A Squat You Can Do For Your Country

THE RUFF TUFF CREAM PUFF ESTATE AGENCY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th October, 2021

It begins with a disclaimer.  What we are about to see bears little or no resemblance to real events, people or anything.  We take this with a pinch of salt.

It’s 1977 and two young women arrive in London from Coventry for a new start.  They find their way to the eponymous agency, an underground organisation that finds squats for anyone who needs one.  I say ‘organisation’, it’s more of a free-for-all, a post-hippy ‘take what you need, the rest is greed’ collective. It’s the optimistic, can-do attitude socialism missing from politics today.

The trouble is the play is a bit of a mess, sprawling across the stage like its set, a conglomeration of furniture and throw pillows.  Brechtian techniques abound, in a bid to get us thinking about the issues raised rather than engaging with the characters: projections and playback of contemporary news reports set the scene, but only sometimes.  As characters rattle off facts and figures about the people they have homed, it is left to us to wonder if things have improved since then.  (They haven’t).  A missed opportunity to complement the action with facts and figures from today.

It’s not just homelessness.  Domestic violence also features.  The dangers women face by walking out at night… All of which are maddeningly relevant today.  The play touches on them but doesn’t develop them.

One of its problems is there are too many characters, and these are mainly mouthpieces.  The ensemble is lead by Joseph Tweedale as John, whose endeavours lead him to hit the bottle in a big way.  John is a flamboyant character, defiant in the face of authority, and Tweedale certainly has charisma.  An anti-hero.  Antagonistic characters are presented in two-dimensional, satirical ways: a couple of plain clothes coppers provide their own comedy sound effects; a landlord sports a silly bald wig and a huge belly, in true agit-prop style, while those to whom we are supposed to relate speak in arguments, in unconvincing dialogue.

Escaping her abusive boyfriend is Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher); what lifts her storyline above soap opera cliché is the belter of a song she knocks out—the music in this show is rather splendid, courtesy of composer Boff Whalley, with the versatile cast playing live.  The score is infused with reggae and ska beats and its irresistible.  The cast is augmented by “The Choir With No Name” in the auditorium’s boxes, adding depth and harmonies to the vocals.

The second act is tighter than the first, beginning with projected photographs of the real residents of the new nation the squatters establish, the short-lived ‘Frestonia’.  We only hear about it by report.  It might have been interesting to hear from characters living there, what their experience was like, how it all worked, or didn’t…

What we get is agit-prop that doesn’t agitate us.  What gets under our skin is not the inequalities built into our society but the music, performed by this hard-working and talented cast.  The play needs to pick one of its battles and focus on that in order to have a clearer vision and a greater impact.

***

Daisy Ann Fletcher (Lu) and Hannah Azuonye (Ally) Photo: Robert Day


Well Wicked

THE WICKED LADY

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th October, 2021

“Fear and laughter sit right next to each other,” observes one of the characters in this two-hander.  He’s not wrong.  It is notoriously difficult to frighten people in the theatre.  What is intended to scare can come across as risible but pitch the elements right and you can really put your audience through the mill.

Writer-director James Williams gets just about everything spot on in this taut chiller, loosely based on historical figure, Katherine Ferrers, who has already inspired films and plays: the noblewoman turned highway robber, defying conventions and morality.  Williams sets his piece very firmly in the present day, so the eponymous Wicked Lady is long dead, although maybe not gone.  Assisting the police in their investigation into a missing child, ghostbuster Alice Beaumont winds up in the Wicked Lady’s decaying mansion and the scene is set for a series of shocks and surprises.

As Alice, Nicki Davy is superb and utterly convincing as her “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts” mindset is besieged by the unexplained and the downright terrifying.  She is matched by Saul Bache as persistent Detective Sergeant Sean Fenton, who has his own reasons to be invested in the outcome of the investigation.

The Blue Orange may be short on space, but it is definitely not short on atmosphere.  The team pull out all the stops to engender a suspenseful atmosphere.  Alex Johnson lights the impressive set he has designed to highlight key moments and to pull our focus away with a bit of misdirection.  Dan Clarkson’s excellent sound design surrounds and chases around us, with eerie breathing, childlike singsong, and sudden loud noises that keep us on edge.  There are also original music compositions by Tomas Wolstenholme to augment the tension and underscore the action.  Production values are sky high; this is easily the most lavish production I’ve seen here.

Well-written and superbly executed, this is a gripping piece of theatre, a sublime example of what smaller, independent venues can do and why they deserve your support.

Woman in Black – who?

*****


Where There’s A Will…

THE CAT AND THE CANARY

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th October, 2021

The Classic Thriller Company is back on the road with this new version of the creaky old play by John Willard from 1922, with an adapted script by Kneehigh’s Carl Grose.  Grose moves the action forward to post-WW2, post-independence of India.  The language has been juiced up to include words like ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’—while I suppose people used such vocabulary back in the day in the real world, it seems at odds in the cosy period piece milieu of the stage thriller.

The premise is delicious.  A lonely mansion on a moor on a stormy night, a group of people gathering for the reading of a will, an escaped lunatic on the prowl…

Leading the troupe is international star Britt Ekland, playing against type as dowdy housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant.  Ekland is marvellous, at times creepy, at others funny—much like the play as a whole, in fact.  She is joined by a strong cast, including Marti Webb as a strait-laced matronly type who loosens up when she gives up being teetotal; Gary Webster as the brash jack-the-lad boxer Harry; Ben Nealon as Charlie, an overbearing actor sporting the highest-waisted trousers this side of Simon Cowell; Eric Carte credibly authoritative as Crosby the lawyer; Tracy Shaw as Annabelle, the heroine, combining strength and vulnerability; and Priyasasha Kumari as an appealing Indian princess.  They’re a pretty tight ensemble, breathing life into what could be little more than stock characters, and I’m particularly impressed by Antony Costa as the bumbling Paul Jones.  Costa warms to his role; in fact, the play takes a while to bed in, but once all the elements are in place, suspense and humour vie for dominance in this effective, old-school thriller.

Roy Marsden’s direction teases us with suspense, gives us a couple of good jump scares, contrasting the play’s lighter moments with its darker aspects and tensions.  Themes emerge of the past affecting the present: the old man’s will from twenty years ago is the catalyst for the action; a trauma in Annabelle’s childhood threatens to unsettle her; the desire to restore what was plundered from a previously colonised country; and most strongly, the PTSD suffered by those who fought in the War.  Only the escaped lunatic, it seems, has no back story to explain his excessive behaviour!

The substantial set (designed by takis) adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and I especially like the framed pictures of single eyes that cover the walls of Annabelle’s bedroom.  Chris Davey’s lighting design adds to the tension, while Dan Sansom’s sound design can be a little intrusive, it does provide a couple of startling moments.  And they need to go easy on the dry ice at curtain up!

