Harried Potters & The Tea-Service of Secrets

DIRTY LAUNDRY

Spode Works, Stoke on Trent, Saturday 14th October, 2017

 

Nora Moth tends to her dying father with the aid of neighbour Frances Berry.  The doctor is a constant caller but when pot bank owner Richard Warham and Councillor Blythe start dropping in, Mrs Berry begins to suspect there’s more to things than the paying of respects…

Deborah McAndrew’s latest piece for Claybody Theatre is set in Burslam in the early 1950s. With the dialect, the accents and the jargon of the pottery industry, there is an air of authenticity to the piece.  It could only be more Stokie if they made the costumes out of oatcakes.  It’s a domestic piece – on the surface – as down-to-earth, plain-speaking, hard-working folk tackle a trying time in anyone’s life.  But there is much more to this tight little play than kitchen-sink drama.

Rosie Abraham is a spirited young Nora, tightly wound and prone to sound off, due to the stress of nursing her dying dad, about to succumb to the local ailment of dust in the lungs.  A neat contrast is Angela Bain as the helpful, older neighbour, not shy to voice her opinions and make her observations.  With her humour and moralising, Mrs Berry would not be out of place in the early days of Coronation Street.   Robin Simpson cuts a sympathetic figure as the attentive Doctor Copper; while Philip Wright’s suave owner, the debonair Mr Richard, lends the piece an almost Catherine Cookson air.  Jason Furnival’s campaigning councillor brings the story away from speculation over Nora’s parentage to issues with farther-reaching implications… And here McAndrew pulls no punches.  Cover-ups and conspiracies bubble to the surface and a dark truth comes to light, leaving Nora with a moral morass of a dilemma.

Conrad Nelson’s direction retains the naturalistic tone of scenes about cups of tea and borrowing sugar in later moments when the tension boils over; by this time we are invested in the characters – the womenfolk especially – as the men scramble to cover their tracks and then seek some kind of damage limitation.  It’s electrifying and a thrill to see such an excellent ensemble at work, with scenic dynamics handled so well, so powerfully.

Dawn Allsopp’s design shows us house-proud poverty, cosily lit by John Slevin – but this is not just a nostalgia fest performed at a heritage site.  The domesticity of the set is surrounded by the post-industrial venue – the industrial landscape of the city has changed enormously but the issues aired by the play are still with us today.  We are still beset by vested interests seeking to cover up or outright deny the environmental impact of their businesses.  People are still getting bought off to protect us from the truth.

Site specific though the piece may appear, its appeal and significance extend beyond the Potteries.  Thought-provoking, intriguing and rich with humanity, Dirty Laundry is further proof that Deborah McAndrew is one of our most reliably excellent playwrights.

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Rosie Abraham and Angela Bain (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 

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Troy Story

DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th October, 2017

 

Kimberley Sykes’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic romantic fantasy is, in short, a corker.  This is a world where gods interfere directly with the lives of mortals – the two species are differentiated by costume: the gods in modern day dress, the humans in period costume.  It can be no accident that Jupiter (the wonderful Nicholas Day) bears more than a passing resemblance to RSC Artistic Director Mr G Doran… Ellie Beaven is glamorous in a Miss Scarlet gown as the meddling Venus, and Ben Goffe is in good form as the cheeky, mischievous Cupid, pricking his victims with a syringe of Venusian blood.

As the eponymous monarch, Chipo Chung is every inch the regal ruler, albeit an accessible and hospitable one.  Her attachment to the warrior Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) unleashes passionate and capricious emotions; Dido is very much in the Cleopatra vein, at the mercy of her passions – and so is everyone else.  Chung is fantastic, compelling and credible in her excesses of emotion.  Grierson makes a fine paramour as Aeneas – he does come across as a little bit quiet at times but his recounting of the Trojan War is a vivid and gripping piece of storytelling.

Kim Hartman does a pleasing turn as a Nurse, tricked and pricked by Cupid, and Andro Cowperthwaite is especially alluring as Jupiter’s toy boy Ganymede.  Bridgitta Roy stalks around with a stick as the conniving Juno and Amber James brings intensity as Dido’s sister Anna.  I also like Will Bliss’s somewhat rangy Hermes, with wings in his hair.

Mike Fletcher’s original compositions, played live by a tight ensemble, add plenty of locational colour, while Ciaran Bagnell’s versatile lighting plan brings texture and variety to the deceptively simple staging.  Designer Ti Green gives the actors a stage covered in grey sand.  Pristine at first, it is soon disrupted and imprinted by the footprints of all the comings and goings.  It says a lot of the impermanence of life, I find, how easily our presence can be erased.

Above all, the show is a lot of fun.  Heightened action, passions running at full tilt – you can see why the tale is well suited for opera – stirring emotions and more humour than you might expect.

The show contains a lesson in how refugees might be treated, as people today continue to flee for their lives from war-ravaged countries.  Unfortunately, men (it’s invariably men, isn’t it?) persist in committing the atrocities Aeneas describes – but where is the divine intervention now?

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Yass, Queen! Chipo Chung as Dido (Photo: Topher Mc Grillis (c) RSC)


Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017

 

Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.

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Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 


Firm Favourite

HAIRSPRAY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 9th October, 2017

 

I don’t know how many times I have seen this show but I am always glad of the chance to see it again.  This latest tour does not disappoint in any department – which is what you hope for, of course – but yet again I am struck by the genius of the material.  Based on a film of the same name by the self-appointed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this is more than the story of a determined, chubby girl to get herself dancing on a TV show; it is a microcosm of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and also, for our times, a fable that reminds us that different can be beautiful.  Yes, it’s a feel-good musical, there’s no getting away from that, but the social commentary packs a punch that goes beyond its historical relevance.  Look at the news and see right-wing morons behaving despicably in the USA today and you’ll see that abhorrent (and stupid) attitudes are still prevalent along with institutionalised racism – TV producer and the show’s villain, Velma would no doubt be a Trump supporter.

Making her professional debut, Rebecca Mendoza is superb as the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad, a veritable dynamo full of heart and energy.  Mendoza also brings out Tracy’s inherent sense of humour and her vocal stylings are impeccable.  Similarly, Edward Chitticks makes his Link Larkin more than a shallow Elvis wannabe – although he undoubtedly has all the moves.  Jon Tsouras is both sharp and smooth as TV host Corny Collins.  Brenda Edwards brings the house down as the sassy, brassy Motormouth Maybelle – her anthemic I Know Where I’ve Been gives goosebumps.  Layton Williams makes for a sinuous, sinewy Seaweed – Drew McOnie’s choreography certainly allows him to shine – while Annalise Liard-Bailey’s geeky Penny Pingleton is a pleasure.  Aimee Moore is particularly good as mean girl Amber Von Tussle while Gina Murray is marvellous as her mean-spirited mother.  Monifa James impresses as Little Inez and there is much to enjoy from Graham Macduff and Tracey Penn in a variety of pop-up roles, including the TV sponsor and a crude prison guard.

Inevitably perhaps, the showstoppers are Tracy’s parents, Wilbur and Edna – fellow Dudley boy Norman Pace and Matt Rixon.  Veteran star Pace shows no signs of waning and Rixon is pitch perfect in a role that is much more than a pantomime dame.  Edna’s journey from the ironing board to national television is truly life-affirming, and Rixon makes the most of the humour and the underlying pathos of the part.

The main players are supported by an indefatigable chorus of singing, dancing marvels and a tireless band under the baton of musical director Ben Atkinson.  Paul Kerryson’s direction keeps the fun factor high – you can’t help having a great time.

Marc Shaiman’s score has no filler and the lyrics, co-written with Scott Whittman, remain witty and sophisticated.  Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book retains enough of the Pope of Trash’s acerbic spirit to keep the whole from becoming saccharine sweet.

Everyone is on their feet for the irresistible finale, blown away and exhilarated by the energy and talent exuding from the stage.   Hairspray retains its hold on me and while I’m uplifted by this fine production, I am saddened to realise that in these backward-facing times we need to heed its message just as much as we ever did.

Hairspray

Good morning, Birmingham! Rebecca Mendoza IS Tracy Turnblad


Dodgy Lodger

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Blue Orange Theatre, Thursday 5th October, 2017

 

Joe Orton’s version of the ‘well-made play’ still has the power to amuse fifty or so years since its original production.  Society has moved on and we are all accustomed to seeing and hearing more overtly shocking things on television any night of the week, so for us it may be difficult to imagine the impact of Orton’s work.  His characters speak with vernacular erudition, almost epigrammatically, revealing their own desires – in true comic tradition (from the ancients, in fact) characters are driven by their vices.  In this case, it seems to be lust, on the part of Kath and her brother Eddie, inspired by the arrival into their lives of the enigmatic Mr Sloane.

Director Ian Craddock goes for period piece (of course, the play was contemporary with the time of its production) but ups the shock factor by introducing a spot of nudity, creating a frisson early on in proceedings.  Outbursts of anger and violence are handled well – I am struck by the similarities between Orton and early Pinter.  This is comedy with menaces.

As sentimental, possessive and damaged Kath, Elaine Ward is top notch, in a layered characterisation that goes deeper than the grotesque.  We glimpse the heartbreak that has affected her entire personality, although we have to piece together the details of her back story from contradictory accounts, some of them out of Kath’s own mouth.  Ivor Williams blunders about as the elderly and infirm Kemp, Kath’s father – we feel sympathy for the old man while we laugh at his callous mistreatment from all and sundry.  William Hayes as brother Eddie encapsulates the menace and intensity the part requires, richly laced with sarcasm – although he does appear to be the only Brummie in this London-set family.

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William Hayes (Eddie) and Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane)

For me, the night belongs to Sloane himself – which is only fitting given the way he turns the heads of Kath and Eddie.  As the handsome, amoral opportunist, Jake Hodgkinson is spot on and irresistible.  You can see why the others find him so attractive from the off – before his trousers come off, I mean!   Hodgkinson combines the looks (the dyed blond hair suits!) with a wily charm and a bad boy attitude.  The violence is entirely credible, as are the flashes of vulnerability when events threaten to overpower him.

It’s a very funny play with Orton satirising the hypocrisy of those who take advantage of others under the guise of charitable acts.  Many of the lines, spouted in an Alf Garnett manner, could come directly from the streets of today, where UKIP and Brexit views have become more prevalent – but no less abhorrent.

An excellent production that showcases a masterpiece and allows each member of the cast to demonstrate their skills.  Inevitably, I feel the loss of Orton all over again.  What wonders he may have gone on to write are forever denied us, and that’s a terrible pity.

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Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane) and Elaine Ward (Kath)

 

 


Mummy’s Little Soldier

CORIOLANUS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 4th October, 2017

 

Angus Jackson’s new production opens with a riot – carried out by a colour-coordinated mob; they must have all read the memo – firmly establishing the contemporary setting (if the pre-show forklift truck stashing bags of corn out of public reach isn’t enough of a pointer!).  Divisions in society are clearly marked through clothing.  The plebs are all hoodies and tracky bottoms, the ruling elite all dinner jackets and dickie bows.  It is a polarised society of the chavs and the chav-nots.  Somewhere between the two are the Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird) who seem uncomfortable in their position and in their clothing – power-dressed to impress – Martina Laird especially, tottering in her high heels as the Tribunes seek to establish their power.

The cast is also divided into those who can handle the wordy verse and those in whose gobs it falls flat and lifeless.  Veteran actor Paul Jesson shows us how it’s done as the elder patrician Menenius – the rhythms of the verse come across as natural and, above all, the meaning is always intelligible.  As Volumnia, the protagonist’s mum, Haydn Gwynne (at first dressed more for a Noel Coward) brings elegance and intensity – and also humour.  The same can be said for the ever-excellent James Corrigan’s Aufidius, who has a kind of Joker/Batman thing going on with Coriolanus.  They hate each other with such passion they can’t leave each other alone.

In the title role and making his RSC debut is Sope Dirisu.  He certainly looks the part and is especially striking when drenched in the blood of the vanquished.  Vocally, he doesn’t quite get it across – until, that is, Coriolanus is banished from Rome (because of Reasons, albeit petty ones) and here Dirisu rises to the demands of the scene, demonstrating why he got the part in the first place.  Also enjoyable is his reduction to petulant teen when his mum orders him about.

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Right to bare arms! Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Charles Aitken comes a close second to Corrigan in my view as the consul Cominius, proving he can deliver the verse in a range of contexts, whether in a declamatory style in public oration, or in more personal, off-duty moments.  The excellent Hannah Morrish is criminally underused as Coriolanus’s Mrs, forever pushed aside by his devotion to his mother.

It is also a production of two halves.  The first is hard going but after the interval, everything seems to click into place and the play flies along to its violent conclusion.  There’s plenty of blood in evidence but only one on-stage death – guess whose! – graphically and symbolically involving a chain.  The hand-to-hand skirmishes (kudos to fight director Terry King) are far more effective than the running around, slapping swords together.  There are no guns, it appears, and precious little technology (apart from the forklift!)

Of course, we look for parallels in our society: the risk of giving the public what they want, regardless of the consequences; the ruling class so arrogant and assured of their position and so out of touch with the populace; mistrust of those who claim to be carrying out the will of the people; and the people denying they ever wanted what they voted for…  There is a neat line that could be about self-appointed political commentators on Twitter: “They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know what goes on in the Capitol”.   LOL.

On the whole, I think the second half saves the show and because of it, we forgive the hard slog of the first.  Coriolanus as a character is hard to empathise with, mainly because he rarely tells us what’s going on in his head.  This is a production that tries hard to get us to understand him but I think the modern dress set against the rather alien power systems are a mismatch that keeps us from fully appreciating this brand of political manoeuvring.  Paradoxically, ancient Romans dressed as ancient Romans and doing what ancient Romans do may have been more accessible!

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Is that a dagger in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? James Corrigan as Aufidius (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Knowing

I KNEW YOU

The Door, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 3rd October, 2017

 

This new piece from Birmingham writer Steven Camden aka Polarbear runs for less than an hour but it’s fifty minutes of cracking theatre.  Three characters perform monologues, setting the scene, gradually revealing their history: Patrick walked out on Angela and their 8 year old son twenty years ago.  A chance sighting by one of Angela’s friends reveals that not only is Patrick back in town but he’s dying from cancer.  Angela is thrown into turmoil: should she even tell son Nathan, now 28 and a stay-at-home dad?  Is there room for Patrick in the lives he left behind?

Lorna Laidlaw (the formidable Mrs Tembe in TV’s Doctors) exudes warmth and humour as Angela.  The delivery is impeccable, the timing, the characterisations – it’s a masterclass in monologue performance and, beyond the performance, we feel for Angela and her predicament.  As son Nathan, Brenton Hamilton too demonstrates an aptitude for storytelling and comic timing.  Roderick Smith’s Patrick doesn’t yield many laughs – he’s the selfish one of the trio, but he speaks Polarbear’s lines with pathos, evincing our empathy.

