Category: Reviews

Image result for Mary Poppins returnsAs a child, I was the boy who skipped around the garden with his umbrella raised high, in the hope that he would take off and float away (it did not go down well). Mary Poppins was one of my favourite films growing up and I have found memories of singing the songs with my Grandma. The classic film means a lot to many and their childhoods.

So when the sequel was announced I was cautious. I was initially worried that it wouldn’t live up to the magic of the first film and was simply a cheap effort to make money (having the same thoughts about Toy Story 4. Please don’t mess it up, Disney). But I was wrong to worry, as this film has clearly been in very capable hands. Mary Poppins Returns is practically perfect in every way. *smug face*.

From the gorgeous opening credits, it’s clear this is a film made with love and respect. Spotting the fleeting glimpse of the bird woman on the steps of St Paul’s made my inner-child jump and that was just the first of many exciting moments. It’s a carpet-bag full of pure joy.  Newcomers to the franchise will enjoy the new story, but those familiar with the original classic are invited onto a carousel of nostalgia.

Obviously the main buzz has been around Emily Blunt taking on Julie Andrews’ iconic role. Blunt slips into the hat and heels perfectly, adding her own dash of quirkiness to the titular character. Lin Manuel Miranda is a great addition as cheeky lamplighter Jack, sharing his impressive trademark musicality, particularly during a rap (yes, I know, but trust me) segment of ‘A Cover is not the book’. Then there’s Ben Whishaw, who will overwork your tearducts as a grieving and grown up Michael Banks. Seeing him smile in the final number would melt the coldest of hearts. Emily Mortimer is perfect as an adult Jane Banks, mixing the innocent giggling girl from the first film with her mother’s determined activist nature, to create a progressive and passionate character (and wearing trousers throughout – a nice touch.)

It’s also great to see some of the secondary characters from the first movie given more screen time. Housekeeper Ellen (this time played by Julie Walters, who is her usual fantastic self), neighbours Admirable Boom and Mr Binnacle, and Bank Manager Mr Dawes all make lots of appearances that aren’t just self-indulgent but serve the plot well. Mr Dawes Jr is played by Dick Van Dyke, and his short appearance towards the end of the movie is lovely. It’s clear this film means a lot to everyone involved, and this is beautifully evident in the emotion in Van Dyke’s eyes as he reprises a role similar to one he played in the original movie. Speaking of Disney royalty, Angela Lansbury also makes an appearance as the Balloon lady, a role that could have been written for Andrews, but Lansbury is perfect, adding her trademark warmth and wit to her small scene. I’m glad Lansbury appeared because I bloody love her. If your inner-child hasn’t overdosed on nostalgia, it will be totally hyperactive by the time Mr Potts starts singing.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have done a cracking job of the score, blending just enough wistful references to the previous score with new material to create some very catchy and moving new numbers. ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ will have you sniffling in your popcorn, whilst the final number, ‘Nowhere to Go but Up’ will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

Some people have picked holes in the plot but honestly……I don’t care. Who cares if a couple of things don’t quite make sense? This film wraps you in a feeling of warm, satisfying nostalgia that is worth overlooking a few minor quibbles.

So much care has been put into this film, and it has been met with so much love and praise, that, as much as I would enjoy a chance to visit these characters again, I hope Disney aren’t tempted to make a third any time soon. Sequels aren’t usually a success, but this one is so close to the original (which is a brilliant achievement considering the time span between films) and made with so much respect that its success is well earned. This is going to become a modern classic.

*grabs a balloon and runs to the garden*

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Blwyddyn newydd dda!

As 2018 draws to a close and I crack open the wine and tuck into the Christmas chocolates, I’ve joined the NYE bandwagon in looking back over the last twelve months. I’ve seen some cracking theatre productions and some, frankly mind-boggling shows (Summer Holiday, I’m looking at you), but here are 8 of my best from 2018.

Wicked, UK Tour, Cardiff Millennium Centre, November

Fifth time viewing, but no less spectacular. Wicked was an optical and musical treat. Despite knowing the show inside out since 2006, the UK tour cast brought fresh joy to one of my favourite shows. Sitting in the front row during Defying Gravity added extra special goosepimple-ness.

