Faust-Forward

FAUSTUS (THAT DAMNED WOMAN)

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Wednesday 26th February, 2020

 

There is more to gender-swapping in Chris Bush’s take on the Faust tale.  Her protagonist, Johanna Faustus, tries to use the diabolic powers granted her by her pact with Lucifer, to do good in the world.  At first, she is driven by her desire to know whether her executed mother had been, in fact, the witch men claimed her to be – this learned, she races through centuries trying to eradicate death so that notions of heaven and hell will become irrelevant.  At every step, her intentions are thwarted – the Devil is a slippery bastard, after all.

In the title role, Jodie McNee is cranked up to eleven, rarely dialling down to less than an eight.  This works well to show her passion and her drive as she almost bursts with energy.  She does a great deal of pacing around, as though her legs were generating her thoughts.  On the whole this is fine, but every once in a while I feel like crying out, Oh just stand still for a moment.  She is all energy without stillness, all sound but no silence.

Danny Lee Wynter’s laconically foppish Mephistopheles is a treat, understated in his campness, offhandedly confident in his infinite powers – in contrast with Faustus’s incessant hamster-on-a-wheel approach.  Barnaby Power doubles as Johanna’s Dad and as Lucifer, father of lies – there is a suggestion that Johanna’s adventures might be all delusion brought about by her insane obsession with her mother’s cruel demise…

There is strong support from Emmanuella Cole as the tortured mother and later as the cool and collected Dr Garrett, history’s first female physician.  Johanna later befriends Marie Curie (Alicia Charles) and it is these encounters that give the play a Doctor Who educate-and-entertain feel.  The action leaps ahead – there are no strong females in the 20th Century, apparently – and we are in the far future, and what’s left of humanity is still to be saved.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s stunning set evokes the belly of a shipwreck and the ribs of a beached whale.  It is also a time-tunnel, a vortex, an abyss…  Director Caroline Byrne conjures up many effective moments – the workings of supernatural forces are exquisitely done, enhanced by Richard Howell’s lighting and Giles Thomas’s sound and music.  But somehow, the play fails to capture the imagination.  Grand ideas are toyed with but seem undeveloped.  And so, as Johanna Faustus and Mephistopheles, hurtling through time like Bill & Ted, turn out not to have an Excellent Adventure, but something of a Bogus Journey instead.

faustus

Jodie McNee and Danny Lee Wynter (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Hole Lot of Fun

HOLES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020

 

Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.

It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day.  It’s character building, you see.  Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him.  But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.

James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids.  It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better.  Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.

Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace.  Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear.  There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation).  Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda.   Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that.  Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.

Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards.  Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.

The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.

HOLES. Leona Allen, James Backway and Rhona Coker. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Zero and Hero: Leona Allen and James Backway, holed up in a hole while Rhona Croker shines a light (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Many Wrongs Make a Right

PETER PAN GOES WRONG

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th February, 2020

 

Mischief Theatre followed up their mega-hit The Play That Goes Wrong with this adaptation of J M Barrie’s classic.  This one continues the traditions established by the earlier show by framing the performance within the context of an inept am-dram group with their internal dramas and shortcomings foreshadowed and impinging on proceedings.  What makes this one better than the first, to my mind, is that because we are familiar with the source material, our expectations are higher.  We know what should be happening and our expectations are both met and confounded in the same instant.  For example, we know Peter Pan is supposed to come flying in through the bedroom window and we expect something will go awry but when it happens/fails to happen, it’s funnier than we could have hoped.

I won’t give away the shocks and surprises but the show adheres to Sod’s Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong; and so we get collapsing set pieces, props going astray, lighting and sound cues botched, lines mangled, and so on, all while the inner conflicts and agendas of the cast play out in and around Barrie’s much-loved story.

It’s a breath-taking cavalcade of disaster.  Every nightmare every actor ever had is crammed into this catalogue of failures.  And that’s where the success lies.  For everything to go so ‘wrong’, everything must go absolutely right.  The timing is impeccable – I dread to think what the risk assessments are like for this production!

Katy Daghorn’s Wendy brings over-acting to a new low, with dance moves illustrating every phrase.  James Marlowe’s Pan manages to pursue his off-stage womanising despite his experiences on the wires.  Oliver Senton is a scream as long-suffering canine retainer, Nana – and later, he is hilariously unintelligible as pirate Starkey.  Romayne Andrews is suitably one-note as John, being fed his lines by radio feed, and Phoebe Ellabani has an exhausting series of quick changes, switching from Mrs Darling to the maid, often between lines.  Her Tinker Bell comes a cropper in line with Barrie’s narrative, adding another layer of brilliance to the script (by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields).  Patrick Warner carries on doggedly as the Narrator with a wayward chair, and George Haynes’s pain is palpable as he struggles on as Mr Darling and as a Captain Hook who decries audience participation.  Georgia Bradley’s Tootles, afflicted by crippling stagefright (among other things) is good fun, and watch out for Ethan Moorhouse as hapless stage hand ‘Trevor’.  But it is Tom Babbage who wins our hearts, playing ‘Max’ who is only in the show because of a financial contribution.  Yes, this is a version of Peter Pan that gets us rooting for the crocodile!

It’s quite simply one of the funniest nights you will ever have at the theatre and it leaves you marvelling at the skill of the cast who manage to fake all this catastrophe without apparent injury.  The show celebrates the human spirit, to keep going when all around you is collapsing.  The show must go on and so must life!

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' Play on Tour

You’ve been framed! James Marlowe wings it as Peter Pan

 

 


Thrilled to Pieces

REVENGE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 13th February, 2020

 

Robin Hawdon’s thriller from the early 1990s gets a new lease of life in this touring production from the newly-formed Crime and Comedy Theatre Company.  Smarmy MP Bill Crayshaw unwisely admits an unknown woman into his swanky London flat, only for her to reveal she is a journalist keen to expose both his dodgy business practices and his involvement in the death of his party agent just the day before.   To coerce him to answer, she threatens his collection of valuable knickknacks, even smashing a couple of them to pieces, and pretty soon he’s singing like a canary – but, it soon transpires, it’s to his own tune rather than hers.

After a slow start with lashings of exposition, the first act builds to a violent end with gunshots and one of this cat-and-mouse pair on the floor…

Nigel Fairs is effortlessly arrogant as the duplicitous MP (is there another kind?) while Kate Ashmead exhibits sadistic pleasure as ‘Mary’ toying and flirting with her quarry.

As with plays of this type, there is more to it, with twists and turns, shifts of power and reversals of fortune – necessitating further passages of wordy exposition, yet director Louis Jameson (formerly Leela off of Doctor Who, no less!) wisely never lets proceedings become static.  She also handles the big moments effectively, giving us a solid little thriller.  It’s not in the same league as Dial M For Murder or Gaslight, but it’s a taut and engaging couple of hours, well played and well presented, delivering everything you expect from this kind of thing. And of course, we know better to believe a single word that comes from the mouth of a Tory MP, and there is a certain pleasure to be had watching Crayshaw squirm and try to plot his way out of trouble.

Ground-breaking it ain’t, but intriguing it certainly is.

Kate Ashmead and Nigel Fairs in Revenge directed by Louise Jameson credit David Fawbert Photography

Kate Ashmead and Nigel Fairs (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)


Beat box and Bicycles

CRONGTON KNIGHTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020

 

Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain.  The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong.  Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her.  The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway.  As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head.  And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.

The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey.  The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange.  One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.

What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.

Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah.  Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.

As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall.  Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.

The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed.  The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect.  Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling.  It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.

Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told.  Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on.  There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live.  The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.

An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie - photo credit Robert Day

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie (Photo: Robert Day)


History Worth Repeating

THE HISTORY BOYS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, 12th February, 2020

 

Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre continues its recently established policy of producing at least one in-house show per year with this thoroughly excellent staging of Alan Bennett’s modern classic.

Charting the progress of a group of lads as they prepare for Oxbridge applications, this is a hilarious comedy with a serious backbone, as it questions the very nature and purpose of education.  Veteran English master, Hector (a splendid Ian Redford) believes that education should prepare us for what life throws at us, that it should round us out as human beings; fresh out of the box teacher Irwin (a pitch perfect Lee Comley) is of the widely held belief that education is preparation for exams, and he is full of pro-tips to make the boys’ essays stand out from the crowd.  Redmond’s florid outbursts contrast nicely with Comley’s more repressed approach.  Both are superb and infuse their respective roles with subtlety and therefore credibility.

Jeffrey Holland plays against type as the unlikeable Headmaster, all league tables and quantifiable results, in a hugely enjoyable turn, demonstrating once again he can tackle weightier roles and still be very funny.  Victoria Carling mediates as the pragmatic Mrs Lintott, in a wryly humorous portrayal.

And then there are the boys.  Frazer Hadfield’s Scripps is a wizard on the piano.  I enjoy Crowther (Adonis Jenieco) and Timms (Dominic Treacy) in their re-enactment of an old Bette Davis film.  Joe Wiltshire Smith is delightfully blunt as the taciturn Rudge, and there is strong support from Arun Bassi’s Akhtar and James Scofield as Lockwood.  Standouts are Jordan Scowen as the roguishly charming, cock-of-the-walk Dakin, and Thomas Grant, stealing the show as the sensitive, lovelorn Posner while treating us to some wonderful renditions of standards like Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered and the works of Gracie Fields and Edith Piaf.  This is lovely stuff.

Director Jack Ryder gets the tone absolutely right.  The comic timing is impeccable (the French lesson set in a brothel is a hoot) but Ryder pays equal attention to the quietly dramatic moments of Bennett’s superlative script.  Scene transitions are covered by huge video projections, affording us glimpses of life around the school, while 1980s pop hits blare out, to remind us that this is a period piece – although given the state of education today and the obsession with testing and data-compiling, there is much that is relevant still.

With this production the Grand builds on and surpasses previous successes – how they’ll top this one next year remains to be seen.  A key part is the selection of the play.  Here, they get everything right and it’s a real pleasure to see work of such a high quality being produced at my local!

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Ian Redford and Thomas Grant (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

 

 


Bourne Again

THE RED SHOES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 11th February, 2020

 

Celebrated choreographer Matthew Bourne adapts the legendary Powell-Pressburger film of 1948 for his own purposes, crafting the narrative into a spectacular evening of dance and emotion.

This is the story of Victoria Page, aspiring dancer, who gets her big break when the prima ballerina breaks her foot – it’s all a bit 42nd Street in this respect, especially with all the on-stage/off-stage drama.  Victoria becomes an overnight sensation but finds her affections torn between Julian the composer and Boris, the impresario.  It is this love triangle that forms the focus of the tale, with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale taking a back seat.

I’m no dance expert but I recognise quality when I see it (and when someone hits the floor with a full shablam!).  What I can tell you this is a production of unadulterated beauty, brimming with romanticism and passion.  The dancing is flawless and enchanting; as we have come to expect from Matthew Bourne, the storytelling is clear and engaging, with well-defined characters/types and touches of humour.  The plot unfolds in episodic scenes, taking in a range of exotic locations: Paris, Monte Carlo, and, um, Covent Garden, with the set dominated by a false proscenium arch with majestic curtains, dividing the off-stage and the on-, swirling and twirling as part of the choreography, as part of the troupe!

At this performance, Victoria is played by Ashley Shaw, technically tight and powerfully expressive.  She is supported by Reece Causton’s suave but haughty Boris and Dominic North’s energised and passionate Julian.  The rest of the company is equally impressive but in a show in which no one speaks, it is difficult to identify characters; I can’t tell my Nadias from my Svetlanas.  Take it as read that everyone is at the top of their game.  Special mention goes to the two blokes who perform a sand dance in the style of music hall act Wilson and Keppel (what, no Betty?).

One of the biggest stars of the night is the score by film composer Bernard Herrmann (who later went on to score films like Psycho).  Herrmann’s music is stirring, sweeping and rich, with psychological undercurrents and disturbances.  It’s highly emotive and Bourne makes the most of it to support the action.

Totally accessible, Bourne’s blend of contemporary dance, classical ballet and period choreography, delivers an evening of enchantment that is performed with breath-taking skill by a talented company.  This is world-class stuff, powerful, entertaining and admirable.  By the time I finish clapping, my hands are as red as the shoes.

THE RED SHOES

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues. Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page (Photo: Johan Persson)


Happy Slappers

BAND OF GOLD

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2020

 

Kay Mellor’s hit series (which I must confess to never having watched) comes to the stage in this new adaptation.  Retaining its 1990s setting, the story puts sex workers at the forefront of the action, making them the protagonists rather than incidental characters.  We meet Carol (tart with a heart) on the game to provide for her daughter, who was sired by her copper of an ex-boyfriend; there’s Anita (hooker with a cooker) who rents out the flat her fancy man keeps her in for working girls to use); and then there’s Rose (slut with guts) who rules The Lane…

The plot kicks off when newly-separated Gina (Sacha Parkinson) finds selling cosmetics door-to-door is not bringing in enough dosh to pay off the evil loan shark (a menacing Joe Mallalieu) who keeps turning up.  So, with little in the way of soul-searching or agonising, she decides to go on the game – it’s preferable to getting back with her aggressive and abusive husband (a convincingly volatile Kieron Richardson – Ste off of Hollyoaks).  At first, things go well for Gina…

A murder mystery emerges, and with all the male characters being disagreeable, to put it mildly, there’s no shortage of suspects.  Enter Carol’s ex, Inspector Newall (Shayne Ward) back from exile in Wolverhampton, of all places.  Ward is underused – it’s the girls who get to the bottom of things, so to speak.  The show has quite a large cast but there’s not enough time to give them more than fleeting appearances.

As tough-talking Rose, Gaynor Faye (off of Emmerdale) is good value and she is matched by Emma Osman’s plain-speaking Carol and, at this performance, Virginia Byron’s increasingly desperate Anita.  There is strong support from Olwen May as Gina’s mother Joyce, along with Mark Sheals as George, and Andrew Dunn (you know, him from Dinnerladies) as Councillor Barraclough.

