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Aladdin Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Pantomine is such a great tradition, a colourful show for all the family to launch the festive season.adam-c-booth-as-wishee-washee
It doesn’t matter what the panto’s called, you know exactly what you’re going to get; outrageous costumes, daft characters, slapstick, a bit of song and dance … and lots of booing and hissing.ben-faulks-as-pc-ping-pong
Just how the production team delivers those important ingredients is key to an entertaining evening – and a satisfied audience.doreen-tipton-as-the-lazy-empress-of-china
But this year, The Grand have done us proud – even though they’d have been forgiven if distracted by their celebrations, as the theatre was 122 years old this week.joe-mcelderry-as-aladdin-2
There’s good acting and a great sense of fun from the cast, including: Joe McElderry (Aladdin), Lisa Riley (Slave of the Ring), Ben Faulks (Pc Ping Pong), Ian Adams (Widow Twankey), Adam C Booth (Wishee Washee) and Abanazar (Stefan Pejic).joe-mcelderry-as-aladdin-finale
However, the star of the show was definitely our very own Doreen Tipton as The Lazy Empress. This Youtube star had the funniest lines (“No photos for security reasons – social security”, “These specs are bi-polar”) and an excellent singing voice.joe-mcelderry-as-aladdin-3
And while some of her ‘benefits’ humour would have been a bit beyond the younger members of the audience, it was much appreciated by us older ones – with a thankful lack of smut (which had been an off-key aspect of my last panto experience at the Hippo).
Even the typical panto antics were more entertaining than usual, especially the shrinking of Twanky and Wishee. The twosome’s knee-high versions of themselves had the crowd in stitches.joe-mcelderry-as-aladdin-and-lisa-riley-as-scherezade-the-slave-of-the-ring
This year’s slapstick interlude was also one of the best I’ve seen. “If I were not in old Peking, something else I’d like to be…” was sung by Slave, Ping Pong, Twanky and Wishee.
Their props included a truncheon, frying pan, feather duster, boxing gloves, and of course, water, and although they were wielded in hilarious fashion, it looked just a little bit dangerous.lisa-riley-as-slave-of-the-ring
The special effects were limited, but that didn’t affect the story-telling, thanks to the delivery and the fluency of the cast. Although Aladdin’s superb magic carpet ride must have been a bit scary for Mr McElderry, as he was turned full circle above the stalls.adam-c-booth-and-lisa-riley
Credit must go to the sound engineers – the clarity of the speeches was superb, we didn’t miss a word, and there was genuine laughter from the young, who were able to understand most of the jokes … albeit ones that the script-writer has been using since Christmas Past.neal-wright-as-the-genie-of-the-lamp
Admittedly, I would have liked to hear X-Factor’s golden-voiced Joe McElderry sing more than one solo. He started the show with Jess Glynne’s Hold My Hand, then had a couple of duets, but only came in at the end of Defying Gravity.
However, it’s a reflection of the panto’s quality that such a thought is the nearest I came to criticism.stefan-pejic-as-abanazar
Aladdin continues its run until January 22, but demand for tickets is sure to be high, so if the box office is engaged (01902-429212), then do book online at http://www.grandtheatre.co.uk

Justine Flavell

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Cinderella Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury

We knew we were in for something special at this year’s annual Theatre Severn pantomime, Cinderella.

For starters, everyone’s favourite dame Brad Fitt, was the one wearing the trousers.

Brad Fitt, who also directs the production, has appeared at six previous Theatre Severn pantomimes. Playing Buttons was a departure from his usual role. He was as hilarious as always but without the costume changes and with a bit of extra pathos, and a song.cind-9346

My family loved him more than ever before (and he is always our favourite!)

Having said that, it was close competition as the cast was the strongest I’ve ever seen in a pantomime. Shrewsbury opted for real talent as opposed to reality stars, and the professionalism from every single cast member was outstanding.