Full review

Home, I’m Darling, Theatr Clwyd, June

Theatr Clwyd has been my home from home this year and we are SO lucky to have such a fabulous venue on our doorstep. Theatr Clwyd has welcomed some excellent productions but one that’s caused quite a stir is Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling. A thought-provoking, topical and hilarious play, featuring the wonderful Katherine Parkinson, Home, I’m Darling is set to transfer for a limited run to the Duke of York’s theatre in January.

Full review

Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre, London, June

I think this one has suffered quite an injustice and doesn’t get the credit it deserves. A vibrant but touching show centred around an Australian dance competition, Strictly Ballroom features some impressive choreography and catchy renditions of familiar tunes. Unfortunately the show closed in October but fingers crossed for a UK tour!

Full review

Aladdin, Prince Edward Theatre, London, April 

The stage version of the Disney classic may have had a panto flavour to it, but there’s no doubt it boasted a talented cast and some very clever visuals. Friend Like Me was a show stopper thanks to the charisma of Trevor Dion Nicholas and it’s well worth catching the show before it closes in the autumn.

Full review

Thick as Thieves, Theatr Clwyd, Wales, October 

A powerful one-act play that was a last minute ticket-buy for me. I’m rarely gripped from start-to-finish but this play had me thinking of nothing else. Full of twists and turns with plenty of secrets spilling out across the stage. Thick as Thieves saw powerhouse performances from Polly Frame and Siwan Morris. So glad I caught it!

Full review

Kinky Boots, Opera House Theatre, Manchester, December

A big bundle of fun to warm up the pre-Christmas chill. Myself and my Kinky Crew weren’t too sure what to expect with this one, but it turns out Kinky Boots is a warm-hearted show with some cracking musical numbers, which is definitely deserving of its popularity.

Full review

The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, Theatr Clwyd, May

Assassination caused a bit of controversy when it was announced late last year and with a title like that I knew I had to see it. Topical and thought-provoking, Assassination isn’t the Hopkins-hating leftie production you might expect, but neither is it a love letter to the professional troll. Another show that deserves a comeback in 2019.

Full review

Miss Saigon, Palace theatre, Manchester, March

Finally, a classic musical that had managed to escape my interests until recommended to me in March. An emotional story with a beautiful, haunting score. I didn’t expect this show to be so….sad! And the drive home with my pals was a lot more morose than the journey home from Kinky Boots. Unless you have a heart of stone, you’re going to need tissues after this one.

Full review

It’s been a great year in terms of my personal theatre-viewing and it was hard to whittle the list down to just eight. Also deserving of a mention is my trip to West End Live, which shared brilliant performances from many top west end shows. I’ll definitely be planning on going to West End Live again in the future. I’m not making resolutions this year, but it goes without saying I’ll be hoping to see more excellent productions in 2019, with some really exciting shows already booked in (Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to name two *squeak*). The ticket shelf is already filling up, so as the curtain falls on 2018, here’s to an exciting new year. Now, let’s crack open that box of Heroes from under the tree…..

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‘Change the world when you change your mind.’

That’s the message behind Kinky Boots, currently touring the UK.

Part fabulous, part hilarious, with a great big dollop of heart-warming, Kinky Boots is the show that stands on high heels above the rest.

We follow the story of uninspired and fed up Charlie (Joel Harper-Jackson) as he inherits his father’s shoe factory and, ahem, struggles to fill his shoes. After a chance encounter with bold and beautiful drag queen, Lola (Callum Francis), the pair join forces to make some super sexy boots and rescue Charlie’s factory. An odd partnership at first, we learn they’re not as different as it might seem.

Joel Harper-Jackson delivers some powerful vocals, particularly in his emotionally charged ‘Soul of a Man’. Charlie is conflicted throughout the show as his is torn between honoring the memory of his father, re-inventing the family business, pleasing his new friend Lola, as well as keeping his fiance Nicola happy. Harper-Jackson portrays Charlie’s enthusiasm and frustration well, ensuring he is likeable even during the moments when Charlie isn’t making the right choice. Paula Lane proves to be equally hilarious and endearing as gobby factory worker Lauren, especially during her solo ‘The History of Wrong Guys’. Callum Francis is mesmerising from start to finish, serving up sass with every line but not failing to show Lola’s vulnerability. Surrounded by his team of glamorous angels, Francis performs with fizzing energy and it is a joy to watch him on stage. Francis shines during the more emotional numbers, such as the stunning ‘Not my Father’s Son’, where he sings about his father’s struggle to accept him.