The play touches on subjects like women’s empowerment versus their exploitation, the corruption of businesses and local government, the dangers of working the streets… but there is not enough time to examine any of these things in depth.  The shortness of the scenes underlines the show’s origins as television drama.   Mellor packs a lot in at the expense of resonance.  Nevertheless, the show is instantly engaging and there is a rich vein of bluff Northern humour running through it along with some cracking lines (“He’s got a face like a fart in a trance”).  It may be a bit drama-by-numbers, but it’s effortlessly watchable, entertaining fare, although the significance of the title continues to elude me.

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Kieron Richardson and Gaynor Faye (Photo: Ant Robling)

 


Out of the Question

ASKING FOR IT

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 3rd February, 2020

 

Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre is hosting the UK premiere of this Irish production, based on a novel by Louise O’Neill.  At first, Meadhbh McHugh’s adaptation plays like Derry Girls meets Skins, with the school uniforms of the characters emphasising their youth and immaturity.  Like most young people, they’re looking forward to a party where drink and drugs and members of the opposite sex will be freely available.  They’re not an especially appealing bunch, with the lads bringing obnoxious to new levels – is their conduct exaggerated to make a point?  Probably, but not by much, I’d wager.

Emma (Lauren Coe) is our protagonist.  Having previously counselled a friend who was assaulted to say nothing, she finds herself in the same boat when the party takes a dark turn.  An ill-advised sexual encounter degenerates into a gang-rape and photos of the event are plastered all over social media.  Somehow, Emma is to blame.  For the event, for pressing charges, for causing upset to the boys’ poor mothers… Emma becomes increasingly isolated and withdrawn, her entire life a nightmare.

Lauren Coe is superb as the victim, bringing depth to her silences and pain to the voiceovers that work as asides.  As her parents, Dawn Bradfield and Simon O’Gorman give powerful performances, demonstrating clearly the attitudes Emma is up against.  It takes brother Bryan (Liam Heslin) a more-enlightened soul having been away to college, to stand up for his sister and lay the blame where it belongs, squarely at the boys’ feet.  Bryan is fighting a losing battle.

Paul O’Mahony’s changeable set design serves as a range of locations.  Under Sinead McKenna’s lighting and accompanied by Philip Stewart’s sound design, the staging is a nightmarish setting, an assault on our senses.  Loud, discordant music and loud, unsettling sounds contribute to the visceral experience, putting us in Emma’s mindspace.  For the second half, the set closes in, claustrophobically, for a more conventional kitchen-sink scene as the family lash out and thrash out, forcing Emma to make a decision.

Director Annabelle Comyn keeps us gripped throughout the play’s bum-numbing running time, eliciting powerful performances from her young ensemble, and enhancing the experience with stage technology.  Jack Phelan’s video raindrops fall like tears.  A tight spotlight pinpoints Emma and isolates her in darkness.  There is a lot of dark beauty to this production.

Rather than focussing on rape culture, I find the story is more about blame culture – victim-blaming and shaming, that is.  The real culprits are plain for all to see, and we see how they are dealt with.  The play is a clarion call to change all of this.

It’s a stark production that is to be experienced and admired rather than enjoyed.  Never less than engaging, it gets its message across and provokes discussion all the way home.

Lauren Coe as Emma in Asking For It_credit Patrick Redmond (5)

Lauren Coe as Emma (Photo: Patrick Redmond)

 

 


Puppet Masters

THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 12th January, 2020

 

For their tour this winter, the remarkable Oddsocks turn to Carlo Collodi’s classic for children about a sentient puppet who longs to be a real grown-up.  Written and directed by Andy Barrow, this adaptation is fairly faithful to the source material while remaining an undeniably Oddsocks production.  Puppets are a key ingredient of every Oddsocks show.  With this story, they take centre stage.  As ever, there is the comical inventiveness, the slapstick, the wit and overt theatricality – something for everyone.  Adults will revel in the meticulously ramshackle production values and the arch humour, while children become so engaged with the story-telling they shout out, almost involuntarily, advice to the protagonist.  I have seen many, many Oddsocks shows, and they’ve all been fun, but this is the one that has proved most absorbing for youngsters.  Perhaps they identify with Pinocchio’s struggle to become a moral being and a productive member of society.

In the title role, Freya Sharp gives a far from wooden performance.  Her Pinocchio is a naughty boy, bursting with energy and cheeky charm.  Sharp brings clownish physicality to the role, especially early on when Pinocchio is finding his feet.

Andy Barrow appears as Pinocchio’s maker, Geoff Petto (the ‘off’ has dropped off), looking like Einstein’s grandfather but able to match Sharp in terms of physicality.  With only four in his cast, Barrow has to appear in many other roles, including the con-artist Fox and a big-bellied impresario, gloriously named Andrew Floyd Mackintosh.

Jeannie Dickinson is excellent as the Fairy, the con-artist Cat, and I love her Harlequin’s rendition of Puppet On A String.  Danny Hetherington is equally great, appearing as the Cricket, the Policeman, and naughty boy Lampwick – among other roles.  The episodic nature of the plot demands quick changes and versatility from everyone involved.

There are many scene changes, with a set that opens up, revolves and transforms before our very eyes and while we wait – but these transitions are part of the deal, part of the fun.  We may have seen the old two-lengths-of-blue-fabric-form-a-seascape shtick before, but I guarantee you won’t have seen a giant white shark like this one this side of Steven Spielberg!  There are some hilariously gruesome (yet still suitable for kids) special effects, like when Pinocchio falls asleep too close to the fire; and the nose-growing effect made my ribs ache.

Vanessa Anderson’s costumes are another hugely enjoyable part of proceedings, instantly conveying character and encapsulating the Oddsocks spirit of silliness.

Barrow keeps the bonkers nature of Collodi’s story, while tempering the darker aspects and the moralising.  The result is a highly satisfying piece for all the family.  This is theatre at its most fun, in terms of form and content, which is what Oddsocks is all about.

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Toy story: Andy Barrow and Freya Sharp

 


Phantom Menace

GHOST STORIES

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2020

 

Scary shows are rarely done live, and even more rarely, done successfully.  You think of The Woman in Black which continues to put the willies up audiences in the West End decades after it opened – and that’s about it.  Until the advent of this production at the Lyric Hammersmith, which went on to have a decent run and is now embarking on its first national tour.  Written by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, this is an anthology of tales, curated by Professor Goodman (an excellent Joshua Higgott), who in a kind of lecture or TED talk, seeks to debunk the supernatural.  Because there’s a rational explanation for everything.  Isn’t there?

I am under strict instruction not to reveal any of the show’s secrets so I will skate over the subject matter by saying only this.  Each story is completely different and is narrated by a different character, ranging from Paul Hawkyard’s down-to-earth Tony Matthews, to Gus Gordon’s more agitated Simon Rifkind, and to Richard Sutton’s boorish, braggart, Mike Priddle.

What I will tell you is you are in for ninety minutes of suspense, shocks and scares.  I saw the original production at the Lyric; there are more laughs than I remember, some of them the nervous kind, but the script is richly laced with humour, calculated to relieve the tension.  It’s beautifully written; the stories unfold in such a way that they play on your imagination, and the staging of each one is exquisite.  Everyday activities take on an aspect of suspense.  The ordinary is a gateway to the extraordinary…

Technically the show is a marvel of darkness (James Farncombe’s lighting design excels in what it doesn’t reveal as much as what it illuminates) with an unsettling sound design by Nick Manning.  There are jump-scares, sudden loud noises, eerie silences… every trope you might expect, and an almost relentless sense of dread.  You spend a lot of the time dreading what might happen and when things happen, wondering how they do it.  Everything is achieved with impeccable timing and it works brilliantly.

Even on second viewing, the show loses none of its power to grip, to thrill and to entertain.  It’s a funfair ride, a visceral and intellectual experience, addressing dark aspects of the human psyche.  It’s a pleasure to be manipulated in this way. The show is a testament to the power and unique properties of live theatre.  You won’t get frissons like this by watching the movie version on your phone.

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Slick and Slack

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 23rd December 2019

 

If you like your pantomimes to come with lashings of glitz, glamour and spectacle, you come to the Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza – and you won’t be disappointed.   This production, originally staged at the London Palladium last Christmas, stints on nothing as it aims to impress.  The key ingredient for a pantomime to work is its cast and here too, we are not sold short.

The show opens with the Magnificent Seven, the dwarfs, who provide the customary exposition in rhyming couplets.  They handle the verse well and have a big impact – it’s a shame then that they disappear from proceedings for quite a while.  And I feel they could be featured more, in comedy routines – they don’t appear to be lacking in talent.

Joe McElderry is the Spirit of the Mirror, a kind of good fairy; he reminds us how great an entertainer he is and, wisely, director Michael Harrison makes good use of him for musical numbers.  McElderry is paired with handsome Prince Harry of Harborne, rising star Jac Yarrow – their voices fit well together, Yarrow’s musical theatre tones blending with McElderry’s pop star vocals.  They are a duo to be reckoned with.  Yarrow is suitably dashing in princely garb but, like many of the characters, has to play the straight man to comic turn ‘Muddles’ a kind of Buttons character, played by the Hippodrome’s resident panto star, Matt Slack.

Slack, returning for his 120th year – oh, wait, am I confusing it with the theatre’s birthday celebrations? –  has an appreciative fan base in Birmingham, and he has plenty of opportunity to showcase his skills: his impressions, his physicality, his daftness, all of which have an underlying wit and intelligence.  Slack is great at what he does, (although I can find him a little overbearing at times), and his shtick invariably goes down well.  There is nothing slack about his professionalism.

Slack’s brilliance comes at a price.  Consummate pantomime dame Andrew Ryan is underused.  Rather than a comic turn in her own right, his Nanny Annie is a sidekick for Muddles’s shenanigans.  Similarly, delightfully deadpan Doreen Tipton is restricted to being part of the troupe and is not given her moment to shine with a song or a monologue or recitation.

Faye Brooks exudes sweetness as the titular princess.  She sings sweetly too – there is a plot twist that works brilliantly, giving her character more oomph.

But for me the undisputed star of the show is the mighty Lesley Joseph as the wicked Queen Dragonella.  A seasoned pro, Joseph pitches the role perfectly, so we find her villainy delectable and her diva-esque ravings high camp.  She is not above making a laughing-stock of herself and she looks fabulous.  The best panto villain I’ve seen this year.

Everything about the show says quality.  The dancers, the costumes, the beautiful set… Britain’s Got Talent’s urban dance act, Flawless crop up as the palace guards, bringing slick moves and also a sense of humour.  Of course, Matt Slack gets in on the act – and it’s one of the show’s funniest and most impressive moments.

All in all, this slick production is as entertaining as you could wish.  All the right ingredients are there – it’s just that some of them are overpowered by the flavour of others.

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Yass, Queen! Lesley Joseph rules as Queen Dragonella (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 


Tudor Twosome

TALE TRAIL to the Prince and The Pauper

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 21st December 2019

 

While the New Vic’s big Christmas production plays in the main house, tucked away around the back of the theatre, in the Stephen Joseph Studio, is a little gem of a show, a companion piece to the main event.  Aimed at pre-schoolers and their adults, this is a two-handed version of the Mark Twain classic.  First, we meet Tom Canty (Benedict Shaw) in his hovel.  Shaw immediately establishes a rapport with the young audience, eliciting our sympathy from the off.  Tom tells us of his hunger and invites us to imagine what we would eat if we were princes.  We move from the hovel to a street outside the palace – this is a promenade piece, with the Stephen Joseph Studio divided into four of the story’s key locations.  It’s up to us to find somewhere to sit; I find myself on the floor more often than not, but it’s a great vantage point to watch the kids get involved.  And get involved they do.  This lot don’t need much inviting, and the actors have to gauge when to respond and when to press on with the story, without ignoring or upsetting anyone.  It’s a fine line.

Tom encounters Prince Edward (Perry Moore) and the pair agree to see how the other half lives by swapping clothes and situations for a day.  Moore is great as the snooty but likeable prince.  It is when he appears as the snootier, less likable Lord Chamberlain that he is able to fire off his wittiest retorts.  We move through the palace garden to the palace itself, a lavishly decorated room with Tudor portraits and plenty of shiny bric-a-brac.  In his guise as the prince, Tom exhorts us to gather knickknacks to donate to a poor man so he can buy food.  “We still have plenty left,” he points out to the flabbergasted Chamberlain.

There are plenty of opportunities for interaction without resorting to pantomime shout-outs in this charming, funny and touching piece of theatrical storytelling, and there is much to enjoy even if your preschool days are far behind you.   Running at about fifty minutes, it’s a delicious, heart-warming treat to savour.

The piece draws on the innate kindness of small children and makes me wonder what happens to people that makes them lose this precious quality.  The message of social justice and equality may be simplified and simplistic but at heart it’s still a good one.   “We all need to share so we can all have enough,” concludes Tom Canty and it’s a message that is not just for Christmas but for life.

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Prince Perry Moore and Pauper Benedict Shaw

 

 


Serving Fish

UNFORTUNATE – The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

The Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 17th December 2019

 

Fat Rascal are back in town with another hilarious new musical.  Following up their hit show Vulvarine and previous Disney parody, a gender-swapped Beauty and the Beast, they turn their merciless attention to another animated classic, Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Our protagonist is the film’s antagonist, the sea witch herself.  In a Wicked kind of way, the script by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx, gives the villain a back story, and we see the other characters through the prism of her bitterness.  The story then takes us through an extremely funny piss-take of the film.  If you have detailed knowledge of the original work, (as I have) you will appreciate the comic business at play, as moments, some large and some small, are recreated and held up for mockery.

Robyn Grant herself appears as Ursula, looking fabulous in her tentacled frock.  There is more than a hint of Katherine Hepburn to her drawling, high camp performance and the glint never leaves her blue-shadowed eyes.  A liaison with Triton, back when he was a prince, leads to her banishment in the dark waters, but the couple’s mutual attraction never fades.  Triton, now king of the ocean, seeks the sea witch’s help with his wayward daughter, the incredibly thick, Essex-toned Ariel (a brilliant characterisation by Katie Wells).  Ariel falls for upper-class twit of a human, Prince Eric, a dimwit with a silver spoon in his mouth and a flute in his pocket.  Jamie Mawson is terrific as the Prince – the playing is as broad as the humour, but the show is not without its sophistications.