When at last the characters interact, director Daniel Bailey cranks up the tension by drawing out moments of silence after all the wordiness.  Emotions burst out, voices rise and fall – Bailey does the exquisite script justice in his handling of the dynamics.

And that writing!  When she hears her ex is back, Angela describes her reaction: “I can feel my blood.  My head is full of photographs and arguments.”  Bloody wonderful.    The genius is in the detail.  Throwaway details of modern life, ironic observations of human nature, all wrapped up in this neat little package.

The piece lacks nothing, delivers everything, but I can’t help wanting more or to see it all again.

Funny, touching, insightful and fabulous.

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Lorna Laidlaw and Brenton Hamilton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Window on the World

SKYLIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th September, 2017

 

David Hare’s 1995 play gets a well-deserved revival in this robust production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.  Set in the dowdy North London flat of Maths teacher Kyra Hollis (Alice Kennedy) it reveals the story of her past affair with restaurateur and self-made millionaire, Tom (Graeme Braidwood) through reminiscence and recollection as the protagonists are reunited after a separation of three years – during which time Tom’s wife has died.  Guilty feelings abound.  As a friend of the family, Kyra is also missed by Tom’s son Edward (Jacob Williams) who regards her as a big sister.  Edward turns up out of the blue because his dad has become ‘unbearable’, and so begins an eventful night for Kyra…

As the youthful, mercurial Edward, Jacob Williams is a delight, veering between sweet and gauche with ease in a lively performance.   Williams, whose appearances dovetail the main action, makes a lasting impression.

Alice Kennedy’s Kyra is mature (compared with Edward!) but also vulnerable.  We glimpse her classroom manner from time to time and in plain sight is her passion for her vocation, her desire to give the help so desperately needed by society’s most downtrodden.  There is strength here and also nuance.

Much the same can be said for Graeme Braidwood’s Tom.  Opinionated and objectionable, he is also a character of passion.  Yes, we may find his views abhorrent, the way he treats people as objects, but he comes across as a credible figure, thanks to Braidwood’s performance and of course to David Hare’s excellent writing.

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Graeme Braidwood as Tom and Alice Kennedy as Kyra (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

As much a personal ding-dong as a political slanging match, the play emphasises the humanity of its arguments. The characters are rounded, contradictory  and fleshed out beings not mere ciphers to illustrate a point.

Director Mark Payne maintains a level of energy throughout in this emotionally charged drama that is richly laced with humour.  Braidwood’s delivery of Tom’s embittered barbs is impeccable and Williams’s Edward is amusingly observed and endearingly depicted – at least he is able to kick-start his relationship with Kyra again.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are high. Keith Harris’s detailed set with its old furniture and working hob (the smell of onions cooking in real time gets me salivating!) and the props (courtesy of Andrew Lowrie, Ben Pountney and Georgina Evans) show nothing has been overlooked, down to the graffiti on the covers of the exercise books waiting to be marked.

Beautifully played and well paced, this is an engaging, grown-up portrait of relationships as well as a heartfelt discourse on the state of our divided nation.  Surely the divide is wider now, 22 years later – what a depressing thought! – pushing the relevance levels of Skylight through the roof  (I couldn’t resist!).

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Jacob Williams as Edward (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

 

 


One Man Woman

MAN TO MAN

The Studio, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 27th September, 2017

 

This production from the Wales Millennium Centre is a new translation of Manfred Karge’s 1982 piece – although it could have been written much earlier in the last century.  There are dark shades of Kafka here in the dehumanisation of man in the service of industrialisation, echoes of Brecht and especially Beckett in the execution.  I am also reminded of Berkoff’s reworking of Metamorphosis, when our protagonist literally goes up the wall…

At the root of the fractured narrative is the story of a widow who adopts her dead husband’s identity so she can take over his job as a crane driver.  This means she has to change her behaviour to fit in and become part of the blokey circle of his workmates.  Because a woman shouldn’t be doing man’s work, of course.  I’d like to think the world – especially the world of work has moved on a little since 1982.  But cross-dressing is a classic trope in drama and always has been, giving rise to all sorts of complications and talking points.  Here, it’s Nazi Germany where many had to pretend to be other than they were in order to survive. The stakes are high for our lady in trousers.

Maggie Bain is the sole performer, taking us through a blend of story, anecdote and memory, playing all the parts in a highly physicalised manner.  She is a compelling presence and is supported by some excellent tech work: projections illustrate the fantasy moments; atmospheric lighting slashes across the scene through wooden slats; distortions and echoes in the sound augment the mood; and above all, in my view, the original music by Matthew Scott adds a nursery rhyme/creepy feel to proceedings.

Directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham pull out all the stops to bring life and colour to the grey, monochromatic world.  Surreal surprises abound: for example, Bain climbs into a suitcase and then comes in through the door.  Richard Kent’s sharply angled, expressionistic set complements the early 20th century vibe.  Dark circles ring Bain’s eyes, like a Buster Keaton figure or, given the expressionistic flavour, Claude Rains.

On the whole, I have to say I enjoyed the form of this piece rather than the content, due in no small part to Maggie Bain’s magnetic and skilful performance, using her voice and body to such a plastic extent, you expect the other characters to join her on stage at any given moment.  In the end, it’s a play of moments rather than moment.  It’s dark stuff: David Lynch meets Samuel Beckett.  Spellbinding rather than enlightening, it works on the imagination rather than the intellect.

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Going up in the world, Maggie Bain (Photo: Polly Thomas)


Bowing Out

DUET FOR ONE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th September, 2017

 

Tom Kempinski’s famous play for two actors comes to Birmingham in this new production featuring reliable old hands, Oliver Cotton and Belinda Lang.  Lang is Stephanie, a classical violinist whose career has been brought to an abrupt end by her encroaching multiple sclerosis.  Cotton is Doctor Feldmann, the psychotherapist she visits even though she insists she doesn’t need to.   Through a series of scenes showing her sessions with the doctor, we find out more about her as the truth is teased out – mainly through reading into her vehement denials.  There is a sameness to the scenes: he sits and listens, she rants sarcastically, berating him and using her wheelchair for dramatic turns.

Yes, it’s rather funny as the spiked barbs fly and Feldmann punctures her fury with well-timed questions delivered deadpan, but as it goes on, I find that I don’t particularly care for this woman’s tragedy – the loss of her violin is more than being put out of a job, of course it is – but I haven’t warmed to her particularly, and as for him, well, apart from one unprofessional outburst in which it’s his turn to have a rant about his lot, Feldmann is a closed book.

So what can we take from it?  Can we relate to a classical superstar whose parents ran an artisanal chocolate shop?  “The meaning of life is life itself” – there is that.  Life is more than merely occupying your time.  True.

Lang and Cotton are in good form.  After a couple more shows, maybe even in great form, as the dialogue becomes less slippery and performances tighten up.  Lang is better when she’s mouthing off than during the more tearful moments and Cotton, with his enviable head of hair, listens like a hawk – if such a thing is possible.

Director Robin Lefevre works hard to keep things from becoming too static, getting Stephanie out of her wheelchair as much as possible and Feldmann too gets opportunities to stretch his legs.  The play makes amateur analysts of us all; as we listen, we deduce what’s been going on, why she is the way she is, and perhaps we question what we would do if we were faced with this terrible disease or were similarly robbed of our way of life.

Inevitably, it’s a wordy piece, a radio drama with bookshelves and furniture.  As the professional relationship between therapist and patient/customer develops and looks likely to unravel, we suspect Feldmann has been playing her like a fiddle all along.

Solidly performed and presented, more amusing than touching, Duet For One is worth a look, or rather, a listen.

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That’s about the size of it – Oliver Cotton (Photo: Robert Day)


Awesome Foursome

QUARTET

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 22nd September, 2017

 

Ronald Harwood’s play is set firmly in Waiting For God territory, here a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians.  Among the esoteric inmates we meet eccentric Cicely, rambunctious Wilfred – who seems more at home in a Carry On film than the Royal Opera House – and prissy Reggie who makes pronouncements about Art – when he’s not hurling abuse at the staff who deny him his marmalade fix.  The trio appear to have accepted their fate and are looking forward to performing in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.  Their peace is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of former diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, Jean.

Will three become four in order to perform a quartet?  Will they be able to recapture at least a glimmer of their former glory?

These are questions posed by the plot but really it’s a play about things we can all recognise: the ageing process, our own mortality, what will be our legacy…

The four singers are presented as flawed individuals but above all as relatable, likeable human beings.  The unseen villains of the piece are the spectres of death and dementia which make their presence known from time to time.  The characters approach old age and infirmity humorously and philosophically but every now and then we glimpse the sting of their predicament.  Kevin Hand brings a lot of fun as the coarse and lecherous Wilfred while Graham Tyrell’s effete and brittle Reggie is a perfect foil.  Juliet Grundy is endearing as the dramatic and lively Cecily, gradually losing her marbles before our very eyes.  Margot McCleary’s haughty, haunted diva has an air of faded royalty.  We like them all immensely and enjoy their company.

Director Estelle Hand balances comedy with poignancy – Harwood never allows us to dwell in mawkishness, touching on themes such as the sexual appetites and histories of the elderly, the necessity of living in the present rather than the past, of making the most of whatever time we might have left.  Hand gets nuanced and well-observed performances from her cast.  Yes, there are a few first-night stumbling over lines, but the tone is spot on.

“Art is meaningless unless it makes you feel,” observes Wilfred in a rare moment of insight.  This entertaining and touching production certainly makes us do that.

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For

AGAINST

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017

 

Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it.  When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better.  There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.

Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics.  He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations.  And he is fallible.  His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets.  Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.

Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are.  The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider.  Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here.  One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.

Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush.  Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter.  Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness.  The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.

Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today.  Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.

Ben Whishaw Against

He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very pretty boy. Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 


For the Record

SON OF A PREACHER MAN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 13th September, 2017

 

The words ‘jukebox musical’ are enough to send a shiver down this reviewer’s spine.  Stephen King should write one.  Perhaps Pet Sematary using the music of The Animals.   Mr King, however, would endow his show with a plot worth following.  Here, sadly, writer Warner Brown does not.

Paul (Michael Howe) yearns to reignite his crush on a boy from his youth spent in a Soho record shop; Alison (Debra Stephenson), newly widowed but reeling from an attraction to one of her students, has a hankering to visit the Soho record shop her mum was always banging on about; Kat (Diana Vickers), following the death of the grandmother who brought her up, finds her way to the Soho record shop in which her gran had so many happy times…  Three strangers with the same record shop in common – sort of – meet at the corner of Old Compton Street only to find that record shop is now a coffee franchise, called Double Shot (although the cup motif on the sign could represent a different vowel).  Here’s where the shoehorn comes in: the record shop’s name was Preacher Man.  The proprietor was some kind of community guru, also called the Preacher Man.  They are both long gone, but living above the coffee shop and working there as manager is Simon (Ian Reddington) who, all together now, is the Son of – well, you can see where it is going.  Simon embarks on a quest to solve the problems of the three strangers but, frankly, I couldn’t care less.

I think it’s the overall tone that stops me from engaging.  The story is tosh but they carry on as if it’s somehow mystical and significant.  A bit of tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink to say, Look, we know it’s tosh, but come along with us, would have made the show more fun.  This means the songs, each one a belter of a track from Dusty Springfield’s oeuvre, are made ridiculous: at a bereavement group, the members sing mournfully ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, dancing with empty plastic chairs.

The performers range from competent to excellent, many of them playing instruments with flair and panache.  Of the lot, Diana Vickers has by far the best voice and it’s a treat to hear her – but, of course, no one can match Ms Springfield.  Mercifully, they don’t try to.   A stand-out number for me is ‘Spooky’ performed by Sandra (Ellie-Jane Goddard) accompanied by Michael Howe.

There is a trio of backing singers, the Capuccino Sisters, who like the girls in Little Shop of Horrors add harmony and humour to proceedings.  Vocally, Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berekely-Agyepong are great but in this po-faced world, their sassiness comes across as cynical and mean-spirited.  Or perhaps I’m just projecting my responses onto them!  There is Madge, the cleaner, a ‘comic’ role (played by Jon Bonner) which is a throwback to the era of the fictitious record shop of the time.  One word: cringe.

Director Craig Revel Horwood needs to loosen things up and not try to sell this lightweight fare as something we should take seriously.  Horwood also choreographs and, while the dancing is tight, sometimes balletic even, the moves are often inappropriate, needlessly suggestive – as though he has remembered this is a show adults will go and see and perhaps will swallow the juvenile plot if he spices things up a bit.  The Capuccino Sisters virtually humping the tables they’re serving is at odds with the heartfelt/bubblegum stylings of Springfield’s exemplary pop.

Banal twaddle though this may be, it is performed well by a talented cast who work their socks off, making me wish they would dispense with the story and just give us a concert instead.

Ah well.  I’m off to write a show about a woman who loses a scratchcard at the seaside, using the back catalogue of, I don’t know, Alma Cogan or somebody.

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Diana Vickers putting Mike (Liam Vincent-Kilbride) in his place


Train of Thought

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 11th September, 2017

 

With delicious irony, the fates delay the curtain up on this play centring around trains.  Ha, ha, universe!

But when this production from Exeter Northcott Theatre does get under way, it’s full steam ahead for a lovely piece of theatre.

When their father leaves them under mysterious circumstances, siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter move from London with their mother to a quaint but humble country cottage near to a railway.  As a distraction from their newfound poverty, the children take to waving at passengers on the trains, notably an ‘Old Gentleman’ who proves to be crucial to later plot developments.  They also strike up friendship with stationmaster Perks and his eldest son, John.

On the surface, the show drips with Brexiteer nostalgia for an England that never existed.  A closer look reveals this to be a place where people are nasty and suspicious when a foreigner in need enters their midst – but not E. Nesbit’s heroic children, whose only impulse is to help the poor man.  It’s a place where people worry about the expense of seeing the doctor – he runs some kind of private health insurance club the locals chip in to.

Against the backdrop of this society, the three kids learn that sharing is best, that people have pride and there is a difference between gifts and handouts.  I am gobsmacked; I had no idea the story was so political.  Dave Simpson’s adaptation of the classic novel does not shy away from the author’s socialist leanings.

As Roberta, the eldest, Millie Turner captures the essence of a girl between youth and maturity, while as her siblings Peter and Phyllis, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton are spirited in their immaturity.  The kids squabble but never lose their sense of decency and fair play.

The immensely likeable Stewart Wright narrates as the avuncular Perks; Callum Goulden does a nice comic turn as his tearaway offspring.  Will Richards makes a striking Russian, expressive before he even utters a word in any language, while Andrew Joshi’s increasingly knackered doctor provides much of the broader humour.  Joy Brook shines as the authoritative, firm but fair mother, all stiff upper lip and sacrifice for the sake of her children while espousing their Russian houseguest’s revolutionary ideals.