From Lola’s entrance during the earworm, ‘Land of Lola’ ,to the empowering final number ‘Raise you up’, each song will have you grooving in your seat. ‘Sex is the Heel’, sung with pure sexy sass from Francis, also boasts some highly impressive choreography on a set of conveyor belts.

But it’s not just about boots and glitter. This show carries an important message, which is sung in its final number – just be! Whether you like flats or heels, overalls or dresses, boys or girls – this is a show that tells its audience that it just doesn’t matter. ‘Just be who you want to be.’

Kinky Boots is a fun, glittering night out with a heart. Enough to warm up any December night.

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There’s almost too many fabulous attributes to Wicked that make it the success it is. Twelve years after opening in the West End, Wicked is coming to the end of its second UK tour, just opening in its penultimate venue at the Millenium Centre, Cardiff (which was suitably illuminated green for the event).

Amy Ross takes the lead as troubled green teen Elphaba, with Charli Baptie as her nemesis-come-best-friend Glinda. We witness Elphaba’s struggles and talents through university which eventually lead her to meet her idol, the Wizard of Oz. After discovering his disappointing lack of power and the corruption he has instigated within Oz, Elphaba is forced into hiding, triggering a chain of events that lead her to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Ross gives a powerful performance as Elphaba, delivering the right amount of stubborn, angry and vulnerable that makes the role so iconic. ‘The Wizard and I’ is a highlight for Ross, and she gets to flex her belting vocals at several points throughout the show. Of course, ‘Defying  Gravity’ is another chilling moment which Ross performs with astonishing verve. It’s this mid-point where Wicked really grabs its audience and ends with the first act with sucker-punch dramatic spectacle. Ross portrays Elphaba’s downfall beautifully and her pre-melting goodbye to Glinda in the second act is emotionally charged.

We also learn the history of another famous figure of Oz, Glinda the Good. It’s intriguing to see Glinda’s manipulative and selfish side played out, as it can sometimes come across as over-exaggerated, played too much for the comedy and ‘silliness’ of Glinda. She works best when she is grounded, as she becomes a far more sinister, smiling enemy, one that we have all surely come across. Glinda is redeemed throughout the production as her love for Elphaba is genuine, but she allows her jealousy to cloud her intentions. What is intriguing about Wicked is it is not so much a clear-cut story of Good vs Evil, as is outlined in Baum’s original novel. Wicked blurs the lines between good and evil and shows the familiar characters as conflicted, mistake-making humans.

Aaron Sidwell gives a good performance as Fiyero, mixing privileged posh-boy with sensitive romantic. Kim Ismay cuts a formidable figure as Madame Morrible, and you can’t help but like Steven Pinder as the Wizard, despite all the double-handed treachery.

Wicked casts a dark and political shadow over the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz, twisting our pre-conceptions and challenging us to question our judgements. It does all this with a magnificent score and a generous splash of spectacle.

Image result for thick as thieves theatr clwydTwo people. One room. Just over an hours running time.

It was all quite simple. A minimal set, consisting of just a desk and chair, played in the round. But Thick as Thieves is evidence of just how powerful drama can be.

Within the short playing time, we meet Gail. Hard on her luck, fresh out of prison and desperate to get her kids back, Gail rocks up at old friends Karen’s office in need of her help. Karen is head of children’s services and, although Gail initially pretends it is a spontaneous visit, it quickly becomes very clear that she has a hidden agenda. The next hour is packed full of twists and turns and powerhouse performances from Polly Frame as Gail and Siwan Morris as Karen. Through echoing sound bites and moody instrumentals you are absorbed into Gail and Karen’s world and find it hard to pull yourself out even at the very end.

As Gail lets slip information that she knows Karen’s address, and subsequently has been visiting the school Karen’s daughters attend, we see a power struggle between the two, represented by a tilting performance platform, as secrets are unearthed, and Karen’s safe and secure world is rocked.