Allie Munro chunters and nags as the crab Sebastian – presented here as Oirish rather than Caribbean, delivering one of the highlights of the score, ‘Under The Waves’.  Later, Sebastian sings about the importance of gaining consent before you kiss the girl – an important message served up in a fun way.  Fat Rascal never lecture but there are lessons for us in all their works.  Steffan Rizzi is in great voice as Triton and everyone is involved in operating some puppet fish and other creatures for additional silliness.  At times it seems like there is more than just five actors in the company.

The film references come as fast as the jokes.  The lyrics, also by Grant and Foxx, are witty and, like the dialogue, are peppered with perfectly placed profanities.  The tunes, by Tim Gilvin, stay just the right side of plagiarism, sending up the Disney hits as well as including some fine showtunes.

It’s light-hearted, filthy fun that will change the way you look at a dinglehopper for good.  Scramble to get a ticket; to miss this marvellously funny work of genius would be, well, unfortunate.

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Squids in! Robyn Grant as Ursula (Photo: Matt Cawrey)

 

 


Dress To Impress

THE BOY IN THE DRESS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th December 2019

 

I have seen quite a few stage adaptations of David Walliams’s bestselling children’s books, ranging from rather good to brilliant.  This musical one, with script by Mark Ravenhill, lyrics by Guy Chambers, and music by none other than Robbie Williams, is the RSC’s bid to match the success of its Roald Dahl-meets-Tim-Minchin megahit, Matilda (which is still running in the West End a decade later).

This is the story of Dennis Sims, who feels different in a world of ordinary people.  His mum has walked out, leaving Dennis with his older brother John, and their Dad, who can’t cope, handle emotion, or serve proper meals.  Everything changes when Dennis is irresistibly drawn to a copy of Vogue magazine at the local newsagent’s; he teams up with local stunner Lisa James and before long he’s venturing out, dragged up as a French exchange student, complete with wig, beret, and a gorgeous orange sequinned dress.  Controversy is not far behind, jeopardising Dennis’s education and (seemingly more importantly) his place on the football team.

Playing Dennis tonight is the stunningly magnificent Oliver Crouch, who sings like an angel (not a cue for an old Robbie track), shows impressive range as an actor (I’m in tears ten minutes in) and whose dancing would have the Strictly judges adding extra zeroes to their ’10’ paddles.  Honestly, I have never seen a better performance from a child star, and Crouch continues to amaze as the show goes on.  A stellar, heartfelt and funny performance.  He will knock your frocks off.

The second time I well up with tears is when Dennis puts on the orange dress for the first time.  It is a moment of revelation, transformation and self-acceptance, building to an all-out discoball drag number that is absolutely joyous.

Rufus Hound pitches the depressed Dad perfectly – the third time the tears are wrung from me is his eventual acceptance of his remarkable son.  Natasha Lewis is an absolute hoot as Darvesh’s embarrassing mother, and Irvine Iqbal is a real treat as newsagent Raj (a character who features in every David Walliams book I’ve come across).  Max Gill’s Big Mac is a study in infatuated schoolboy nervousness, while Alfie Jukes finds a balance between oafishness and affection as Dennis’s big brother John.  Asha Banks shines as schoolgirl stunna Lisa James, and the mighty Forbes Masson storms it as the gleefully hateful headmaster Mr Hawtrey (the characters share surnames with Carry On actors).

The score is marvellous, catchy and tuneful, and is Williams’s best work.  Take that, Gary Barlow!  Ravenhill’s adaptation brings the book to life, with tweaks rather than changes, adding topical references to update the action to today.  Robert Jones’s design maintains a colour palette restricted to mainly greys and blues (so that Dennis’s orange dress really ‘pops’) and the set consists of movable houses that open up to provide interiors, wheeled around by the cast.  Gregory Doran’s direction delivers all the emotion and humour of the story – the football matches, for example, are inventively and hilariously staged.

It’s a joy from start to finish, tickling your funny bone and tugging at your heartstrings, and it makes me think how bloody daft it is that we impose gender norms on the way people dress.  “Everyone should be able to wear what they want,” asserts Lisa James.  You go, girl!

A great story, brilliantly presented, that looks like it could match Matilda for longevity – it certainly deserves too.  And Oliver Crouch must have a glittering career ahead of him, and I don’t necessarily mean on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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Masterful: Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC copyright

 

 


Small but perfectly formed

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 14th December, 2019

 

Stratford’s intimate Attic theatre may not seem a suitable venue for pantomime but clearly Tread The Boards Theatre Company, returning for their tenth Christmas show, know how to make it work.  What we lose in scale and spectacle is more than compensated for by closeness and directness.  Director Jennifer Rigby delivers all the crucial elements for a traditional show; the reach-out-and-touch properties of the space add a personal touch.  We are all in it, inescapably, and the proximity of the actors adds to the fun and to our admiration of their talents.

John-Robert Partridge’s script gives the cast of seven plenty to do.  Annaliese Morgan makes an appealing and fun Fairy Beansprout, brandishing a leek for some reason instead of a wand.  Contrasting perfectly with her sweetness, is the sneering Danny Teitge as the Giant’s menacing henchman, Fleshcreep, in a detailed, hilarious performance that accentuates the comedy of the role.  Jack Scott-Walker is suitably heroic as Jack, and his duet with the Princess (Nicolette Morgan) demonstrates his fine singing voice.  The Princess is spirited and fun-loving, definitely not one of those royals who keeps herself aloof.

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A Fleshcreep to make your skin crawl: Danny Teitge (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)

Marc Alden-Taylor quickly establishes himself as a favourite, swiftly befriending the audience and enlisting us into his ‘gang’ in a skilful portrayal of Simple Simon.  The comic timing is spot on and his rapport with the audience, especially the children, is hugely enjoyable.  There is energetic support from Linden Iliffe as a perky Lord Chamberlain, but the icing on this Christmas cake comes in the form of Pete Meredith’s superlative Dame Trot.  Naughty but never vulgar, Meredith is a hoot with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of garish gowns and colourful wigs that complement his characterisation perfectly.

There are amusing scenes with Daisy the Cow (appearing as herself) and the Giant is heard but never seen – in fact it is here, that there’s a slight issue: the sound mix makes the Giant a bit hard to understand when he has prolonged dialogue, but the actions and reactions of the cast mean that we still get the gist of what he’s booming on about.

There are plenty of jokes and lots of well-worn routines: a bit of It’s-Behind-You with a prowling ghost, some silliness in a schoolroom scene, a breakneck rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas, a hilarious, if extraneous, balloon ballet that elicits belly laughs… and there is also excitement with an impressive bout of swordfighting between Jack and Fleshcreep, all the more thrilling at such close quarters.  Running business with a bag of sweets keeps us actively engaged, but more could be made of the water pistols given to young audience members to ward characters off particular areas of the stage.

A highlight for me is a brand-new original song, composed by the excellent musical director Elliott Wallis and sung by Danny Teitge (with support from Daisy the Cow).  Teitge’s delivery and Wallis’s skill make the number sound as if it has been lifted from a Broadway show.  It fits perfectly the character and the context and is performed exquisitely.

In fact, the cast sells all the musical numbers well, with lively pop choreography by Catherine Prout, and when they all sing together it’s fantastic.  The energy never flags in this fine, fun production that proves you don’t need grand spectacle and expensive effects to enchant and entertain.

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Daisy the Cow (herself) and Jack (Jack Scott-Walker) in a mooving scene (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)

 

 

 


A Grand night out

DICK WHITTINGTON

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th December, 2019

 

It’s the 125th birthday of this beautiful theatre and what better way to celebrate than to attend the annual pantomime?  Written and directed by Ian Adams, this is an old-school show with plenty of spectacle, traditional fare and topical gags, something to keep everyone entertained.

Coronation Street’s Ryan Thomas is the eponymous Dick, and he does a good job as the working-class hero and all-round good guy.  He could do with some more audience interaction – this is left largely to the comic characters, such as Aaron James as Idle Jack (a brilliant impressionist and affable fellow) and Ian Adams’s Sarah the Cook, a saucy music-hall character and a double-entendre machine.  Adams gives a masterclass in pantomime damery.

Jeffery Holland, himself one of the best dames in the business, has the straighter role of Alderman Fitzwarren.  We are in safe hands here.  Holland, at the forefront of time-honoured routines like the mop drill, makes the material work, whether you’ve seen it a hundred times or are coming to it for the first time, as many of the younger members of the audience are.

Su Pollard tries her best as the villainous Queen Rat, stalking around like someone from an office Halloween party.  She is great at her musical numbers but there is a conflict between her persona and her role, as if she wants us to like her and not like to hate her.  I would have cast her as a novice Fairy Bow Bells, seeking to earn her wings (aka yellow coat).

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Su Pollard as Queen Rat

Not that there is any problem with the Fairy Bow Bells we get.  Julie Paton exudes a kind of authoritative benevolence; there is something of Julie Andrews about her – again, we are in very safe hands.  Paton also choreographs and there is a dazzling routine where everyone is seated, a kind of convoluted hand jive that is as charming as it is complex.

Katie Marie-Carter sings sweetly as love interest Alice Fitzwarren but the show is just about stolen by Jordan Ginger as rather posh talking cat Tommy.

The script is peppered with quickfire hit-or-miss gags so you hardly stop laughing.  We don’t get the underwater scene we might expect in this panto and, curiously, with Sarah the Cook on board we don’t get a slapstick cooking scene.  We do get a scary surprise to close the first act and – because it’s gala night tonight, there is an extra-special guest appearance from veteran comic Jimmy Tarbuck himself!  Tarbuck comes on dressed as a sultan, does a few gags and reminiscences a bit, urging us to cherish this grand and beautiful venue.

It occurs to me that this may be the only pantomime based on an historical figure – unless you write in and tell me there was indeed a Mother Goose – but what matters here is the story still works as a piece of family entertainment, and its presented here by highly skilled professionals and with oodles of cheekiness and charm.

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Aaron James, Ian Adams and Jeffery Holland

 


How Does He Smell?

CYRANO DE BERGERAC

The Playhouse, London, Saturday 7th December, 2019

 

Jamie Lloyd’s brand-new staging of Edmond Rostand’s beloved classic is not what you might expect.  Gone are the period costumes, the plumed hats, the swords.  There is not even a nose – we are left to imagine the legendary proboscis.  We are left to imagine most of it.

The stage is just about bare: a white box with the odd plastic chair and raised area.  The cast line up, like performers in a radio play with handheld microphones.  Their attire is contemporary urban.  Somebody beatboxes – oh God, we’re at a rap battle, or a spoken-word ‘slam’ or whatever.  My heart sinks.

It takes me a while to acclimatise to the staging.  Lloyd barely lets his actors address each other directly.  Instead they face out and we are in Peep Show territory, where the audience’s point-of-view is that of the person being spoken to.  It’s effective but it also keeps a distance between the characters.  Any intimacy they might express is put through the prism of our imagination.

Martin Crimp’s new translation serves the original well, in terms of plot, and his verse rattles along with wit and lyricism.  Occasionally, the direction distracts with moments of bravura that take us out of the moment, so we notice how clever it is.  A scene with characters swapping seats has a musical chairs aspect; it works, in terms of the love triangle but keeps us at bay.  What then, with all these alienating moments, are we meant to be considering intellectually?  I think we’re meant to be swept away by the seductive power of the words, and there are moments when we are.

This is very much an ensemble piece but inevitably, James McAvoy in the title role commands our attention.  His Cyrano is a skinhead in a leather jacket, with the strength and aggression of a soldier, the wit and aptitude for writing of a poet, the facility with language necessary to make him the best.  The pangs of unrequited love reveal the man beneath the braggadocio.  McAvoy invests the role with a charismatic intensity.  The iconic scene where Cyrano impersonates Christian to woo Roxane is hilarious, but also layered.  Rostand’s hero is there, coming to the fore, and he still has the power to move us.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxane is intelligent and headstrong, effing and blinding like a soldier in this male-dominated sphere.  Eben Figueiredo’s handsome Christian sounds like a chav.  Figueiredo brings out the character’s inner conflict, making the character more than a pretty face.  There is strong support from Michele Austin as Ragueneau the poetry-loving baker, and Tom Edden’s snooty De Guiche is more than a pompous antagonist.

Somehow, the romance and dramatic irony of Rostand’s tale come through for a moving denouement, not despite of but somehow because of the stylised staging, the non-naturalistic approach successfully engages our emotions.   A woman seated near me is in floods.

By the end, I am sold on it and can even admire the beat-boxing, but I miss the panache, the sword-fighting, and the nose.

 

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Street Pete

PETER PAN Reimagined

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 5th December, 2019

 

Director Liam Steel follows up last year’s whirlwind of a successful Wizard of Oz with this new version of the immortal JM Barrie classic.  Instead of Edwardian London, the action is updated and translocated to present-day Birmingham, a rundown block of flats.  Odd then that Steel should cast his Wendy as a Scottish lass, undermining the show’s much-touted local identity.  Don’t get me wrong: Cora Tsang is fine in the role.  This Wendy is a mardy young teenager, snarky with Jess, the latest in a long line of foster mums, in the show’s downbeat beginning.  All kitchen sink drama.  In fact, scenes that usually transpire in the children’s bedroom all happen in the kitchen, linking Wendy with domesticity, mothering, and care-giving, as though this might be her inescapable fate.

With Hook played by a woman (doubling as the foster mother) themes of motherhood and gender roles are brought to the fore.  The Lost Ones crave the discipline of structure that a mother would bring, while Wendy, rejecting it in her home life, plays along when in Neverland.  Speaking of Neverland, it’s a joyous place, bedecked with graffiti and urban deprivation – Wendy’s fantasy life is as bleak as her reality.  The setting robs Neverland of its storybook exotica and its sense of wonder.  There are some instances of technical creativity, with some rather splendid and scary mermaids and a beautiful bird made out of a detergent box but it’s all a bit too dark, I find.

