Guilty Pleasure

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th February, 2017

 

Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama is a far cry from the typical, almost cosy murder mystery affair to which she is inextricably linked.  The play uses the trappings of civilised society, i.e. a court of law, to expose the seedy underbelly of human nature.  In the safe haven of our seats in the auditorium, we enjoy the unfolding details – a violent murder, acts of betrayal – but there is a bitter aftertaste to this entertainment that reminds us our fascination with crime as drama is, at best, a guilty pleasure.

This production exudes excellence at every turn.  A top-notch cast populates the story with credible characterisations, breathing life into Christie’s wry observations and the more verbose legalese of the professional lawmen.

Geoff Poole and Katie Merriman get things off to a promising start with some amusing character work as employees of Sir Wilfred, the barrister defending the case.  Their accents give us both place and period.  We’re in London in the 1950s.

Bill Barry is excellent as Sir Wilfred.  He and Brian Wilson, as lawyer Mayhew, give off an air of focussed professionalism, inspiring confidence in the system at work.  Equally strong is the barrister for the prosecution, Myers (John O’Neill), grandstanding in the courtroom under the quiet authority of Mr Justice Wainwright (Geoff Poole again, in complete contrast to his earlier role).

When Zena Forrest enters, as German ex-pat Romaine Heilger, she makes a striking impression, not just because of her Teutonic froideur.  Angela Daniels’s costume work cuts a dash – especially with the female characters.  After all, men’s suits and the accoutrements of the court have barely changed for decades!  Forrest is superb as the haughty femme fatale, provoked on the witness stand to losing her composure and saying too much… Alex Whiteley makes a good fist of Scottish busybody, Janet McKenzie, bringing humour to proceedings with a pleasing appearance in the box.

Director Les Stringer keeps us hooked throughout.  It’s a lengthy sit (three hours, including two intervals) but Stringer manages to avoid any sense of the staid and the static in scenes that involve a lot of talk and a lot of sitting around.  He contrives a crescendo at the end of the second act between prosecutor and prisoner, that is absolutely electrifying.

The set by Colin Judges (his real name) is stunning for the courtroom scenes, displaying craftsmanship to be sure, but it also says something.  The court speaks of power and permanence, and the establishment at work.  The set adds to the authenticity of the piece as much as the language and ritualised conduct of the court.  But even the establishment can get it wrong sometimes, Christie reminds us.

Christie provides more twists than Chubby Checker for a thrilling denouement.  The tables aren’t just turned, they spin!

Mark Payne dazzles, if that’s the right word, as nervy defendant Leonard Vole, as twitchy as his rodent namesake.  Personable and decent, he elicits our sympathy from the start, in what develops into a towering and emotional performance with real star quality.

A thoroughly enjoyable, old-school visit to the theatre, but old-fashioned does not mean lacking in power to entertain.  On the contrary, when it is played and presented this well, you know you’re in safe hands for a good night out.

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Stuff and Nonsense

The Quite Remarkable Adventures of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st February, 2017

 

Edward Lear’s famous nonsense poem was the springboard for a book by former Python Eric Idle.  Now the book is adapted for the stage by composer and musical director, Dougal Irvine (who also provides the voice of the ‘Small Guitar’ and an imaginary dragon!).

The production is nothing short of charming.  An energetic ensemble of actor-musicians, led by Irvine, get proceedings underway with an audience singalong – normally the kind of thing to make me shrink in my seat, but the tune is infectious, the lyrics (including animal noises) are fun, and so I join in and am immediately put into a good mood, and predisposed to think kindly of the action as it unfolds.

The titular pair, both riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem, form a bond when, Deep Impact style, they notice a comet is heading directly for the Earth, threatening an extinction event not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out.  They inform an appropriate human at a university and set out on a quest to find the runaway Bong Tree (voiced by Idle himself, no less!).  Meanwhile, the show’s baddie, Lord Firelord is planning to wipe out all life on Earth with the creation of a new ice age…

The charm of the actors and the richness of the score, with its lively melodies and clever lyrics, keeps us on board this ride in the pea-green boat.  There is some social comment here – humans are too preoccupied with shopping to notice or care about their imminent destruction, and there is an obvious environmental message – but I think the show’s ‘lessons’ are in danger of being considered ‘nonsense’ along with the rest.  Characters take pride in speaking nonsense; anything they say that we are meant to take on board could easily be dismissed…

That aside, this is an enjoyable, family show, performed with verve and heart.  Danny Lane as Owl, and Sally Frith as Pussycat, are likeable protagonists, and their singing voices blend magnificently in their duets.  Miri Gellert impresses, voicing two glove puppets at once – similarly, Yanick Ghanty portrays a pair of henchmen simultaneously.  A comic highlight of the show is when he falls out with himself and beats himself up in a skilful display of physical comedy.  Vedi Roy plays bad guy Firelord with relish, complete with maniacal laughter, although I found his costume made him look like an Indian Elvis in Vegas.  Lizzie Wofford’s Pig and Professor Bosh show her versatility as a character actor – her singing voice is particularly powerful.

