October’s most dazzling shows: In The Heights, Showstopper! and Barbarians

We’re welcoming autumn this month with three shows that have just come impressively into their own after ripening for some time.

In The Heights – Kings Cross Theatre, 4.1-star average

A four-star majority greeted this remounted production of “Hamilton” author Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 debut. Mark Shenton (The Stage), detected “lots of echoes” of Miranda’s latest in its “dense overlaying of musical themes” and “heavy use of rap influences”.

Bella Todd (Time Out) detected “a palpable sense of curvaceous Latin spirit straining against narrow urban confines” on approaching the show’s new home in Kings Cross, formerly host to “The Railway Children”, and Shenton felt “a new kind of thrilling energy… released in the traverse arrangement.” Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) reported “immeasurably” improved sound from the production’s 2014 home at the Southwark Playhouse.

Most gave strong reviews despite a book seen as “weak” or “formulaic”. Coveney found it “very simple… brash on the outside, soft in the centre” while Todd observed “immigration, heritage and gentrification” playing “second sax to hope, home and young love”. But Lyn Gardner (Guardian) saw a “hugely talented” cast “throw themselves at the material” as if “something is genuinely at stake” and Shenton described “such energy… you are utterly swept away”.

Most agreed with Gardner, who felt that Miranda’s score and “witty and sharp” lyrics made ”singing and dancing” seem a “natural form of expression”, and most hailed what Shenton called “the genius” of choreographer Drew McOnie. Gardner found McOnie’s work “electrifying”, Shenton thought “the fluidity of movement… simply amazing”, and Coveney enjoyed “ravishing ensemble numbers of carnival and celebration”.

Although all, like Shenton, saw “various characters brought to compelling life”, Todd was among those highlighting Sam Mackay’s Usnavi for “chatty raps” that “take sudden flight in the syncopated slipstream of the Latin numbers”. Coveney found him “compelling and technically brilliant” and also praised “triumphant” Josie Benson and “delightful” Lily Frazer.

Shenton reported “giddy musical and dance pleasures” from a piece that “wears its heart on its sleeve, and its feet”. Gardner found it “utterly huggable… thrillingly exuberant” and “brilliantly enjoyable”, and Todd hailed “musical theatre bursting with new life”.

Runs to 3 Jan 2016, with tickets available via Stagescan.

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Showstopper! The Improvised Musical – Apollo Shaftesbury Ave, 4.2-star average.

This crowd-funded transfer received four- and five-star reviews, most from those who entered as improv sceptics. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) fairly typically compared the prospect of the show to “a summons to purgatory”, before describing “top-dollar amusement… so polished, it defies belief” and awarding five stars. Neil Norman (Express) agreed it “confounds all expectations'”.

Libby Purves (TheatreCat), acknowledging a similar aversion, attributed its charm to “long-trained skill giving itself to the service of pure frivol” as, having “devised and perfected” their concept over eight years, the “tight” company are now “so well-accustomed to picking up off one another… that a crazy, patchwork, but oddly satisfying musical results. Norman saw the “fearless cast” produce characters “in seconds” concluding: “The entire cast is operating by pure telepathy, like veteran jazz musicians”. Cavendish, who saw them “thinking on their feet, never missing a beat” concluded: “Incredible feats of live-wire invention can be achieved when well-honed talent is placed under the spotlight”.

Most felt the show they saw created from audience suggestions, as Purves put it, “beats a lot of full-fledged musicals”. She saw “sudden chorus lines appear, devising appropriate dances” and “whole new musical genres… created on the hoof”. Norman reported: “They even create and sustain an emotional core with feelings of love and loss,”  and Cavendish found the show he saw “satisfyingly satirical yet oddly stirring”. Purves said: “Each time I have seen it , the nonsense builds into huge, harmonic choruses which remind you why even quite lousy musicals jerk the heartstrings.”

Cavendish said: “You had to be there, really you did. But not to worry, there’ll be another one along in a minute.” Purves suggested: “You could acquire a full education in the styles and abilities of musical theatre by going every night,” adding “One is tempted.”  Norman judged it: “Astounding” and Cavendish concluded: “Go.”

Runs to 29 Nov 2015, with tickets available via Stagescan. And if it gives you a taste for superlatively executed silliness, we also have tickets for The Play That Goes Wrong and that team’s latest offering, Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

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Barbarians – Found111 / former Central St Martin’s, 3.8-star average 

A new central theatre space for Tooting Arts Club was discovered for this revived 2012 production, which received four stars from most reviewers. Mark Valencia, (What’s on Stage) described a “devastating trilogy”, which, said Susannah Clapp (Observer), “punches from 1977 and lands today”.

Fiona Mountford (ES) highlighted the building’s history as a punk venue, praising “another high-quality evening of site-responsive theatre” from the “breath-of-fresh-air” company. Valencia summed up: “Three hours, three plays, three venues, three lost souls.” and Clapp felt the venue “becomes a sounding box for rage”.

Mountford found Bill Buckhurst’s production of Barrie Keeffe’s “punchy” trilogy “wonderfully vivid” and Valencia described a “howl into the wind” rendered “immediate”. Clapp felt Keeffe gave the trio “eloquence and fire without losing the sense that self-expression is a struggle” and Valencia thought his “compassion” was “an essence that Buckhurst brings tellingly to the surface”.

Clapp described a production which “makes the audience part of these men’s world, sometimes an oppressive part” describing how, in the first, set “as if in a cafe where the food has died” even the audience “prevent the characters from moving freely”.

Mountford praised “three terrific performances, whose energy levels never falter” and although Valencia agreed, he was among those highlighting Thomas Coombes, the only returner from 2012, as “the most remarkable” as “he grips the attention: angry, pathetic, desperate”. Clapp found him “outstanding…wounded, roaring, never sentimental”.

Mountford acknowledged “a demanding evening” but found it “richly repays all effort”. Clapp was among those suggesting the Young Vic’s forthcoming production “will find it tough to match” its “pummelling force”. Valencia described “a timely reminder of the little our society cares for its disenfranchised youth” with a “shattering” finale, concluding “its power remains extraordinary and its message depressingly relevant”.

Runs to 07 Nov 2015, tickets available from Soho Theatre.

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Finally, a reminder that you can now buy your tickets for many shows direct through Stagescan, at no extra cost.  We currently have a range extending from classics like War Horse, and The Woman in Black to treats like the eagerly-anticipated Pig Farm or heartwarming hit Close To You.

Don’t forget to check as we’re adding new ones all the time.