The cast is great.  Lawrence Walker’s Peter Pan looks a bit grown-up but it’s the playing that gives him his boyish exuberance.  He has more Shadows than Cliff Richard, in a brilliant piece of staging.  Mollie Lambert is thoroughly credible as Wendy’s younger brother Michael.  And there is some great energy from the gang of Lost Ones, and from the Pirates (who look like refugees from a Mad Max film).  Mirabelle Gremaud genuinely bends over backwards to perform as Tink, who has her own fairy language, which is funny, and a strong singing voice, which is lovely, but she looks like a character from a 1970s sci-fi programme.   Charlotte Merriam’s thick Brummie sidekick Smee is a marked contrast to the mighty Nia Gwynne, resplendent as Captain Hook.  Gwynne plays it old-school villain, high camp and delivering her lines with relish – many of which are lifted from Barrie.  Costume designer Laura Jane Stanfield has given her the best outfit, with a gilded hook and even a galleon for a hat.

There is a strange mix of childish innocence and naivety with the harder edge of the music; Peter doesn’t know what a kiss is but he can drop sick rhymes like a pro.  The assertive nature of the rapping and the hip-hop is slickly performed but doesn’t sit well with the kids’ yearning for Happy Families and Cinderella.

The script, by Liam Steel and Georgia Christou, has plenty of fun, and JM Barrie rises to the surface every now and then, and I want to enjoy it more than I do.  I suppose it comes down to Neverland and this end of Birmingham being essentially the same place that stops the show from taking off.

PETER PAN,

Off the hook! Nia Gwynne (Photo: Johan Persson)

 


Phat Lot of Seuss

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS – The Musical

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s Christmas classic is given the Broadway treatment in this vibrant musical version by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) with music by Mel Marvin.  As the years pass, I feel a growing affinity with the Grinch, a hermit-like, curmudgeonly Scrooge of a creature who begrudges the simple townsfolk their seasonal cheer.  He is the Anti-Santa, entering people’s homes and taking stuff away – although even I stop short of burglary.

John Lee Beatty’s set design draws heavily on the Seuss illustrations, with their off-kilter, pen-and-ink style.  Robert Morgan’s costumes follow suit, padded to alter the shape of the actors, especially those playing the Whos, the peculiar race of Christmas worshippers.  Add to the mix Ben Cracknell’s luscious lighting design, and you have a weird and wonderful world straight out of a storybook.  Production values certainly are high – just look at the size of the chorus!

Steve Fortune is Old Max, formerly the Grinch’s dog.  He is our narrator, our link to the past.  Fortune has a strong and pleasant baritone, which he gets to demonstrate in his rendition of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch – a song from an animated TV version of years ago.  The song is more well-known in the States than over here, so later, an audience singalong doesn’t really come off.

Playing Young Max is Matt Terry, last seen as a lion in Madagascar.  Terry seems to be carving out a career playing animals in musicals, and why not?  He is excellent at it, and this show gives him chance to show off his movement skills, even with his padded costume, and his vocal talents.

Holly Dale Spencer shines as Mama Who, with a fine singing voice, and a quirky way of moving.  There is a touch of mania in her eyes that is just delicious.  Together with Alan Pearson as Papa Who, and Karen Ascoe’s Grandma (in a towering pink wig like a dollop of ice cream) and David Bardsley (a sprightly Grandpa), there is a lovely quartet as the adults prepare the house on Christmas Eve.  The score is rich, and very Broadway, with catchy tunes and Sondheimesque phrasing.

Tiny Isla Gie almost steals the show as cute-as-a-button Cindy Lou Who, who interrupts the Grinch’s housebreaking.  She holds her own in a hugely impressive performance, like Shirley Temple with an edge.  Matt August’s direction allows a satirical touch so that things never get too saccharine or cloying.  The show delivers its message that Christmas is not about consumerism and brand names but those with whom you share it.

Now to the Grinch himself.  Edward Baker-Duly is just magnificent.  He makes the role his own with some cartoony reactions and some masterful showmanship.  One of a Kind is an old-fashioned showstopper.  This is a villain to be cherished and enjoyed – and I enjoy his throwaway topical references.

This crazy, stylish, funny and tuneful show has heart and is a welcome alternative to all the versions of A Christmas Carol that are out there.  It will get you in the feels; it even melted this cold-hearted Grinch of a reviewer.

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The Cat’s Pyjamas

PUSS IN BOOTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 29th November, 2019

 

This is the first pantomime of the season for me and it’s a cracker.  Belgrade stalwarts Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth return for the umpteenth year on the trot for the rarely staged story of a crafty cat who helps his master to social climb his way to the palace, defeating a terrible ogre along the way.  The pair work superbly as a double act, with Lauchlan as the dame, Matilda Pudding, and Hollingsworth as her son, Simon.   They are also superb on their own, with Hollingsworth in particular working the audience.  His persona is cheeky and easily annoyed; the comic timing is impeccable.  Lauchlan gives a masterclass in panto-damery, with a succession of ridiculous outfits, charming humour and an irrepressible sense of fun.  Lauchlan also writes and directs, and is clearly some kind of genius.

Iain Lauchlan (Matilda Pudding) and Craig Hollingsworth (Simon Pudding) - credit Robert Day

The Puddings: Matilda (Iain Lauchlan) and Simon (Craig Hollingsworth) Photo: Robert Day

The rest of the cast, for the most part, rise to the standard of the star pair, given the stock limitations of their roles.  Aimee Bevan warms into her duties as our narrator Fairy Flutterby; David Gilbrook is suitably doddery as good King Colin; and Miriam Grace Edwards makes a gutsy Princess Sophia.  As the villain, evil jester Victor Grabitt, Peter Watts is enormous fun, sinister, snide and camp in the melodramatic sense, he is a joy to watch.

The chorus is fleshed out with a troupe of local children, who tackle Jenny Phillips’s choreography with panache.  Among the grown-up dancers, Dylan Jones distinguishes himself with some spectacular urban moves, as well as an engaging sense of humour.  Daniel Teague appears as the Ogre, in a delightfully scary moment – this show has plenty to engage the children and get them shouting and pointing at the stage.

In the title role, Joanna Thorne is dashingly heroic with a lively touch of comedy.  The role is a blend of principal boy and a skin part, but it also lets girls in the audience that females can be proactive.  Thorne has a strong singing voice – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more of it.

Lauchlan’s script successfully combines traditional routines with bang up-to-date new elements: we are invited to submit ogre-faced selfies to an Instagram account during the interval; Simon Pudding first appears via face-time… Lauchlan thereby upholds the audience expectations of the form, while keeping the form fresh and current, and of course there is plenty of saucy humour to keep the adults laughing.

Non-stop fun from start to finish, this is a refreshing change from the ‘big’ pantos that always do the rounds (the Aladdins, the Cinderellas, the Dicks) and a fantastic way to get into the festive spirit.  As ever, it’s great to see such a diverse audience at the Belgrade, demonstrating that pantomime truly is for everyone and that theatre can bring us together.

Joanna Thorne (Puss in Boots) and Peter Watts (Victor Grabbit) 2 - credit Robert Day

Joanna Thorne as Puss in Boots and Peter Watts as Grabitt (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

 


Fine and Dandy

ADAM ANT: Friend or Foe

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th November, 2019

 

Years ago, back when the Odeon on Birmingham’s New Street was a music venue, I saw Adam and the Ants play, with a huge pirate ship filling the stage.  Adam Ant was up and down that rigging like nobody’s business.  It is a fond memory of one of the first gigs I ever attended.  Now, many years later, he is back, sans Ants, with a concert version of his solo album from 1982, Friend or Foe – the one with hits like Goody Two Shoes and Desperate But Not Serious, both of which prove to be highlights of tonight’s set.   The exuberant brass section that colours the album is here replaced by guitars (along with the signature pair of drummers) giving the set a heavier, raunchier overall sound.

The theme from old TV series The Saint plays the band onstage, setting the tone nicely (and dating most of the audience!) and the set opens with the album’s title track.  Ant looks fabulous, of course, belying his age and he’s in excellent voice.  This is quickly followed by Something Girls, which includes some of the best whistling since One Man and His DogPlace in the Country is faster, reinvigorated; we are rattling through the album at quite a lick.  Hello, I Love You (a cover of The Doors) is just about perfect, followed by the autobiographical Goody Two Shoes, which is joyous – anything that follows this banger is bound to sound weak by comparison, so Crackpot History and the Right to Lie seems like the wrong kind of gear change.

The album concludes with the instrumental, Man Called Marco which affords Ant the chance to step and trip around with those snake hips of his – he is wearing the skinniest fit trousers and tight boots that give his legs a spindly, insect-like aspect.  Perhaps he is turning into an ant after all.

“Here are some more songs you might enjoy,” he says, ushering us into Greatest Hits territory, kicking off with Dog Eat Dog – which is like Ennio Morricone doing metal.   Antmusic provides the best moments of the night; it’s just fantastic, and I enjoy the opportunity to revisit older tracks from his early punk days, such as Zerox and Car TroublePrince Charming is an anthem and a call to arms, with its war cry introduction and its mantra, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” – words to live by, indeed!   Puss In Boots is great fun, and Kings of the Wild Frontier is stunning, with its darker edge, but it is Stand And Deliver, closing the set, that proves the most exhilarating.  “The way you look,” Ant sings, “you’ll qualify for next year’s old-age pension.”  Well, the lyrics might be catching up with him, but you’d never guess to see and hear him play.  The outfits are less flamboyant but he still cuts a dashing figure.  The man who brought theatricality and fun to post-punk music is still going strong.

The encore is comprised of three ancient tracks, Press Darlings, Red Scabs, and You’re So Physical and while it’s a rare opportunity to hear them with this richer, fuller sound, I kind of hanker for something poppier, like Apollo 9 for example, so we can have a good old singalong before we go.

A wonderful evening that reminded me why I loved him so much in the first place.  Antastic!

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Adam Ant (Photo: Barry Brecheisen)


Blue Blood Brothers

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 23rd November, 2019

 

The New Vic’s Christmas show is always a special treat but this year they have outdone themselves with this stylish and inventive staging of the Mark Twain classic tale.  This adaptation by director Theresa Heskins puts us at the heart of a Tudor theatre, with the New Vic’s auditorium decked out to look a bit like The Globe.  A troupe of players comes on, singing the prologue to Henry V – so the artifice and theatricality of the piece are to the forefront of the storytelling.  Later, when the players appear as characters themselves, there’s another layer.  There’s a lot to unpick here between the story and the telling.

As Tom Canty, the titular pauper, Nichole Bird is as chirpy a Cockney as you could ever hope to meet, wide-eyed with wonder; the deprivation and hardships of his upbringing have not hardened his heart.  Danielle Bird’s lookalike prince Edward is suitably toffish, with more than a hint of our own Prince Charles to her intonations.  Again, we see that despite his rarefied and privileged upbringing, the boy has a good heart and can exercise compassion.  When they swap clothes so each can sample life on the other side of the palace gates, they find that it’s not all cakes and ale, or street entertainment.  Both Birds are excellent – you couldn’t pick between them – providing the energy at the heart of the story.

Tom Richardson is a kindly, ebullient Henry VIII, and Jasmin Hinds gives us a fun young Princess Elizabeth, but my favourite of the royals presented here has to be Gareth Cassidy’s pious and pompous Mary Tudor, gliding around in the dress he jumps in and out of, forecasting direness and doom.  Cassidy is comedy gold whatever he does.  He pairs up with Richardson as a couple of Beefeaters, who are equally funny apart as they are together.

Kieran Buckeridge possesses, I hope he won’t mind me saying, the most Tudor face of the company, as he charms with a range of roles including the Player Manager and the Chamberlain.  Matthew Ganley’s Fool transforms into the aggressive, abusive Pa Canty, while Sufia Manya’s Ma Canty adds emotional depth.

Everyone in the company performs with such detail, I’m sure you can’t possibly see everything they do with all the running around in this action-packed show.  The point is, wherever you’re seated, whichever way you’re looking, there’s something delightful going on.  The cast also bring on instruments to play, and these are integrated into the action, even the fights!

And such music!  Genius composer James Atherton pulls yet another marvellous score from his bag, with string instruments, reeds, drums and a trumpet providing the period flavour.  It’s never twee and there is often a melancholic undertone.  It’s sublime – culminating in a stirring rendition of Pastime With Good Company, Henry VIII’s biggest hit.   The show also features a surreal version of Greensleeves, with sentient topiary creating a moving maze.

It’s a lavish production – lavish in ideas and atmosphere.  Lis Evans’s costumes are gorgeous, creating most of the historical feel.  Laura Willstead’s set design of parquetry and Tudor roses unifies stage and audience with its wraparound frieze of tiny Tudor London.

Theresa Heskins’s script is faithful to the Twain but with the added fun of being peppered with Shakespearean references, some of them more obvious than others.  There are also nods to other poets – and the dialogue, mannered to sound Tudor-ish, never sounds false or forced.

As expected, we get plenty of distance combat, giving the violence a cartoon feel.  There’s the letter-chucking that works so well – you know when you’re watching a Heskins show!  But there are plenty of surprises too.  Heskins is a director who knows what works and when to use it.  As a result, you are thoroughly spellbound throughout by this funny, engaging, thought-provoking, educational and heart-warming story.

Definitely not a horrible history, this show is fit for a prince – or a pauper like me.

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Nichole and Danielle Bird as the pauper and the prince (Photo: Phil Radcliffe/Stoke Sentinel)

 

 

 


Train of Events

ONE UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 20th November, 2019

 

Winsome Pinnock’s 2005 play gets a reworking in this touring production from Graeae Theatre Company and the Theatre Royal Plymouth.  Nella’s friend Cyrus, who does odd jobs around her house, was the driver of the train that killed her adopted son, Sonny, when he jumped from the platform.  Cyrus is seeking atonement and also answers.  He tries to piece together Sonny’s final days, looking for clues.  Sonny’s sister Zoe recognises him from the inquest and warns him off…

Pinnock reveals the action on a fractured timeline, which adds to the intrigue.  This is not so much a who- as a WHYdunit.  The more we discover, the more we realise we can never truly know what’s going on in someone’s mind.  We meet Sonny in flashbacks: are the fantasies he uses to entertain Christine from the launderette merely banter, or do they stem from paranoid delusion?  Ultimately, we are left with questions and an absence of resolution – but to me, this is harder hitting and more thought-provoking.

Amit Sharma directs a taut quintet with an assured hand.  Pinnock’s naturalistic dialogue is given room to elucidate and obfuscate, even though the setting (a neat, abstract multi-purpose space, designed by Amelia Jane Hankin) is stylised and undefined.  What comes across is the humanity of all involved – and there are some very powerful moments indeed.