On the whole, this is a gripping, old-fashioned evening at the theatre, proving that a play originally produced almost a century ago still has the power to thrill and entertain, and it makes a refreshing change from the back-to-back musicals on offer at the moment!

****

Mrs Not-so Pleasant (Britt Ekland) Photo: Paul Koltas


“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure”

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 27th September, 2021

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this show over the decades, but each time I go back I am reminded why I love it and why it’s a complete and utter cult.  Audience participation has calmed down considerably, as venues frown upon people hurling slices of toast and other missiles to punctuate lines of dialogue, but there is still plenty to keep the fans occupied, and we have some expert hecklers in the auditorium tonight.

Richard O’Brien’s show has become highly ritualised.  Some of us chant responses like a litany, gleefully denouncing the hero Brad as an arsehole, and his girlfriend Janet as a slut, every time their names are mentioned—to the bemusement of those who’ve never seen the show before.  The taking part is a massive part of the experience, and you can feel free to shout as much or as little as you like, and indeed to dress up to whatever extent you like.

The show opens with a belter, Science Fiction Double Feature, beautifully sung by Suzie McAdam’s usherette, full of references to very old sci-fi movies and names of bygone actors.  It occurs to me that perhaps some of the younger audience members will only know Michael Rennie and Fay Wray et al from this libretto.  O’Brien’s show is a homage to those creaky old flicks of yesteryear.

Ore Oduba, TV presenter turned Strictly star, plays the nerdish Brad (arsehole!) and acquits himself rather well, with a strong singing voice, and the movement skills you’d expect.  He is supported by Haley Flaherty as Janet (slut!) who perfectly depicts Janet’s journey from wide-eyed virgin to wide-legged, experienced woman.  Her sexual awakening leads to actualisation; Brad’s leads only to confusion.

At this performance, Riff Raff is played by Danny Knott, lumbering around, encumbered by his hunchback, and singing some of the score’s most searing lines. Goosebump territory.  For all the fun and shouting out rude words, this is a beautiful show, musically and lyrically speaking.  There is something sophisticated underpinning everything, and this is just as crucial to the show’s longevity as the opportunity to dress up and shout things (but not throwing them!)

Lauren Ingram’s Columbia is spot on, with an extended moment in the spotlight, after she has been zapped by a device.  Columbia is the heart of the show, adding emotional depth to the glitzy, glamorous goings on. Ben Westhead is an appealing Rocky, and Joe Allens makes his mark doubling as the unfortunate Eddie and as Dr Scott.

Stephen Webb absolutely rules as evil scientist Frank N Furter, combining camp posturing with a macho demeanour.  The iconic Tim Curry is perhaps indelible, but Webb both delivers audience expectations and brings something new to his interpretation.  His Frank is masterful, and brittle, and predatory, and outrageous.  It’s a remarkable performance.

But for me, the evening belongs to Philip Franks’s narrator.  Often a role that is sidelined, sometimes drowned out by cries of ‘Boring!’ from the crowd, Franks handles the verbiage of the lines he has to get out, adding in bang up-to-date topical jokes—thereby keeping the material fresh.  He is also a skilful handler of the crowd, shooting down hecklers with savage wit, and clearly enjoying himself as much as we are.

Yes, it’s a load of fun, but I’m always struck by the rather downbeat resolution.  It’s one of the most poignant endings in musical theatre, all the shenanigans reduced to a couplet of nihilistic existentialism.  It’s a good job the cast is resurrected to get us to do the Time Warp again.  We need to go home on a high.

A fabulous night out with hidden depths.

*****

Sweet transvestite: Stephen Webb as Frank N Furter

A Taste of Hannay

THE 39 STEPS

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th September, 2021

John Buchan’s novel has been adapted several times, each incarnation having precious little in common with the source material.  Patrick Barlow’s joyful stage version borrows heavily from the Alfred Hitchcock film of the 1930s but delivers a purely theatrical rather than cinematic experience. The script is peppered with reference to Hitchcock’s films for those in the know.

The whole thing is enacted by a cast of four, led by Richard Buck, who does a great job of bringing the dashing Richard Hannay to life, dashing around the stage/Scottish Highlands, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and trying to break up a spy ring in order to clear his name.  Buck’s wide-eyed perplexity and skilful physical comedy make him a worthy focus for the action.

Richard Buck

Playing the female parts is Kimberley Bradshaw, mangling the English language as German agent Arabella Schmidt, looking winsome in a red wig as crofter’s wife, Margaret, and, best of all, as the romantic interest Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay and falling for him despite herself.  Bradshaw’s long-suffering looks to the audience as she negotiates the tortuous corridors of a Highland hotel are a delight.

Appearing as everyone else are two consummate comedic players, James Nicholas and Darren Haywood.  They both prove their versatility beyond question, often switching between characters at the drop, or the picking up, of a hat.  Nicholas is great value as the treacherous Professor and Scottish hotelier Willy, as well as a host of other roles, but it is Haywood who gives the virtuoso performance, depicting characters with an arch look here, a purse of the lips there in the most consistently hilarious display I’ve seen in a long time.  Together, they are a dream of a double act.

Director Simon Ravenhill doesn’t let the close confines of the Blue Orange stage get in the way of his chase scenes and his punch-ups.  The action is deftly handled.  This is a show that is so silly it’s actually very clever.

It does run a bit long though, due mainly to the time it can take to change scenes.  While the set is almost as versatile as the actors, it can take a while to reconfigure, presenting opportunities for energy levels to flag.  Luckily, the enthusiasm and brio of the players prove irresistible, and we revel in the fun of it all.

A real tonic.

****

Darren Haywood


High Hopes and High Heels

EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th September, 2021

Based on a true story, this musical by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom Macrae centres on 16-year-old Jamie New, on the cusp of leaving school and becoming who he wants to be (which is not a forklift driver, as the careers service suggests).  Jamie wants to be a drag queen, a noble profession indeed, but he faces resistance from—well, he doesn’t face all that much resistance to be honest.  His mum (Amy Ellen Richardson) couldn’t be more supportive (she buys him his first pair of high heels), nor could his best friend Pritti, and he soon finds an ally and mentor in Hugo the proprietor of the local drag shop (every town has one, right?).  There is some conflict when Jamie learns the birthday cards he’s been getting for years haven’t really come from his estranged dad, but Jamie seems more than capable of standing up for himself.  School bully George Sampson can barely get a word out, in the full glare of Jamie’s devastating wit.  Jamie plans to wear a dress to the prom (We didn’t have proms, we had school discos) and to prepare for this he performs his first drag show at the local drag club.  Which seems arse-backwards to me – surely the show requires more preparation, rehearsal, and guts to do.  Anyway…

There is much to like about this show, with its poptastic score, its energetic staging, funny script and talented cast, but for me there’s something not quite there.  Moments of excellence arise: Jamie’s mum belting out her big number about her boy; Shane Richie as the former drag queen regaining his glamour; an unrecognisable Shobna Gulati as Ray, a high-camp northern woman (almost a drag character in itself); a trio of drag queens bitching in the dressing room…For me, the best-written character is Pritti, in a show-stealing performance by Sharan Phull. 