Director Hamish Glen balances larger-than-life characters and outlandish events with quieter, emotional moments, allowing the cast to bring out the ‘human’ (for want of a better word) side of the characters.  The kids in the audience are clearly enrapt by the drama with its themes of global extinction and mortality, friendship and love, while the adults enjoy the sharper jokes.  Libby Watson’s versatile set forms a backdrop for Dick Straker’s video projections, to depict the story’s various locations attractively and economically.  But for me, the production is all about one man – Mr Dougal Irvine.  His script is enriched by his compositions, a beautiful score other, larger productions would do well to emulate (I’m looking at you, Wonderland!)

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Murder with Class

A JUDGMENT IN STONE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 20th February, 2017

 

Formerly the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, the Classic Thriller Theatre Company hopes to emulate its earlier success by expanding the range of writers it draws upon, and so we have this adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, delivered in the company’s solid and classy style.

I don’t know if it exists in the book, never having read it, but this version, by Simon Brett and Anthony Lampard, uses the device of alternating scenes of the police investigation with flashbacks leading up to the brutal murder of the Coverdale family.  Past and present collide and keep us hooked on the developing mystery.

Sophie Ward is excellent as the dowdy housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, hiding what to her is a terrible secret.  As the detectives, Vetch and Challoner, Andrew Lancel and Ben Nealon exude an air of easy professionalism.  Mark Wynter amuses as the smug patriarch George Coverdale, while Rosie Thomson as his wife is the life and soul of the household.  Joshua Price mills around as the bookish, oddball son, and Jennifer Sims brings emotional depth to her role of Melinda, the daughter home from university.  We know the family is doomed – it’s a matter of when and by whom that keeps us intrigued.  They’re all so terribly middle-class, calling each other ‘darling’ all the time, that we perhaps don’t much care about them as individuals.  Rather our sympathy lies elsewhere – but that would be telling.

The usually glamorous Shirley Anne Field dresses down as cleaner Mrs Baalham, and Deborah Grant muttons up as outlandish postmistress and religious crank, Joan Smith.  Revelation of the night (apart from the whodunit) is former Blue singer Antony Costa delivering a nice line in character acting as the reformed criminal and gardener, Rodger Meadows.

Julie Godfrey’s set epitomises the country house mystery, but it also communicates a message about the permanence of the class system – this is a story with class, in more ways than one.  Director Roy Marsden keeps the action flowing seamlessly between the two timelines, using Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design to mark when we are, as well as to highlight certain dramatic moments.

It all makes up for a solid and reliable piece of entertainment, excellently presented.  We may guess who is responsible, but when the murder scene finally arrives it is no less shocking.  Pace and tone are handled expertly to deliver the goods.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is dead; long live the Classic Thriller Theatre Company!

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Sophie Ward (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

 


Primary Colours

SCHOOL PLAY

Southwark Playhouse, London, Saturday 18th February, 2017

 

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 Alex Mackeith’s debut play is a cracking contemporary comedy that opens a window into the pressurised world of the primary school head teacher.  Hard-working, beset from all directions, Jo (Ann Ogbomo) appears indefatigable, able to juggle several balls and spin plates all at the same time.  She seems on top of everything but even so, with all the demands made on her, she is running to stand still.  Ogbomo is passion on legs, imbuing Jo with strength and conviction, and also vulnerability – her emotional life is suffering because of her work.  We glimpse the woman in pain when, in unguarded moments, Jo’s professional face is allowed to slip.  She is supported by secretary and wannabe teacher Lara (Fala Evans-Akingbola), fielding calls and organising Jo’s day with efficiency and nervous energy.  Lara is boning up on educational theory but, as Jo points out, ‘real kids’ aren’t like that.  The play hints that the wealth of experience of someone like Jo is disregarded by the policy makers and textbook compilers.  It’s SATs results day and the suspense is palpable…

Enter part-time tutor Tom (Oliver Dench), a posh boy who would be better off on a gap yah.  Socially inept, Tom professes to be keen to help, even if it’s just with teas and coffees, but it emerges that his approach is at odds with what the children need to get them through the processing the system demands.