Stanley J Browne gains our empathy at once as the traumatised train driver, trying to get a handle on things.  Shenagh Govan shines as den-mother Nella, as does Clare-Louise English as Christine, the woman upon whom Sonny lavishes attention and a load of money.  Evlyne Oyedokun is utterly credible as the daughter looking out for her mum’s interests, and Reece Pantry’s Sonny almost has me in tears – until I’m made to question whether his mental episode is just a joke, as Sonny claims…

In a play where nothing is fully explained only implied or hinted at, the audience is called upon to use their intelligence – we all love a mystery.  But this piece points out, quite starkly, that life isn’t like a whodunit.  Sometimes, you never find an answer, and sometimes love isn’t enough.

Intriguing, bewildering, moving and tragic, this is a piece that will stay with you long after the cast take their well-earned bows.

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Reece Pantry and Stanley J Browne (Photo: Patrick Baldwin)


Julie, Madly, Deeply

AFTER MISS JULIE

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th November, 2019

 

Aspect Theatre’s follow-up to the excellent Duet for One is this play by Patrick Marber from 2003, which is based on Strindberg’s 1888 drama.  The action is transposed to an English country house in 1945, when post-war Britain is heady from the landslide victory of the Labour Party (aka ‘the good old days’!)  Rather than join her father in London, Miss Julie stays at home to party with the servants.  She has designs in particular on John, her father’s chauffeur, who is loosely engaged to Christine, the cook.  The scene is set for a triangular battle of wills.

Katherine Parker-Jones is excellent as the eponymous Julie, giving a complex characterisation.  Here is Julie’s fragility and haughtiness, her vulnerability and pain, her self-loathing and her imperiousness – all at the mercy of her baser desires.  She is both predator and prey.

As the object of Julie’s attentions, John Lines makes chauffeur John a man torn between duty and desire, between propriety and possibility.   He is tantalised by the prospect of a new life in New York, liberated from the rigidity of the class system, all the while despising what Julie represents and yet desiring her as a woman.  This pair are messed up, I’m telling you!

By contrast, Lizzie Crow as Christine the plain-speaking cook, knows her mind and her place and has a more pragmatic approach.  Crow’s silences speak volumes – it’s a compelling performance – and when she lets rip, it is to take the moral high ground (albeit somewhat hypocritically).

Director Marc Dugmore establishes and maintains an intimately naturalistic feel – a good fit for the snug space at the Attic, and Patrick Marber’s writing touches on the symbolism that is indicative of the material’s Scandinavian origins.  The fate of a pet bird, for example, represents the deflowering of Miss Julie.

The long table that dominates Katherine Parker-Jones’s set design represents the class system: it is used properly by the servants, but Julie breaks conventions and sits on it, even serves herself up on it at one point.  There is a lot to unpack here, raising the stakes beyond that of a three-handed domestic spat.

It’s a gripping 75 minutes of top-quality drama that asks us to examine that which we perhaps cannot escape or avoid: our place in the class system and our own animalistic nature.

A splendid production that manages to be both classy and sordid at the same time!

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Drama is served: Katherine Parker-Jones and John Lines

 


Stella Performance

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 10th November, 2019

 

When she has nowhere else to go, fading Southern belle Blanche Du Bois rocks up at her sister’s seedy place in the ironically named Elysian Fields – her sojourn turns out to be more like a visit to Hades.  From the get-go, playwright Tennessee Williams indicates that all is not how it seems, making us privy to the lies Blanche tells others about how little she drinks.  It then becomes a matter of time for her sordid secrets to come to light, and in true Williams tradition, for the spectre of homosexuality to rear its degenerate head (although it is only ever implied).

As Blanche, Annie Swift captures the airs and graces of the role, keeping the mannerisms and declarations on the right side of camp, lest the character become a laughingstock.  As the fantasies with which Blanche shields herself are stripped away, she becomes increasingly unable to cope with grim reality, resulting in mental decline.  Doing the bulk of the stripping is brutish brother-in-law Stanley (Ollie Jones) a domineering primate, bully and domestic abuser.  Jones is fine in the role; his Stanley has a sharpness rather than a brooding quality.  Beth Gilbert is excellent as the put-upon but feisty Stella, the bridge between her sister and her husband, between Blanche’s former life and this new, unwelcome and unsettling one.

There is strong support from Nicole Poole as Eunice and James Browning as Steve, a couple of neighbours.  Even the most minor roles make an impression:  for example, Destiny Sond as a neighbour, and Patrick Shannon as a young man making charity collections.  Joe Palmer is altogether splendid as Harold Mitchell, the antithesis of Stanley, all politeness and good manners – until he can’t have what he wants.

The production is enhanced considerably by sultry lighting (designed by Patrick McCool and Chris Briggs) casting horizontal shadows across the scene, while vibrant sunsets paint the window.  Andrew Cowie and Ray Duddin’s sound design, so effective at creating atmosphere of the street (we can hear the eponymous transport!), really comes into its own during moments when Blanche is becoming unhinged and we hear what’s going on in her increasingly deluded state.

James David Knapp’s direction creates some lovely moments of tension around the table, and the outbursts of violence are neatly handled.  Everything comes together for a blistering final act, and we are left to consider who has it worse: Blanche being taken away or Stella left behind with a man who doesn’t stop short of sexual violence.  Blanche’s troubles stem from the realisation that her husband was ‘a degenerate’ – everything she has done since his suicide has been leading her to this slippery slope, captivatingly portrayed here by Annie Swift and a powerful ensemble.

 

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Act of Remembrance

POPPYFIELDS The Musical

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th November, 2019

 

This new show from Dreamworks Productions arrives in Birmingham in good time for Remembrance Sunday.  After four years of centenary commemorations, when the First World War was at the forefront of our minds, it is important to keep the ball rolling 101 years since the Armistice, and 102 and 103… you get what I’m saying.  The trick is, with a glut of material out there, to present ideas in a new way while at the same time respecting the reality and meeting audience expectations.  It’s a big ask.

John Howard’s script focusses on a love story between mild-mannered man of principle from the working class with the daughter of the local gentry, a star-cross’d lovers deal with the class divide like a trench between them.  He, our protagonist, glories in the unlikely name of Tommy Gunn, and no matter how many times he is beaten to a pulp by warmongering peers, he is adamant he will not harm his fellow man.  She, our leading lady, Elizabeth, is involved in the movement for women’s suffrage and is not shy to speak out against her snooty, authoritarian father (David Wright, who later doubles as a German captive).  There’s a subplot about Tommy’s best mate Freddie getting his lady-friend Maisie up the duff, leading to a hasty wedding, before, wouldn’t you know it, the lads are conscripted and sent off “on ‘oliday to Flanders”.

There is everything you expect: white feathers, lovers parting, underage conscripts, write-every-day, and over-by-Christmas, delivered with conviction by the mainly young cast.  As Tommy, Tom Scott shows us the courage of a man going against the tide to stick to his morals, contrasting with his nervousness of chatting to a girl for the first time.  Daniella Williams’s Elizabeth has fire in her belly, a modern woman ahead of her time.  Jack Henderson brings humour and immense appeal as Freddie, while Jodie Welch’s Maisie is endearing – there is a duet at their wedding which is especially effective.

There is some excellent character work from Derek Willis, first as bleating army officer Carruthers, and later as good-humoured Welshman Taffy in the trenches.  Alex Tompkinson makes an impression as Harry, a fourteen-year-old who lies his way into the war; likewise Ellie Pugh as Tommy’s sister Tilly attempting to enlist disguised as a boy; and I also enjoy Molly Jane Cheesman as Tommy’s mum – especially in her spat with Emily Walker as Lady Victoria.  The strong cast bring the material to life beyond the scope of its clichés.

The score, however, is a weakness of the production.  If you’re going to use contemporary arrangements and pop-style singing, you have to be consistent.  The modern sound will link the period story to the present, showing that people then are just like people now, so we can identify with their losses.  Here though, new songs in a modern idiom are uneasy bedfellows with more traditional-sounding numbers, including standard tunes like Men Of Harlech (a rousing rendition by the Suffragettes) and the almost obligatory Pack Up Your Troubles.  It is the older-sounding songs that come over best and give authenticity to the piece.  There is no defining ‘voice’ to the music, probably due to the long list of songwriters credited in the programme.

Also, there are scenes crying out for songs.  The Gunn family get one, to establish their cheery working-class deprivation; the Fitzgeralds in the big house don’t.  The scene where the lads enlist could be set to music… This is a musical that needs more music, and music that has a consistent sound.  And it’s a shame because the dramatic side of proceedings delivers some hugely powerful moments.  We are given the humanity of the characters – they are more than mindboggling statistics – and the rousing finale goes beyond the fictional community singing about their boys, to all of us in the real world and the debt we all owe.

As it stands, the show has potential.  To realise it, it needs to pick a musical style and run with it.  Personally, I prefer the period-style numbers; the others are, dare I say it, too ‘poppy’.

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Concerted Effort

COSI FAN TUTTE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Friday 8th November, 2019

 

Sometimes you see plays that are ‘reconstructions’ of radio studio recordings, where the cast stand behind microphones, holding scripts, and the action is limited, leaving it to the audience to imagine setting, costume and everything else.  This concert performance of the final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Da Ponte reminds me of such plays, with the microphones replaced by music stands and the scripts by scores.  With this material, it works very well, thanks in no small part to a company of singers who can act their heads off.  With them facing out most of the time, we see the characters’ expressions to their best advantage.  And sometimes, they interact, where the limited space allows, bringing out the humour of the situation.

Richard Burkhard is a marvellous Don Alfonso, enjoying his masterminding of the plot’s central scam.  Tenor Matthew Swensen sings stirringly as Ferrando, but he could do with lightening up a bit, especially at the outset of proceedings.  Guglielmo is performed by possibly the most handsome man in classical music today, the mighty Benjamin Appl, who is wonderfully expressive facially and vocally.  His comic reactions and his musical phrasing are both sublime.

Ana Maria Labin, fighting a chest infection but you wouldn’t know it, shows remarkable range and poise as Fiordiligi.  Her ‘Per Pieta’ commands the stage – a virtuoso rendition.  Martha Jones, a late substitution as Dorabella, the giddier of the sisters, is delightfully funny, but the funniest performance of the night comes from Rebecca Bottone as Despina the sassy, savvy maid.  This is a Despina to savour, as Bottone wrings every shred of comedy from the role, distorting her soprano to depict the characters she assumes as part of Alfonso’s plan.  At one point, she dons a pair of steampunk goggles, and it’s the little touches like this that make this concert performance more engaging.

Ian Page conducts The Mozartists with a light touch, bouncing on the spot like Tigger in a black suit, almost teasing the music from this superlative orchestra.  And such music!  From the woodwinds chasing each other through the rousing overture, to the abundance of trios, quartets and quintets, this is playful yet passionate stuff.  Mozart is an exquisite dramatist, blending farcical humour with insightful glimpses into human psychology.  It’s a profound, sweet and silly piece of work, like receiving words of wisdom from a master chocolatier.

The material shines through this pared-down treatment and I enjoy it very much, but I still miss the knockabout comedy of the ‘Albanians’ pretending to poison themselves.  I still want to see their comedy moustaches!

Classical Opera 29 January 2019

Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page

 

 

 


Coming Out in the Wash

MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th November, 2019

 

The ground-breaking film from 1985 comes to the stage in this adaptation of his own screenplay by Hanif Kureishi.  It’s a story of personal identity versus culture, of being yourself at the expense of fitting in, or surrendering to tradition and expectation at the expense of happiness and fulfilment.

It’s a stylish production, all silver and glitterballs.  Even the fascist graffiti is in striking dayglo colours.  Snatches of Pet Shop Boys tunes, some new, some classics, help with the 80s feel, but we never hear enough of them, sometimes only a few bars to cover transitions.

Omar Malik is Omar, a mild-mannered Muslim who works his way up through his uncle Nasser’s businesses until he becomes manager of his own launderette.  He’s a likeable chap with a nice line in sarcasm – unlike Hareet Deol’s Salim, an aggressive wide-boy drug dealer in an oversized pink suit.  Omar encounters old school crony Johnny (Jonny Fines) and offers him a job.  The banter between the two barely veils the homoerotic attraction between them.  Fines does a good job of portraying Johnny’s break from his skinhead background.  He wants to better himself and, as uncle Nasser would say, improvement comes from business.  Omar’s dad, by contrast, thinks self-improvement comes from education.  But this is Thatcher’s Britain, and Nasser, a Pakistani businessman, can flourish in this environment.

As Nasser, Kammy Darweish is particularly strong.  At first, we see him as a comic figure, avuncular in fact, but we soon see the hypocrisy of the man: he keeps a mistress on the side while expecting his daughter to submit to traditional values.  The mistress, by the way, is played by the mighty Cathy Tyson, with hair as big as the 80s.  Tyson is unrecognisable when she doubles as Cherry, Salim’s bespectacled wife.

In something of a casting coup, Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar in the film, is back as Omar’s ailing Dad, who represents the weakened nature of socialism in this country – then as it is now.  Warnecke combines vulnerability with a certain sprightliness.

Kureishi’s writing combines profanity with lyricism and there are some great lines, but while I enjoy the social commentary and the innuendos, I don’t engage emotionally with the characters, although I do cheer on Nicole Jebeli as Tania, the daughter of Nasser, striking out for her independence.  Paddy Daly’s bovver boy Genghis is a shouty lampoon, banging on about Saint George and white pride, using the same kind of empty-headed slogans we hear from Brexiteers today.

There is chemistry between the two male leads.  Fines is certainly not without cocky charm – but it’s more about titillation than passion, and I’m dismayed to hear gasps from the audience when the two of them kiss.  Each other.  On the lips.  But that’s what the play points out: society hasn’t changed that much since the 1980s.  The evils presented here are still with us, like extra-stubborn stains.  What progress we have made seems to be slipping away.

While I appreciate the talent of everyone involved and the adeptness of the adaptation, I find I’m a little underwhelmed by the whole.  I want to be more invested in the love story but  I’m afraid it’s a bit wishy-washy.