Ryan Bennett as Prince Charming was delightful, with a faultless voice, good looks and a sense of humour as a nice but dim royal, and Victoria McCabe was pretty with a sparkly smile as lead role Cinderella.cind-9361

Dandini, played by stand-up comedian Phil Butler, added more hilarity with a Tommy Cooper style magic show and a scene where he turned royal ball into a rave.

This year’s dames gave Brad Fitt a run for his money as ugly sisters who managed 10-second costume changes into some spectacular dresses inspired by fast food and a pair of cows amongst many others. They relentlessly taunted a chap named Tony, before cleverly revealing a huge pair of knickers bearing his name in the second half.cind-9439

Even the Fairy Godmother – not traditionally a huge source of laughs – was amusing (I’m running out of words for funny!). Television actress Joanne Heywood was bright, bubbly and brilliant.

Even Shropshire Radio’s Eric Smith – with 14 year of practice – is starting to get the hang of panto.

cind-9720Along with the truly side-splitting cast, the show delivered on magic aplenty.

Turning Cinders’ rags into a gorgeous gown was enchanting, as was the moment that Buttons caused it to snow.

But even more extraordinary was Cinderella’s horse and carriage which left the audience enthralled and a little bit emotional.cind-9771

This year’s panto, produced by Paul Hendy’s Evolution Productions was without doubt the best yet. No wonder that 90% of tickets were sold by opening week. To catch this touching, witty and delightful production, you’d best be quick.cind-9846

This might be your last chance to see Brad Fitt looking nothing like a dame. Showing until 8 January.

Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 25 Nov 2016 - 7 Jan 2017. Cast: Pete Ashmore; Greg Coulson; Andrea Davy; Anni Domingo; Ru Hamilton; Dave Fishley; Michael Hodgson; Kaitlin Howard; Sian Howard; Andrew Langtree; Sarah Middleton; Tonderai Munyevv; Suzanne Nixon; Daniel Norford; Dan Poole; Thomas Pickles; Nicholas Prasad; Barnaby Southgate. Directed by Phillip Breen. Designed by Mark Bailey.

Treasure Island, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Ten minutes in and we’ve had bloody scenes of amputations and a fight between pirates. The children in the audience will be happy to lap this up all night.

Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 25 Nov 2016 - 7 Jan 2017. Cast: Pete Ashmore; Greg Coulson; Andrea Davy; Anni Domingo; Ru Hamilton; Dave Fishley; Michael Hodgson; Kaitlin Howard; Sian Howard; Andrew Langtree; Sarah Middleton; Tonderai Munyevv; Suzanne Nixon; Daniel Norford; Dan Poole; Thomas Pickles; Nicholas Prasad; Barnaby Southgate. Directed by Phillip Breen. Designed by Mark Bailey.

Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 25 Nov 2016 – 7 Jan 2017.

For families looking for a seasonal treat at the theatre that isn’t panto, the Rep has a proud tradition of serving up quality entertainment. This is a family show that isn’t dumbed down, so the dialogue is at times wordy and the plot unrushed, but the three rows of schoolchildren at the front showed no sign of fidgetty boredom.Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 25 Nov 2016 - 7 Jan 2017. Cast: Pete Ashmore; Greg Coulson; Andrea Davy; Anni Domingo; Ru Hamilton; Dave Fishley; Michael Hodgson; Kaitlin Howard; Sian Howard; Andrew Langtree; Sarah Middleton; Tonderai Munyevv; Suzanne Nixon; Daniel Norford; Dan Poole; Thomas Pickles; Nicholas Prasad; Barnaby Southgate. Directed by Phillip Breen. Designed by Mark Bailey.

Where Treasure Island has ‘compromised’ to modern times is in the casting of Jim Hawkins as a girl. It’s a practical solution to finding an adult actor who can convincingly play a young teenager (males tend to be more, well, manly) but also addresses a huge gender imbalance in the book. “Girls need adventures too,” comments one character, and Sarah Middleton’s Jim (short for Jemima) grabs her adventure with wide-eyed delight and a zest for life. Narrating the story, her asides to the audience are beautifully timed, and she proves to have a lovely singing voice in the sprinkling of sea shanties which pepper the production.

