Popstars The 90s Musical

Oct 31 2018 | By More

★★★★☆    Well risen

Church Hill Theatre: Tue 30 Oct – Sat 3 Nov 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

Light in substance and heavy on the cheese, Allegro’s production of Popstars the 90s Musical which is at the Church Hill Theatre to Saturday feels more like a soufflé than a 90s jukebox musical.

But thanks to a solid back-room team and a company which isn’t afraid to stand up to the cliches of playing American High School X-Factor wannabes, this is a soufflé made in a Michelin-starred kitchen: packed with flavour, character and structure in amongst the fluff.

Caitlin Davis, Maija Niva and Stephanie Knowles. Pic SCP Photography

Fickle and bossy high school student Shannon decides to form a girl band in order to get out of her dead-end town – having discovered that fallen pop impresario Simon Austen is going to be judging the annual talent competition as part of his community service.

Persuading her friends to dump their boyfriends in the cause of music is easy – finding someone who can sing to join the band is less so. To make matters worse, Shannon’s embittered, newly ex-boyfriend Mark persuades his own garage band pals to change direction and form a rival boy band of their own.

Such a slender plot is hardly strong enough to support a score which swings from the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys past Bon Jovi, M People and Shania Twain and on to Right Said Fred, the Goo Goo Dolls and Des’ree. It’s more of an excuse.

Which makes this the absolute dream show for director Andy Johnston. He might be directing only his fourth production for Allegro, but he has 20 Showcases and even more Gang Shows under his belt, where his considerable talent has been to find a shape and coherence to a plot-free collection of numbers.

narrative drive

Finding narrative drive in this is a simple job for him them – and one in which he probably revels, given his acknowledged 90s pop tendencies.

Lyndsey McGhee. Pic SCP Photography

It does help that he and the company have a strong sense of irony, which they deploy to sometimes hilarious effect. As adults playing teenagers they also ensure that the characters rise above the cliches of Neil Gooding and Nicholas Christo’s writing.

It’s a big cast too, perfect for a company such as Allegro to give as many members a featured role as possible, challenging them without taking them beyond their abilities.

At the centre of it all are Maija Niva as Shannon and Matt McDonagh as Mark. Niva is pure spiky vitriol, wrapping lesser mortals round her little finger and wielding a rod of iron over her friends Tina and Steffi as they form the band, Candy Girls. She can also deliver a song.

McDonagh does the put-upon puppy love thing very well, creating a surprisingly rounded character for Mark, while delivering some excellent solo numbers. His take on Bon Jovi’s Always is a real turning point at the start of the show, which does witter on a bit before spluttering into life. While his version of Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time is a thing of unexpected beauty.

big dance numbers

There are strong supporting performances all round. Caitlin Davis as supposedly dim Tina and Stephanie Knowles as Steffi are great as Shannon’s sheepish followers. Knowles, in particular, adds a huge amount to the big dance numbers. Amy Totty is nicely gauche as school nerd Charlie, who can unexpected belt out a big tune.

Caitlin Davis, Stephanie Knowles and Matthew Steel Pic SCP Photography

The big revelations of the show, however, lies in the boys’ camp, where Matthew Steel makes his Allegro debut as Mark’s best pal – and Shannon’s twin brother – Patrick. He has youth on his side, but he doesn’t look out of place among the adult company with a strong triple attack on the acting, singing and dancing fronts.

Despite his obvious talent, Steel manages not to overshadow his fellow members of boy band Y2K, although Stuart Williamson as big mouthed Vinnie and Craig McKirgan as taciturn Shane have a lot to keep up with.

When it comes to whipping the lads into shape, Lyndsey McGhee as burger bar balladeer Ella has all the vocal equipment needed. When the lads get her to help them with their moves, her relationship with Mark is well crafted. And she, McDonagh and Totty provide one of the show’s standout numbers, a trio of The Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris.

solid routines

The set, like the plot, is minimal. But if you are going to do a show based on 90s pop songs, then a big open stage with lots of lights (designed by James Gow) and a circular backdrop for Gavin Scott’s video projections will do very nicely, thank you.

The Cast of Popstars the 90s Musical. Pic: SCP Photography

It certainly gives choreographer Felicity Thomas plenty of space to work with. She has created some solid routines with a company that is as strong on the dance front as it is on the singing. There’s perhaps more reliance on the inverted triangle group stance than is comfortable, but her dance troupe makes short work of everything they are asked to do. In what ever style.

A big shout should also go to costume designers Felicity Thomas and Kate Dixon, whose dresses and boy band outfits are very well conceived – and help evoke the various original artists.

A great night out – and a pleasant eye-opener for those who were not as enamoured of the original music as Allegro clearly are.

Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Tue 30 Oct – Sat 3 November 2018
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/allegro.



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