The opinions of the audience towards both characters change through the play, with the audience being asked to judge each woman, and then questions their judgement just a few minutes later. Karen appears to be ‘one of those mums’, (family car, baby yoga, hummus and carrot sticks), whilst Gail initially comes across as a selfish and unreliable mother. Our opinions are challenged at several points – are Gail’s actions as sinister as they first appear? Or is she acting in the interest of her own children?

It transpires the two share a traumatic past, with Karen particularly bearing the brunt of a careless and violent upbringing. Her story about her short career as a teacher is particularly chilling, as she describes teaching the children of life’s pain and injustice. The play raises interesting themes, such as motherhood and the lengths a parent will go to in order to satisfy their ‘addiction’ to their children.

By the end of the play, just when you think you have experienced every emotion, you are confronted with hope, as Karen’s covert helping of Gail is revealed and Gail remains determined to win back her children. Amongst the angst and darkness, it is refreshing to be left with a glimmer of hope that our characters can succeed in what they want, and move on from the trauma of the past. Siwan Morris and Polly Frame are electric, particularly during the more fraught moments.

Bleak, tense and chilling in parts, Thick as Thieves is a must-see.

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‘It’s a film isn’t it?’ ‘No, it’s a book.’ ‘It’s very dark, I think…’

Everyone I spoke to prior to seeing this show seemed to have a different opinion, and I didn’t quite know what to expect when I headed to my favourite theatre last week.

Playing in the Emlyn Williams the theatre, The 39 Steps proved to be a night of ridiculous comedy, and the perfect antidote to a long week.

Set in the round, the space was transformed creatively from a living room, to a hotel, to a car, to a speeding train. Using very few props the talented cast (of just four) took us on a journey across Britain, as we followed unlucky Richard Hannay, on the run from the law after he is mistaken for a murderer. The many madcap characters are brought to life using a clever blend of physical comedy and imaginatively used props and costumes.

The whole story is played for laughs, with every inch of comedy eeked out of the script. At times, it’s ridiculous but never really grating.

Part of the fun was watching the actors juggle with their own characters. They swapped roles before our eyes and there were several moments which felt unique to the evenings performance. The fourth wall is broken several times, including a lovely moment when Hannay escapes through one door for the remaining actors to confidently assure the audience that ‘it’s in the round’, before Hannay bursts in through another door and is captured.

We were sitting in the front row, directly in front of a smaller stage, which was used as a hotel bedroom, giving us a very intimate slice of the action. Just when we thought we’d escaped any audience participation, we were doused with ‘snow’ in the closing moments. Lovely.

Well worth a visit for the laughs, The 39 Steps is a fun evening of clever, innovative comedy, that’ll have you cheering for Hannay right to the end.

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Summer Holiday is weird.

There are lots of good points, but on the whole I found it odd.

I’m not familiar with the film, so maybe it’s that. I walked into the Storyhouse knowing only the incessantly upbeat title track and that the film featured Cliff Richard. In Cliff’s role, Don, was Ray Quinn, who did a sound job as the lead. He’s got a good voice and he can certainly move. Don’s friends are a mixed bunch, varying in oddness, with Matt Trevorrow standing out as Cyril, Don’s lazy, but confident buddy. Don and his friends renovate a London bus and travel across Europe, picking up a girl group and reluctant famous singer on the way. Sophie Matthew plays Barbara with gentle naivety. Taryn Sudding also adds fabulous humour, giving Velma-Von-Tussle-realness, as Barbara’s overbearing mother, Stella.

The standout feature of the production is the choreography. It’s imaginative, fast-paced and carried out with expert precision by the cast. There were plenty of foot-tapping wow-moments. The set is simple but effective, with the double decker bus taking centre stage.

It’s the story that is weird. I know that, being written and set in the sixties, it is going to have aged, but there’s quite a few holes to pick in the narrative. For a show that is billed as a feel-good production, some of it is just uncomfortable. Running away from her mother, Barbara disguises herself as a fourteen year old boy and is invited to travel on the bus by the group of twenty-somethings (Wouldn’t happen in 2018!). I was assured during the interval that Barbara isn’t fourteen but it is still a bit weird when Don, believing she is fourteen, steps out of the shower and asks her to hold his towel whilst he tucks in his ‘old chap’. It’s all played for laughs but…..ewww. For a squeaky clean family show, there’s also a surprising amount of crotch tugging and erection jokes.