Timothy Bird’s set, costume and video designs not only evoke the Edwardian setting but add layers of artificiality, blending practical effects (a cut-out carriage is a hoot!) with projected animations, reminding us that this seemingly cosy place is not real.  Director Paul Jepson ensures the energy of his performers is not overshadowed by the impressive technical features of the production, and adds effective bits of business to keep the actors to the fore: a slow-motion moment during Perks’s birthday party, for example – there is some lovely character playing by Andrea Davy as Perks’s wife.

The iconic moments are all here.  Averting a rail disaster by ripping up Roberta’s red petticoat and waving it like mad.  The touching reunion… Misty-eyed?  Me?  Must just be a bit of steam in my eye.

All right, I admit it, I am touched right in the feels and the needle on my nostalgia dial is in the red, but most of all I am struck that this tale from a more innocent age over a century ago speaks so strongly to us today and has such currency.  There is a lot to be said for Englishness, for doing what is right, for supporting the underdog; just as there is a lot to be said against the nasty, narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic attitudes of many English people today!  In 2017!  As if world events since the book first appeared mean nothing.

How much underwear do I have to tear up and wave around to stop this country going off the rails?

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Millie Turner, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton (Photo: Mark Dawson)

 


Party Piece

THE GREAT GATSBY

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 10th September, 2017

 

The Crescent’s new season gets off to a fine start with this adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel.  Stephen Sharkey’s script retains the timbre of Fitzgerald’s prose, mainly in the mouth of our narrator Nick Carraway (John O’Neill).  Through Nick’s eyes we visit the partygoing rich of the Twenties, a carefree elite who drink and dance every night away.  By sheer coincidence, Nick happens to be renting a property next to the massive mansion of the titular Gatsby, who happens to be an old flame of Nick’s cousin, Daisy, who has since married Tom Buchanan… Gatsby urges Nick to organise a reunion, an event from which tragedy springs.

John O’Neill is a serviceable narrator, handling Fitzgerald’s heady words in a matter-of-fact way.  As Gatsby, Guy Houston exudes a suave and easy charm; along with Nick we come to understand the man and his motivations.  Colette Nooney’s Daisy is coolly laconic while Laura Poyner’s fiery Myrtle injects passion into the piece.  Mark Fletcher’s Tom Buchanan has an air of Clark Gable to him.  Kimberley Bradshaw seems perfectly at home in the era as famous golfer, Jordan Baker.  All the main players are in fine form, in fact, with strong support from character parts: Jason Timmington’s Treves, for example, and Simon King’s Wolfsheim, who brings a flavour New York into this rarefied atmosphere.  James Browning’s George Wilson is a fine characterisation but he needs to lift his head more so we see more than the top of his flat cap.

The play saves all its action until the end as the consequences of the characters’ behaviour burst to the fore.  We are amused by these people but kept at a distance from them – in the end, we have only warmed to Nick and Gatsby – and so Fitzgerald’s critique of the in-crowd sinks in its teeth.  This is the empty hedonism of Made In Chelsea with dramatic bite.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are strong.  The art deco arches that represent Gatsby’s gaff, with their artificially organic elegance, evoke the period as soon as we see them.  Keith Harris’s set flows swiftly from each location to the next – there are a lot of scenes and changes are enhanced by Jake Hotchin and Tom Buckby’s lighting design, especially the beautiful work on the cyclorama.   Stewart Snape’s costumes fulfil our expectations of the era – Gatsby’s outfits are particularly snazzy – and Jo Thackwray’s choreography gives us all the Charleston moves and black bottoms we could wish for.  If I had to nit-pick, I would say at times the music playback needs to be a touch louder, and a crucial sound effect – a car crash – needs to have more impact.  It is the turning point of the story, after all.

Director Colin Judges keeps a steady pace, allowing moments of humour to surface like bubbles in champagne.  Stylish and elegant, this is a great Gatsby.

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John O’Neill narrates while Colette Nooney and Guy Houston catch up. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Lashing Out

THE WHIP HAND

The Door, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 6th September, 2017

 

Dougie (Jonathan Watson) is gathering family members to celebrate his 50th birthday – he has an agenda, a presentation to make.  The venue is his ex-wife’s house and Dougie is welcomed by her second husband, Lorenzo (Richard Conlon) who is a bit of a liberal and a smoothie with a penchant for artisanal ale.  Running tech support for his uncle is Aaron (Michael Abubakar), Dougie’s mixed-race nephew. Completing the party are the ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and the daughter she shares with Dougie, Molly (Joanne Thomson).    The nature of these relationships emerges along with the purpose of Dougie’s presentation…  He has received an email from an organisation that seeks reparation for the evils of the slave trade – it turns out Dougie is a descendant of a sugar-beet millionaire and slave master.  Prompted by white-man’s guilt and his milestone birthday, Dougie wants to do some good in the world, and has come to ask Arlene to sign over Molly’s college fund.

This production in partnership with Traverse Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Scotland provides a powerful 90 minutes of drama, laced with barbed humour and performed by a strong cast of five who each get their moments to shine, thanks to Douglas Maxwell’s taut and thought-provoking script.   Jonathan Watson is great as the volatile Dougie, contrasting nicely with Richard Conlon’s smooth-talking Lorenzo.  Louise Ludgate impresses as the sarcastic, impassioned Arlene, who has good reason to be cynical and short-tempered where Dougie is concerned, while Joanne Thomson’s Molly goes on a journey of discovery as secrets from the past are wrenched to the fore.  Michael Abubakar’s outbursts as Aaron add intensity to proceedings.

Director Tessa Walker draws us into the play’s discourse first with the amusing naturalism of a comedy of manners, and keeps us hooked with seething animosity, spoken and unsaid.  We suspect from the start the email is some kind of scam but the argument it provokes (that the world we live in is built on the atrocities perpetrated by slavers) is potent – although we don’t agree with Dougie’s means to redress ancient evils.

When the true nature of the scam comes to light, we see that the evils that need redressing aren’t so evil, as Aaron learns the truth about his father’s absence.

Darkly comic and provocative, the piece is in danger of letting its argument overpower our attachment to the characters – it’s one of those where you admire the performers but detest the dramatis personae.  A good advertisement for family gatherings, it is not!  And it shows us that racism, unlike the slave trade, is not a thing of the past.

A slanging match with bite and substance, The Whip Hand stirs up big themes in a domestic setting.  The personal is political and there is nothing more personal nor political than the bitter quarrels of family members.

15. Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

 

 


A Dog Without Purpose

FAITHFUL RUSLAN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 5th September, 2017

 

If George Orwell had written Lassie Come Home it might have turned out something like this: heavy with political allegory and mired in the harshness of life.  Based on a cult novel by Georgi Vladimov, Faithful Ruslan is the story of a guard dog, made redundant by the closure of his gulag.  This is no cosy, heart-warming Greyfriars Bobby – Ruslan is so conditioned by his training, he can’t forego the old regime and would rather suffer and starve than accept food or a helping hand from a stranger.

Max Keeble features as Ruslan in a remarkable display of physicality.  He comes across as a man-dog, his movements and reactions utterly credible.  Other members of the cast crop up as narrators of Ruslan’s thoughts, their anthropomorphic accounts at odds with the canine qualities of Keeble’s performance.  Ruslan’s thoughts give us a view of the action no dog would ever have, speaking of things dogs can’t conceptualise.  If ever you’ve heard someone banging on about a dog’s birthday, you’ll get the idea.

Helena Kaut-Howson has adapted the novel and directs this production with a sharp eye and vigour, putting her cast through a regimen as they become not just dogs and other humans but swinging doors and props for scenic items.  It’s a relentless barrage of ideas, the vast majority of them extremely effective.  (There’s an ill-advised rap quality to one bit of narration about a tractor but I’ll gloss over that!)

Martin Donaghy is Ruslan’s cruel and treacherous Master, an ostensible villain, but of course, it’s the system that’s to blame, here called The Service.  Paul Brendan brings a down-to-earth touch of humour to proceedings as the Shabby Man, who crosses Ruslan’s path.  Isabelle Joss appears as Stiura, Shabby Man’s lady friend who has nightmares about being gangraped by a long line of prisoners.  You see, it’s not just about man’s slavery and exploitation of animals but the way humans treat each other.  Another standout is Hunter Bishop as an energetic and enthusiastic Instructor for the Service dogs who ends up barking mad himself.

There is much to appreciate in this ensemble piece, where the physicality of the performers is enhanced by lighting effects that bring colour to this grim, grey world. Projections of scene captions add to the epic theatre feel.  For this stage adaptation, the story is set as a play-within-a-play, performed by the inmates of a corrective facility on the eve of the centenary of the Russian revolution… All I can say is, that corrective facility has one hell of a sophisticated drama society.

You come out impressed by the form but depressed by the content.  There is nothing uplifting, no ray of light.  The conclusion seems to be that if you’re drowned as a puppy, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Grim, largely unpleasant but compellingly told – it’s going to take a lot of vodka to get the taste out of my mouth.

Max Keeble in Faithful Ruslan - Credit Robert Day

Doggy style: Max Keeble as Ruslan (Photo: Robert Day)


A Breath of Fresh Eyre

JANE EYRE

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 4th September, 2017

 

The REP’s new season gets off to a flying start with this highly-acclaimed production from the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.  Adapted from Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel by the original cast, this is a faithful and spirited retelling with a heightened sense of theatricality – without breaking the fourth wall.

On a sparse set of steps, ladders and walkways, the story plays out with director Sally Cookson conjuring up locations, weather, time of day and setting, mainly through her actors, and enhancing effects through judicious use of sound and lighting effects.  What we get is a wealth of invention and creativity that allows the power of the tale to come through.

The eponymous Jane (an indefatigable Nadia Clifford, who doesn’t seem to leave the stage) is orphaned, abused and neglected as a child but never loses her sense of right and wrong or her tendency to speak out.  Her employment as governess to the ward of Mr Rochester at last exposes her to love and life – and the pains that they can bring.  Clifford is a formidable presence, although tiny, she gives voice to Jane’s outbursts; we have no choice but to be on her side through all her tribulations.  Tim Delap is an eccentric Rochester, grumpy and mercurial, yet somehow dashing and irresistible.  The other cast members come and go as supporting characters: Lynda Rooke’s cruel Aunt Reed contrasts with her kindly Mrs Fairfax;  Evelyn Miller provides Jane with rare warmth and friendship as Bessie and then swanks around as the worldly Blanche Ingram.  Special mention must go to Melanie Marshall’s haunting vocals as the unfortunate Bertha Mason, but it is Paul Mundell who almost steals the show as Rochester’s dog, Pilot!

Theatricality is maximised for greatest effect: Jane’s travels are energetically depicted – even the act of opening a window is stylishly presented.  The melodramatic elements of Charlotte Bronte’s narrative are all there, with contemporary music highlighting the modernity of the story.  The inclusion of standards like Mad About The Boy is both clever and apt, but no less effective is Benji Bower’s original score.

A real feat of theatre that breathes new life into an old story, the perfect marriage of form and content, Jane Eyre charms, amuses and touches in all the right places.  Even if the three-hour running time (extended by a delayed second act on this occasion!) numbs the bum a little bit, your head and your heart will think the time is flying by.

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Theatregoer, I married him. Tim Delap as Rochester and Nadia Clifford as Jane. (Photo: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg)

 


Working the Crowd

WEST SIDE STORY

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 25th August, 2017

 

It is a firm fixture of the summer programme: the annual production by Stage Experience involving dozens (and dozens) of kids from the region – and every year I marvel at the process of staging a show of such high quality given a short rehearsal time any hardened professional would baulk at.  This year it’s Bernstein and Sondheim’s classic reworking of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic tale of Tony and Maria who find love on opposite sides of some silly feud, here represented as gangland violence (translated into dance moves).

Elliot Gooch shines as Tony.  Already distancing himself from his gang, The Jets, he finds his adolescent emotions sparked to both love and war as events unfold.  Gooch is stunningly good.  His rendition of ‘Maria’ is enough to raise goosebumps and would work anywhere as an audition piece.  One tip I do have for him, speaking as a former teacher of theatre, is to watch his perfect enunciation of every letter in every word does not get in the way of characterisation.

He is matched by Grace Whyte’s rather operatic Maria.  Her soprano is striking and expressive and furthermore, her Latino accent remains consistent and her passions are utterly credible.

Also excellent is Leah Vassell as Anita, who is more worldly-wise than Maria.  Her musical numbers are highlights, whether she’s satirising life in America or pleading with Maria to stick to her own kind.  She brings humour, and darker emotions after the murder of Bernardo (Javier Aguilera, who moves with easy grace).

Among the Jets, Jordan Ricketts’s Riff makes an impression (before his untimely end!) and also strong is Caven Rimmer as the hot-headed Action.

Once again director Pollyann Tanner has worked miracles.  Her choreography fulfils our expectations of Hal Prince’s original moves and there is balletic beauty by the ton – a difficulty with having a company so large is giving each kid their time in the spotlight; at times, dance sequences look like an amorphous mass of heads and limbs, but when the dancers have space, you can see the skills at play.  Every kid in every crowded corner is thoroughly disciplined and committed.  The levels of focus are astonishing.  Personally, I would have foregone the softening of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ by swamping the stage with what looks like a Persil advert and let the number have its bitter edge.   The assault of Anita is all the more shocking from its stylised presentation, and the show loses none of its ultimate emotional impact when the tragedy reaches its conclusion.

Sadly, the show’s themes of anti-immigration feeling and knife crime still resonate today.  The emotions are timeless but one would have liked society to have moved on from the racism displayed here.  Perhaps, some day… somewhere…

A remarkable achievement by everyone concerned.  My mind boggles to think of the logistics of it all but what matters most to an audience member is the effectiveness of the final product.  Yet again, Stage Experience delivers the goods: an enthralling, entertaining and moving piece of theatre.  Bravo!

west side


Muck and Brass

BRASSED OFF

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th August, 2017

 

It’s been forty years since Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre produced a show of its own but now comes this new production of a time-honoured crowd-pleaser, Mark Herman’s stage adaptation of the much-loved British film.  Set in 1994, ten years after the miners’ strike and the pits are still under threat.  With closure in the air, the men are offered ‘bribes’ in the form of what might seem like generous redundancy pay-outs.  While the women of the community continue to protest and fight, the men fill their non-working hours with drinking and band practice.

Ash Matthews is Shane, our young, part-time narrator, guiding us back to those times.  Matthews, playing much younger than he is, is a likeable presence, capturing Shane’s ebullience and childish preoccupations.  Shane is an innocent trying to make sense of what the grown-ups are up to.

