Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing Stars

DARK SUBLIME

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 1st August, 2019

 

Marianne is an actor who appeared in a space opera telly series decades ago.   The show has since developed a cult following, but to her it was just a job.  She is contacted by super-fan Oli who wants to interview her for his podcast, and a kind of friendship is established between the two.  Meanwhile, Marianne’s drink-fuelled jealousy flares up when her BFF Kate announces she has found a new girlfriend, Suzanne.

Michael Dennis’s sparkling new play sheds light on a range of matters of the heart: fandom – the adulation of those we admire (perhaps disproportionately to their merits!); what is fleeting in life, and what lasts longer; but chiefly it deals with the one-sided nature of relationships, the unrequited love that can taint and even jeopardise a friendship.   Along the way, we have a lot of fun with scenes from the cod-science fiction show, reminiscent of Blake’s 7 and other British fantasy television.

Star Trek The Next Generation’s Marina Sirtis stars as Marianne the faded actress, brimming with anecdotes and camp one-liners.  Her portrayal keeps to the right side of satire; Sirtis also gives us the vulnerability beneath the barbs and the heavy drinking, while displaying a skill for comic timing that is perfectly hilarious.

As Oli, Kwaku Mills practically vibrates with nervous excitement, burbling on in the presence of his idol.  He’s sweet and touching, a lonely gay boy who seeks solace in a defunct TV show, which offers a haven from the harshness of his reality.  Jacqueline King also shows a nice line in embittered barbs, as Marianne’s more down-to-earth best friend, Kate, a strong woman at home in her skin.  Sophie Ward is spot on as Kate’s English rose girlfriend Suzanne, while Simon Thorp hams it up delightfully as Vykar, a heroic figure from the TV show, and later as Bob, the lecherous actor who plays him.  I detect more than a hint of the late, great Paul Darrow in his intonations and it’s marvellous.

Completing the ensemble is the voice of Mark Gatiss as Kosley the computer.  There are ray guns and convention-goers in alien cosplay, and the dense, impenetrable dialogue of the genre, declaimed with straight faces.  The nostalgia factor is strong but it’s very much a play of the now, of how subsequent generations experience the world differently, and it’s about loneliness and love.

Director Andrew Keates makes a virtue of the close confines of Studio 2 so we get the intimacy of Marianne’s flat and we get to be part of the action in the sci-fi scenes.  Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design gives Marianne’s flat a retro look, while serving up Servalan bacofoil glamour in the TV show.

For me, the real star is Michael Dennis’s remarkable script, which is relentlessly funny as it navigates the human heart.  Brought to life by a stellar cast, the play speaks to me directly in a number of ways and I emerge feeling seen, satirised and celebrated.

Out of this world!

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Never drink with your heroes: Marina Sirtis and Kwaku Mills


Will they, won’t they?

SUNDOWN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 24th July, 2019

 

Sometimes you go to the theatre and they get everything right.  The artistic choices made serve the material perfectly, and the performance of the piece is just exquisite.    An example of this is this neat little one-act two-hander from the pen (or the keyboard) of Darren Haywood, one of Birmingham’s most consistently excellent playwrights.

Set on a cliff top, the action concerns the meeting of two strangers, each with their own reason to be there.  Their lives have brought them to this point, this place with a view, with a view to tossing themselves off (the cliff).  Lara, a solicitor by trade, is dealing with a crisis in her personal life.  Kris, a betting-shop worker, has drink and gambling issues, and the debts are piling up…   The pair strike up a conversation, and come to an understanding and appreciation of each other.  Haywood spares us scenes of gut-spilling and deep-and-meaningfuls.  Instead, the conversation is interspersed with the characters’ inner monologues, so we are privy to their innermost thoughts, we come to learn their personal histories, while their outward discourse rattles along in fits and starts.  The two share a moment of real connection, and we suspect they may not go through with their separate plans of ending it all after all.  We suspect this may not be the end of them, not the last of their conversations…

As the somewhat stroppy Lara, Emily Summers is superb.  Her annoyance with the interloper Kris is writ large on her features, while her internal turmoil is more subtly portrayed.  The monologue where she reveals the nature and story of her anguish is powerfully played.

As the gauche, wise-cracking Kris, Davey Ezra imbues the character with more than snappy one-liners.  Kris uses humour as a shield, and Ezra lets us see beneath the mask.  His big monologue about an opportunity to steal from his employer is recounted with conviction and truth.