In the title role, Layton Williams gives a star turn, taking to the high heels like a fish to water.  It’s a pity we don’t get to see Jamie do his drag act, but this is very much Jamie’s origin story.  He is still developing his drag superpowers.

And yet, I find the story lacks the punch of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  Here, the issues aren’t really issues, and acceptance seems easy to come by.  It’s a sanitised, almost facile version of growing-up gay.  Jamie has one supportive parent; many LGBTQ+ kids don’t have that, but what does come across is institutionalised homophobia, as represented by teacher Miss Hodge (Lara Denning), but even that is swiftly overcome and papered over with compliments about shoes.

Jamie is a snack, sweet and enjoyable while it lasts, but the subject matter could have made a more substantial and satisfying meal.

***

Layton Williams (Jamie) and Sharan Phull (Pritti) Photo: Matt Crockett

Nothin’ but a Good Time

ROCK OF AGES

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 10th September, 2021

There aren’t many jukebox musicals that can entice me back for a second viewing, but when I was invited to see this one, I jumped at the chance, remembering how much of a good time I’d had first time round.

Set in 1987-ish in a bar on LA’s famous Sunset Strip, the show tells the story of rock star-cross’d lovers, Sherrie and Drew.  She’s a small-town girl with dreams of making it as an actor; he’s a boy with a guitar and a voice to die for, with his sights set on playing the stadiums.  As Sherrie, Rhiannon Chesterman is in excellent form, with a strong, expressive voice and a likeable presence.  Returning to the role of Drew, Luke Walsh again impresses with his singing; his voice soaring above everything else.  It’s a treat to hear him once more.

Ross Dawes brings a gruff warmth and skilful comic business to his role as bar owner Dennis Dupree, while Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy make welcome returns as the scheming German property developers bent on demolishing the neighbourhood.  The characterisations are comic-book.  In fact, the entire production has more than a whiff of adult panto to it, and that’s a good thing, in this instance.  What I enjoy most is the silliness, the cheeky breaking of the fourth wall.  This is a show that doesn’t take itself seriously and it’s all the better for it.

Gabriella Williams makes her mark as Regina, protesting the redevelopment and falling for Andrew Carthy’s Franz, but it’s Jenny Fitzpatrick’s Justice who stops the show with her astonishing vocals.

Strictly’s Kevin Clifton gets a chance to display his singing and his talent for broad comedy as opposed to his dancing and gives a thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of the egotistic rock star Stacee Jaxx.  But for me, the show belongs to Joe Gash as the camptastic, charismatic and mischievous Lonny, the narrator of the piece, prancing around like the lovechild of Jack Sparrow and Russell Brand.  Gash is a delight, with a powerful voice and a quick wit he uses to handle any hecklers. 

There is stonking support from a chorus of superlative singers and dancers.  The ensemble arrangement of Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn is just lovely, among a set list of numbers that are mainly anthemic power ballads or hand-clapping standards, like Don’t Stop Believing and Keep On Loving You. Lonny and Dennis’s duet, I Can’t Fight The Feeling Anymore, is a highlight among many hilarious moments.

The onstage band, led by Liam Holmes, is flawless, making the old, familiar songs irresistible.  Of course, we’re all up on our feet before the end, rocking our socks off.  There is a party atmosphere from start to finish in a production brimming over with talent and loaded with laughs.

A funny, feelgood show that doesn’t wallow in nostalgia but reminds us there were so many great songs back then.  And it’s especially gratifying to hear a song by local band Slade!

Is it crass?  Yes!

Is it entertaining?  YES!

Would I see it a third time?

In a heartbeat!

*****

Kevin Clifton as Stacee Jaxx (Photo: Richard Davenport)


All binge, no cringe

BLACKADDER II

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th June, 2021

My heart sinks a little when I hear theatre companies are tackling this kind of thing, more so when it’s a well-beloved series like Blackadder II – Will the production be no more than a patchy impression of the show, where the cast, no matter how good they may be, cannot possibly hope to emulate the iconic performances of the television stars?  And why should I drag myself out when the show is easily watchable at home?  (I’m not a fan of tribute bands, either!)

That being said, director Kevin Middleton, aware of the pitfalls, tackles the material with aplomb, making full use of a range of projected backcloths (cod-Elizabethan etchings designed by Colin Judges) thereby enabling almost instantaneous scene-changes (with a giddying effect) allowing the action to flow much as it would on the telly.  Middleton also restricts the set to furniture that can be wheeled on and off in seconds, and so there is an old-school, Shakespearean aspect to the staging, married with modern-day technology.  It gives the production its own style, and it works extremely well.

The task for the actors is meeting audience expectations and imbuing the well-loved characters with something of themselves.  As Edmund Blackadder, the most sarcastic man in Elizabethan England, Shaun Hartman channels rather than impersonates Rowan Atkinson, in a role that was tailor-made for Atkinson, and is note-perfect in his sardonic intonation, skilfully managing the verbal fireworks and dazzling hyperbole of his lines.  Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s script shines through, reminding us this is their best work, collectively and as solo writers.

Hartman is supported by a talented cast, notably a lively Katie Goldhawk as the spoilt and girlish Queen Elizabeth whose cruelty is never far beneath the surface.  Mark Shaun Walsh is an undiluted delight as Sir Percy Percy, making the role his own with high-camp imbecility and physical comedy.  The greatest departure from the TV version comes in Brian Wilson’s Lord Melchett, dispensing with the bombast of Stephen Fry’s portrayal in favour of a more understated interpretation.  It works very well, providing contrast with the excesses of the others.  Karen Leadbetter is brain-dead fun as Nursie, also appearing as Edmond’s formidable puritanical aunt – an excellent opportunity to display her range!  Becky Johnson is appealing as Kate/Bob in the show’s best episode, where Shakespearean transvestism drives the plot; and I also enjoyed Simon King’s monstrous Bishop of Bath & Wells and his charade-playing Spanish torturer.  Daniel Parker brings a Brummie edge to his Baldrick, demonstrating flawless comic timing in his reactions, while Paul Forrest’s villainous Prince Ludwig mangles the English language to hilarious effect.  Joe Palmer’s Lord Flashheart starts big and keeps growing, assisted by a ludicrous fright wig—The wigs and beards are hilarious, too.  Coupled with the backdrops, they give the show a cartoonish aspect.  As ever at the Crescent, the costumes (by Rose Snape and Stewart Snape) are superb and production values are high.