The audience were familiar with most of the songs (I could tell by the out of tune singing behind me), and the (on-stage) singing was very strong. Again, it’s in terms of story that the show falls flat. Some of the songs make sense, but some are shoehorned in with zero subtlety. For example, when the gang stumble upon a distraught Italian bride who doesn’t speak English, they decide to use the ‘universal language of music’ to find out what her problem is. So they sing ‘Living Doll’. Why?!

If you’re after a fun and fluffy (if utterly confusing) night at the theatre, Summer Holiday is for you.

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June 2018. I’m sat in baking hot Trafalgar Square, in a crowd of thousands, watching Motown the Musical perform at West End Live. I like motown music, but, honestly, I wasn’t compelled to see the show until this moment.  Performing a medley of songs from the show, the cast were incredible and the enjoyment from the crowd was palpable.

Flash forward to August 2018 and I’m taking another trip down south to the West End, this time accompanied by two friends. We’d chosen Motown as our show (thanks again to TodayTix, best app ever), deciding that we’d know most of the songs. (We were correct!)

The production wasn’t perfect. It got off to a rocky start with the sound for dialogue being too quiet and the music too loud. It was also quite tricky to grasp what was going on at first, as the time shift between Motown’s 25th anniversary party and Berry Gordy’s early years wasn’t always clear. However, Berry had opened his first studio and Martha and the Vandella’s were sashaying around the stage for a vibrant, goosebump-inducing performance of ‘Dancing in the Street’, Motown really found its soul.

Motown has a very talented ensemble cast who take on many roles throughout the production. Stand out stars have to be Jay Perry (from S Club Juniors, would you believe?) as Berry Gordy and Natalie Kassanga as Diana Ross. Kassanga became Diana Ross and anyone who didn’t know any different would be forgiven for thinking they were watching the real deal.

Motown is essentially the love story between Gordy and Ross, whilst Gordy faces the troubles of building his empire. The show also addresses plenty of politics of the era, and the effect events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and President Kennedy had on the artists. The first act builds to a moving performance of ‘What’s going on’ by Carl Spencer (playing Marvin Gaye), as we see the stars reacting to the tragedies of the era.

It’s fun to spot the many famous faces that pop up throughout the story (Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye to name a few). Motown puts the music centre stage and the live band and super-skilled artists do a fantastic job of bringing the music to life. Musical highlights include ‘Dancing in the street’, the Jackson five medley and ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’.

With energetic versions of familiar songs sung by extremely talented performers, it’s easy to see how Motown has remained so popular over its three year run. Although the story might sink in parts it’s definitely a slow burner, and by the end you’ll be on your feet. It’s a must for any fan of Motown music.

Goosebumps – 3

Stars –  ****

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Perhaps it’s because I missed out on the 80’s phenomenon that was Fame, being a child of the nineties, but I found the 30th anniversary touring production to be a bit of a mixed bag. Set in a New York school of Performing Arts, the story follows a bunch of wannabes as they negotiate the perils of being a Stagey in the 80s.

Led by Mica Paris as the home room teacher Miss Sherman, there’s no doubt about it that Fame does boast a very talented cast. Keith Jack shows off his impressive vocals in his role as serious thespian Nick. Jorgie Porter, of Hollyoaks fame, is able to demonstrate her dance skills in the role of snooty Ballet dancer Iris. Stephanie Rojas delivers a powerful performance as fame-hungry Carmen, and performs the title track with spine-tingling ease. Fame has a very strong ensemble, made up of mesmerising dancers and a cast that perform their own instruments throughout (which always adds a special something to any production).

The problem, for me, lies with the story. Maybe I’m just a bit too close to being a millennial to appreciate it, but parts of the story just didn’t sit right with me. For the first few minutes, when the characters are finding out they’ve been accepted to ‘PA’, I really struggled to piece together what on earth was going on! The first act seemed to be a mash up of events with a scattering of rubbish jokes in between. Then, just a few tracks in, I couldn’t quite believe I was listening to a song about a hard-on.