 

The quirky mix of pirates and innocent adventurers lured to sea by a treasure map features some entertaining characters, notably Squire Trelawny (Tonderai Munyevu), the ever-hungry Red Ruth (Andrea Davy) and the delightful person-that-everyone-forgets, Grey (Dave Fishley) who in Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 25 Nov 2016 - 7 Jan 2017. Cast: Pete Ashmore; Greg Coulson; Andrea Davy; Anni Domingo; Ru Hamilton; Dave Fishley; Michael Hodgson; Kaitlin Howard; Sian Howard; Andrew Langtree; Sarah Middleton; Tonderai Munyevv; Suzanne Nixon; Daniel Norford; Dan Poole; Thomas Pickles; Nicholas Prasad; Barnaby Southgate. Directed by Phillip Breen. Designed by Mark Bailey.complete contrast also played the macabre Billy Bones. Also worthy of mention is the excellent Thomas Pickles as Ben Gunn, driven crazy by three years alone on the island.

The staging is marvellous, the Rep’s big stage taking you inventively from inn to ship to island with no pauses for scene changes. Visually interesting with a multi-layered acting space, it takes the action up and even down, with characters disappearing under the stage.

There are extended fight sequences and an impressive body count for a children’s show, but softening that are the humour and music. Best for children aged around eight and upwards, Treasure Island should stir their imagination and spirit of adventure – and hopefully not too many bad dreams of one-legged men and the Black Spot.

 

 

Alison Ashmore

 

Treasure Island is at Birmingham Rep until 7 January.

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The Nutcracker, Birmingham Hippodrome

Opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome coincided with its creator Sir Peter Wright’s 90th birthday.

 

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The production was created by Sir Peter 26 years ago to mark the dance company’s relocation to Birmingham, and the legendary choreographer was present to enjoy the launch of this year’s run of the much-loved festive perennial.84809

 

Set in the late 19th century, during a Christmas Eve party hosted by Dr Stahlbaum and his wife, magician Drosselmeyer produces gifts for all the children present, including a nutcracker doll for the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara. After the guests have left the family retire to bed, but Clara sneaks back downstairs to play with her new doll. As the clock strikes midnight, Drosselmeyer reappears and Clara is transported to a magical winter wonderland of dancing snowflakes, a malevolent rat king and a handsome nutcracker prince.

 

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Right from curtain up, this production has the wow-factor. There was an audible gasp from the audience when the first of many extraordinary sets was revealed. The scenery, special effects and costumes, devised by designer John Macfarlane. are spectacular. From the giant Christmas tree transformation to a magical snowstorm at the end of Act I – it’s one of the most visually stunning shows I’ve ever seen.

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Tchaikovsky’s evocative score, faithfully executed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, gives the production an additional layer of magic.

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Any less of a company might have been overshadowed by such elaborate staging, but The Nutcracker is the perfect vehicle for Birmingham Royal Ballet to show what it is made of. Despite a few minor timing issues during some of the group dances in Act I, this renowned troupe is world class.

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There are many standout performances – Karla Doorbar is delightful as Clara, and Jonathan Payn is a commanding presence as the enigmatic Drosselmeyer. Tzu-Chao Chou’s performance as the Jack-in-the-Box is jaw-droppingly energetic and young Max Blackwell is charming as Clara’s mischievous little brother.

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While most of the action takes place in Act I, the second act is a series of divertissements in various fantasy realms, which in the most part have little to do with the story. Clara is somewhat sidelined to observe the Waltz of the Flowers and dynamic Russian and Spanish-style dances. It is these continental-themed sections of the ballet which perhaps haven’t aged so well. The Chinese tea dance, for example, is an awkwardly stereotypical caricature complete with pointing fingers and bobbing heads.

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That said, the best is indeed saved until last. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is exquisitely executed by Momoko Hirata. The grand pas de deux featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and The Prince is equally flawless. Hirata is partnered by Joseph Caley, and together they give a beautiful performance that is both sensitive and exhilarating.