Special mention goes to the irrepressible Nick Doran, singing the theme song between episodes, including a bespoke version that starts the show, reminding us to switch off our phones etc.

There are some gloriously funny moments, expertly handled, culminating in a raucous rendition of a bawdy song at the end of the third episode.  This is when you realise they’ve pulled it off.  They’ve paid homage to one of the greatest TV shows of all time and made it their own, and it’s wildly entertaining and extremely funny.

Because each of the four episodes recreated here is self-contained, there is nothing in the way of character development and no through storyline.  The sitcom format demands that everything is reset to the status quo.  And so, it’s exactly like binge-watching a series.  After three episodes on the trot, Netflix asks if you’re still watching.  By the time we get to the fourth one, I have had my fill.  Consistently enjoyable though this production is, you can have too much of a good thing.

****

Blackadder (Shaun Hartman), Percy (Mark Shaun Walsh), and Baldrick (Daniel Parker) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

Wonder-full

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Cox’s Yard, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 4th August, 2021

This year’s summer show from Stratford-based company, Tread The Boards is an exuberant adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense classic.  All the highlights you expect are here, and the cast of just six work hard to populate the stage with the well-known characters.  Being an outdoors show, technical elements are limited, but director John-Robert Partridge makes a virtue of this, relying on the physicality of the actors to get across the fantastical elements of the story.  Moments like Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole and an underwater sequence are superbly handled by the ensemble.  There is a dance-like quality to their movements, even if they’re just shifting scenery.  Also tackled extremely well are the changes in Alice’s size as she eats and drinks various things that shrink or extend her.  It’s clever stuff that engages our imagination to make the effect work.  Certainly the children in the audience are engaged and on board.  This is where the true ‘wonderland’ is to be found.

Each cast member plays several parts but they each get their stand-out moments.  Pete Meredith’s Playing Card Gardener, for example, and his Mad Hatter, aided and abetted by Julia Holland’s March Hare.  Holland teams up with Lucy Edwards as Tweedledee and Tweedledum to give a spirited rendition of The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Edwards also makes for a fun Cheshire Cat.  Danny Teitge is a likeable and quirky White Rabbit, establishing a rapport with the younger members of the audience, and is especially good as the speaking end of the Caterpillar.  Director John-Robert Partridge practices what he preaches in a couple of featured roles.  His Mock Turtle has a showstopping number about soup, and chiefly, his Queen of Hearts is deliciously camp and tyrannical—I trust this is not indicative of his directorial style!

As Alice, Hannah Whitehouse hardly leaves the stage, capturing the fun and earnestness of the role, Alice’s forthright, logical approach to a world that makes little sense, trying to reason her way through this cavalcade of crazy characters.  The focus of the action, Whitehouse is an appealing and expressive presence.

The sound design is by Elliott Wallis, and it includes some of his original compositions, adding to the charm of this enchanting and imaginative production.

The show is touring until September to a range of venues across the region.  You can book tickets by clicking HERE.

****


Half-Farced

DUPLICITY FOR BEGINNERS

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 23rd July 2021

This new one-act play begins as an old-school farce.  Set in a room of the Hotel Royale, two men are inadvertently there to meet the same woman.  Somehow they manage to avoid each other at first, with plenty of well-timed comings and goings through the various entrances and exits.  And, being a farce, the trousers soon come off.

Things take a darker turn when the woman fails to turn up.  Now we are in clever thriller territory—think Sleuth or Deathtrap and nothing is as it first appeared.  Writer Ben Mills-Wood has created a tight and funny script, but I’m afraid his direction can’t quite bring his ideas to the stage. He comes pretty close, though.

There is much to enjoy here, not least the writing.  There’s Jason Adam’s affable comedic stylings as the cheeky concierge; David Sims as Harvey the husband is at his strongest when he loses his temper; and Oliver Jones as the lover balances exaggeration and nuance to give an effective performance.  There are delightful moments of frame-breaking, drawing attention to the artifice and contrivance of the piece.  But this kind of thing needs consistent energy.  Unfortunately, commitment to the action tends to be patchy as the cast’s confidence ebbs and flows.

To be fair, this is the first night, so you can forgive a few stumbles, a few dropped lines, and you can expect things to shape up for subsequent performances.  The pacing needs sharpening so that every convolution of the plot hits the spot and doesn’t slip between the cracks.  It should run like clockwork, but a few cogs need tightening.  Or, to change metaphors, this diamond in the rough requires some targeted polishing to make it the gem it has the potential to be.

***


Comedy and no mistake

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 15th June, 2021

It is nothing short of wonderful to be back in a theatre and watching the country’s funniest theatre company, Oddsocks, back on stage, doing what they do so brilliantly, after an enforced hiatus.  Every time the company revisits a Shakespeare play they have toured once or twice before, they do something new with it, thereby keeping their work fresh and funny.  This new production of Errors benefits from a host of folk songs and sea shanties, where previous versions have been resplendent with pop songs.  Here the a capella singing lends atmosphere, and later, when accompanied by instruments, it’s still rousing stuff, keeping the energy levels high during transitions.  I suspect this shift in musical style, using tunes in the public domain, is a cost-cutting exercise in these straitened times, but whether it is or it isn’t, it works extremely well.

Director/adaptor Andy Barrow has cast his Mrs in a lead role.  Producer Elli Mackenzie appears as Antiphoni of Ephesus (and of course her identical twin from Syracuse) thereby cementing her position in my view that she is the funniest woman in the land.  She and Barrow (as the hapless servants Dromio) form an exquisite double act.  It’s a rare treat to see them performing together.   There’s an abundance of physical comedy in this show, including a sequence with a large trunk that reminds me of Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and the slapstick violence between the pair is like two stooges in search of a third.

Oddsocks veteran, the charming Joseph Maudsley makes a welcome return, appearing as Adrian (husband to Antiphoni – the gender swap doesn’t get in the way of the machinations of Shakespeare’s farcical plot).  I was expecting a Rocky moment with Antiphoni calling her hubby’s name – but then, what do I know?  Maudsley has an easy-going, immediately likeable stage presence.  As do new recruits Harrie Dobby and Jack Herauville who fit right in with the company’s madcap style, delivering a range of supporting roles.

Comic business is Oddsocks’s business, hearkening back to commedia dell’arte; it’s the kind of thing that has to be seen live, for the timing, the daftness, and the sheer skill required to pull it off.  And it’s all reasonably faithful to Shakespeare’s text, honed into two-hours traffic on the stage, with the occasional topical reference thrown in for good measure.  The good news is this is the start of their summer tour.  They will surely be visiting an indoor or outdoor venue near you soon.  It would be an error to miss them!

*****

Publicity image. You can check out TOUR DATES HERE.