The actors are helped massively by the quality of Haywood’s writing.  Haywood has an ear for naturalistic dialogue and can write in quips and retorts that sound like they arise from the conversation.  He can also shape the action, keeping his cards close to his chest, gradually dealing them out so we get to know the characters and their situations in an organic way.  It works brilliantly.

Also directing this production, Haywood keeps staging to the absolute minimum, so his words, via the actors, are given full sway.  A raised platform serves as the cliff top at Beachy Head.  Seagulls and surf on a loop are all the scenic colour required.  It truly is a case of less being more.  Slight dips in the lighting cover represent the night drawing in – we don’t even need to see the sundown of the title.

Funny, intriguing and touching, Sundown runs for less than an hour but is thoroughly satisfying – perhaps because of its constraints.

I loved it.

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Strangers at sunset: Davey Ezra and Emily Summers

 

 


Long Haired Love-In

HAIR

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd July, 2019

 

I saw this 50th anniversary production of the notorious musical when it was on at The Vaults in London and so I am delighted to be able to catch it again as the show does the rounds up and down the country.  The main difference is the touring show is an altogether less immersive affair, with only the punters in the front stalls drawing the actors’ attention, whether they want to or not!

It starts with the voice of Trump, the Draft Dodger-in-Chief himself, thereby linking the events of the story with the present day.  Very loosely, the show relates the story of friends Berger and Claude, offering insights into the counter-culture hippy life of the late 1960s.  In 1967, the show was deemed shocking, with joints smoked on stage, nudity, bad fucking language, and all the rest of it.  Society and the media have caught up with Hair since then but it is not entirely relegated to the realms of the period piece.  Sad but true, the social issues and concerns of half a century ago are still with us, flaring up like a persistent strain of herpes: racism, homophobia, nuclear arms, war…

Jonathan O’Boyle’s lively production loses something in immersiveness on tour, but none of the energy and vigour.  Galt Macdermot’s score with lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, has given us some standards (Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine) but the show is jam-packed with strong melodies and eloquent words.

Jake Quickenden is quick to charm us with his playful, cocky Berger, and is the first to engage audience members in proceedings.  Quickenden Is an assured presence with a good voice and he brings out the humour of the role.  Going Down is superbly done.  Paul Wilkins’s Claude, torn between dropping out and doing his duty, is an appealing figure.  His rendition of I Got Life bursts with exuberance and is a definite highlight of the evening.  Daisy Wood-Davies is a fine Sheila, and there’s a hilarious turn from Tom Bales as Margaret Mead.  Marcus Collins has his moments to shine as Hud while Bradley Judge’s Woof is fun, getting up to all sorts with a poster of Mick Jagger.

The entire company is in great voice, executing William Whelton’s choreography with infectious energy.  Many striking images arise, particularly during Claude’s second-act hallucination sequence, in which sacred cows from American history are lampooned.  The chorus march toward us and are shot in the head, one by one.  A blue sheet covers the fallen… O’Boyle and Whelton ensure it’s not just dancing around here, augmenting the storytelling of Ragni and Rado’s sometimes scant book.  The music is performed live by the onstage band, directed by Gareth Bretherton, creating a rich, and sometimes loud, palette of sound.

Fun, pertinent and sometimes beautiful, Hair still has something to say about the world we live in and the way we live in it.  I adored it all over again.

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Paul Wilkins (Photo: Johan Persson)


French Kissing

AMELIE The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 22nd July, 2019

 

Based on the acclaimed French film of 2001, this new musical (and English) version with its romanticised vision of Paris is in Birmingham this week.  Although the story includes historical details (mainly concerning the Princess of Wales) this Paris is a highly stylised, mythical place, where anything (including singing goldfish and giant fig men) can and does happen.  Our protagonist is Amélie, a young woman whose sheltered upbringing has made it nigh on impossible to form a loving relationship with a bloke.  She devotes her life to helping others anonymously and it all goes rather well until handsome Nino enters the mix…

Madeleine Girling’s elegantly versatile two-tier set is the backdrop for the action: a ticket office serves as a confessional, the pianos become café display cabinets, and so on, with Amélie repeatedly ascending to her flat on the upper level, Mary Poppins-like with the aid of a lampshade.  The stage is populated by the other characters – the cast all double roles and play musical instruments, to the extent that at some points the main action is crowded out by the hustle and bustle of the musicians.  It all sounds great, the playing and the singing are fine, I just wish some of them would clear off every once in a while to give the story more space, and to give certain scenes sharper focus.