Ash Matthews (Shane) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Ash Matthews as Shane (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Christopher Connel is Shane’s dad, Phil, who is really struggling to make ends meet.  It’s difficult to put bread on the table when the bailiffs have taken the table.  Connel and Miriam Grace Edwards as wife Sandra, provide most of the emotional content of the show, as their marriage comes under strain, and Phil’s mental health declines.  In a moving and desperate speech, he spits out bitter jokes as he tightens a noose around his neck.  Connel is absolutely compelling.  It’s a dark moment in what is for the most part a story leavened with a lot of down-to-earth Northern humour – most of which comes from Jim and Harry (Greg Yates and Tim Jones) and their wives Rita and Vera (Donna Heaslip and Susie Wilcox).  It’s the womenfolk who talk sense in this piece.

Shane’s grandfather and Phil’s dad, Danny, is also the leader of the colliery band, striving to keep things going and get the band through heats of various competitions.  Jeffrey Holland (from Hi-de-Hi on the telly, and countless pantomime appearances as an exemplary Dame) is a revelation in this dramatic role, balancing the dry humour with passion.  Danny may have coal dust in his lungs but he also has fire in his belly.  A dying man, he is a metaphor for the coal industry, with capitalism as the disease that will kill him.

Eddy Massarella makes a strong impression as the directionless Andy, whose interest is aroused by the return of old flame Gloria (an excellent Clara Darcy) who blows a mean flugelhorn but has a hidden agenda.  Their thwarted love story falls second, however, to scenes that show the blight on the communities by Tory ideology – and it is here that the play retains its relevance.  It is people that matter, Danny declares in an impassioned speech, not making a bob or two – despite the way the Tories carry on to this day.

Director Gareth Tudor Price handles the tonal changes as assuredly as conductor Danny steers the music.  And what music it is!  From the bouncy Floral Dance to the searing Concerto d’Aranjuez and a stirring William Tell Overture, the brass band sound is gorgeous.  The cast is augmented by the City of Wolverhampton Brass Band and it’s a real treat for the ears.

I hope this show heralds a new era of in-house productions for the Grand.  This foul-mouthed but heart-warming story is a superb way to start.

Jeffrey Holland (Danny) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Jeffrey Holland as Danny (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Private Moments

YANK!

Charing Cross Theatre, London, Wednesday 16th August, 2017

 

With music by Joseph Zellnik and book and lyrics by David Zellnik, this World War II love story has a timely relevance its creators perhaps did not foresee.  A young man finds a journal in a San Francisco junk shop.  In it he reads the story of journalist Stu (Scott Hunter) who reported for Yank, the army’s in-house magazine during the War – after having met handsome Mitch (Andy Coxon) while undergoing basic training.  The pair strike up a friendship that develops – thanks to long periods without female company – into something more.  Mitch is far from at ease, confused by his love for Stu, and the pair split until events conspire to reunite them and also threaten to finish them off for good.

The pair are so appealing, the playing so tender in contrast with the barrack room banter of the rest of the squad, you can’t help rooting for them.  What these privates do with their privates has to be kept private.  There is also an underlying dread that things will not end happily for these stars-and-stripes-crossed lovers.

Scott Hunter is marvellous as our sensitive and vulnerable narrator, gaining strength in his sense of identity and confidence in his sexuality, while Andy Coxon both looks and sounds bloody gorgeous as hunky heartthrob Mitch (I want one!).

They are supported by a talented and versatile squad, among whom are Kris Marc-Joseph, who adds a touch of humour as Czechowski, Bradley Judge as handsome Italian Rotelli, and Waylon Jacobs impresses as a tough-talking Sarge and as the effeminate, drawling ‘Scarlett’.  Ostensibly the villain of the piece, Lee Dillon-Stuart’s redneck Tennessee is the ugly face (no offence) of homophobia – although, of course, the real baddie is the institutionalised discrimination against gays in the military (and society as a whole).  Sarah-Louise Young appears in all the female roles (there were lesbians in the US army!  Who knew?!) and she gets to knock out some of the show’s finest torch songs.  Chris Kiely is also in great form as photographer Artie, who opens Stu’s eyes (among other things…)

The melodic score is heavily influenced by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with some 1940s touches for added authenticity –  at times the harmonies are very Andrews Sisters.  The lyrics are witty and sophisticated, and the plot engages us emotionally at first and then intellectually.  We must remember those who fought and/or died to preserve our freedom as well as those who paved the way for civil rights.  How depressing then to live in an age when the Bigot-in-Chief at the White House bans trans people from the armed forces!  Homophobic attacks are on the rise.  The fight for equality and against oppressive shitheads continues.

This beautiful, poignant, funny and rousing show touched my heart, drained my tear ducts and made my hands sore from clapping.  A real pleasure to see (thanks to Chris Cuming’s lively choreography) and to hear (take a bow, MD James Cleeve and his unseen band).  Director James Baker balances tension with humour, tenderness with menace, to engage us with this powerful story.  Small in scale yet immense in scope, Yank! is a strong contender for my favourite show of the year.

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Lip service: Andy Coxon and Scott Hunter (Photo: Claire Bilyard)


Absolutely Batty

DRACULA: THE BLOODY TRUTH

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 15th August, 2017

 

Exeter-based troupe, Le Navet Bête (The Stupid Turnip) bring their zany antics to the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre for a couple of sell-out performances of this new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal novel.  In this one, Professor Abraham Van Helsing is our host, declaiming Stoker for misappropriating the truth.  Dracula, Van Helsing asserts, is in fact, fact.  So begins a very silly evening, as Van Helsing and his three associates reconstruct events for our information.

It’s a madcap couple of hours where the theatricality is as heightened as the silliness.  Draining the same comic vein as The Play That Goes Wrong the group’s apparently shambolic efforts at drama are relentlessly funny, as door handles come off, props are destroyed and even the proscenium arch comes tumbling down.  There is physical comedy too as the energetic quartet dart around, sometimes portraying different characters in the same scene, and the script has a witty spirit that gives the actors plenty of scope to be hilarious.  The cast is comprised of Matt Freeman, Nick Blunt, Dan Bianchi and Al Dunn – but with all the dashing around it’s hard to keep track of who is whom.

John Nicholson’s direction maintains a frenetic pace, making judicious use of tech to enhance the relentless parade of gags.  “I hate theatre,” is Van Helsing’s constant refrain as his show collapses around him.  His production is cursed, it would appear, but we are blessed to witness this virtuoso display of slapstick and high camp.

Phil Eddolls’s design evokes the Victorian period, and is gloriously ‘inept’ – in one scene, characters are required to enter and exit via a door in the ‘fireplace’.  We have no hope of suspending our disbelief for a second.

It takes great skill to be as ‘bad’ as this and the vigour and charm of the cast keeps the joke from wearing thin.  The surprises keep coming in this breathless romp through the story.  It’s an unadulterated pleasure to wallow in silliness for a couple of hours in these troubling times.  If the show has a message, perhaps it’s that theatre should be entertaining and life should be enjoyed – because there are bad things out there and always will be.  This is fun you can sink your teeth into.

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Photo: Matt Austin

 


Blooming Great

THE SECRET GARDEN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 5th August, 2017

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s celebrated children’s novel first appeared in 1911.  It wasn’t quite that long ago when I read it but various film and stage adaptations of it have kept the story and characters in my mind over the years.  Now comes this new version by Simon Ravenhill and it’s a corker.  With only a cast of four, Ravenhill delivers the whole book and while the action moves swiftly, it never feels rushed.  The pacing is spot on, allowing key moments to develop and play out while keeping the plot ticking along.

Nicolette Morgan is our heroine, the orphan Mary Lennox, returning from India to an England she has never known.  Accustomed to being dressed by her Ayah, Mary is a fish out of kedgeree and, pretty much left to her own devices, continues to feel unloved and unwanted by all and sundry.  Until she begins to make friends, that is.  Morgan is excellent, giving us young Mary’s wilfulness and vulnerability without playing down to the character’s age.

She is supported by three versatile character actors who populate the rest of the story with quick changes and varied characterisations – it’s easy to forget there’s only four of them in it, and such is the transformative nature of the costumes and the actors’ skills, it’s hard to believe that the fearsome housekeeper Mrs Medlock is played by the same actor (Dru Stephenson) as the likeable, green-fingered, Doctor Doolittle-ish young boy, Dickon.  Lorenna White bobs and chatters as chambermaid Martha, and really comes into her own as the tantrum-throwing invalid Colin.  James Nicholas brings stature to the piece in a range of authoritarian roles: the Doctor,  the hunchbacked Mr Craven, a colonel.   This is a top-drawer quartet in a high-quality piece.

Simon Ravenhill also directs, getting his cast to work hard to keep things going, and there are plenty of pleasing touches, simple but so effective: a four-poster bed dominates the set, and a free-standing but movable door helps give the sense of the rambling country manor house to which Mary is consigned.   Puppets are used sparingly for that extra touch of animal magic.  The detailed costumes and the odd piece of furniture convey the period setting but it’s the actors that drive the piece.  Ravenhill’s script uses Burnett’s words but allows the characters to interact rather than resorting to narration.  I will admit to having something of a Pavlovian response to the Indian music used to underscore the scene changes.  By the interval, I was craving a vegetable madras.

A faithful and classy production of a classic story with a child-friendly running time, this is a captivating and well-tended Secret Garden that touches the heart and is yet another example of the excellent work produced at the Blue Orange.  The book’s message remains: what is left neglected will wither and spoil.  And that works for people as much as plants.

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Here Comes A Chopper

MISS SAIGON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st August, 2017

 

Schonberg & Boubil’s ‘other’ musical comes to Brum for a lengthy stay – I can’t see its popularity diminishing over the summer.  Not having seen it for 13 years or so, I am reminded of the show’s emotionally charged excellence; it’s almost like coming to it fresh.  Of course, if you know Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (and who doesn’t?), you’ll know where the plot is heading but tragedy expected is no less affecting than tragedy unforeseen.  Perhaps it is more so.

Sooha Kim is our ill-fated heroine, a massive voice in a tiny frame, singing with such range and power.  Kim (the character) retains her loyalty, innocence and naivety to the last, while Kim (the performer) repeatedly knocks our socks off as fast as we can put them back on.  A truly stunning appearance of undeniable star quality.

Leading man Chris (Ashley Gilmour) is buff in all the right places and while his voice blends perfectly in duet with Kim, it could do with a bit more muscle for his solos.  Gerald Santos’s Thuy is a striking villain but of the men, it is Red Concepcion as the opportunistic pimp, The Engineer, who truly stands out.  Morally repugnant, we take to him because of his overt humanity – plus he adds a touch of humour to the heart-rending drama.

There are also strong appearances from Marsha Songcome as Gigi, and Zoe Doano as Chris’s wife Ellen.  Ryan O’Gorman’s John, along with a male chorus, sings beautifully about Bui Doi – the kids left behind in Viet Nam by the American soldiers who fathered them – even if it does come across like a charity appeal.

This is musical theatre on the grandest scale.  A company of 69 performers flood the stage while a 15-piece orchestra delivers Schonberg’s sumptuous score under the capable baton of James McKeon.  Scene transitions are almost imperceptible as scenery floats away into darkness, while Bruno Poet’s lighting adds to the sultry atmosphere – it’s a warm night in the Hippodrome auditorium, which enhances the Far East feel.  Technically, the production is excellent: the long-awaited appearance of the helicopter is a thrilling reminder of the power of practical effects.

A powerfully dramatic story set among global events, Kim’s tale is perhaps a metaphor for the treatment of developing countries by Western foreign policy.  We take what we want and leave them to struggle, often worse off than before our intervention.  Otherwise, it’s a stirring personal tale that stirs the emotions to an operatic extent in which men are users and abusers and women are objects to be possessed or discarded.  Kim’s inability to realise this, her stubborn clinging to her idealised vision of Chris, is her fatal flaw.

This is a chance to be blown away by spectacle as much as to be touched by the drama.  Lacking the sweep of Les Mis, Miss Saigon concentrates its emotions into a smaller cast of main players but is equally as moving.  A theatrical event that should not be missed.

MISS SAIGON. Ashley Gilmour 'Chris' and Sooha Kim 'Kim'. Photo by Johan Persson (1)

East meets West: Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 

 


Ecce Homo

ABOUT A GOTH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 27th July, 2017

 

Gritty Theatre bring their production of Tom Wells’s 2009 piece to Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre en route to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  A one-hander performed by newcomer Clement Charles, this is the story of Nick, a 17-year-old Goth, who is gay and who volunteers at a local old people’s home.  Dressed like a kind of vampire undertaker, a cross between Marilyn Manson and Noel Fielding, Nick is instantly appealing – it’s his camp bitchiness (or bitchy campness) that gets us laughing along with him from the off.  His performance is a one-hander in a different sense when he confides that he has to abandon a masturbation session because of his fear of staining his black duvet cover.  Nick narrates key scenes from his life, including his visits to old man Rod at the home.  He (Nick) is bright and witty, scathing and sensitive – exactly the kind of character I would have found alluring when I was that age, all those centuries ago.

Director Ian Moule doesn’t let Nick keep still for a minute, eliciting an energetic and engaging performance from the likeable and talented Charles.  During his anecdotes, Nick gradually strips away his gothic accoutrements, sloughing them off one at a time – and it’s all in keeping with the action: his socks become galloping hooves in one of his mum and dad’s historical reenactments, for example – the piecemeal degothification adds to Charles’s electrifying portrayal, as Nick eventually goes the full monty – in the best possible taste!   No detail is overlooked, from the black toenail polish to the seemingly throwaway characterisations of the others who populate Nick’s life.  Wells’s witty script is given insightful treatment – a balloon is put to symbolic use and the baring of Nick’s body, along with his story and his soul, elevates this coming-out story to something more universal: it’s about becoming aware of one’s own identity, of discovering who you are beneath the labels we and others place on ourselves.  At the end, Nick stands before us, without a stitch or a smear of makeup.  He doesn’t need to say, “Here I am”.

Clement Charles is thoroughly captivating, his delivery immaculate and exceedingly funny.  He’s also a great little mover if his cavorting to the Sugababes and Britney is anything to go by.  It’s an assured performance that rings true.

This is a satisfying and entertaining hour or so, that stirs memories of one’s own troubled teenage years (is there another kind?) reminding us that Goths, teenagers and even the elderly are humans too.

Fabulous.

about a goth


The Brice is Right

FUNNY GIRL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 24th July, 2017

 

Barbra Streisand indelibly stamped herself on this role fifty years ago so it’s a tough job for anyone to follow in her Oscar-winning footsteps.  Natasha J Barnes steps up to the plate to give us her version of Jewish entertainer, Fanny Brice – and she knocks it out of the park.  Barnes’s Fanny is magnificent, sucking us into her world, with an energised, extrovert performance – Brice as a performer was larger-than-life and hardly ever ‘off’.  Her humour is a defence mechanism and a shield for situations when she feels uncertain or nervous, cracking jokes and pulling faces to mask her fears or her heartbreak.  Barnes can also sing, with subtlety and with full belt.  Her ‘People’ is almost understated in its tenderness and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ brings the house down.  Rising through the ranks of showbiz, Brice’s instincts are to undermine the sexist tosh that is ‘His Love Makes You Beautiful’ – mainly because of her looks, which she is told repeatedly, ain’t pretty.  I take issue with this and this alone: Barnes is rather pretty indeed, lacking the distinctive features of La Streisand or La Brice.