Bear-Polar Disorder

MADEMOISELLE F

ShopFront Theatre, Theatre Absolute, Coventry, Thursday 10th June 2021

Mademoiselle F was the first person to be diagnosed with what is recognised today as OCD.  We join her in her room in a Parisian asylum in the 19th century, as she battles with and succumbs to her compulsions in a never-ending internal struggle.  In the title role, Miriam Edwards imbues the part with nervous energy and fragility.  She is accompanied by Tyrone Huggins in the role of Polar Bear, who acts as a visitor and a nurse, but mostly as a polar bear.  He regales F with stories of his life in a present-day zoo.  The stories fascinate F (and us) and his descriptions of the modern world have a strong ecological message.

Writer Vanessa Oakes draws parallels between F in her room and the bear in his enclosure, between the mental illnesses suffered by animals in captivity and the prevalence of smartphones in society and our compulsion to continually check them.  There is more to the play than a case study of an all-but forgotten Frenchwoman.

Miriam Edwards finds light and shade in the neuroses of F, and I could listen to Tyrone Huggins all day as he explains everything with warm authority.  Director Mark Evans keeps things tight in the empty but intimate setting, further limiting the space with a length of rope, symbolising the polar bears’ dwindling natural habitat.

It’s engaging, provocative stuff but it’s a case of the contemporary social commentary, with its direct relevance to the way we live, overshadowing the thin biography of the eponymous, practically anonymous, mademoiselle.

****

Bear with: Miriam Edwards and Tyrone Huggins


Stream Scream

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Online

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 1st-31st December 2020

The annual treat of the Belgrade pantomime is not cancelled, thank goodness, but is available to stream from the theatre’s website into the comfort (or otherwise) of your own home.  Panto without audience participation might seem like the odds are stacked against it, but such is the effectiveness of this specially filmed production, you barely miss the auditorium.

The mighty Iain Lauchlan has been the engine, the heart and the soul of the Belgrade’s panto for over a quarter of a century now, and the film begins with him strolling onto a bare stage and gazing out at the empty stalls.  Voices and laughter from previous productions can be heard.  It’s quite a downbeat start, reflecting the sadness the entire industry must be feeling this year, but the mood instantly picks up when he sits on the edge of the stage alongside his longtime comedy partner, Craig Hollingsworth, who has an idea of how the pantomime can still go ahead this year: stream it online.  At once, you can see the chemistry between these two; their partnership is the biggest draw for me to keep going to Coventry every year.  Their effortless banter and crosstalk is second-to-none.

And so the panto proper begins, with Lauchlan as the Fairy narrator, able to use her wand for digital effects you can’t get in the theatre.   The set and costumes are very much what you’d expect to find on stage but crucially the performance style has been altered to suit the screen.  The acting is still non-naturalistic, but its heightened just enough to maximise the comedy without going over the top.  Addressing the audience is replaced by direct-to-camera and this works brilliantly for Dame Trott’s monologues (Iain Lauchlan is the consummate dame) and also for quick asides and punchlines.  Craig Hollingsworth, usually called upon to be a master of crowd control, here demonstrates another impressive set of skills, those of acting for and to the lens.  I did not think these two could get any higher in my estimation, but they’ve done exactly that.

With Lauchlan and Hollingsworth playing most of the parts (due to the necessity of having limited numbers permitted in rehearsals) this is a real showcase for their talents.  They are joined by perky principal boy, Morna Macpherson as Jack Trott, with Arina Li as the feisty Princess.  Trish Adudu is somewhat underused as the Giant’s wife, appearing in a Zoom call with Hollingsworth’s Fleshcreep (who reminds me of Dave Hill from Slade!)   The troupe of young dancers is led by the dashing Ayden Morgan, adding to the vibrancy of this colourful and inventive production.

Lauchlan’s script is bang up-to-date, riddled with topical references, as befits any panto worth its salt.  He has always been an innovative panto creator and this year, more than ever, his ability to marry traditional tropes with technical advancements is crucial.  Everything is so well thought out.  Even Daisy the cow’s costume has been amended to include social distancing for her front and back legs!  There is plenty of slapstick and silliness, along with saucier jokes for the adults, and it’s all splendidly directed (by Paul Gibson) to suit the medium.

This is by no means a question of performing a panto and standing a camera in front of it.  This is a true marriage of form and content, of timeless tradition and contemporary communications.

It’s available to stream for the whole month of December from belgrade.co.uk so people far beyond the bounds of Coventry can get to see it, and it’s excellent value and an absolute scream.  Oh yes it is.

*****

Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth face off with a bake-off (Photo: Chloe Ely)


Improv with bells on

SHORT FORM SCRATCH NIGHT

Reflex Theatre, You Tube, Wednesday 29th July, 2020

 

With theatres still closed, canny theatre companies are putting new technologies to good use to get their work out there for audiences.  Norwich based Reflex Theatre put on these evenings on a monthly basis, I understand, and I was lucky enough to be invited to watch from the comfort (or otherwise) of my own home.  The premise is this: actors take the first and last page of a brand-new piece of writing, and they improvise the middle bit.  A bell signals to us viewers the transition from the written lines to the improv section, and the return to the written conclusion.

A varied programme kicks off with Collapsing by Thomas Heath, a two-hander father-and-daughter zoom call.  Zoom is not just for boring team meetings, you know.  It can be quite the medium for creativity.  As the scene unfolds, I find there’s something voyeuristic about watching this conversation, with its dual p.o.v.  The scene builds nicely, but I wonder if the actors could be given key points to include – or if they give themselves key points to include.  What I would say is they shouldn’t be afraid of silences, of pausing the dialogue so we get the opportunity to see things sink in.  Nevertheless, it’s a fine start.

Next up, is something more removed from reality.  Wednesday Evenings by Emma Dawson, involves a Princess at the mercy of a Narrator, who forces her to endure a catalogue of dastardly situations as part of her punishment for ‘bringing down the kingdom’.  Or something.  The set-up has strong potential for humour, and they do get more than a few laughs out of me.  The scene touches on the role of princesses in fairy tales and how they need to be liberated from perpetual victimhood.   This could really develop into a sharp satire.

Pals by Hannah Westall is a three-hander.  Bee is getting ready for a date, while her two pals, Anne and Debbie, like devils at her shoulder, try to persuade and even scare her out of going.  This one needs to be pacier, I feel.  And Anne looks so worried and upset throughout, I want to know her story; it seems like there is fertile ground there!

Trauma by Rogerio Correia is a monologue.  Mark (an excellent Leon Bedwell) is undergoing his weekly online therapy session.  He relives an incident from his youth, an example of the relentless homophobia of his father.  It’s just his face, filling the screen, talking directly to us, and it makes for the most powerful piece of the evening.  It’s actually very moving.  And, of the lot, it is the most successful in terms of the format.  If I didn’t hear the bells, I wouldn’t have known what was written and what was improv.  Splendid work.