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Sir Peter Wright’s masterpiece continues to delight. After 26 years and over 500 performances, this classic ballet has lost none of its sparkle. Enchanting and poignant, the Birmingham Royal Ballet has yet again delivered a sensational festive showpiece.

 

Clare White

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A Christmas Story – The Musical, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury

Christmas arrived early at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn with a UK premiere production of A Christmas Story The Musical.

Talented Shropshire actors, young and slightly older, from Get Your Wigle On musical theatre group performed this quirky and fun musical, based around the 1983 film A Christmas Story.

It was a festive production that promised something for the whole family, and it certainly delivered.14940092_1439771136052484_4551680839780358205_o

Set in late Depression-era Indiana, the story focuses on bespectacled nine-year-old Ralphie, a boy who wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas.

The musical is based around events in the 24-day run-up to Christmas, trying to persuade his family, teacher and finally Santa Claus that he won’t shoot his eye out.

Meanwhile his Old Man, who dreams of winning a $50,000 crossword competition, is instead rewarded with a fishnet stocking-clad leg lamp, which delights him but horrifies his long-suffering wife.

Filled with quirky characters, this zany, heartfelt and nostalgic musical is an uplifting treat filled with vivid fantasy sequences featuring cowboys, gangsters and dancing with fake legs.15027722_1443230835706514_4401566539215588272_n

I have to confess to having never watched the original film, so some scenes ­– perhaps homages to the film – left myself and my children slightly confused. But the jolly scores, including catchy Ralphie to the Rescue, and talented cast meant it just added to the quirky, convivial feel. While narrator, grown-up Ralphie (Harry Hemingway-McGee) was sharp and witty and a constant word-perfect presence who kept things flowing.

Main characters Ralphie and brother Randy, played (on opening night) by Morgan Lewis and Will Philpin, were the superb mix of adorable and mischievous.

Mum and Dad (Rhian Ellis and James Archer) portrayed funny and heartwarming in equal measure.

Schoolteacher Miss Shields (Emily Floyd-Riley) was super as severe but wowed in fantasy number You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out playing a gangster diva and showing off some very fancy footwork along with a talented ensemble of tap dancing children.

A Christmas Story showed the immense talent for acting, song and dance in the county, including many dedicated local schoolchildren juggling rehearsals and performances around homework.

Let’s hope that they too will be getting their heart’s desire this Christmas.

Eluned Watson


This is the final production of the year for Get Your Wigle On, who are looking forward to performing Hairspray in March, followed by 13 The Musical and Priscilla Queen of the Desert later in the year.

Telephone the box office on 01743 281281.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Birmingham Hippodrome

The roar of approval from the audience at the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tells you everything you need to know.

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This is an engaging, endearing production which entertained from beginning to end. A much-loved story featuring top-notch songs sung by well-known stars is always likely to prove a winning formula.

Taking the lead role of maverick inventor and single dad Caractacus Potts was Lee Mead, who shot to fame by winning the BBC series Any Dream Will Do in 2007. Like so many of us in the audience, he says he has watched the film since childhood. Dick Van Dyke’s shoes were always going to be big ones to fill, but he brought lovely vocals to the role, with his rich, easy voice, and a cheeky presence tinged with a lingering sadness over the death of his wife.

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Lee Mead as Caractacus Potts

He finds love again with Truly Scrumptious, played in a suitably feisty way by West End actress, author and blogger Carrie Hope Fletcher. She’s won an award for her portrayal of Eponine in Les Mis but I felt the highest notes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were a bit of a jump for her voice at times.

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Phill Jupitus

The casting of comedian Phill Jupitus as Baron Bomburst/Lord Scrumptious was a moment of genius. His Baron was a whimsical, nutty-as-a-fruitcake concoction, a mixture of childlike enthusiasm and murderous dictator. I loved it. Holding her own against him as the child-hating Baroness was Claire Sweeney, who turned in a stellar and physically demanding performance.

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Sam Harrison as Boris and Scott Paige as Goran

Adding considerably to the humour were the loveable ‘pantomime’ spies, played by Sam Harrison and Scott Paige, proving that you don’t have to be a big name to light up a stage.