Darius Campbell is a towering romantic lead as inveterate gambler Nick Arnstein, with his basso profundo delivery and inexhaustible supply of smarm and charm.  Nigel Barber is the long-suffering impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and Nova Skipp makes an endearing impression as Fanny’s mum.  Joshua Lay is excellent as Fanny’s friend and fellow hoofer, Eddie, while Martin Callaghan is good fun as Mr Keeney, the man who (reluctantly) gives Fanny her first break.  The entire company is on great form as an amusing bunch of characters supporting the powerful and, yes, funny central performance from Barnes. Lynne Page’s quirky period choreography also brings the Ziegfeld glamour to the production.  Michael Pavelka’s elegantly sparse set: a proscenium arch askew, mirrored wings, serves as every location for this stripped-down staging.  Harvey Fierstein may have reworked Isobel Lennart’s original book for the show but the show remains an undeniably old-school, old fashioned musical. It’s A Star is Born with a lot of heart and a lot of fun.

There are many, many peaks; the only troughs are shallow ones, whenever Fanny isn’t on stage and a couple of the numbers feel like fillers, however superbly presented.   Barnes is irresistible, almost an attention vortex, giving us the vulnerability and pain of Fanny behind the gurning and the glitz.  If you’re only going to give one standing ovation this year, this is the one who deserves it.

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The greatest star… Natasha J Barnes gives us her breathtaking Fanny

 


Two Can Play

ROLE PLAY

Blue Orange Theatre, Sunday 23rd July, 2017

 

Written and directed by Darren Haywood, this play provides an hour or so of non-stop laughs.  Matt (Alex Arksen) and Ellie (Lorren Winwood) address us directly, as though we are relationship counsellors or something.  Together they narrate a period during which they tried using role play to spice up their heterosexual lives.  They re-enact half a dozen of their scenarios, ranging from waiter and customer in a coffee shop, to nurse and patient, and schoolboy meeting his fantasy: Britney Spears.  No matter what Matt and Ellie try, the scenarios always unravel before they come to the crunch: Matt is turned off by French student Ellie’s necklace of onions; a Diet Coke moment almost blinds him when the drink erupts in his eyes… The plot may be little more than a succession of scenes, strung together like a French stereotype’s onions, but this barely matters.  The couple learn about each other along the way and give us a good laugh while doing it.

Alex Arksen is an affably blokish Matt, intent on video-gaming rather than investing time in his relationship.  Lorren Winwood proves herself to be an extremely funny woman, hurling herself into a variety of rough-hewn characterisations.  The pair complement each other perfectly and you can’t help liking them as characters and admiring them as performers.  The comic timing is impeccable, the physicality, the reactions – and the dialogue is rich with one-liners and pop culture references.

The writing is sharp and the direction snappy, making for a hilarious contemporary comedy that takes satirical swipes at modern living.  Catch it if you can!

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Man-Made Monsters – a double bill

FRANKENSTEIN: MAN OR MONSTER

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

This new piece from Mad Tom Theatre is written and performed by Augustus Stephens.  Using familiar characters from Frankenstein – the book and the old films – Stephens gives us a kind of tour of mental illnesses as he brings to life a range of personalitie:   Victor is a paranoid schizophrenic; Igor has OCD to the point that it makes him dangerous to himself and others; abandonment exacerbates Elizabeth’s eating disorder; the so-called Monster hears voices, hallucinates and is confused why everyone rejects him…

Stephens is an affable stage presence, swiftly swapping characters so they can exchange snappy dialogue.  There’s a laidback, casual feel to the show even though Stephens is working hard to appear effortless.  He invites us to participate in a song about a yodeller and a cuckoo clock and we do, because we will him to succeed.  Yes, there are songs: witty ditties that shed light on a character’s mindset.  Typically, the Monster is the most sympathetic, childlike and confused, wondering what he has done wrong.  “You see a monster where I see me,” he sings plaintively.  Igor, in a solo scene, reveals his inner struggle, his fears of harming someone, and it is heart-rending and a little frightening.

As a whole, the piece highlights how the mentally ill are treated, by the public, by the authorities, as monsters because of a lack of understanding.  Lucy Poulson directs, keeping Stephens on the move and the action clear.  A tilt of the head and a change in vocal register and he is a different character – it’s effective and impressive and a lot of fun.  The writing is delightful with sparks of wit that surprise as much as the poignant moments.

Entertaining and enlightening, this neat little show deserves a longer life and a wider audience.

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Augustus Stephens and Teddy

THE MARRIAGE OF KIM K

Blue Orange Theatre, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro collides with ‘reality’ TV star Kim Kardashian in this vibrant new musical theatre experience by Leo Mercer (lyrics) and Stephen Hyde (music).   Hyde also directs and appears as Stephen.  Three couples: the Count and Rosina from the opera, Kim K and her short-term husband Kris, and TV viewers Stephen and Amelia, share the stage and our attention as their marriages come under strain.

Amelia is a lawyer but loves nothing more than watching trash TV.  Her composer husband Stephen seeks solace in Mozart.  Cue arguments and fights over the remote control.  And a lot of La La Land-type self-expression.  Meanwhile, Kim K is exchanging text messages with her next love interest, Kanye.  Beefcake Kris is on his way out.  Count Almaviva and his wife reflect on their courtship and wonder where the spark went and when jealousy and distrust moved in.

It’s all beautifully sung (Yasemine Mireille and James Edge both belt like troupers and add depth to Mr and Mrs K) and for the most part the three styles of music (opera, pop, electro) blend, complement and contrast with each other euphoniously, accompanied by string quartet Echo Chamber.  It makes its points in the first fifteen minutes and with a charming and fitting resolution, when roles are reversed and the couples from the television gather on the sofa to watch the ‘real-life’ Stephen and Amelia negotiate a peace.

A feast for the ears, the singers fill the Blue Orange with their voices; it’s a good listen but perhaps my unfamiliarity with the world of Kim K and her ilk (which I have up to now studiously avoided) is a bar to some of the satire.  The elevation of her glamorous, self-promoting life to high art, I suppose, mirrors the recognition of our own emotions in something as ‘lofty’ as opera.  Emily Burnett’s Countess is sublimely human, with a reworking of Cherubino’s ‘Voi Che Sapete’ that touches the heart.  Nathan Bellis is also in great and funny form as the suspicious, adulterous Count Almaviva.  In the light of the two larger-than-life couples, Stephen and Amelia (Amelia Gabriel) seem small potatoes; while we are amused by the Count and touched by his wife, and tickled by the notion of Kim Kardashian as a role model and diva (in the musical sense), the couple on the sofa seem petty and inconsequential.  It’s almost as though ‘real-life’ doesn’t matter.

Musically dazzling, often amusing, this is a clever piece that works as a showcase for the talented cast rather than a biting insight into popular culture.  But that’s postmodernism for you.

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Hands Off!

TITUS ANDRONICUS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 20th July, 2017

 

Shakespeare’s bloodiest play (and a big box office hit during his life) is given a contemporary setting in Blanche McIntyre’s darkly enjoyable production.  Hoodie-wearing plebs pose for selfies in front of pageantry.  A Deliveroo driver turns out to be a hapless messenger, murdered for his bad luck.  It’s all recognisable if at times the relevance comes in the form of cheap laughs.

David Troughton is utterly compelling as the warlike general Titus, whatever the outlandish demands of the script.  Madness and grief are closely entwined as events unfold, with his lust for revenge tipping him over the edge.  Nia Gwynne’s formidable Tamora embodies icy determination and fiery emotion in her slight form, while Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart earn their crust (ha!) as her flaky sons Chiron and Demetrius.

Stefan Adegbola is just about perfect as the villainous Aaron, brimming with spite until the last, while Tom McCall’s Lucius is as upright and righteously vengeful as you would hope – in a play teeming with baddies, Lucius is at best the anti-hero.  I also enjoy Martin Hutson’s Saturninus, a hollow politician who could have come directly from Westminster or the US Senate.   There is strong support from an excellent cast, definitely not least of whom is Patrick Drury as Titus’s brother, Marcus (not Ronicus as I at first assumed… Never mind).  Drury is upright and decent – it takes a lot to break him, but he shares the play’s most tender scene when Marcus stumbles across his niece, the ‘mangled Lavinia’ following the traumatic attack by Tamora’s sons.  As Lavinia, Hannah Morrish is truly heart-rending – mostly through stillness to accompany her enforced silence.  Meanwhile, young Will Parsons makes a strong impression as Young Lucius – and he makes you wonder, along with Aaron’s bastard offspring – into what kind of world children are being born.  Young Lucius stands observing, like young Barron Trump – How on Earth is he going to turn out being set such an example?

The action performs a dizzying tightrope act between horror and humour – the violence is graphic, the humour blacker than dark matter.  For the most part, McIntyre steers with an assured hand – it’s the abrupt gear changes of the play that give rise to wobbles.  The bloodbath at the denouement is fast-paced and breath-taking, and all the more shocking because of it.

Entertaining, harrowing and a stark reminder of the barbarism that passes for civilised society, this is a Titus that will stick in the memory longer than a certain meat pie sticks in Tamora’s craw.

RSC Titus Andronicus

Off-hand remarks: David Troughton as Titus Andronicus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 


War Stories

A JOURNEY THROUGH WAR

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th July, 2017

 

In this new piece from On The Floor Theatre, a versatile cast of four lead us through a whistle-stop series of sketches that track the entire span of the First World War – we are now in the third year of the centenary, remember – condensing four years of extreme experience into just 55 minutes of traffic on the stage.  It begins with the prologue from Henry V, Shakespeare’s eloquent plea to have us imagine what he is unable to stage, and it couldn’t be more fitting.   Director Matthew Tweedale intersperses scenes of domestic life with poetry – juxtaposing personal scenes with grander emotions, as expressed by the likes of Wilfred Owen and John McCrae.

An emblematic, narrative style works on our imaginations, our intellects and our heartstrings – and yet there is plenty of humour to it as well.  The swiftly changing scenes, depicted by a change of top by the cast members, economically takes us from the home front to the trenches and back again.  There seems to be an emphasis on the experiences of those left behind – the women – and just about everything is covered from recruitment drives to conscription, white feathers, the horrors of the trenches, the letters home, the notices of death, Votes for Women, and those men who came back forever changed or damaged.  We don’t get long to dwell – each sketch could easily yield a longer drama of its own – but this is like an introduction to the War, or revision notes for those who have heard it all before.

Victoria Piper and Grace Bussey play the wives and mothers left at home, from wide-eyed patriotism to fervent campaigning and stoical grief.  Jason Homewood and Andy Evans are the fathers, husbands, sons, boyfriends who sign up and learn the truth the hard way.  This skillful quartet populates the stage with humanity, however stylised; we recognise at once who each person is, where they are and what they are going through. A particularly effective scene has Homewood suffering from PTSD; another has Piper losing most of her sons… It’s all familiar ground but is here delivered so stylistically and effectively, the piece is alive with freshness and the power to cut right to the heart of each set-up.  There is no time to dwell or reflect – we can do that when the show’s over.  It’s all wrapped up with ‘In Flanders Fields’ by which point we have all been through the wringer or in the wars ourselves.

The commitment of the cast, the inventiveness of the direction and the exuberance of the performance make this a striking piece that delivers familiar words and familiar situations in a refreshing theatrical package.  A hundred years ago the war was still raging – this play is a timely reminder of all sorts of things, not least of the dangers of public opinion that is so strongly influenced by the press.  Some lessons we have yet to learn!

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Comedy/Tragedy Tonight!

ROMEO & JULIET/TWELFTH NIGHT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th July, 2017

 

The Watermill Theatre’s tour of a Shakespeare double bill arrives in Wolverhampton and gets off to a stirring start with a contemporary setting for Romeo & Juliet.  Aimed at a YA audience, it appears, this is Verona Hollyoaks-style, where a chorus of hoodie-sporting youths narrate and provide some of the show’s most effective non-naturalistic sequences.  A young cast overall, they are headed by Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva as the star-cross’d lovers.  What really comes across is the youth of the characters, their exuberance, gaucheness and headlong surrender to violent emotions.  This makes the balcony scene awkwardly funny but nonetheless sincere in its outbursts and declarations of love.

Victoria Blunt makes a bold, tomboyish Benvolio while Offue Okegbe is an endearing Mercutio – although I think he could ditch the wetsuit and flippers and still be funny.  Peter Dukes is a beefy Tybalt and Rebecca Lee a sympathetic Friar Laurence but it is Lauryn Redding as the Nurse (and also as the Prince who uses a rubber ball as a gavel to punctuate his pronouncements) who shows us how it’s done.  Among a strong ensemble, she stands out in terms of conviction and delivery.  I also admire Capulet (Jamie Satterthwaite) and his cheesy dad speech.

Director Paul Hart interlaces scenes with up-to-date musical numbers performed live by the cast.  This is at its most effective as a soundtrack underscoring key moments, e.g. a Movement sequence at R and J’s wedding brings the first half to a close with a preview of what is to come.  The style is very much influenced by Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh – and this is in no way a bad thing, making the action accessible and the emotions plain.  On the whole, the cast handle the verse expertly – apart from the off moments when they’re rushing it.  A sophisticated and engaging production, brimming with youthful energy.

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Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva on the balcony

Back again the following evening for the bittersweet rom-com, Twelfth Night.  This Illyria has a 1920s vibes to it and the music is vibrant and jazzy – some of the songs used are anachronistic but this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  Effective use of Tears For Fears’ Mad World, for example, and again I am struck by the musical and vocal abilities of the cast.  Rebecca Lee is the cross-dressing Viola – this is a world in which genders are bent and no one bats an eye: Sir Toby Belch (Lauryn Redding being marvellous again) is such a figure, referred to as a ‘she’ but dressed like a man (with conduct to match) and the honorific ‘Sir’.  No wonder Viola is able to get away with it.  Jamie Satterthwaite is a suitably self-indulgent Orsino, while Aruhan Galieva’s regal Olivia soon shows us the love-struck young lady behind the veil.   Offue Okegbe’ s easy-going Feste and Mike Slader’s prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek add to the pervading comic mood; Victoria Blunt’s cunning Maria and Emma McDonald’s earnest Antonia keep the plot moving with conviction.  There is always a melancholic air to this play, as though people are trying to distract themselves with practical jokes, music, and the folly of love (and, of course, drink!).  Paul Hart’s direction keeps the party atmosphere going without neglecting the undercurrent – people are hurt by these ‘distractions’, none less than Peter Dukes’s show-stealing Malvolio who transforms from a stuffy butler type to a kind of ‘sweet transvestite’ in yellow stockings and feather boa, to a broken, humiliated man, bent on revenge.  It’s a delight of a show, like bitter chocolate, reminding us that Shakespeare can still push our buttons to make us laugh and to make us empathise with our fellow humans.  The downbeat happy ending is here enlivened by a jazzed-up rendition of Hey-ho, the Wind and the Rain.   In fact, Ned Rudkins-Stow’s arrangement of the play’s songs are all well done, from O, Mistress Mine to Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave.  Shakespeare wasn’t half bad as a lyricist either, it turns out!

