with so little stage experience. Their duet together “Nowadays” was sublime. Hannah Lattimer made a magnificently grasping Mama Morton and Mark Perry was every inch the oily lawyer, knocking us out with those sustained notes that seemed to last forever! Conrad Stephenson was perfect as the meek and down-trodden Amos Hart, breaking our hearts with “Mr Cellophane”. And then there was Mary Sunshine! What a charismatic performance by “J” Cole, with a stunning soprano voice – how on earth did you do it? Amazing!

Choreography (thanks to Amy Mannerings) and singing throughout the show was excellent and well drilled. My favourite number was the “Cell Block Tango” – executed with great style by Hannah, accompanied by Chloe Davies, Lucy Davies, Sara Richardson Brown, Amy Mannerings and Helen Perry.

A few sound and lighting glitches aside, I felt that Act 1 was a little tentative. I put this down to first night nerves because Act 2 was a lot more confident and had bags of pizazz – this isn’t a show you can do at half-throttle. This is a very minor point and, along with the rest of the packed audience, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. It looks great and sounds great – you’ve got another success on your hands here – enjoy the rest of the run!

Mark Donalds
NODA SE District 10 Representative