There are lots of characters who are likeable (hard-on singer not being one of them), such as Serena, the nerdy girl who longs to be with Nick and hapless but talented Schlomo, who is another audience favourite. Particularly heart-breaking is the scene where Schlomo meets Carmen after her return from L.A., which Simon Anthony plays very movingly. I should also mention the ‘Teacher’s argument’ duet, between Miss Sherman and dance teacher Miss Bell which was electric (but I’ve always been a sucker for a good musical argument).

Another big problem lies with the character of Tyrone. Jamal Kane Crawford can certainly move, that’s for sure, but I found it hard to sympathise with Tyrone after he refers to two separate female characters as ‘bitch’. After the second incident, when he has angrily squared up to Miss Sherman and shouted in her face, we are expected to clap along and enjoy a bouncy, jolly tune about how Tyrone wants to make it as a dancer. I didn’t want to cheer for him. I wanted him to sod off.

Whilst it is an enjoyable night out, the story does seem to be a bit of a mess, but it’s more so a fault with the script than the performers. For me, the show does improve as it plays out, with a stronger second act, building to a cracking finale. The whole cast performing ‘Bring on Tomorrow’ is genuinely stirring, especially for those who have ever been part of a theatrical clique. In this production, the curtain call to the famous title track was brilliant. The whole audience were on their feet, it was like being at a concert, and Mica Paris brought the house down. There were plenty of hardcore Fame fans in the audience whose enjoyment was very clear, so perhaps if you’re an avid fan of the film or TV series, this is for you. If you’re not, I’d still recommend going, for a night of live music and dance from a super enthusiastic cast.

Image result for torchwood the victorian ageSomething magical has happened. After years in a Torchwood-drought, I have discovered Big Finish. Creating original Torchwood audio-stories, the seven plays I’ve heard so far have been fantastic, and an excellent consolation to the lack of Torchwood on TV. It has been great to welcome Gwen, Ianto, Jack and Rhys back, as well as characters who played a smaller role in the TV series, such as the formidable Yvonne Hartman who makes a gloriously sassy return in Torchwood: One Rule. The story arc of the Conspiracy has proved to be interesting, especially as each episode focuses on the Conspiracy from various viewpoints and in differing depth. One minor thing to complain about is the lack of answers to the Conspiracy plot thread. In a couple of episodes it’s not even mentioned and I’m hoping we get more answers in the next few releases.

My most recent adventure with Big Finish, Torchwood: The Victorian Age, was one of my favourites. The story features Captain Jack Harkness on secondment to Torchwood London (based beneath the Natural History Museum) in the early days of the institute. It’s a real character piece for Jack and enables us an insight into his life before he ran our beloved Cardiff branch. He’s still the same old Jack; battling danger with the usual cheeky swagger and charm. Though there is the small matter of taking care of Queen Victoria that’s making Jack sweat.

After witnessing the outbreak of a deadly creature, Queen Vic invites herself along on the chase and gives Captain Jack a run for his money as she helps to save the world. As a staple part of Torchwood canon, it’s good to have the founder of the institute interact with Jack and have her own adventure. Rowena Cooper gives a top-notch performance as the monarch, delivering her scathing lines with no-nonsense, stiff-upper-lip Britishness that makes you want to cheer ‘Rule Britannia!’.  It’s also nice to see the softer side to Queen Victoria (as we first glimpsed in the Doctor Who episode ‘Tooth and Claw’) as she comforts the mother of an injured girl, and through her growing respect for Captain Jack.

The themes of regret and loss run deeply through the story and there are plenty of references to living and enjoying the time we have left on Earth. Putting an alien that can cause de-ageing at the touch of its hand against a Queen who is frustrated by her age and desperate to rule her beloved country for longer, is an interesting concept. Just like the TV series, Torchwood reminds us that life is for living and Jack continues to emphasise how dangerous his job is. ‘There isn’t always another time,’ he gently warns Queen Victoria, echoing the ethos of the programme.

Victorian Age is classic Torchwood. It my be on a new platform but it’s still the same cheeky, but deadly, Torchwood, full of fan-favourites and bonkers scenarios. Because of course, only Captain Jack Harkness could destroy an alien whilst flirting with it.