Sometimes the play verges on the polemical but Mackeith leavens the proselytising with sharp, funny dialogue that has a ring of truth.  He is, perhaps, preaching to the converted.  Director Charlie Parham keeps the pace snappy.  Lines collide naturalistically, arguments build, and punchlines bite, while allowing space for character-led comic business – Dench is particularly good at this: we wince at Tom’s behaviour.  Moments of quiet and moments of crescendo are all the more powerful among the rapid-fire stichomythia.

Exquisitely and believably played by a strong quartet (Kevin Howarth appears as an aggravated parent) this is a timely, thought-provoking insight into those working at the chalk-face (whiteboard-marker face!) – an abject lesson in the effects of the failing policies of successive governments, showing the human face of those who have to work within the constraints of mandates and number-crunching at the expense of the children of this country.

It’s also a right good laugh.

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Ann Ogbomo, Fala Evans-Akingbola and Oliver Dench (Photo: Guy Bell)


Best of a Bard Bunch

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY (ABRIDGED)

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th February, 2017

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is back.  Building on the success of earlier, brilliant shows (The Complete Works, The Bible) this time the premise is the discovery of a manuscript – beneath a car park in Leicester, of course – of Shakespeare’s first attempt at dramatic endeavour.  It turns out old Will had all his ideas at once and bunged them all in one play.  So begins a mash-up of Will’s most famous lines, scenes and characters.  If you’re a Shakespeare nerd, you’re in for a good time.

Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s (and Shakespeare’s) script is clever, bordering on genius, throwing out such wonderful clashes as Dromio and Juliet, Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, King Lear and the Three Witches… hijacking lines out of context, or rather giving them new context as befits the skit.  It makes you realise how many recurring ideas Shakespeare had.

If you’re not a Shakespeare nerd, you may be somewhat bewildered, but I think there’s enough daftness and comic invention to keep you laughing.  References to contemporary culture abound: Beyonce, for example, and a High-Street purveyor of baked goods that rhymes with legs.  The show posits a theory that Walt Disney is a latter-day Shakespeare – but, if you’re not a Disney nerd either, you might not catch all the jokes.

The cast of three work apparently tirelessly to keep the pace fast and the laughs coming.  Joseph Maudsley’s little mermaid Ariel is a joy, James Percy makes a formidable Lady Macbeth, and Michael Pearson’s ukulele-strumming Richard III is a scream – but much of the fun comes from the quick changes and the surprising juxtapositions of characters and speeches.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a ‘merry war’ between Ariel and Puck, using their magic to interfere with characters’ lives.  It takes the Bard himself to appear as deus ex machina to sort it all out at the end.  The first act climaxes in a slapstick tempest, with audience participation – it is this kind of daftness everyone can enjoy.  Director Austin Tichenor doesn’t let the action stagnate and I wonder if a smaller, more intimate venue might assist with audience engagement – it would certainly save the cast a lot of running around; they have to cover a lot of ground to maintain the pace.

It is part of the company’s ‘brand’ to perform with American accents.  Somehow this makes their handling of the material crasser but no less clever.  You may not appreciate all the in-jokes and literary allusions but you cannot fail to admire the energy of this smartass show, performed by a trio of exquisite comic players.

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Winning by a Nose

CYRANO

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 7th February, 2017

 

The New Vic has teamed up with Northern Broadsides for this new version of the classic romance by Edmond Rostand.  Writer Deborah McAndrew cleverly keeps the play as a verse drama – it’s not just rhyming couplets and doggerel; it’s a technical achievement in itself, let alone its faithfulness to the original while having an altogether fresh feel.  It’s her best work yet.

Director Conrad Nelson blends naturalism with more heightened moments – the changes in pace and tone of each act are handled to perfection.  We laugh, we love, we cry – in all the right places.  Nelson has also composed the score, performed by the ensemble of actor-musicians, that adds to the period feel and the emotional impact of each act.  Led for the most part by Michael Hugo’s Ligniere, the music casts its spell as much as the story and the characters.  Hugo is such an appealing presence as the minstrel – I also enjoy his ham actor Monfleury, heckled off the stage by the eponymous Cyrano.