A thoroughly enjoyable pairing – you should catch at least one if you can.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander-029

Rebecca Lee and Offue Okegbe (Photos: Scott Rylander)

 


Euro-visions

BE FESTIVAL

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th July, 2017

 

The second night of the REP’s annual festival of European theatre and the enthusiasm for this rich array of work from across the continent shows no sign of waning.  Tonight is a sell-out, in fact.  In your face, Brexiteers!!

First up is THE SENSEMAKER – an absurdist piece from Swiss company, Woman’s Move.  A young woman, smartly dressed, enters.  It’s a job interview situation, perhaps.  A disembodied, automated voice instructs her to wait; we recognise its speech patterns  from so-called ‘customer service’.  An electronic version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy play on a loop.  The young woman waits and reacts… At last, it’s her turn and she launches into a dazzling display, lip-synching a range of voices in a range of languages, including a clip of Ewan McGregor having a rant in Trainspotting.   She accompanies the words with a tight and repetitive sequence of gestures.  It’s quite hypnotic to behold.  This young woman is an expressive and skilful comedian.  She is put on hold again, then required to clap Yes or No answers to a series of increasingly bizarre and intrusive questions.  Ultimately, inevitably, it all goes wrong, as these interactions often do.  Accessible, relatable, charming and funny, this piece highlights the frustrations of our interactions with technology and the unsatisfactory nature of the dehumanised versions of themselves organisations present to the world.  I loved it.

Next is PORTRAITS AND SHORT STORIES from Panama Pictures from the Netherlands.  A rope, a pole, a trampoline and a couple of ramps form the set for this movement-led piece.  An old man is joined by five younger ones (all beards and man-buns) to populate this playground-like arena and, through dance-movement-acrobatics, interact.  The brochure tells me it’s about family relationships but it strikes me more as a kind of wildlife footage.  We could be watching a pack of graceful primates – the pecking order is there, the shifting dynamics, the bullying, the teaching… They are feral acrobats in their native habitat.  Undoubtedly highly skills and impressive these guys may be, I think a few changes of pace would make the piece more effective overall.  As it is, it didn’t grip me.

Third comes EVERYTHING IS OK a one-man show of ‘cultural and sensory overload’ performed by Marco D’Agostin from Italy.  It begins with an impressive display combining rap, song lyrics, film quotes… For about ten minutes, D’Agostin stands there, delivering this barrage of familiar and unfamiliar lines.  This rapid-fire, polyglottic sequence is like flicking through TV channels.  D’Agostin then changes his approach, devoting the rest of the show to dance, rushing around the space without flagging.  We can spot ‘quotations’ of familiar moves and gestures: a rock star, a disco-dancer, and so on.  At last, he becomes exhausted and collapses.  Basically, he’s making the same point twice.  The dance section goes on for too long, I feel; perhaps he could break it up by combining movement with his astounding verbal outbursts rather than keeping sound and visuals apart – if we are to be truly overloaded.

Finally, the evening is brought to a close by MY COUNTRY IS WHAT THE SEA DOESN’T WANT by Casa Da Esquina from Portugal.  Using verbatim statements from interviews with immigrants and drawing on his own experiences in London, writer-director Ricardo Correia hosts this somewhat disjointed piece but he’s such an affable chap we don’t mind the gear changes.  The show is in turns amusing, enlightening and revealing.  Correia conducts an audience survey to find out where we’re all from, then selects a couple of volunteers to join him on stage for a glass of wine and a chat.  It’s so low-key, it shouldn’t work, but it does, beautifully.  We need more of this: a positive (but not white-washed) slant on migration, before we plunge headlong into the black hole of Brexit and isolationism.

A satisfying and rewarding evening – I wish I could attend the rest of the week – but I wish the organisers would drop the silly system of having to change our cash for play money before we can get a drink.  I know we Brits are supposed to enjoy queuing but once to change cash and again to order a drink is a bit much.

Wednesday-Combo


Curiosity kills the Dog

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 4th July, 2017

 

It’s my third time seeing this marvellous production and I can reveal the piece loses none of its power to charm or to move even if you know what’s coming.  The death of a neighbour’s dog sets 15-year-old Christopher on a quest to find out whodunit.  He’s a ‘special’ boy, with Asperger’s, and we view events and the world at large, through his eyes.  To this end, the set is a box, a blackboard box with a grid that lights up like the chalk lines Christopher draws on the floor.  The walls are also versatile, containing doors, drawers and cupboards for handy prop-grabbing.  Cast members become pieces of furniture and white blocks do the rest.  It’s a mish-mash of physical and narrative theatre and it works like a dream.  Simon Stephens’s masterly adaptation does full justice to Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel.

Scott Reid is marvellous as the intrepid Christopher, whose literal take on things provides humour for us and confusion for him.  It’s not just the characterisation, which convinces utterly, but it’s also the movement skills that impress.  He’s the focal point of the production but around him the rest of the cast is equally good.

Lucianne McEvoy is Christopher’s mentor and our narrator, Siobhan, providing clarity to the action, reading from Christopher’s account while scenes are flashily reconstructed.  David Michaels is Ed, Christopher’s long-suffering Dad – love pours out of him in various forms: anger and frustration being chief among them!  Mum Judy (Emma Beattie) takes a pragmatic approach – emotions run high and have to be contained for Christopher’s peace of mind.  Beattie and Michaels both bring emotional depth that Christopher cannot – and we glimpse what it must be like to care for someone like Christopher as well as gaining awareness and understanding of the way he is.

Marianne Elliott’s flashy and clever production is rooted in humanity – we see how Christopher is treated by figures in authority and unsuspecting members of the public – and while there is humour in these exchanges it is never at Christopher’s expense.  And we begin to think Christopher has a point, that people should say what they mean instead of dressing their words in euphemism and metaphor.   Elliott’s use of non-naturalistic techniques serves to emphasise Christopher’s humanness.   Beneath the unconventional methods of address, there is someone here with whom we can empathise.  The show, therefore, is a metaphor for the character!

Endlessly inventive, superbly executed, funny, gripping and touching, this is a play to savour and a production to enjoy.  Christopher’s journey (the mystery is solved by the interval) is more than his wish to solve the crime, and we root for him as he tries to understand life and pass his A-Level in Maths.  It’s a crowd-pleaser, accessible and enlightening, showing that just as there are other ways of perceiving the world, there are other forms of theatre.

How gratifying to see the Hippodrome packed out for something other than a musical!

Scott Reid (Christopher Boone) and ensemble, NT Curious Incident Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg-min

Scott Reid and ensemble (Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg-min)

 


If you’ve got it, flautist

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Stafford Castle, Stafford, Sunday 2nd July, 2017

 

Heritage Opera’s production comes to Stafford Castle for one night only – the grounds are set up for the annual Shakespeare production; this year it’s The Tempest and so there is rather a nautical theme to the design.  Add to this, the reduced size of the orchestra (only seven of them!) and there is a rehearsal feel to this scaled-down sound.  Not that players and singers don’t give their all – and the sound quality is excellent, even with the constant drone of the nearby M6 forever in our ears.

The Tempest set is not a bad fit, given that high priest Sarastro is much like Prospero; the Queen of the Night, Sycorax; and Monostatos is very Caliban-like in this production!  The Three Boys are here replaced by three Spirits – in excellent, imaginative mermaid garb.

Tenor Nicholas Sales is a robust Tamino, the heroic prince and is well-matched with Aimee-Louise Toshney’s princess-in-distress Pamina.  Sarah Helsby Hughes is a strident Queen with a fabulous crown of feathers (I’d been wondering what she does with her daily delivery of birds) while Philip Barton’s Sarastro looks like Matt Berry playing Willy Wonka – but sounds divine.  It’s all about the bass.  The Three Ladies are equally delightful (Heather Heighway, Serenna Wagner, Helen-Anne Gregory) – amazons in straw hats, bringing humour to the action and beauty to the harmonies.  Roger Hanke’s wicked Monostatos is also good fun, a cross between Kermit the Frog and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But it is Francis Church’s birdman, Papageno that wins our hearts.  Church makes the best of the sometimes clunky ‘banter’ and his rich baritone is warm and pleasing.

Mozart crammed the show with catchy melodies and beautiful harmonies, with plenty of chances to showcase the main characters.  The Queen hits her top F, Sarastro his bottom one.  Everything that happens in between is aural perfection.  Except when they’re not singing.  The libretto between the musical numbers is hampered by a duff plot (it starts so promisingly with the death of a serpent, and a quest to rescue an abducted princess) riddled with po-faced quasi-masonic blether.  Thank goodness for Francis Church – and for Eleanor Strutt as his intended, Papagena.  Their eventual duet is a joy.

There are moments when the production could do with a bigger sound – the keyboard can’t make up for the absence of brass at key moments – but there are some lovely ideas that add wit to proceedings, like Papageno pushing a pram with an egg in it, and the animals gathering to hear the magical flute are fun if few and far between.

An enjoyable evening of fresh air and Mozart sounding as fresh as ever.  I look forward to more Heritage Opera productions in the future.

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Publicity material for Heritage Opera’s The Magic Flute

 

 


Let’s Go Round Again

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 29th June, 2017

 

First produced in 2013, this eye-popping show gets a well-deserved revival with the added plus that, like its protagonist, it’s going on tour.  The New Vic is its in-the-round spawning ground so I’ll be interested to see how this largely visual show fares in an end-on setting – but that’s a consideration for another time.

Jules Verne’s time-honoured story is, we must remember, a satire of the English by a Frenchman.  His hero, Phileas Fogg is the quintessential eccentric, a stickler and unfailingly polite.  Embodied by the marvellous Andrew Pollard, he is also very funny.  Pollard can express so much with stillness – it’s all in his stature; the turn of the head, the jut of the chin, can say so much.  He is partnered once again by rubber man Michael Hugo, a Roger Rabbit of an actor, pulling off superhuman feats of physical comedy.  Hugo’s Passepartout is an endearing fellow, with a mischievous schoolboy twinkle and a Charlie Chaplin expressiveness.  You can’t help but love him.

They are joined on their journey by dozens of characters, all adeptly and economically presented by a hard-working and skilful team.  Pushpinder Chani charms as Mr Naidu, Simi Egbejumi-David thrills with his acrobatics, and Joey Parsad delights in a range of 21 roles!

The pair are pursued by the misguided, hapless Inspector Fix whose frustration and despair are hilariously portrayed by Dennis Herdman, shouldering most of the tension of the piece as Fix fails repeatedly to get his man.  Matthew Ganley is striking as the gun-toting American general.  Kirsten Foster brings elegance as rescued widow Mrs Aouda – Laura Eason’s adaptation saves the emotional moments for the very end of the tale in a touching, convention-defying proposal scene.

Scenes of the finest physical comedy you will ever see – a punch-up in a temple, a martial arts showdown – are underscored by James Atherton’s miraculous music: all the scenery is in his score, as drama and pacing are coloured by international sounds and rhythms.  It’s as thrilling and effective as any action movie soundtrack and as important a part of the show as any of the cast.  Lis Evans’s design, all maps and bulky suitcases, allows for rapid changes of costume and location, while making us feel included and along for the ride.  And what a ride it is!

Sleight of hand, quick changes, slow motion and a host of other theatrical tricks and conventions are brought to the mix by genius director Theresa Heskins.  No detail is overlooked and it seems to me this time around, the sound effects have been punched up for added comic effect.  The timing is impeccable.  In fact, every aspect of the production is impeccable.  It all runs with the mathematical precision Phileas Fogg espouses, yet it comes across as fresh and funny and full of heart.

Seeing it in 2017 adds a piquancy no one could have foreseen.  Fogg gets his way by throwing large sums of money around – all right, he doesn’t go as far as bribing the DUP but you can see where I’m going with this.  At least it’s his own money, I suppose!  And freedom of movement is not an issue!

On the road for the next seven months, the show is visiting venues up and down the country, so you have no excuse.  If it’s theatrical invention, humour and imagination you’re seeking, this signature production from the New Vic is a safe bet.

80DaysImage

Hold on to your hat! Andrew Pollard (standing), Pushpinder Chani, Michael Hugo and Dennis Herdman

 

 

 

 


Austen Powers

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

The Crescent Theatre, Wednesday 28th June, 2017

 

Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel whizzes along at quite a lick, condensing the action without cutting any of the important bits.  What couldn’t be clearer is the chauvinism of the age and the restrictions placed on women: they can’t inherit, they can’t go anywhere alone with a man – both of which are important plot points.  Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are dispossessed after her husband’s death and find themselves in reduced circumstances, swapping the family’s grand home for a little cottage near Exeter.  Suitors come calling, scandals come to light… On the surface, it’s a frothy rom-com but beneath it’s a biting social satire.  The wry wit of Jane Austen powers the exchanges and fuels the dramatic irony of the situations.

Karen Kelly makes a warm-hearted matriarch as Mrs Dashwood – her announcement of her husband’s death is strongly handled.  Naomi Jacobs is suitably restrained and fretful as the serious Elinor; Elinor is the ‘Sense’ of the title, ruled by her head; Marianne the ‘Sensibility’, ruled by her heart and her impulses.  Both are played well but I would like more contrast  between them.  Stephanie Cole’s Marianne who could do with being giddier or at least smiling more, especially from the off.  When reading poetry, she should really go for it.  Charlotte Upton, in a convincing portrayal as little sister Margaret, seems to embody both aspects of heart and head, in her childlike thirst for knowledge and honest reactions to events.

Thomas Leonard looks the part as the dapper Edward Ferrars, but could do with being a little bit more cut-glass in his delivery of Austen’s erudite dialogue.  Jacob Williams makes a pleasant Mr Willoughby, while James Lewis amuses as the sarcastic Mr Palmer.  Jordan Bird offers strong support as faithful servant Thomas but Adam Ragg’s Colonel Brandon is a particularly fine characterisation: the stiff-upper lip, the British reserve, the gentlemanly qualities.  Decency oozes out of him.

The evening belongs to Laura Poyner, superb in both her roles.  Provincial Mrs Jennings’s vulgarity and lust for life is in stark opposition to her snobbish Mrs Dashwood – her Fanny is a joy to behold.  The stage comes alive whenever Poyner is on and most of the cast is able to match her energy and commitment.

James David Knapp’s direction keeps the action clear in this stylish and slick production that should do well on its tour of other venues.  His original music is bittersweet and evocative.  Above all, the play serves as a showcase for the excellent costume team at the Crescent, with flawless and impressive work from Vera Dean, Pat Brown and Olivia Barnes.  Keith Harris’s simple yet elegant set: three period doorways among a landscape of books proves a versatile backdrop.