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Johnny Fines and Omar Malik (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 


The Joker is Wild

RIGOLETTO

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th November, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera is back in town and they’ve brought with them this revival of James Macdonald’s 2002 production.  Set in what looks like Nixon-era America, the production gives us the Duke as a womanising, presidential figure, complete with Oval Office – How prescient!  His courtiers are besuited, secret service types, and his jester, the title character, is a lounge-type entertainer in chequered blazer.  Rigoletto’s humour is cruel, of the roasting variety, and it soon lands him in trouble when the butt of his jokes pronounces his curse upon the comic.  The notion of being curse obsesses Rigoletto for the rest of the story – it’s how he views everything that happens from that point, while everyone else is going around enjoying themselves, playing ‘hilarious’ pranks, falling in love, and did I mention the womanising?

David Junghoon Kim is a magnificent Duke, sharp in his tuxedo with a tenor as clear as a bell.  Verdi gives him the best tunes, the most seductive melodic lines – it’s like the Duke’s superpower, or supervillain power, because we have to keep in mind, this chap is the bad guy here.  When he sings with Rigoletto’s daughter, this is not two people falling in love, although he later admits “her modesty almost drove me to virtue”.  He’s a fine one to talk, in that most famous, most jaunty aria, that women are fickle and not to be trusted.  Pot/kettle, mate.  It is this dim view of the ladies that lets him treat them so badly.

Mark S Doss, limping and shuffling around, is superbly plaintive and melodramatic.  It’s not the most enlightened approach to keep your daughter shut indoors but we sense that it comes from deep love for her and a desire to protect her from this environment that treats women as objects for male enjoyment.  Rigoletto’s impassioned plea and his final heart-wrenching grief are powerfully done.  Quite rightly, he gets the hump!

As the daughter, Haegee Lee is quite simply the best Gilda I’ve ever seen.  Innocent yet inquisitive, she has inherited her dad’s sense of the melodramatic, and there’s a naïve nobility in her self-sacrifice for a cad who doesn’t deserve it.  Lee almost steals the show, whether it’s duetting with Doss or Kim, or singing solo.  A towering performance from such a diminutive figure.

There is strong support as ever from the WNO chorus – including offstage when they give voice to the wind during the stormy climactic scene – and from Woytek Gierlach’s burly assassin Sparafucile, a powerful bass that seems to come from his boots, and from Emma Carrington as the assassin’s sister Maddalena, bringing a sleazy touch of humour to proceedings.

Alexander Joel’s baton elicits stirring emotion and a sense of foreboding from the orchestra.  It all comes to a head for a flawless third act of high drama and high emotion.  With a clarity of storytelling, superlative vocal and acting talent, and excellent production values, this is Verdi how he should be presented, a gripping emotional ride that thrills and exhilarates.

Bravo!

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Bear with me: Mark S Doss as Rigoletto (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

 


Kin Dread

THE SON

Duke of York’s, London, Saturday 2nd November, 2019

 

French playwright Florian Zeller’s searing family drama – helpfully and brilliantly translated into English by Christopher Hampton – deals with the effects on young lad Nicolas when his dad leaves his mum and sets up a new family with a new wife and a new baby.  It’s not an uncommon situation but Nicolas takes it very badly, spiralling into mental illness and out of control.

Laurie Kynaston is magnetically good as the volatile Nicolas, going beyond teenage tantrums in his portrayal of the boy’s disturbance.  It’s heart-breaking to watch and we feel as helpless as his baffled parents.  Mum (Amanda Abbington) is forthright in her condemnation of her ex-husband’s inactivity.  Dad (John Light) struggles to access his emotions but when he does, it’s explosive.  New wife Sofia (Amaka Okafor) tries to make the best of things – such is Zeller’s writing, we appreciate everyone’s point of view.

Mostly, this is about the dynamics between father and son in the light of mental illness, as they try to negotiate a peace and a way forward.  The play highlights how unprepared we are to deal with loved ones afflicted in this manner.  “Love is never enough” says Martin Turner’s Doctor, rather starkly, as events culminate in devastating scenes.

Lizzie Clachlan’s set with its white walls and unfolding panels, showing rooms behind rooms, enables director Michael Longhurst to stage simultaneous scenes: while characters interact, we see someone else elsewhere in the house, and so on.  The mess created by Nicolas is represented physically and symbolically.

Longhurst elicits powerful and compelling performances from everyone, compounding the sense of impending doom with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s unsettling sound design.  It’s not all dread though; there’s a glorious scene of Dad-dancing (John Light has all the moves!) and the occasional glimmer of hope – making the darker moments all the more distressing.

Utterly compelling and almost unbearably moving, this is one of the most powerful pieces I have ever seen.  I only wish I’d seen it before the final day of its run so I could go back and see it again!

Give it every award going!

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John Light and Laurie Kynaston (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 


Nursing a Grudge

SNAKE IN THE GRASS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st November, 2019

 

Two estranged sisters are reunited in the neglected garden of their family home, following the death of their abusive father.  The elder, Annabel, hasn’t been back for decades, but stands to inherit the lot.  It fell to the younger sister, Miriam, to care for the old bastard, with the help of a hired nurse, whom Miriam has recently sacked.  The nurse, Alice, confronts Annabel, claiming to have evidence that Miriam had a direct hand in the death of her father.  Blackmail rears its ugly head and Annabel finds herself in a situation where she is forced to protect her sister…  So begins Alan Ayckbourn’s taut little thriller, a tale of coercion, bitterness, resentment, and murder.  More celebrated for his comedies, Ayckbourn shows here a different string to his bow.  The premise, the intrigue, and the subsequent twists and turns are Hitchcock-worthy.  A deceptively simple three-hander, the play offers plum parts for older women to get their teeth into. moustache of epic proportions.

Rachel Alcock plays hard-faced Annabel, who barely lightens up at all and remains rather severe throughout.  It is the character’s defence mechanism, I suppose, given the tribulations of her life, but I would like to see her reveal a more vulnerable and sympathetic side – especially during her lengthy speech about her failed marriage.

Alex Kapila turns in a compelling performance as the disturbed Miriam, displaying emotional immaturity one minute and inner fire the next.  As the power shifts around the trio, we’re forever changing our minds about who exactly is the victim here.

Completing the trio is Barbara Treen, pitch perfect as the sinister blackmailer.  Ayckbourn’s superlative writing is in good hands with these three, and director Lynda Lewis navigates the highs and lows, the lights and shades of the dialogue to great effect.  The physical action needs to be tighter; the actors need more confidence in their moves, and I think the climactic scene in the middle of the night can afford to be darker, so that almost all of the lighting comes from the two handheld lanterns.  This would augment the eeriness and the unsettling nature of proceedings.

There are more scares to be had if the director pushed the envelope just a little farther.  Still, this is a solid and entertaining production of a dark and clever play, and it’s well worth an evening of your time.

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The upper hand: Alice (Barbara Treen) comes between sisters Miriam (Alex Kapila) and Annabel (Rachel Alcock)

 


A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Skills and Thrills

CIRCUS 1903

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 25th October, 2019

 

One hundred and twenty years ago, the first incarnation of the Hippodrome was a circus (Hippo meaning horse, of course, and drome meaning arena or stadium).  Now, the theatre’s birthday celebrations culminate in this postmodern version of the traditional entertainment form.  In fact, I am surprised by how up-to-date it all is, given the retro title which led me to expect something more in the way of a historical reconstruction, perhaps.

What we get is a succession of traditional acts: balancers, tumblers, high-fliers, hosted by a ringmaster (although there is no ring).  He is ‘Willy Whipsnade’, a charming, older gentleman who exudes warmth, bonhomie and an American accent from behind a stunt moustache of epic proportions.  The production leans toward the other side of the Atlantic in its aesthetic, with its razzmatazz and sideshow.

The first half gives us a stylised look ‘behind the scenes’ with some energetic roustabouts wielding sledgehammers to represent the erecting of the big top.  There are acts, going through their routines, including a couple on a seesaw, The Daring Desafios, a balancing act: The Sensational Mikhail Sozonov – and you wonder what a health-and-safety officer would make of it all.  It’s impressive, death-defying stuff and, unlike on the telly, the jeopardy is almost palpable.  A contortionist (‘Serpentina’ aka Senayet Asefa Amare)  bends your mind as her bottom half runs rings around her own head.  It’s compelling and slightly sickening and yet marvellous all at the same time.

Between acts, our host enlists children from the audience to assist with his magic tricks.  The banter here will be familiar to panto-goers, and Whipsnade is adept at it, quick-thinking and witty.  Of course, the kids deliver the goods in terms of cuteness and surprise.

There’s another balancer, this one going for height, The Great Rokardy Rodriguez, and an aerial duo, the Flying Fredonis (Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych), a graceful couple whose act is beautiful despite or because of the inherent danger of it.

The first half climaxes with the arrival of a couple of elephants, mother and baby.  Fear not, animal rights supporters; these are puppets, War Horse style, and they are magnificent.   You have to remember it’s the puppeteers you’re applauding rather than the animals!  In 1903, of course, and for a long time after, real animals would have been drafted in to provide ‘entertainment’.  Things have come a long way since then, thank goodness.

The second half is more of a circus proper.  There’s a juggler (the Great Gaston, aka Francois Borie) and a woman who spins hula-hoops while balancing on a ball (Mademoiselle Natalia Leontieva) and they’re great at what they do, but I’m practically gasping for some clowns.  A bit of slapstick to leaven all the jeopardy.

Then comes ‘The Training of Wild Animals’ in which Willy Whipsnade gets five young kids up and introduces them to his baby racoon – another puppet, on a simpler scale!  Not only is it the funniest part of the evening, it’s one of the funniest  of such routines I’ve ever seen.  Whipsnade (to give him his real name, David Williamson) is brilliant at this, and the Hippodrome should snap him up for panto next year.

The Remarkable Risleys close the show with a display of breath-taking acrobatics, where the one uses the other as a prop, spinning him around in the air with his feet.  All the acts are impressive – they have to be – and I clap my hands off in appreciation of this international cast.  But I still would like a custard pie or a bucket of water to complete this circus that overlooks a bit of slosh.

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Queenie and Peanut, stealing the show

 

 

 


Terribly Funny

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: Terrible Tudors

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 23rd October, 2019

 

Based on the popular series of children’s non-fiction books by the extremely popular and prolific Terry Deary, this show by the Birmingham Stage Company is playing in tandem with Awful Egyptians, which I imagine is just as much fun.

A cast of three, led by Doctor Dee (played in this performance by director Neal Foster) take us through the reign of the Tudors, from the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field through to the succession of James I after the demise of Elizabeth.  Along the way, there are interludes examining other aspects of Tudor society, like the cruel punishments meted out to criminals (some hilarious practical effects here) and the disgusting elements of medical practice.

Foster is a delight, whether its in one of his many characters (including Henry VIII) or when he’s addressing the audience with a good old-fashioned ‘Shut your face!’.  He is supported by a more-than-able pair, Dross (Lisa Allen) and Drab (Izaak Cainer) who take on all the other roles, as well as being enjoyable characters in their own right.

The facts come as thick and as fast as the jokes.  The declamatory style of storytelling is leavened by silly voices and camp gestures, and the action is augmented by cartoony sound effects (thanks to Nick Sagar) and animated projections on the screen that forms the backdrop.  The performance style owes much to Monty Python and pantomime, and the script has a touch of the Carry-Ons, without the bawdiness.  There are plenty of mentions of poo and grisly deaths to keep the kids fascinated, while the adults will find much to enjoy in the execution (heh) of the comic business by these three talented players.

The second half has the added ingredient of 3D effects to make you flinch and gasp, as the Spanish Armada is blown to splinters and blood from the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots splatters across the screen.  There are catchy songs, including one to help you remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, and even Will. I. Am. Shakespeare crops up with a version of I Gotta Feeling.  The anachronisms make the history accessible and keep the laughs coming.

And then, as the reign and life of Elizabeth come to an end, she recaps the dynasty, in a powerful moment from Lisa Allen, bringing depth and gravitas to the piece – but don’t worry, there’s another catchy song to round things off.

Thoroughly enjoyable, informative and hilarious, this Horrible History makes for Terrific Theatre.

1 Terrible Tudors by Birmingham Stage Company. Photo by Mark Douet

Terrible Tudors: Lisa Allen and Izaak Cainer are armed and dangerous (Photo: Mark Douet)

 


Chart Show

PRESSURE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 20th October, 2019

 

David Haig’s play is set the weekend before D-Day – a date enshrined in history, but of course, at the time they didn’t know exactly when the Normandy invasion would take place.  And that’s the crux of the plot.  General Eisenhower is relying on weather forecasts to predict the best conditions for making his move and sending 350,000 men into danger.  One expert is predicting fair weather, another says there’s a storm coming.  But who is right?  And which way will Eisenhower jump?

Martin Tedd’s Dr Stagg is a grumpy Scot, a Victor Meldrew of a man, but he knows what he’s talking about.  His certainty of his own knowledge and experience contrasts with the uncertainty around his wife going into difficult labour with their second child.  But Stagg is under lockdown at Southwick House and is powerless to help.  Tedd is good at Stagg’s short temper but he stumbles sometimes with the specialist language, phrases that should trip off the tongue.  His American counterpart, Colonel Krick is played with assurance by Robert Laird.

Alexandria Carr is marvellous as the only female character in the piece, Lieutenant Summersby – her accent matches her period hairdo, and she performs with efficiency, showing the human behind the British aloofness.

The mighty Colin Simmonds portrays Eisenhower with a blunt kind of charm, exuding power easily and bringing humour to the piece.  As ever, Simmonds inhabits the character with utter credibility and nuance.  It feels like a privilege to see him perform.

There is pleasing support from Griff Llewelyn-Cook as young Andrew, and from Crescent stalwarts Dave Hill and Brian Wilson in some of the smaller roles.

Director Karen Leadbetter keeps us engaged with all the jargon flying around by handling the highs and lows, the changing weather of human interactions, with an ear for when things should be loud and when quiet, and when silence is most powerful.

The simple set, in wartime greens, gives us a sense of time and place, and is enhanced by John Gray’s lighting – especially for off-stage action, like an aeroplane in trouble, for example.  The room is dominated by the charts, huge maps with isobars swirling across them, and you marvel that the technology of the time was adequate for its purpose.