Christian Edwards in the title role is outstanding – and I don’t just mean his massive conk.  He is everything you could wish for in a Cyrano de Bergerac.  Swaggering, witty, charming, brave and selfless.  Edwards plays it with panache, literally and figuratively.  He is supported by a team of excellent players: Sharon Singh is an elegant Roxane, headstrong and independent – worthy of Cyrano’s devotion.  Adam Barlow is the handsome but dim Christian, the third point of the love triangle – he contrasts nicely with Cyrano’s erudition and we can’t help but see how sweet he is.  Andy Cryer’s De Guiche changes our opinion – we see there’s more to him than the figure lampooned by Ligniere.  Paul Barnhill’s poetic pastry-purveyor Ragueneau, Perry Moore’s prancing ponce Valvert, Jessica Dyas’s sardonic Mrs Ragueneau, Francesca Mills’s busybody Sister Martha, all help to populate the story with a wide range of characters, different facets of humanity – Rostand has respect for all walks of life and yet he makes Cyrano seem more human than all of us.  Especially touching is Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, his heart breaking to see Cyrano’s decline.

Lis Evans’s design is stylish – the stage floor is beautiful – and the New Vic’s costume department has pulled out all the stops for the 17th century setting.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting emulates the soft glow of the chandeliers with the occasional shaft of brightness – like Cyrano’s wit, enlivening the gloom.

Cyrano’s panache tickles the funny bone before plunging into your heart.  I know it’s only February but already I think I might have seen the show of the year.

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“You don’t have to put on the red light…” Cyrano (Christian Edwards) and Roxane (Sharon Singh)  Photo: Steve Bould


No Wonder

WONDERLAND

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 6th February, 2017

 

This musical already has a chequered history and now its latest version is on the road, hoping to garner the love of fans of shows like Wicked, perhaps, giving adults fantasy-based plots with grown-up versions of characters we all remember from childhood.   Unlike Wicked, which has strong source material in the books by Gregory Maguire, this Alice is purely the invention of writers Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy.  Their spin on Lewis Carroll is to give us a contemporary setting.  Alice is in her 40s, a divorcee and former teacher, living in a tower block – all well and good until you realise how emotionally immature she is, yearning for a knight to rescue her, desperate to escape into fantasy.

The mighty Kelly Ellis plays Alice, throwing herself into the nonsense of Wonderland as soon as she gets there.  Ellis is an impeccable performer but I can’t take to Alice, no matter how well sung and spiritedly acted she is.  Alice has a daughter, a starchy, matronly teen called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who reminds me of Saffy from Ab Fab – until she goes through the looking glass and then turns into a sassy, sulky child.  Also along for the ride is their neighbour from the tower block, Jack (Stephen Webb) a shy, tongue-tied admirer of Alice who goes through the looking glass and comes out as George Michael, complete with cheesy boy band – the highlight of the first act for me.

The score by Frank Wildhorn is serviceable and the lyrics by Jack Murphy are often witty – when you can hear them.  What brings this show crashing down is the book.  There are half-baked attempts at being profound, asking us to reflect (ha) on the ‘real’ us we see in the mirror.  There are half-arsed attempts at delivering a political message: the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) comes through the looking glass as a power-crazed industrialist, distracted from her quest to overthrow the tyrannical queen.  “That’s how power works” is a constant refrain.  Spoiler: the residents of Wonderland decide they’d rather have a monarchy, with its constant threat of irrational capital punishment.

Wendi Peters is a revelation as the Queen of Hearts, belting out show tunes.  She makes an impression in the first act but then is absent for so long, I forget she’s in it.  Give this woman a tour of Gypsy, for pity’s sake.  I also like Ben Kerr’s March Hare and look forward to seeing him in something else.

Musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts is the White Rabbit – at least the writers have the sense to give him chance to demonstrate his mellifluous tones.  He’s still in great voice but navel-gazing songs about finding yourself and being your own invention always make me want to vomit, whatever the context.  Self-identity is also a theme here, from the Caterpillar’s repeated asking of ‘Who are you?’ (Kayi Ushe is good fun in this role) to Alice’s desire to regress into childhood, rather than face up to grown-up responsibilities and give up on the husband who crushed her emotionally.  Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.

The entire company works hard to sell us this curate’s egg.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography, Grace Smart’s clever costumes, and Andrew Riley’s striking set, all support the likeable performers in the flogging of this dead horse of a story.  Carroll’s Alice is a child trying to make sense of the nonsensical adult world.  This Alice embraces the nonsense as a refuge from reality, but too many of the characters (like Tweedles Dum and Dee) are marginalised as chorus members to have any impact on her journey.

A bright spectacle well-performed but ultimately, I find it’s unsatisfying to take what passes through a rabbit’s hole and roll it in glitter.

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Kerry Ellis as Alice (Photo: Paul Coltas)