An enjoyable comedy of manners that brings a classic book to life in an accessible and entertaining way.

sense

Mrs Dashwood and her daughters. Stephanie Cole, Naomi Jacobs, Karen Kelly, and Charlotte Upton. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Taking the Veil

SALOME

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd June, 2017

 

Oscar Wilde’s one-act tragedy is far from a particular favourite of mine.  I prefer his epigrammatic, frothy word play to the heightened, florid language of this retelling of the Biblical story, where the characters speak mainly in similes and declamations.  How refreshing it is when Herodias proclaims, “The moon is like the moon!” – as fed up with the poetic spouting as I am!

Owen Horsley’s production has a decidedly ‘gay’ aesthetic.  Herod’s guards could be bouncers in a fetish club (I imagine) but there delivery is mere recitation.  The action begins to come to life with the first appearance of Salome herself (a gamin Matthew Tennyson) who speaks her lines as though she means them rather than pompous intonation.   Salome is intrigued by Herod’s prisoner, the prophet Iokanann (John the Baptist by another name) played by Gavin Fowler.  Iokanann is filthy, clad only in his underwear, but he still catches the young princess’s eye.  He rejects her advances – with fatal consequences.  What I don’t get is why he is permitted to continue giving his ominous predictions – if characters like Herod and Herodias find his words so annoying or insulting, why didn’t they gag him, at least?  Oh well.  His prophecies add to the sense of impending doom, I suppose.

Salome production photos_ June 2017_2017_Photo by Isaac James _c_ RSC_220725

Rants in his pants: Gavin Fowler as Iokanaan (Photo: Isaac James)

Fowler is an agile Iokanann, filled with the wild conviction of his beliefs, while Suzanne Burden’s wearily glamorous Herodias is a fine comic counterpoint.  Matthew Pidgeon is imposing as the hedonistic Herod, and there are some fine, compelling moments: for example, a spot of contemporary dance depicting the grief of the Page (Andro Cowperthwaite) for the death of Assad Zaman’s Young Syrian.  The music by Perfume Genius is pulsing and vibrant, with the energy of clubland, which works well to underscore the action.  Singer Ilan Evans, a world-weary M.C. adds torch-song resignation to events as they unfold.

But it is Matthew Tennyson’s Salome that holds the attention.  Seemingly fragile, almost bird-like, he evokes rather than impersonates the female.  His dance is a high-energy, jerky affair, reflecting the lust of Herod and his court – Polly Bennett’s movement direction brings angst and tension and above all expression to Wilde’s difficult exchanges.  Tennyson is boldly defiant – Salome is accustomed to using her wiles to get her own way but is also strong and stubborn enough to stand her ground when denied.  She is determined to kill the thing she loves – ooh, that sounds familiar… The story culminates in horror as Salome remonstrates and coos with the head of the man who rejected her advances.

A rather patchy affair, I’m afraid, this tale about unrequited passions, but on the whole I think I enjoyed the production more than the actual play.

Salome production photos_ June 2017_2017_Photo by Isaac James _c_ RSC_220811

Wilde at heart: Matthew Tennyson as Salome (Photo: Isaac James)

 


Mods and Mockers

ROMEO AND JULIET

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 20th June, 2017

 

The consistently excellent Oddsocks Productions revisits Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-cross’d lovers, this time giving it a mods and rockers setting.  There is more of Brighton than Verona and, in keeping with the company’s fun-loving style, it works extremely well.  The two households are divided by musical differences; the Montagues are the mods, the Capulets the rockers, and the audience is also divided along these lines for a running joke of participation that, instead of becoming more tired as the play goes on, becomes more hilarious.

Director and resident genius Andy Barrow appears as both Capulet, a pot-bellied Black Country rocker, and a bandana-sporting, sneering Tybalt.  At one point he is called upon to argue with himself behind the bar of the Capulets’ Cavern of Rock – just one of the many highlights that exhibit the man’s comic superpowers.  This is also the first time I’ve heard a rendition of ‘Black Betty’ in a Shakespeare production.  Barrow is generous is sharing the laughs out among the rest of his cast of six, a group that comprises familiar faces and new recruits.

Returning favourites include Rebecca Little as the Nurse – another of her remarkable characterisations, distilling the essence of the Shakespearean model and blending it with Oddsocks energy.  It is remarkable how the moment can turn, and knockabout antics suddenly become heartfelt.  I’ve said it before, many times, this is what Oddsocks does so brilliantly: giving us a lot of fun but remaining true to the spirit of the play.  Every now and then Shakespeare asserts himself and the drama comes to the fore.  One such moment tonight is the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio (Alexander Bean).  It’s all fun and games until someone loses a kinsman.  Cartoon, slapstick violence is suddenly deadly serious.  Kudos to fight director Ian Stapleton!

Also back for more is the marvellous Gavin Harrison as Benvolio, in parka and pork pie hat, and ‘Jimmy Paris’ a Rockstar guitarist.  Harrison is fast becoming a fixture in this company – they’d be hard pressed to find anyone to better him.

Newcomer Alexander Bean’s Mercutio surprises us with the sudden beauty of the Queen Mab speech, and his West Indian Friar Laurence is a deadpan delight.  The rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse fits many accents – Oddsocks certainly puts that to the test!

Also new are the eponymous lovers.  Pippa Lewis’s rock chick Juliet is wonderfully immature and, unbelievably, credible!  She also plays a mean saxophone.  Good-looking Matthew Burns is a great find as Romeo, moody, volatile and very funny.

This tight ensemble all play instruments and sing.  Oddsocks productions of late have become musicals, interpolating hits of yesteryear (and sometimes of the present day!) into the action.  The choices are always spot on.  And never more than at the end, when the stage is littered with bodies and Benvolio leads a rendition of ‘Enjoy Yourself, it’s later than you think’.

Bloody bonkers and bloody brilliant.

oddsocks r and j

Called to the bar: Andy Barrow as Tybalt


Knocking it out of the Park

CHRISTOPHER PARK in recital

Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 19th June, 2017

 

The longest piece on the programme opens the show, Variations & Fugue on a theme by Handel by Brahms.  It’s the ideal piece to commence the evening and establishes Christopher Park’s virtuoso status from the off.  At times florid, light, jaunty and sombre, the piece is a little like switching through television channels, and Park handles the sometimes abrupt changes of mood and tempo with ease.  Every gear change Brahms throws at us is skilfully handled – we are in safe hands, but are his hands safe?  When it’s over, Park announces he has to leave the stage to fetch a plaster.  He has cut his finger, and I’m not surprised.  Such robust, intense playing could result in a keyboard like a butcher’s shambles.

He returns for a couple of Chopin pieces, the Nocturne Op 9 No 3 and his own transcription of the Larghetto Op 2 from Piano Concerto no 2.  This is how I like my Chopin, moody, stirring and romantic, melancholy as a rainy day.  This is the highlight of the evening for me.

After the interval comes Olga Neuwirth’s 2016 piece, Trurl – Tichy – Tinkle (you what, mate?).  It begins percussively and its seemingly random nature reminds me of when people see modern art and say their two-year-old could draw better.  I think that’s the point.  Neuwirth captures the primitivism of someone idling at the piano, a child before the rigours of classicism are introduced.  But that’s not all.  This piece gives us atmosphere, sometimes eerie, sometimes playful, it’s like a soundtrack to a cartoon we can’t see.  You won’t be whistling this one on the way home but it certainly demonstrates the versatility of the instrument and, yet again, the mastery of Christopher Park.

We finish with Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Petrouchka.  Some assertive, heavy-handed yet melodic pieces as though Park is fighting off the Russian army.  It’s stirring, vigorous stuff and seems conventional coming after the Neuwirth.  It culminates in a bashing crescendo and, I don’t know about Park, but I am spent.

Park returns for an encore, a comparatively frothy bit of Beethoven.

There might be blood on the piano but there is also the risk that my hands will be reduced to bloody stumps from all the applause.

christopher park


Come Die With Me

DINNER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 17th June, 2017

 

One of the many commendable things about the Bear Pit Theatre Company is they are not shy of staging productions of works that provide challenges for cast and audience members alike.  Ostensibly, Moira Buffini’s 2002 play takes us to somewhere similar to Ayckbourn country, with its premise of a middle-class dinner party attended by monstrous people.  Buffini is less subtle than Ayckbourn; here the savagery is not beneath the surface, the savagery is the surface.  Also, while Ayckbourn’s middle-class monsters are often likable or at least amusing, Buffini doesn’t bother trying to endear us to any of hers.  They’re a pretty rotten bunch and that’s all there is to it.  That’s not to say they’re not fun, and the roles are gifts for the actors.

Our hostess is Paige (an enjoyably arch Charlotte Froud).  She has hired a man off the internet to act as waiter for the evening.  The dinner party is in honour of the success of her husband’s book, success that Paige begrudges.  The book, Beyond Belief, sounds like a dreadful tome bursting with self-help psycho-babble.  Husband Lars (a strong and convincing Tony Homer) behaves like a spoiled brat and moody teen from the off.  He is also pompous and condescending in his bitterness, most of which he directs at his wife.

The sparks fly between Froud and Homer as this embattled couple, although we never really get to the bottom of why they are at loggerheads.  Could it be Lars’s reacquaintance with old flame from college, hippie throwback Wynne (Penelope Sandle-Keynes in a hilarious, detailed characterisation)?  There are cheap laughs at Wynne’s vegetarianism but otherwise Buffini serves up a buffet of barbs that are generally as sharp as poisoned darts.

Abi Deehan is laugh-out-loud funny as the blunt and outspoken Sian while Ben Coventry warms into his role as her husband Hal, providing some of the funniest moments of the night.

The dinner is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of young Mike, a stranger whose van has broken down in the fog.  Nathan Brown is instantly appealing as the cocky interloper who is not all that he claims – it’s a fine contrast with Richard Ball’s stony-faced menace of a Waiter.

Arguments boil over and fizzle out.  Rows build to crescendos and are followed by immediate silence.  This is always effective but it happens at least once too often as director Steve Farr helps his cast ride out the sometimes patchy quality of the script.  Farr injects some lovely touches of comic business and keeps the action far from static – always a danger when the set is dominated by table and chairs.

What’s it all in aid of?  There’s a lot of grandstanding, point-scoring and cod philosophical discourse.  The nature of life is bandied around between the courses of Paige’s ridiculously pretentious and ultimately inedible menu.  It turns out there is nothing like death to make you appreciate life.  The Waiter has other services to offer and the middle-class ritual of the dinner party becomes a darker and more arcane, more primal affair.

With Buffini serving up seafood and the C-word in generous measure,  this is perhaps not to everyone’s taste but there is a great deal to delight in the comic playing of this committed and capable cast.

Dinner-Web-Home


Rome About

VICE VERSA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 14th June, 2017

 

Phil Porter’s new play ‘borrows’ heavily (to put it mildly!) from the works of Roman comic genius Plautus – Porter is by no means the first to do so; everyone from Shakespeare to Frankie Howerd has been influenced by Plautus’s outlandish plots and larger-than-life character types.

Colin Richmond’s set is a painted representation of two Roman houses – the artificiality is undisguised, as a prompt to tell us we are not in the real world.  In this world, characters are broadly drawn, driven by particular foibles and appetites.  First among them is General Braggadocio (Felix Hayes), a swaggering braggart, a vain, posturing despot – clearly ripe for duping.  Hayes chews his lines with bombast and relish in a massively enjoyable performance.  He quotes and paraphrases Donald Trump – which should tell you all you need to know about what kind of dreadful, narcissistic idiot he is.

Running rings around him is Dexter, the cunning, conniving slave.  This is the Frankie Howerd role, played here by Sophia Nomvete, a hugely likable presence full of charm and warmth.  Her schemes are ludicrous but we take delight in watching them work out, as Dexter copes with each new obstacle that is thrown in her path.

Aiding and abetting (but mostly hampering and hindering) are fellow slaves, Feclus (a hilarious and tightly wound Steven Kynman) whose desperation and frustration are a lot of fun, and  Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl) who, as his name gives away, eats a lot but is at his comic best when he is pissed off his face.

Geoffrey Lumb’s handsome but dim young lover, Valentin, is a wide-eyed twit, while his other half, the general’s concubine Voluptua gives the performance of the night.  Ellie Beaven is the cream of this very rich crop of comedic talent, flitting between characterisations with impeccable timing and nuance – and it’s not the kind of show where you expect much nuance!

There is superb support from Nicholas Day as game old codger Philoproximus and a star turn from Allo Allo’s Kim Hartman as raddled old prostitute, Climax, hurling herself into Dexter’s schemes with energy and style.  Jon Trenchard reinforces the silliness of the whole enterprise, scampering around as Braggadocio’s monkey Terence (named for the other famous Roman playwright, I’ll wager).

Director Janice Honeyman doesn’t miss a trick to keep the laughs coming thick and fast, and much fun is had with some well-placed anachronisms.  Roman comedy gives us the opportunity to mock those who would oppress us, while championing the little guy and revelling in the indomitable human qualities of ingenuity and wit.  It’s not the plots we come for but the playing.  And this production delivers some exquisitely funny playing indeed.

Vice Versa

Up Stratford! Felix Hayes and Sophia Nomvete (Photo: Pete Le May)


Back out in the Outback

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

 

Three Spires and Guildhall take a bold stab at the colourful musical, based on the joyous Australian comedy film starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce.  It’s an ambitious task for any company, with demands on all aspects of production and, for the most part, this one pulls it off with exuberance.

Craig Garner is positively luminous as Tick, a drag artist summoned from Sydney to Alice Springs by his ex to perform at her hotel.  Somewhat statuesque when in drag, Garner’s vocals, complete with Aussie twang, are excellent throughout.  Tick recruits Bernadette, an ageing transsexual (Steve Smith) and Adam (Doug Gilbey-Smith) and the trio rehearse their act as they travel through the outback on the eponymous bus.  Smith has Bernadette’s deadpan put-downs down to a tee but sound problems mean some of his killer one-liners are lost in the mix, while Gilbey-Smith proves himself a lovely mover.  They’re a likeable bunch and our sympathies are immediately with them – when the spectre of homophobia raises its ugly head, the fly in their jar of slap, it is very clear whose side we are on.  There are no grey areas in this rainbow-coloured story.  And quite right, too!

Jamie Sheeran, the director no less, appears as a kind of Tina Turner/Grizzly Adams mash-up as club host Miss Understanding – you have to admire him not only for his performance but for being prepared to do what he expects of his company.  The male members of his chorus may all sport dad bods rather than being shaped like anything you might see at G.A.Y. but they give it their all!