This is a solid production of a play that sheds light on an esoteric yet crucial part of the war effort.  Haig has obviously researched his subject matter extensively and manages to tell the story without being overly didactic or preachy.

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Alexandria Carr and Colin Simmonds feel the pressure (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Fun & Femininity

PRIDE & PREJUDICE* (*SORT OF)

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th October, 2019

 

A sextet of servants narrates and performs Jane Austen’s most celebrated story in Isobel McArthur’s irreverent adaptation.  People expecting historical accuracy and verbatim enactments will be disappointed.  Everyone else will be delighted by this consistently hilarious reimagining of the quintessential romantic novel.  Riddled with anachronisms and with heightened theatricality, the script adheres to the storyline but swaps Austen’s wry observations and commentary with coarse humour and clever silliness.  Oh, and there’s songs in it too, karaoke versions of pop standards that are entirely apt to the scenes in which they feature and are delightful without exception.  Elizabeth singing You’re So Vain after a run-in with Mr Darcy, for example, or the dastardly Wickham’s You’re Just Too Good To Be True, sung to Elizabeth while her sisters are backing dancers… The whole thing is a joy from start to finish.

The entirely female cast play all the parts, often with quick changes, and it’s impossible to pick out a favourite.  There is so much to enjoy in the comedic playing: Christina Gordon’s haughty Lady Catherine, Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s blokey Mr Bingley (doubling as his bitchy sister), Felixe Forde’s pouting, posturing Wickham, Tori Burgess’s put-upon, oddball Mary… Isobel McArthur herself is a hoot as the hypochondriac Mrs Bennett, puffing away on an inhaler, and is suitably repressed and pompous as the infamous ‘mard-arse’ Mr Darcy, while Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth is spirited and hard-drinking…

Director Paul Brotherston gives his versatile cast plenty of comic business and keeps the action fast-paced with some clever and inventive theatrics.  The timing is impeccable and the script is snappy, and while it is true to the plot, it shows that a well-placed swearword can bring the house down.  Somehow, Jane Austen asserts herself and the emotional impact of her love story comes through intact, despite the profanity and the mucking around.

Above all, it’s a right good laugh.  A thoroughly entertaining, camptastic piece, impressively performed by a pack of very funny women, this is the best version of Pride and Prejudice since the story was infested with zombies.

Recommended!

4. (L-R) Felixe Forde and Meghan Tyler. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

Felixe Forde and Meghan Tyler as Wickham and Elizabeth (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic)


Losing the Light

PRISM

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Tuesday 8th October, 2019

 

The prism of the title refers, on one level, to a vital component of an old-school movie camera, a piece of glass that splits the light so that colour film photography is possible – something like that, I’m no physicist.  The protagonist of writer-director Terry Johnson’s new play is the celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, The African Queen…) who certainly knows how it all works, except his prism got broken years ago and the camera that looms in a corner of the set can’t work without it… So, it’s a metaphor for Cardiff’s brain, because Jack has dementia, eating away at his memories, his vocabulary, his ability to recognise faces and places.

Robert Lindsay is magnificent as the cantankerous, irascible Jack, bringing to the fore the humour of the situation – talking to someone with dementia can be very funny; it is also touching, moving and a little scary.  Lindsay dominates proceedings, while his wife, son and brand-new carer bend over backwards to keep him happy.  Son Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is keen for Jack to write his autobiography so that all his expertise and experience is not lost.  Wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald) just wants Jack to remember who she is and not conflate her with Katherine Hepburn.  Carer Lucy (Victoria Blunt) has her own reasons for proving she is up to the job.

In the second act, the script swerves and suddenly we are on location with The African Queen.  Tara Fitzgerald does a marvellous Hepburn, while Hembrough’s Bogart is nicely observed.  Later, Victoria Blunt effectively evokes Marilyn Monroe – and it is here we realise, we are looking through the prism of Jack’s dementia, as scenes are repeated with people from his present taking the forms of people from his past.  It’s a powerful way of staging the experience of the dementia sufferer – but also those suffering because of a loved one’s dementia.  Tara Fitzgerald is heart-breaking when Nicola reveals her husband doesn’t know her anymore.

This is a biographical piece about a particular man and his rarefied career, but it deals with the disease in a universal way.  There is a fascinating, nostalgic appeal about the golden age of cinema; I was dismayed to hear talk during the interval that there are people among us who have not seen any of Cardiff’s work!  It would be a great shame if such wonderful movies were to disappear from our collective memory.

Funny, fascinating and filmic, this is a hugely enjoyable, edifying piece, with an endearing central performance from Robert Lindsay and stellar support from a talented trio.  The production is superbly realised with cinematic elements in Tim Shortall’s design and Ben Ormerod’s lighting.  Above all, it shows Terry Johnson back at the top of his game.

Loved it!

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in Prism_photo credit Manuel Harlan (1)

I am a camera! Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Rice and Cheese

THE ENTERTAINER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 7th October, 2019

 

Archie Rice, washed-up, old-school, tax-dodging comic treats his audiences with scorn, but they’re not lapping it up anymore.  Meanwhile, at home, there’s a son away in a war, and Archie’s second wife is feeling the strain.  Daughter Jean is reaching her limits – she’s not going to put up with the old ways for much longer, while grandpa Billy Rice rants about immigrants and gives rise to friction… Archie’s home life is no picnic either.

Director Sean O’Connor brings John Osborne’s play forward in time from the Suez Crisis to the time of the Falklands Conflict.  But for all the pop music of the era and the references to Shake & Vac and Rising Damp, this is very much a play for today.  The bigoted, anti-immigrant attitudes expressed by old Billy, laughable in an Alf Garnett kind of way, have resurfaced in today’s Britain – and so Billy (played with conviction and credibility by Pip Donaghy) isn’t funny but alarming.  He’s a Sun reader, so what can you expect?  Headlines from that ‘newspaper’ are projected across the scene, and the anti-Argentine rhetoric of then is strikingly similar to today’s bile levelled against the EU, with whom we are not even at war.

Diana Vickers is a steadying presence as young Jean, whose boyfriend troubles bring her back to the family flat.  Jean becomes the ‘angry young woman’ of the piece, letting rip in a tirade that is a long time coming, while Alice Osmanski witters and frets effectively as Archie’s second wife Phoebe.  Christopher Bonwell has some strong moments as young Frank but of course the show belongs to the star.

Shane Richie is on excellent form as Archie Rice, from his off-colour, sexist jokes, to his Max Wall-esque clowning, and his cheesy cabaret singing.  Richie not only performs Archie’s act, he acts his decline – Don’t go expecting an evening of comedy!  This is heavy duty stuff, about the dynamics of this dysfunctional family at a time of political and economic uncertainty; it’s about personal failure, and also the human condition.  “I’m dead behind the eyes,” Richie claims acidly, before accusing all of us of being in the same state.  It’s a bitter moment in a bitter play.

The drama takes place on a conventional box set, but it’s kept back, behind a false proscenium arch, physically keeping the characters at a distance from us, the edges and tops of the flats clearly in view.  We are not part of the scene, not part of the family, but held at bay so we can examine them from afar.  Osborne’s scathing writing holds these people up, not for our admiration or sympathy, but for our ridicule and disparagement.  Characters step forward, speaking their opinions in broad asides, again reminding us of the artifice of the production.

It’s a challenging piece but as a statement on the country before its post-Brexit decline, it couldn’t be more on the money.  Fortunately for us, Shane Richie is more of an entertainer than poor Archie Rice could ever hope to be, giving a masterful performance with genuine star quality.

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Joker! Shane Richie as Archie Rice


Body Politic

FRANKENSTEIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 3rd October, 2019

 

Rona Munro’s new stage adaptation of the novel that gave birth to the genre of science fiction puts its author, Mary Shelley at the centre of the action.  Tightly wound, spirited and full of youthful vigour, Mary is bursting with creativity as, before our very eyes, she rights the book that will render her immortal.   She narrates, breaks the fourth wall, and even collaborates with her characters as she starts and stops the story – we, of course, know how it will turn out, but it’s an effective and stylish way to present events we have seen portrayed time and time again.

As Mary, Eilidh Loan is a dynamic stage presence, hugely entertaining, wry and knowing, transmitting Mary’s passion to get her story written.  Her characters, seemingly under her control, are played by a strong ensemble: Ben Castle-Gibb is excellent as the driven Victor Frankenstein, showing his descent into obsession and insanity with great power; Thierry Mabonga is strong in three different roles, the salty Captain Walton, young William Frankenstein, and Victor’s best mate Henry; Greg Powrie brings authority to his roles as Victor’s father, and Waldman the doctor who recruits Victor as his assistant.  Natali McCleary brings vulnerability and strength to Elizabeth, but it is Michael Moreland as the ‘Monster’ who captivates our attention, from the jerky movements that bring him to life, to his augmented voice.

Becky Minto’s wintry set is striking and functional, giving two levels and a range of possibilities; her costume designs are elegantly tailored to denote the period.  Simon Slater’s discordant music and eerie sound design add to the tension, while Grant Anderson’s lighting bathes the action in cold beauty.  Director Patricia Benecke makes sparing use of shadowplay and mist for atmosphere and effect, and on the whole, this is a gripping and inventive retelling.  Oddly though, very little sympathy is elicited for the Monster – the script allows him no opportunity to show his potential for goodness. We only see him as a killer, an angry reject of society, and that’s a shame.  It’s like he was built with a bit missing.

This production is a fresh take on the well-worn tale, in which Mary Shelley has a message for us today, for our government in particular, above and beyond the usual don’t-dabble-with-nature theme.  She says, “If you neglect those you are supposed to care for, the weak, the poor, their destruction will be your shame.”  The play goes to some length to bring out Shelley’s revolutionary politics.  Right on!

Michael Moreland (Creature) and Ben Castle-Gibb (Frankenstein) - credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan-033

Daddy issues: the Monster (Michael Moreland) and Victor (Ben Castle-Gibb) Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

 


Dark Deeds Come To Light

GASLIGHT

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 30th September, 2019

 

This new production of Patrick Hamilton’s classic thriller impresses from the start with an imposing set designed by William Dudley.  The perspective is so forced the ceiling looms large over proceedings and the sense of claustrophobia is almost palpable.  The box set is augmented by judicious use of gauzes so we can see who is eavesdropping outside the room or going up and down the staircases, and there are video projections, also by Dudley, that give us a view into the uppermost room and, more importantly, the mindset of our heroine, Bella.

Written in 1939, the play has given its name to a form of systematic psychological abuse, and Hamilton gives us a textbook example here as Jack Manningham uses every trick in the book to send his wife around the twist.  From the off, Bella (Charlotte Emmerson) is tightly wound and Jack plays her like a fiddle.  James Wiley is perfectly villainous as the domineering, manipulative husband, while Emmerson, increasingly unhinged, quickly gains our sympathy and keeps it.

There is strong supporting character work from Mary Chater as Elizabeth, and Georgia Clarke-Day as Nancy, two maids of the household, contrasting nicely with each other; but the piece centres around a star turn from the mighty Martin Shaw as Rough, a detective with an Oirish accent.  Shaw’s Rough is humorous and yet authoritative, a charmer who takes control – a Professional, if you will!

Mic Pool’s sound design adds eeriness and the all-important lighting, by Chris Davey, creates a suitably murky atmosphere for the dastardly goings-on.  Director Lucy Bailey wrings suspense out of moments of silence, and the action builds to a rather lurid climax in which we see the villain’s ultimate fate.

Even if you’ve seen the play the before, this high-quality production shows there is still plenty of mileage in the material.  Gripping, amusing and thrilling, Gaslight deserves a glowing review!

shaw

Nice bit of Rough: Martin Shaw

 


Disappearing Act

THE LADY VANISHES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th September, 2019

 

Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1938, this brand-new production from the Classic Thriller Theatre Company, begins in Austria during the Nazi occupation.  Imagine, if you can, a world in which fascism is on the rise… Oh, wait.  The action begins with a train being delayed – Imagine if you can, the trains not running on time – Oh, never mind!  These modern parallels aside, this is an entertaining period piece, old-fashioned in both form and content.

Gwen Taylor leads the cast as the titular disappearing woman, the tweedy Miss Froy.  It’s not until she does her disappearing act, that the play picks up momentum.  Up until then, it’s been character after character charging around, a little too much exposition, perhaps.  Taylor’s Froy is spot on for dotty old English biddy, harmless and friendly; she comes to the aid of young Iris, who is, rather contrivedly, bashed on the head at the station.  Scarlett Archer does all the right things as the plucky damsel, distressed over the old biddy’s disappearance, while everyone around her denies Miss Froy even existed.  It’s an intriguing mystery and keeps us interested.  Director Roy Marsden does a bang-up job of bringing matters to a head by the end of the first act, with Iris’s desperation rising to a crescendo amid the consternation of everyone else.

The rest of the company includes some stalwarts of this kind of thing: the mighty Denis Lill is paired up with Ben Nealon as a pair of cricket-obsessed duffers who provide much of the show’s comedic moments; Mark Wynter combines silver foxiness with arrogance as an adulterous barrister, while Rosie Thomson is suitably despairing as his embittered mistress.  There is a cold, chilling turn from Andrew Lancel as dodgy Doctor Hartz, while Joe Reisig makes for an imposing presence as a Nazi official striding around as if he owns the train.  Providing support for Iris is the funny, handsome and charming Max (played by the funny, handsome and charming Nicholas Audley).

The transmutable set, designed by Morgan Large, serves as both station and train, including compartments, is impressive and, coupled with lighting effects from Charlie Morgan Jones, sound effects by Dan Samson, and subtle bobbing on the spot by the cast, the sensation of being on a train is superbly evoked.  Antony Lampard’s adaptation of the screenplay has a bit too much of the characters describing what they can see happening through the windows of the train but, that aside, the story builds to a climactic and thrilling gunfight and reaches a pleasingly romantic resolution.

Solid and dependable fare, the play delivers what you expect, with high quality production values and a skilled and effective cast.  Reliably gripping, this is an enjoyable night at the theatre.