The evening is rounded off with a return to comedy, and it’s the funniest piece of the lot.  A Date Worse Than Death by Catherine O’Hanlon, has gothic psychopath Heidi (a scarily funny Ellie Scanlon) meeting mummy’s boy and jigsaw puzzle fan Darren (Joseph Betts) on a blind date.  I don’t know about their romantic prospects, but this pair are perfectly matched when it comes to humour.  The characters are well-rounded, the wit is quick, and there’s plenty of good old improv back-and-forth that is a joy to behold.  All it needs is a little tightening to get where it goes a little quicker, but it’s a hugely enjoyable piece.

All in all, a worthwhile way to spend ninety minutes.  Artistic director Callan Durrant and his cast are to be applauded for getting new material and live performance out there.

You can check out the pieces via their Facebook page here.

four stars

reflex


Video (et gaudeo)

BARD FROM THE BARN – Shakespeare’s Greatest Characters in Lockdown

YouTube, Wednesday 1st July, 2020

 

With theatres closed, indefinitely it feels like, some companies are streaming live recordings of past productions to keep us entertained.  Others are seeking to produce new work, using whatever means they can.  Last week, I enjoyed a play performed live on Zoom.  This week, I’m looking at a collection of pre-recorded monologues, put together by the Barn Theatre.

There are almost three dozen to choose from.  You can dip in and out as little or as much as you like, or you can select PLAY ALL and work your way through, so there is flexibility there, and of course you can watch it on your laptop, your smartphone, or your big telly, making the viewing as formal or as informal as you like.  You choose the way you watch.

For review purposes, I’m sitting back with a cuppa in front of the big telly.

What plays out before me is an impressive range of ideas and variety of means of presentation, as actors in isolation perform speeches from the tragedies, histories and comedies (some better known that others).  In general, the dramatic speeches tend to come across better than the comic ones – that being said, the knockabout comedy of Tweedy the Clown as Dromio of Ephesus (Comedy of Errors) appearing on a sort of Jeremy Kyle show, is very funny!

They’re all worth a look.  Some feel like extracts, some feel like short films complete in themselves, like Daniella Piper’s Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona) tearing up a love letter from Proteus and trying to piece it together again.

I can’t mention them all but here are some of my favourites.  Aaron Sidwell (who also produces) appears as Marc Antony, a media-savvy politician giving an address on a rolling news channel – the medium is perfectly suited to his rhetoric; Adam Sopp’s Iago, exudes menace in a triptych of mirrors; Ryan Bennett’s Edgar, where the jerky smartphone filming represents his state of mind; Ben Boskovic’s Richard II, vlogging in his bedroom; Sarah Louise Hughes as Juliet, recording her final moments in a onesie in her bedroom, before she takes the fateful drug; and the pent-up passion of Jasper William Cartwright’s Romeo, who is homeo aloneo.

Some are simpler than others, with directors letting the actors’ talking heads do all the work. Dominic Brewer’s housebound Hamlet, bitter and depressed, for example.  Others use everyday technologies to do something flashier: Tricia Adele Turner’s Hermione (The Winter’s Tale) is an Essex girl in a clip that combines social media with reality TV – some kind of commentary here, that these ‘celebrities’ are awarded almost royal status, perhaps?  David Haydn’s Titus Andronicus is a deliciously horrific vignette of grisly, suburban revenge.

We get a Benedick taking his daily exercise in the park, Macbeth’s porter receiving a welcome delivery of toilet rolls, and there are a few facetime calls along the way.  All human life is here, certainly as experienced over the past few months in quarantine.  Taken as a whole, this collection is a chronicle of the present, seen through the prism of Shakespeare.

Producers Aaron Sidwell, Hal Chambers and the Barn Theatre are to be applauded for this inventive body of work.  I’m sure they’ll forgive me if I don’t stand on my doorstep to do it.

The-Cast-of-Bard-From-The-Barn

See for yourself by clicking HERE!


Cloud Pleasers

UP, UP, UP AND AWAY!

Zoom, My Place, Friday 26th June, 2020

 

During lockdown, we have not been starved of theatre, with plenty of National Theatre productions streaming for free on a weekly basis, and such.  This online production by Super Stories With City Actors (presented by Creation Theatre) takes a savvier approach by charging for access to their live show, performed on Zoom right before your very eyes.  But why pay when there is so much free stuff out there?

First up: it’s interactive.  Rather than plonking the kids down in front of a screen, and providing a passive experience, this play invites and encourages participation from its remote and divided audience.  In the safety of your own home, you can take part and do all the moves.  Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as arduous as a Joe Wicks workout.

Secondly, you get to influence the story.  This fast-moving adventure, loosely based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale, involves Captain Calamity (Rowland Stirling) and his young cadet (Ryan Duncan) as they travel the world in a hot air balloon.   In fact, we are all recruited as ‘cloud cadets’ to go along for the ride.  And you get the chance to volunteer suggestions for magic spells and special salutes, and lots of things the plot requires.  But only if you want to.  No one is picked on.  It’s all “Hand’s up if you’ve got an idea”, so you can be as shy as you want.

Ryan Duncan befriends us from the off, as the plucky Apprentice.  He is our guide into the Captain’s crazy world.  Duncan has the energy and heightened delivery of a kids’ TV presenter, without being annoying, and he is a splendid physical comedian.

The versatile Rowland Stirling is the embodiment of silliness as the camp Captain Calamity.  He also appears as a slightly villainous magician, who speaks in rhyme and stands behind a moustache on a stick, and perhaps most delightfully, voices the leader of a flea circus, revelling in the name of Timoflea Charlemagne.  Which gives you some idea of the humour we’re dealing with here in the script by George Rennie – who is also hard at work, video-mixing live, which is like stage managing, conducting, and scene shifting rolled into one.

The music, written and performed by Jessica Dives, adds to the action and the fun. There’s a home-made quality to the backgrounds, combining stock photographs with cut-outs, animation, and green-screen trickery.  That you can see the join from time to time merely adds to the charm.  The combination of high- and low-tech elements works like a dream.  And it’s as funny as it is inventive.

The show embraces the medium to the hilt, presenting the story elements in creative ways, and it’s perfectly pitched at its target audience of youngsters.  You can see the engagement on their little faces.  And you can see the enjoyment of the mums/dads/court-appointed guardians on their larger faces, as they join in with the moves.

There’s a lot going on, and not just in the knockabout plot.  It’s about sharing an imaginative experience, sharing ownership, taking part, and colluding with the artifice of it all to keep the balloon in the air.  It’s uplifting stuff and worth every penny.  People have got to get used to paying for theatre again.

Subsequent Zoom meetings I have to endure are never going to live up to this!

five stars

You can book your ticket to a performance HERE!

up up up ryan

The only way is up! Ryan Duncan as the Apprentice


Czech, please!