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Lee Mead & Carrie Hope-Fletcher

Completing an excellent cast were Matt Gillett as the sinister Childcatcher, Andy Hockley as a Grandpa Potts and Ewen Cummins as Bill Coggins/The Toymaker. While the first two stayed very close to the iconic film versions of the characters, Cummins brought something new to a role made famous by Benny Hill.

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Andy Hockley as Grandpa Potts

The roles of the children are alternated, on the night I went Elliot Morris and Darcy Snares were on stage and gave accomplished, professional performances.

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Daisy Riddet, Aaron Gelkoff and Matt Gillett

The flying car was not used as effectively as I have seen in a previous production but was still met with delighted applause. The clever staging led to the only hiccup of the evening, when stuck scenery towards the end of the first act caused a 10-minute hiatus which, despite an announcement, was interpreted by a good proportion of the audience as being the interval and time to leave.

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Aaron Gelkoff, Daisy Riddet, Lee Mead & Carrie Hope-Fletcher

That delay and disruption could have caused the show to go a little flat afterwards, but it’s to the credit of all concerned that they picked up where they had left off and the energy continued.

It being a midweek school night, there weren’t as many children in the audience as I had expected, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is such a favourite that you don’t need the excuse of having kids to go. It’s a fun night out whatever your age.

 

Alison Ashmore

 

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang runs at Birmingham Hippodrome until 18 September. http://www.birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/chitty-chitty-bang-bang/

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Diana Vickers as Janet and Liam Tamne as Frank N Furter

Rocky Horror Show at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Grab your basque and your boa, that fabulous adult pantomime Rocky Horror Show is doing the rounds.
This outrageously out-there production began its stint at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre on Monday (13 June).

Rocky’s an X-rated show, so don’t take the kids. There’s plenty of effing and jeffing (mostly from the audience) and a great deal of faux-sex.

Heckling is generally frowned upon during theatre productions, but not in this one.
The crowd’s interjections were hilarious and made the narrator (the superb Norman Pace) forget his lines on one occasion.

Liam Tamne as Frank N FurterThe plot’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s all about the songs and the stockings, and starts when all-American couple Brad (Richard Meek) and Janet (Diane Vickers) get a flat tyre on the way to visit their former science teacher.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” whines Janet. “Try the castle,” shouts the front row.

And so they find themselves at the weird and wacky home of Frank-N-Furter. Hunch-backed ‘handyman’ Riff-Raff (Kristian Lavercombe) shows them into the abode.
“You’d better wait here,” he says. And as the couple move into the room… “He said wait there!” bellow the stalls.

Somehow Riff-Raff and servants Magenta (Kay Murphy) and Columbia (Sophie Linder-Lee) segued into the dynamic Time Warp – “just a jump to the left, then a step to the right…”

It wasn’t just the front row participating in that one, we were all on our feet.

We’d been entertained by an excellent cast so far, but the stand-out performer had to be the delicious Liam Tamne as Frank-N-Furter. He stalked onto the stage in a cape covering a basque and stockings and belted out “Sweet Transvestite”.

Dominic Andersen as Rocky and Liame Tamne as Frank N FurterI forgot he was wearing high heels as he danced, gyrated and cavorted, whilst his powerful voice reminded us “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

I remember Diane Vickers from the X-Factor, her nasally voice really used to get on my nerves. She still sings through her nose, but was spot on as the prim – and eventually improper – Janet.

Another blast from the bygones was S Club 7’s Paul Cattermole as Eddie/Dr Scott – he was excellent as both.

We found it hard to believe the show ran for two hours, as it seemed to be over in a flash.

Even more than 40 years after its stage debut, this panto still delivers a riotously funny night out.

Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show continues at the Wolverhampton Grand until Saturday 18 June.

Tickets and info via the box office on 01902-429212 or at http://www.grandtheatre.co.uk

By Justine Flavell

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Ludlow in the Great War By Julie Phillips

 

Shropshire author Julie Philips has always been interested in the past but it was a 1918 postcard written by her husband’s great uncle that inspired her to learn more about the Great War and how it affected the ordinary person.