Karen Staton is hilariously grotesque as Shirley, as is Sue Biddle’s Cynthia, a kind of ping-pong champion, shall we say?  But before you worry that the show might be misogynistic, there is also Kate Temple-Brown’s Marion, Tick’s ex – pleasant, reasonable and fun.  What is held up for ridicule is homophobia, and ridicule is a powerful weapon.   The show also touches on issues of gay parenting – it turns out Tick’s estranged little boy Benji is more at ease with it than he is himself; Malachi Griggs-Taylor joins Craig Garner on stage for the show’s most touching moment.

Vocal support comes from the Divas (Kayleigh Brook, Kelsey Checklin & Claire Tyler) suspended over the action and belting out the numbers for the others to lip-synch.  As you’d expect, the costumes are many and varied and delightful, based on the original Oscar-winning designs.  You can’t do Priscilla without the iconic flipflop frock!  Julie Bedlow-Howard’s choreography is lively and interesting, combining disco moves with more musical theatre manoeuvres.

There are problems with mics and some lighting cues going astray, but this is the first night at the venue so I expect these will be ironed out.  A couple of moments don’t quite work: getting people from the audience for a hoe-down doesn’t quite come off, and bits of action, like Bernadette fainting at first sight of Tick’s son, need tweaking for greater impact.  On the whole, though, this is a hugely enjoyable evening, delivered with enthusiasm and talent, a feel-good, energetic performance of a life-affirming tale that, in these days of the DUP lurking in the wings of Westminster, makes a bold and proud affirmation that gays are human too.

priscilla


Apollo Mission Accomplished

APOLLO ET HYACINTHUS

Town Hall, Birmingham, Saturday 10th June, 2017

 

A marvellous evening of Mozart kicks off with the Symphony in G major (K45a), the ‘Lambach’, a chocolate box of a piece, sweet and soft-centred with the occasional note of dark-but-never-bitterness.  Classical Opera’s ongoing and long-term project to play out Mozart’s work in chronological order over decades is as laudable as it is ambitious.  The playing here is smooth under the baton of Ian Page, easing us in before the drama of the evening’s programme begins in earnest.

Up next is Grabmusik, a trio of lieder set at Christ’s tomb.  The mighty baritone Benjamin Appl is the ‘Soul’ getting off to a rousing start with plenty of sturm und drang, calling down thunder and lightning on the perpetrators.  Appl storms it, in fact.  He is a compelling presence, as facially expressive as he is vocally – and that voice, rich and versatile, is both a balm for the mind and a prod to the emotions.  The Soul is answered by the ‘Angel’ – Gemma Summerfield’s searing, soaring soprano – before the two sing together, having taken us the full gamut of emotions from anger to forgiveness.

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Apple of my ear: Benjamin Appl

I need an interval drink after that!

Mozart had reached the grand old age of eleven when he penned his first opera – what took him so long, the slacker? – and it’s a treat to hear it get an airing this evening.  The plot is basically a love triangle: Zephyrus loves the boy Hyacinthus but so does the god Apollo.  Zephyrus fingers Apollo for the death of Hyacinthus, but the boy’s dying words reveal the truth.  Meanwhile, Oebalus is hoping to marry his daughter Melia to the god – but the murder of his son casts a shadow over that arrangement.

Stripped to the bare essentials, the staging brings the music to the fore.  Standing in a row like actors in a radio drama, the cast does not stint in expressive delivery.  It is the human emotions of this mythological scenario that matter – and that is the heart of Mozart’s genius, whether it’s Christianity as in the Grabmusik, or older mythology, it is the humanity of the situation that touches us.  The prayer to Apollo, where the cast of five is joined by Appl as the Priest, is as stirring and lovely as any of Mozart’s pieces to the Christian God.  The man could dramatize anything.

Benjamin Hulett is marvellous as King Oebalus, despite being rooted to the spot behind his music stand.  Similarly, Klara Ek’s Melia gives us all the delighted anticipation of a young woman before her wedding to a celebrity.  Gemma Summerfield’s Hyancinthus is blooming great (ha ha) and her dying words, so simply and effectively scored by Mozart, are extremely moving.  Countertenor James Hall is the villainous Zephyrus, while another countertenor Tim Mead makes a regal and dignified Apollo.  When all five sing together, I miss the baritone undertones of Appl – Mozart was writing for a cast of schoolboy performers, after all.

It’s a lovely piece in which each character gets an aria, a moment to shine, a moment to explore their emotional state.  They are human beings in a fantastical situation and that’s what speaks to us across the centuries.

Le The a l'Anglaise chez le Prince de Conti, Salon des Quatre-Glaces, Palais du Temple with child Mozart at harpsichord...


Conservation Piece

RUNNING WILD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 8th June, 2017

 

Michael Morpurgo’s animal stories (think War Horse, think Butterfly Lion) have become prime fodder for theatre aimed at children, but don’t let that mislead you.  The stories tackle grown-up issues and major themes, and this touring production of Running Wild is an excellent case in point.

Nine-year-old Lily’s dad is killed in the Iraq war.  She travels with her mother to Indonesia, where mum is drowned by a tsunami but Lily is saved by the actions of her elephant friend Oona.  Together, girl and elephant live in the rain forest until their Jungle Book lives are interrupted by orangutan poachers.  As if themes of loss and grief aren’t enough, the story packs in themes of conservation, animal protection and consumerism, as Lily goes through an eye-opening, eye-watering journey, a learning experience which is enough to radicalise anyone to vote for the Green Party and join every wildlife charity going.

In this performance, Annika Whiston makes an assured Lily, who finds her place in this cruel world of natural disaster and mankind’s folly.  She is supported by an ensemble that includes Kazeem Tosin Amore as her dear old dad, Balvinder Sopal as mum, and RSC veteran Liz Crowther as Lily’s determined grandmother.  There is likable support from Stephen Hoo in a range of roles and Corinna Powlesland as Dr Geraldine.  Jack Sandle’s Australian baddie, Mr Anthony, exudes the evils of callous capitalism.

But the show belongs to the breath-taking puppets of Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié.  It takes four skilful puppeteers to animate Oona and how quickly one forgets they are there in plain sight.  Oona is life-sized and appears to be breathing, thinking and, yes, farting.  Others too knock your eyes out: a beautiful tiger, a shoal of fish, a vicious crocodile lurking in the undergrowth.  I have seen Olié’s work before – the man is a god, giving life to inanimate forms.  Give him every award going.

Paul Wills’s set is a jungle of junk, comprised of broken bits of furniture, recycling wood to make the trees.  Cleverly, it also suggests we are making a rubbish tip of our world.  Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks pull no punches in telling this hard-hitting story, and carry it off with theatrical sophistication and flair: the tsunami scene is stylishly presented, for example, and the murder of a group of orangutans is brutal and upsetting.  Walt Disney kept the shooting of Bambi’s mother off-screen; here, adaptor Samuel Adamson puts it centre stage and the impact is devastating.

No cute and cuddly kiddies’ tale, Running Wild is an action-packed, eventful story that engages its target audience thoroughly.  The emotional impact is undeniable but I wonder how many members of the school parties that fill the auditorium will go home and demand a boycott of products that contain palm oil.  Perhaps it falls to the grown-ups that accompany them to take this necessary step.

Curiously, the story doesn’t make a connection between the cruel treatment and exploitation of animals in the wild with the fate of those who live on Lily’s grandmother’s farm.  That apart, this is quite the Greenest show I’ve seen and I can’t applaud it enough.

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Oona and Nana – Liz Crowther (Photo: Dan Tsantilis)

 

 


Finger-Clickin’ Good

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 6th June, 2017

 

Charles Addams’s characters first appeared in single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker – delicious gems offering snapshots of a dark psyche at work.  When the 1960s TV series appeared, it gave Addams’s family voices and movement, stories that flipped the conventional like a negative photograph.  The show also rendered the characters likeable and appealed to queer sensibilities at a time when there was no other mainstream representation.  We wallow in the Addamses’ morbidity – it is the ‘normal’ that is held up to be ‘other’.

This new musical (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) gives the characters songs, many of them good ones, while providing plenty of laughs in the expected vein.

Cameron Blakely is the excitable head of the household, Gomez Addams, an energetic father figure with a Hispanic flavour.  Last seen drowned in a pool in EastEnders, Samantha Womack kills it as his wife Morticia – her deadpan delivery is impeccably timed.  She is impressively dour and supremely elegant; her song ‘Death is Just Around the Corner’ is a definite highlight.

Wednesday Addams is presented as older here than she usually is, losing her little girl creepiness – this is so that she is interested in boys and thereby giving the show its plot.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is undeniably strong in the role but I would have scored Wednesday’s numbers a little less conventionally to make her sound more like a Lene Lovich or Kate Bush type.   It is the lyrics alone that subvert from the norm.  This Wednesday is a musical theatre student who couldn’t decide for Halloween between Wednesday Addams and Katniss Everdene.

Conversely, Grant McIntyre’s Puggsley, the creepy little brother with a penchant for explosives, actually sounds weird when he’s singing his solo.

Valda Aviks is good fun as the vulgar Grandma, while TV’s Les Dennis is in excellent form as Uncle Fester.  Dickon Gough’s cadaverous butler Lurch almost steals the show with his comic timing.

The ‘normals’ who come to dinner are Dale Rapley as boorish father Mal, Oliver Ormson as Wednesday’s main squeeze, Lucas, and Charlotte Page as mum Alice – the most developed of the three – in a belter of a performance.

Diego Pitarch’s set is beautifully derelict and gothic, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting paints the set in spots and shadows, maintaining an overall darkness with characters in pools of light, just like Addams’s original cartoons.  A baroque chorus of Addams ancestors haunts the stage for added spookiness.

Director Matthew White keeps the thin plot moving along; there is an emphasis on snappy one-liners rather than character development, but everything about this production is exquisite.  We enjoy the time we spend with these people in a show that amuses and delights at every turn.

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Creepy and kooky, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack (Photo: Matt Martin)

 

 

 


Party Piece

GREASE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 29th May, 2017

 

When it was first staged in the 1970s, the show was a nostalgic look-back at supposedly simpler times.  The film version, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as positively geriatric teenagers, became a phenomenal global hit, still highly popular, and giving the stage show a new lease of life that shows no signs of failing.  Inevitably, with the film so fixed in the popular consciousness, there are audience expectations that director David Gilmore must meet.  We know how Grease should be done.  Or we think we do.  Some of the songs don’t appear at the same points in the story as they do in the screenplay.  Other numbers, only background music in the film, are given centre stage here.  Conversely, what appears in the film but not in the show, has been interpolated here: chiefly, the opening number by songwriter supremo, Barry Gibb.

Plotwise, it couldn’t be simpler.  Boy meets girl but they’re in different groups at high school, where peer pressure is irresistible… Who will change to overcome the cultural divide?

Frankly, the T-Birds, all leather jackets and DA haircuts, come across as a bunch of twats.  Danny (Tom Parker) feels obliged to deny his feelings for Sandy (Danielle Hope) in order to keep in with his laddish mates.  For her part, Sandy is too straitlaced to be fully integrated into the girls’ gang, the Pink Ladies.  Parker, former member of boyband The Wanted, sings competently; his real strength is in the physical comedy of his portrayal.  Hope is suitably prim as Sandy, her singing voice rich and with a more mature sound than her girlfriends.

Louisa Lytton is a brassy Rizzo.  She gets the ‘dramatic’ moments when a pregnancy scare allows her to belt out There Are Worse Things I Could Do.  Like Danny, she is hampered by her public image.  Revealing her true self would be a sign of weakness.  And so, the show is about the pressures on teens to conform – with whatever group they wish to be part of.   Also, Frenchy (a vivacious Rhiannon Chesterman) feels she can’t tell her friends she has flunked out of beauty school, while her would-be suitor Doody (Ryan Heenan) is physically incapable of stringing the words together to ask her to the dance.

Heenan stands out among the T-Birds as the likeable, little one.  He gets a couple of solo moments, showcasing his talents.

Greased Lightning is a big production number with Tom Senior’s Kenickie cranked up to 11.  It’s loud and brash, laddism writ large.  It’s like being beaten up by a song.

Treat of the night comes from a cameo appearance by ‘Little’ Jimmy Osmond himself as a somewhat superannuated Teen Angel.  Pure showbiz royalty, Osmond knows when to milk it, knows when to be cheesy – how dairy!  His song brings the house down and such is his charisma and the fact that IT’S JIMMY OSMOND, we hardly notice the showgirls swanning around in true Las Vegas style.

The energetic ensemble generates a lot of heat.  Arlene Phillips’s choreography is flashy and fun, adding to the infectious quality of the show.  People are here to have a good time.  This audience doesn’t need warming up.  It’s a party of a show, a guaranteed good time and a chance to escape from whatever it is you might want to escape from.  Cosy and safe, Grease is a reliable crowd-pleaser – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

grease

You’re the one from The Wanted, oo-oo ooh. Tom Parker and Danielle Hope

 


Let’s Twist Again

OLIVER!

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017

 

There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.

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Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Back in Black

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 22nd May, 2017

 

It’s unusual to have a long-running show in the West End (27 years and counting!)  that isn’t yet another musical or The Mousetrap.  The longevity of The Woman In Black is testament to its brilliance – everyone should go and see it at least once. Even when you know what’s coming, the show is still a suspenseful thrill-ride.  And now, with this touring production, you have your chance.

Ostensibly, a two-hander, Stephen Mallatratt’s masterly adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story keeps its theatricality to the fore.  Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has recruited an actor (Matthew Spencer) to rehearse the telling of his own experiences with the eponymous apparition.  Using only basic furniture to represent every location, along with recorded sound effects and well-placed lighting, their narrative works on our imagination – and this is what makes the stage version infinitely superior to the film.  Nothing can scare us more than our own minds.  It begins with humour as the performance style is established and between scenes from Kipps’s story, the men drop in and out of the framing device – there is an ongoing story here that will also come to a chilling conclusion… Gradually, Kipps’s story takes over and the atmosphere grips, the action surprises, makes us jump.

It’s a real showcase for the two performers.  Matthew Spencer is excellent as the effusive ‘actor’ taking on the role of the younger Kipps – it is his reactions that create much of the terror – while David Acton demonstrates his range, first as the nervous, ineffectual orator Kipps and then as everyone else in the story.  Such is the skill of the two that we are made to care about a little dog, Spider, that isn’t even there!

Robin Herford’s direction pushes all the right buttons in all the right places.  Especially effective are the silences, keeping us on edge.  Michael Holt’s deceptively simple design sits well within the Grand’s ornate proscenium.  Similarly, Kevin Sleep’s straightforward lighting proves you don’t need realism to ignite the imagination.  The whole enterprise is decidedly spooky and fills us with dread.  And delight.  Scaring audiences at the theatre is difficult to pull off, with all the coughing and fidgeting and the nervous laughter, but The Woman In Black continues to put the willies up us (if that’s not a contradiction!) and long may she continue!

Go and see her before she comes to see you!!

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Give him a big hand! Matthew Spencer exploring the haunted house…

 

 


Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)