ONCE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th March, 2020

 

Continuing the fad of adapting films into musicals comes this staging of John Carney’s 2007 film, which at least had original songs.  These have been developed into a full score (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) and although the action takes place in Dublin it’s not all diddly diddly dee – although there is some of that to give local flavour.  Enda Walsh’s book is brimming with wit, warmth and charm.

An Irish pub forms the backdrop, the kind of place where everyone can sing and play a musical instrument; the ensemble remain onstage throughout, observing like a silent chorus, reacting with subtle choreography, and contributing physical theatre where necessary, as well as shifting furniture and pianos and so on to keep the story flowing.

The story is a little slight: girl meets boy, helps him reconnect with his musical ambitions, setting him up for a life-changing trip to New York City…

The boy, or ‘Guy’ as he is referred to in the programme, is a vacuum cleaner repairman, disillusioned with busking and his musical aspirations.  He is about to walk away from his guitar for good when up steps the ‘Girl’, a kooky Czech lass who imposes herself on him with unrelenting directness, in a resistance-is-futile kind of way.  The result is a sweet and gentle love story, infused with a vibrant, rich score of pop songs and ballads, informed by Irish and Czech traditions.  It is lovely stuff.

As the ‘Guy’ Daniel Healy is the least kooky of the lot, and it’s a treat to hear him sing and play.  His numbers smack of Damien Rice – and this is a good thing, as Healy’s voice builds in power and expression and the ensemble joins in.  Searing and emotive, the songs get you right in the feels.

The ‘Girl’ is winningly portrayed by Emma Lucia, getting lots of laughs from her character rather than from a comedy Czech accent.  She sings very sweetly and when she duets with Healy, it confirms our suspicions that the two are made for each other.

Among the ensemble there are notable turns from the likes of Dan Bottomley as music shop proprietor Billy, Samuel Martin as a bank manager who can’t sing (a hilarious number!), and Susannah van den Berg as the formidable Baruska, the Girl’s mother.  Lloyd Gorman makes a strong impression as Svec, ripping his trousers off to play the drums and learning English from a tawdry soap opera.  In this performance, the sultry role of Reza is played by Hanna Khogali, bringing an exotic touch to proceedings – the show demonstrates how music unites us, wherever we’re from.  It is part of what makes us human and something to which we can all relate.

A toe-tapping, hand-clapping, heart-warming production that celebrates differences between cultures while reinforcing the similarities between us all.

Grand!

Emma Lucia as Girl and Daniel Healy as Guy - Once UK Tour - Photo Mark Senior (3)

Dublin duo: Emma Lucia as Girl and Daniel Healy as Guy (Photo: Mark Senior)

 


Lashings of Drama

THE WHIP

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd March, 2020

 

This cracking new play by Juliet Gilkes Romero is set in the politically turbulent year of 1833, when the abolition of slavery is in the air but, as we learn from the politicking and the shenanigans on display, passing the Act through Parliament comes at an enormous financial cost (with the public purse compensating the supposedly hard-done-by slave owners for their loss of income!).  We also learn that abolition does not necessarily lead to emancipation; it is posited that liberated slaves will have to work a seven-year unpaid ‘apprenticeship’.  What price freedom, eh?

At the forefront of the wheeling and dealing is Lord Alexander Boyd, the Chief Whip (the play’s title has a double meaning, you see!) presented in a charismatic performance from silver fox Richard Clothier, the richness of whose voice is superbly suited to the corridors of power.  Boyd is a man trying to do his best for his fellow man, although it soon becomes apparent that his views of ‘our negro brothers’ are limited within the attitudes of the era.  Clothier is a commanding stage presence, giving us the strengths and frailties of the man in public and in private.

As Boyd’s assistant, the runaway slave Edmund, Corey Montague-Sholay is dignified and empathetic.  Beneath his ‘civilised’ veneer lies heartrending loss, having been torn away from his family and his culture.

As chirpy Northerner Horatia Poskitt, Katherine Pearce almost steals the show with some delightfully comedic moments as she tries to fit into her new role as Boyd’s housekeeper.  This renders her grief over a daughter, horrifically killed in a cotton mill, all the more effective.

As runaway slave and abolitionist Mercy Pryce, Debbie Korley holds her own in this white man’s world, detailing a harrowing account of the abuse she suffered in slavery (amping up the Jamaican accent to suit her Hyde Park Corner audience) while comporting herself with dignity and righteousness – making a fine contrast with John Cummins as despicable Tory Cornelius Hyde-Villiers; boorish and crass, he’s out for the biggest bail-out he can get.

David Birrell shows the arrogance of entitlement as conniving Home Secretary, Lord Maybourne, holding out offers of high office as inducements, while being riddled with hypocrisy: he purports to be an abolitionist but is a proud slave owner himself.  Politics still attracts the same kind of people today, alas!

What the play demonstrates is that the ruling elite haven’t changed a jot over the centuries and that decisions taken, ostensibly for economic reasons, are rooted in deep-seated racism: the freed slaves will be “too lazy” to earn a living, is just one example dredged up in support of the unjust apprentice scheme.

In a range of minor roles, other actors from ‘The Furies’ an ever-present chorus, observing the action.  These include Riad Richie, marvellous as the Speaker of the House, and the ever-captivating Bridgitta Roy.  Nicky Shaw’s costumes make this an attractively clad period piece, while a superlative quartet of musicians performs Akintayo Akinbode’s stirring Beethoven-informed score to perfection.

Director Kimberley Sykes maintains quite a pace; the characters lay out their arguments, moral and otherwise, with clarity and passion. It all makes for an engaging and entertaining polemic.  We can be appalled by the attitudes of the past, but it doesn’t take another bankers’ bailout to remind us that such conduct is still prevalent today.  “The citizens with all the power are hurting those with none,” we are told.  Ain’t it the truth!

The Whip production photos_ 2020_2020_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_304233

Richard Clothier reading reviews (Photo: Steve Tanner c RSC )

 


Great Danes

HAMLET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st March, 2020

 

I’ve lost count of the number of Hamlets I’ve seen over the years, and a problem I have every time I go to see it again is its overfamiliarity.  It’s not just a question of knowing the plot; the entire script reads like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with almost every line or phrase well-known and, more often than not, part of our everyday speech.  But I’m always interested to see a fresh approach that may shed new light on this most-often produced of plays.

Here, director Michael Barry opts for what he calls a film noir approach – the costumes by Jennet Marshall certainly have a 1950s feel – but apart from the odd burst of slinky saxophone and the occasionally well-placed spotlight, film noir is barely apparent.  Not that it matters; the minimal staging puts the performers at the forefront.  Played in traverse, the action is within reach, and this works very well for the more intimate scenes.  Unfortunately, the stage can be a tad overcrowded with members of the Elsinore court and these scenes can lose focus.  A courtly dance is a case in point, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio is swallowed by the music.