The result is a thorough and well-researched look at the 1914-18 conflict from the perspective of one Shropshire town. From the call-up and conscription of men – and horses – to the creation of lasting memorials after the conflict, it gives a flavour of what life was like for those who risked or lost their lives, and those who stayed behind.

She switches between general observations on the war to the specific: ‘In the appalling casualtyLudlow in the great war figures from the Great War it is easy to forget that each one of these was someone’s son, husband or brother,’ she writes. ‘It was a rare Ludlow family that was untouched by the devastation of war’.

We learn about the role of Harper Adams Agricultural College in feeding a nation at war; how Ludlow Racecourse was used to grow veg; the welcome given to refugees (a poignant read in light of current issues); the changing place of women; the fundraising that took place to help the war effort; and the difficulties faced after the end of hostilities.

This is a comprehensive and liberally illustrated account which will be an informative and enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in the period or the history of Ludlow.

Alison Ashmore

Published by Pen and Sword Books, £12.99

 

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The Villagers by AJ Griffiths-Jones

 

The Villagers was inspired by memories of the author’s grandmother, “who spent many an afternoon retelling stories of her time in an idyllic cottage in a small village in England”.

Set in a Shropshire hamlet in the 1950s, you just know skies are bluer, days are warmer and front doors remain unlocked.

Into this vintage village enters Olive and Geoff (the author’s grandparents) and their three children, clever Eileen, bad-tempered Barbara and baby Godfrey.

The family of five move into the picturesque, peaceful locale, with its Norman church, cottagesThe villagers book cover smelling of homemade bread and villagers with hidden pasts and scurrilous presents.

Olive is a stay-at-home mom, so is in prime position to realise that her neighbours aren’t all they appear to be.

She and eventually her husband slowly unravel the mysteries of the lives surrounding them.

After over a year of unearthing the villagers’ revelations, Olive is wondering about upping sticks, but “why move from such a wonderful location for the sake of a few sordid secrets?”

Why indeed, but the more she finds out, the more the village ceases to be her Shangri-la.

The nefarious cast includes: dress-maker Marilyn Roberts; “Russians” Anna and Wolfgang Muller; the not-so-Reverend Todd; farmer Bert Langtree and his snobby wife Agatha; shopkeeper Elsie Corbett; and Jesus Crawford.

I don’t want to give away the villagers’ secrets, but there’s adultery, murder and thievery, to name but a few.

Neighbour Mrs Hamilton points out: “Doesn’t matter where you live my dear, everyone has their strange little ways.”

But will the strangeness prove too much for Olive?

It all makes for a very entertaining read. There’s the odd grammatical error, but I really enjoyed the tales. It was easy to guess the sordid secrets once the author, who lives in Oakengates, had left some intriguing clues, but this didn’t detract from the fun.

Justine Flavell

The Villagers is published by Creativia

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Book review – The Errant Hours

The Errant Hours by Kate Innes

I’ve always enjoyed historical novels and so was greatly looking forward to losing myself in this THE ERRANT HOURSweighty tome.

And I was not disappointed.

What we have here is an evocative tale with completely believable characters and inspiring landscapes.

This debut novel from Shropshire writer Kate Innes intertwines the lives and loves of three women, but the three are each from different time zones.

One lives in fourth century Antioch, the Greek-Roman city on the eastern side of the Orontes River. Another lives in sixth century Wales. The third lives in the turbulent Welsh Marches of the 13th century.

Quite apart from the driving narrative and richly-drawn characters, I also greatly enjoyed the many references to local places I know so well – Much Wenlock, The Corvedale, Acton Burnell, Stokesay Castle and Clun.

The author herself describes The Errant Hours as “a headlong journey through the dangers of Plantagenet Britain” but that doesn’t even tell half the story. It’s also about childbirth and parenthood, passion and longing, and life’s rich tapestry.

I look forward to reading the next novel by this talented writer.

Janet Soden