Lady Vanishes hi res 2620

Scarlett Archer and Nicholas Audsley are not convinced by the delay-repay scheme

 


Rebels With A Cause

REBEL MUSIC

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 23rd September, 2019

 

The new piece from playwright Robin French charts the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement, itself a response to the surge of far-right groups in Britain in the late 1970s.  The play focuses on the friendship of Denise, a mixed race girl with an absentee Jamaican father, and Trudi, a white girl whose brother shows National Front tendencies… Together the girls discover the great music being produced in Birmingham and the West Midlands at the time, with politics shaping their experiences and their development.

I have to say it’s a lot more fun than my description might lead you to believe.  French’s script sizzles with humour and is laced with nostalgic details that give the play an air of authenticity, and his words are brought to exuberant life by the energetic and excellent cast of three.  Lauren Foster’s Denise, an innocent, has a sharp learning curve when it comes to the overt racism of everyday life, be it off-colour jokes or violent assaults, or even Eric Clapton ranting racist remarks at the Birmingham Odeon.  She learns how to handle herself, how to stand up for what is right, and develops and matures, shaped rather than held back by her experiences.  Trudi, on the other hand, in a tirelessly perky performance by Hannah Millward, is torn between her friendship and loyalty to her brother, Dudley.

The third member of the cast, playing Denise’s dad and activist Andrew is the superb Nathan Queeley-Dennis who has a powerful singing voice that handles a range of styles.  All three narrate the action, dropping in and out of supporting roles with ease.  Andrew’s account of a RAR march in London is both poetic and evocative, demonstrating the power of French’s wonderful writing.  Director Alex Brown keeps the action cracking along at a fair pace, and this is supported by the inclusion of popular songs from the time, with the lyrics altered to fit the story – and so we get the nostalgia factor of a jukebox musical but none of the awkward shoehorning in of the songs for the sake of it.  It’s great to hear some classics revisited, from ELO to The Specials and even Sham 69.

There’s a bit of audience involvement in which we are invited to join in with some reggae moves – we’re all a bit sluggish on this miserable Monday evening but we give it a go.  I expect that later in the week, there’ll be more of a party atmosphere.

All the way through, I’m spotting parallels with current events: racists in power, idiots blaming immigrants for the country’s economic woes; and so to some extent the play doesn’t need its final scene, where the action leaps forward to the present and we see how far Denise has come, and how much Trudi is entrenched in her old ways and how the country is revisiting aspects of the past it would be better off leaving behind.

Relevant, relatable and right-on, Rebel Music is irresistibly entertaining and elucidating, a celebration of Birmingham’s multi-cultural identity and heritage and a stark reminder of what happens when the nastier elements of society rear their ugly heads.

I loved it.

Lauren Foster_Denise, Nathan Queeley-Dennis_Andrew, Hannah Millward_Trudi_Rebel Music_credit Graeme Braidwood

Today’s Specials: Lauren Foster, Nathan Queeley-Dennis, and Hannah Millward (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Strumming my pain with his fingers…

Miloš: Voice of the Guitar

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Sunday 22nd September 2019

 

Miloš Karadaglić continues his mission to unite the worlds of classical and pop music by means of the acoustic guitar with this concert of a variety of pieces which he describes as a musical journey from Bach to the Beatles and beyond.  Backed by string quintet, 12 Ensemble, (who get the evening started with a Brandenberg Concerto by JS Bach), Miloš is a quietly intense figure, focussed on his fingers as he extracts audio beauty from his guitar.  It’s marvellous to behold and even better to hear.

He’s quite slight, in his skinny fit, black suit and black shirt, and handsome, like a lost Jonas Brother, with a charming, gently self-deprecating humour when he addresses the audience to tell us what’s coming up.  A native of Montenegro, he seems bemused to be in Wolverhampton – but, who wouldn’t be?  The sumptuous beauty of the Grand Theatre is an appropriate setting for the music we are about to hear.

After the quintet’s Bach opener, Miloš responds with a Bach solo, before they all play together a stirring and dynamic Boccherini fandango.  Other highlights include Tarrega’s Lagrima, wistful in its sadness, plucking at your heartstrings; a piece from De Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat, a bold and rhythmic flamenco; and the famous Spanish Romance, here exquisitely arranged for guitar and strings. Piazzolla’s rousing Libertando rounds off the first half nicely, and I already feel like I’ve been through the wringer – but pleasantly so!

The second half kicks off with a Villa-Lobos prelude in E minor, followed by pieces by Pujol and Savio – all favourites in the guitarist’s repertoire.  A real treat is when Miloš is joined by the first violinist from the quintet for a Piazzola duet, originally written for guitar and flute, that is just lovely.

And then we move onto more recent fare with the title track from the new album, Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence.  There is a danger, I always think, that pop songs rendered as instrumentals can sound like lift music or on-hold music, but the arrangements here add depth to the pieces.  Divested of their lyrics (an important part of any pop song) numbers by Radiohead and the Beatles take on new colours – and you can’t help singing the words in your head anyway.  The Fool On The Hill is given a rhapsodic treatment and it’s just marvellous.  It all sounds great but I prefer the classical pieces, the slow tangos with their bittersweet melancholy.  Probably just the mood I am in tonight!

A splendid evening with a rich and varied programme, showcasing the versatility of the instrument and the virtuosity of the performer.

Miloš Karadaglić

Strumming and fretting his hour upon the stage: Miloš Karadaglić

 

 

 


Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

nell

Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)


The Glory of Gloria

ON YOUR FEET!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th September, 2019

 

This biographical show tells the story of Gloria Estefan’s rise to fame, from humble beginnings as a Cuban immigrant living in Miami to world-renowned music star.  As far as stories go, it’s pretty straightforward: girl meets musician boy, she fronts his band, they make records, overcome the prejudices of the music industry, hit the big time… It seems quite an easy ride with very little conflict.  There’s some argy-bargy with her mother, who is supposedly envious of her daughter’s career having lost out on her own big chance…

As the show goes on, you come to think, the plot is not the point here.  The point is the performance.  It’s an absolute party of a production right from curtain up.  The energy blasts from the stage and does not let up.  It’s bright and breezy, colourful and cheery, and we are reminded how many hits she (and the Miami Sound Machine, who hardly feature) had.  Dr Beat, 1-2-3, Anything For You…

Heading the cast is Philippa Stefani as Gloria and she is, well, glorious, bringing a Cinderella quality to the role, as Gloria (quickly) overcomes her initial shyness, learns to stand up for herself, and conquer the world.  Stefani is paired with George Ioannides as husband-mentor-business manager Emilio Estefan, a passionate advocate of Gloria’s music, a charming, handsome presence, with some ‘amusing’ linguistic blunders.

Also strong is Madalena Alberto as Gloria’s strident, stubborn mother, and there is fine comic character acting from Karen Mann as Gloria’s abuela, Consuela.  (There is a bilingual aspect to the dialogue, with Spanish phrases translated into English, a bit like Dora The Explorer.)   Robert Oliver also makes an impact as record executive Phil, who overcomes his reluctance when the money starts rolling in.

The bus crash that almost ended it all for Gloria leads to the emotional heart of the piece, not so much her brave fight back to full mobility, but the reappearance of her estranged mother at the hospital.  A flashback scene to Cuba, before the family fled to the US, attempts to add a bit of depth and historical context, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

On the whole, this is light-hearted, easy-going, undemanding fare.  The book, by Alexander Dinelaris, contains some amusing exchanges, and keeps the action zipping along from hit to hit.  Inevitably, the show is at its best during the musical numbers.  The Latin arrangements are infectious, the singing and dancing are top notch – although I find some of the male vocalists a bit shouty.  This is proper feelgood stuff, a surge of sunshine in these benighted times.  The Rhythm is Going To Get You is not an empty threat.  You will get off your arse and on your feet.

OYF-1

Philippa Stefani and George Ioannides as the Estefans (Photo: Birmingham Hippodrome)

 


Dog Muck

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 2nd September, 2019

 

The publicity material for this two-hander of an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes classic says the show stars “No one famous” but a little detective work on my part leads me to suspect that the performers are called Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille, who share the narration as Holmes and Watson (here, Doctor Jane) as well as playing all the parts in the play.

It’s fast-paced and funny – there is much to be enjoyed in the slipshod way the pair tear around, donning hats and wigs and so on to populate the story.  It’s deceptively slapdash, with lines fluffed and forgotten, crucial props going astray and plenty of onstage bickering.  Every now and then they come together (to use one of their own innuendos) with instances of slick comic timing.  You want innuendo?  They will give you one.  The script (by Thomas Moore) is riddled with double (and single) entendres.  Each characterisation is more grotesque than the last, with Holmes giving us his bent-backed Barrymore and his louche Laura Lyons, and Watson her bizarre Doctor Mortimer and knee-slapping Sir Henry.

Oliver Hayes has a cheeky twinkle in his eye, like a young Michael Palin, while Bibi Lucille is as funny as she is versatile.  The whole thing is camp, cheeky and daft, yet the plot adheres to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, hitting all the main points of action and including all the major characters – we, the audience, are recruited to portray the titular Hound, howling on demand.

Hilarious, energetic, silly, saucy and smart, this show provides a good workout for your laughing muscles, even though some of the gags are a bit laboured and repetitive, which somehow adds to the fun.  The muckiness is in the great British comedic tradition, and these two are such a hugely likeable pair, they can pull it off with ease.

Brilliant!

Hound of the Baskervilles ©The Other Richard

What a pair! Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille (Photo: The Other Richard)


Gang Show

WEST SIDE STORY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 29th August, 2019

 

For the first time in its illustrious 120-year history, Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre is producing its own youth-group musical.  The Bernstein-Sondheim masterpiece is an ambitious choice but it is soon clear that the cast of 40+ young people is more than up for the challenge.

Director-choreographer Matt Hawksworth harnesses the abundance of talent so that it showcases the considerable strengths of the performers, while ensuring creative decisions keep the power of the material to the fore.  It does get off to a bit of a bitty start, though, with some pre-show milling around while the audience comes in, when a clean opening would have more impact, but once the show gets properly underway, and the action is properly focussed, it’s a compelling, emotional piece of theatre.

Matthew Pandya makes an impact as Jets-leader Riff, brimming with attitude.  Fellow gang member Action (Brook Jenkins) comes into his own for Gee Officer Krupke.  In the Sharks, Gibsa Bah is an imposing Bernardo, with Carter Smith on good form as his lieutenant Chino.

Ruby Hewitt’s Anita is remarkable: humorous, sassy, worldly, warm-hearted, vulnerable, in a hugely satisfying portrayal.  There is also some fine character work from Hannah Swingler as drugstore proprietor Doc, despairing at the conduct of the hoodlums.

The show, of course, pivots on its main couple.  Kamilla Fernandes is a knock-out as Maria, going from sweetness and innocence to embittered fury and emotional devastation by the conclusion of the story’s tragic events.  Her scenes with Hewitt’s Anita are where the dialogue really comes to life.  At other points, the quickfire lines of Arthur Laurents’s arcane slang, get a bit lost, especially in large group scenes: the acting needs to be as taut as the singing and the choreography.

The evening belongs, though, to an absolutely stellar performance from sixteen-year-old Alex Cook as Tony.  His two big solos in the first act are goosebump-inducing marvels, as Cook demonstrates perfect control of his voice and his thorough understanding of the character’s mind.  The skill on display is staggering, and the emotional punch of the playing earns him a round of applause that stops the show.

What comes across as much as the talent and energy of the cast, is the power of the material.  Shakespeare’s plot, translated to 1950s New York, is rife with issues still prevalent to this day: knife crime, the disaffection of youth, divisions in society, anti-immigrant prejudices… and the sumptuous score of Leonard Bernstein coupled with the wit and mastery of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, reminding us why West Side Story is one of the greatest musicals of all time.   An excellent choice, yielding a potent production.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 120 years for the next one.

Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cooke Credit Olivia Ahmadi

Two stars are born: Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cook (Photo: Olivia Ahmadi)


Brolly Good Show

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd August, 2019

 

Once a year, the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham city centre becomes a nurturing ground for young talent with its Stage Experience scheme.  This year the production is the stage musical version of the sublime Hollywood movie musical – it’s a big ask and, as ever, the young performers do more than acquit themselves.  It’s staggering to think how much they achieve in so brief a rehearsal period; it’s thanks to director-choreographer Pollyann Tanner who waves a theatrical wand (or cracks a theatrical whip!) to marshal her company of one hundred and one performers into shape.  Every single one of them performs with commitment, energy and discipline.  Unfortunately, there is no space to list them all here.

Leading the cast is Ben Tanner as silent-movie star Don Lockwood, who shows very quickly he can croon and hoof impressively, bringing warmth to the role.  As his best buddy Cosmo, Sam Rogers has a kind of manic humour that hits more than it misses, while Isabella Kibble is spot on as love interest Kathy Selden, even though it takes me a while to get used to Kathy as a blonde.  When these three get together to perform Good Morning, all the elements align to make this number the highlight of the show for me – it’s just about perfect.

Jessica Walton shines as the villainous Lina Lamont, complete with tortuous accent and monstrous ego, and there is fine support from Thom Lambert as Roscoe Dexter and Jarrad Heath as studio boss R. F. Simpson – although he could do with greying up a little to distinguish him from the other young males.

As we have come to expect, the production/chorus numbers, though densely populated, are beautifully sung.  Special mention goes to Jack Smyth for his assured vocals in Beautiful Girl.  While there is much to marvel at in the organisation and execution of a production of this scale (the costume demands alone are mind-boggling), the show is also a lot of fun and enjoyable in itself.  The specially filmed clips of the silent movies are hilarious, and the title song, with its obligatory rainfall, makes quite a splash.

On the whole, the accents are fine and the pacing works very well.  There are occasions when the dialogue could be crisper, but it would be churlish of me to hold this against them.  Yet again Stage Experience has produced dazzling results, has given a multitude of young people invaluable experience onstage and off, and above all, has given the audience an evening of quality entertainment.

Singin' in the Rain

Gene puddle: Ben Tanner as Don Lockwood (Photo: Sam Bagnall)

 

 

 

 


Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019

 

Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that.  What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality.  Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness.  It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.

In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out.  Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral.  Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency.  Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal.  If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother.  Which was will Isabella jump?  It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss.  There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure.  The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?

More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke.  The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women.  Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance.  I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right.  Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.

James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant.  Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms.  Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.

Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon!   I could do with more of this!

The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).

More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today.  Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.

Measure for Measure production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_286285

Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)