That being said, this production has some moments of excellence.  Isabel Swift’s Horatio is a masterclass in how to deliver Shakespeare with clarity and emotion – Horatio’s grief at the end is almost palpable.  Robert Laird’s Claudius does a good job of becoming increasingly rattled as the action unfolds, and delivers a powerful moment alone, in torment and at prayer.  Graeme Braidwood’s Polonius is not so much the ‘foolish, prating knave’ Hamlet claims him to be but rather an austere father and efficient administrator.  Papa Yentumi makes for a righteous Laertes and Femke Witney’s Ophelia combines sweetness and ferocity in her mad scenes.  As Gertrude, Skye Witney needs to project more in her earlier scenes but in the emotionally charged scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, she really comes to life.  Bill Barry impresses as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, keeping things dispassionate and thereby otherworldly.

Inevitably, the production succeeds or fails with its Hamlet.  Here the Crescent is indeed fortunate to have the brilliant Jack Hobbis give his Prince of Denmark.  Hobbis is eminently watchable, and the show’s highlights are his soliloquies as he breathes new life into those well-worn words.  His Hamlet is mercurial yet for all his mood swings, he is never less than regal.

The play culminates in the rigged fencing match and this is staged very well, with an added frisson of excitement being so close to the front rows of the audience.  Michael Barry substitutes the last-minute arrival of Fortinbras with a reappearance of the Ghost and a repetition of the play’s opening line, which is an original and effective touch.

Yes, it’s a bit patchy but the stronger moments far outnumber the weak.  This is an accessible Hamlet, whittled down to a bum-friendly two-and-a-half hours, held together by a charismatic lead performance and strong support from the main players.

hamlet hobbis

Sweet Prince: Jack Hobbis as Hamlet (Photo: Jack Kirby)


Home Turf

The Norman Conquests: ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 29th February, 2020

 

Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit Theatre Company have taken it upon themselves to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy trilogy.  To this end, the theatre has been transformed so that the plays can be staged in the round, as Ayckbourn originally intended.   The action of the plays takes place in and around the same house over the course of a weekend and each play interlocks with the others like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle but the good news is, each piece stands alone in its own right to provide an entertaining couple of hours.

This one, as the title gives away, takes place in the garden.  Annie (Lily Skinner) is planning a dirty weekend with brother-in-law Norman (Roger Ganner) but their departure is delayed until the arrival of brother Reg and his wife Sarah, stepping in to look after the invalid mother.  Lily Skinner gives us all of Annie’s fretfulness and neuroses – a carer in desperate need of a break – while Roger Ganner shines as her unlikely paramour, the shabby, selfish Norman.  The least likely thing about him is his job as a library assistant but then everything about Norman is inappropriate, and yet Ganner imbues him with a particular kind of charm.

Andrew Lear is the monstrous Reg, the kind of man who communicates by advising which A-roads you should have taken.  Lear booms, dominating conversations, making empty vessel Reg a joy to behold.  Vicki Jameson is also great as the haughty and frazzled Sarah, Reg’s longsuffering wife.  Thomas Hodge is in superb form as Tom, a hanger-on who uses his status as local vet to keep coming around to tend to Annie’s cat.  Hodge’s Tom is an affable twit – we quickly get the feeling this is a play about women’s frustrations with men, who are all infuriating in their own way.

We have to wait until the second act to encounter Norman’s wife Ruth – an ice-cold Zoe Mortimer, whose searing condemnations of the male sex give the play its social commentary.  Ayckbourn writes women’s points of view exceptionally well, and Ruth is a prime example.  “Oh, I suppose those kinds of women must exist,” she snaps, ”in books.  Written by men.”

As you might expect from an Ayckbourn, these middle-class, middle-aged monsters are caught in a hell of their own making.  Each character has their own moment and director Nicky Cox does a bang-up job of getting her actors to shine, balancing the tensions with the inherent humour, the farcical action and the wonderfully funny lines.

The set, designed by Cox together with Ginny Oliver, keeps things simple: an oblong of turf framed by paving stones, with a couple of things to sit on, and an unruly clump of foliage in a corner, is all you need.  It’s a play about the people, not the garden, after all.  The transformed auditorium keeps things up close and personal and it all works like a treat.  A splendid ensemble giving a virtuoso performance of a fine piece of work.  I can’t wait to see the other two!

round and round the garden

The cast


Faust-Forward

FAUSTUS (THAT DAMNED WOMAN)

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Wednesday 26th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

faustus

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


Hole Lot of Fun

HOLES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Many Wrongs Make a Right

PETER PAN GOES WRONG

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' Play on Tour

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

 

 


Thrilled to Pieces

REVENGE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 13th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beat box and Bicycles

CRONGTON KNIGHTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


History Worth Repeating

THE HISTORY BOYS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, 12th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Bourne Again

THE RED SHOES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 11th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE RED SHOES

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


Happy Slappers

BAND OF GOLD

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Kieron Richardson and Gaynor Faye (Photo: Ant Robling)

 


Out of the Question

ASKING FOR IT

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 3rd February, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren Coe as Emma (Photo: Patrick Redmond)

 

 


Puppet Masters

THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 12th January, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toy story: Andy Barrow and Freya Sharp

 


Phantom Menace

GHOST STORIES

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Slick and Slack

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 23rd December 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Tudor Twosome

TALE TRAIL to the Prince and The Pauper

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Prince Perry Moore and Pauper Benedict Shaw

 

 


Serving Fish

UNFORTUNATE – The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Dress To Impress

THE BOY IN THE DRESS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Small but perfectly formed

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


A Grand night out

DICK WHITTINGTON

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th December, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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Su Pollard as Queen Rat

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

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

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

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

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Aaron James, Ian Adams and Jeffery Holland

 


How Does He Smell?

CYRANO DE BERGERAC

The Playhouse, London, Saturday 7th December, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Street Pete

PETER PAN Reimagined

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 5th December, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Phat Lot of Seuss

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS – The Musical

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cat’s Pyjamas

PUSS IN BOOTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 29th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


Fine and Dandy

ADAM ANT: Friend or Foe

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adam Ant (Photo: Barry Brecheisen)


Blue Blood Brothers

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


Train of Events

ONE UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 20th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Julie, Madly, Deeply

AFTER MISS JULIE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drama is served: Katherine Parker-Jones and John Lines

 


Stella Performance

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 10th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Act of Remembrance

POPPYFIELDS The Musical

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Concerted Effort

COSI FAN TUTTE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Friday 8th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

Classical Opera 29 January 2019

Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page

 

 

 


Coming Out in the Wash

MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johnny Fines and Omar Malik (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 


The Joker is Wild

RIGOLETTO

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bravo!

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