In the title role, Audrey Brisson gives a phenomenal performance, augmenting Amélie ’s otherness with her physicality.  Movements and gestures are sharp and precise, her timing is immaculate, and her singing is strong and sweet.  Her native French accent is not as pronounced as the phoney French accents of the  rest of the cast; I would have preferred English accents, like a dubbed version of the film – the musical arrangements and the art deco scenery are more than enough to ground the story in Parisienne colour.

Danny Mac is perfectly dreamy as Nino.  Mac is steadily becoming one of our most dependable musical theatre stars.  His singing has warmth and range, and he makes a charismatic figure, but there are a few moments when the accent intrudes a little.

The main action of the story takes a while to get going: the first act is heavy with back-story and exposition, and so this lightweight story with folk-tale elements suffers from a running time that feels overlong, and while I find the staging inventive and charming on the whole, director Michael Fentiman keeps his stage too busy for me to engage with the action completely.  There is a strong Emma Rice feel to the proceedings with the onstage actor-musicians and the delightful puppetry, yet the show’s most powerful moment takes place in complete silence.

A confection of a show, where the whimsicality of the story is offset by the wistfulness of the score, Amélie the Musical is perhaps not for all tastes.  I find it a little cluttered but its heart is definitely in the right place.

Pamela Raith Photography

Charming: Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac (Pamela Raith Photography)


Glowing Colours

THE COLOR PURPLE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th July, 2019

 

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel of 1982 was brought to the silver screen three years later by Steven Spielberg.  Now it arrives on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage in a brand new production of the Tony award-winning musical, with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.  It’s a landmark production: the first co-production between the Hippodrome and Leicester’s Curve theatre and, for the first time out, it sets the bar impossibly high.

The ticket gives a heads-up that the show ‘contains themes of Rape, Abuse, Incest, Overt Racism and Sexism’ and you wonder how depressed you’re going to be by the curtain call.  It is surprising how many laughs there are in it!  Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, the story tells of the terrible tribulations of Celie (T’Shan Williams) whose wicked stepfather impregnates her twice and takes her newborns away.  Celie is palmed off to abusive widower ‘Mister’ (Ako Mitchell) to serve as wife, mother to his kids, and general dogsbody – little better than a slave, in effect.  Adding to the pain is forced separation from beloved sister Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) and that’s just the start of Celie’s troubles…

The entire cast excels.  The score is gospel- soul- and jazz-infused, punctuated by some show-stopping numbers.  T’Shan Williams is astonishing, bringing the house down with her solos, without being overly melodramatic in her dramatic scenes.  Her Celie has dignity to make the size of her heart and the indomitability of her spirit.  There are some crowd-pleasing moments of defiance that elicit electrified responses from the audience.  Danielle Fiamanya is warm and passionate as Nettie, and there’s a performance that threatens to steal the show from Karen Mavundukure as the ferocious but hilarious Sofia.  Joanna Francis brings glamour and a touch of the Blues as itinerant singer Shug Avery, and there is humour courtesy of Simon-Anthony Roden’s henpecked Harpo, the perfect contrast to the domineering, bullying male figures of Mister and Pa.  Perola Congo adds to the fun as would-be singer Squeak.

Delroy Brown is perfectly monstrous as the tyrannical stepfather, while Ako Mitchell’s Mister goes through a transformation that demonstrates that old attitudes and behaviours are not written in stone.  There is hope and the possibility of redemption.

Alex Lowde’s walled set with its pair of doll’s-house openings allows a swift and slick change of locations, with superbly realised costumes assisting the passage of the years.  Director Tinuke Craig leavens the dark themes of Walker’s tale with humour, exuberance and vitality, making us care about these characters from the off.  The emotional resolution jerks tears from every eye in the house.   One of the most heart-warming and uplifting theatrical experiences I have had the pleasure to experience.  By the time I leave the building, my hands are the colour red.   Magnificent!

The Color Purple_Karen Mavundukure (Sofia)_Photography by Manuel Harlan

A rare moment of quiet for Karen Mavundukure as Sofia (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 

 


Flooded with Meaning

ROSMERSHOLM

Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Saturday 13th July, 2019

 

Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play is flooded with pertinence.  Never mind nineteenth century Norway, many of the lines come across as direct commentary on the state of our nation today, eliciting wry laughter from the audience.  Ibsen-Macmillan make satirical quips, mainly through the mouthpiece of Kroll, a conservative, while sending up that character too.  The public, we are told, vote for feelings not for facts – which accounts for the current mess we’re mired in.

As with all Ibsen, it’s the characters’ personal problems that bring about their downfall.  Dark events in their past always surface and take their toll.  In this one, it’s a year since the suicide (by drowning) of John Rosmer’s wife.  Rae Smith’s elegant, stately set bears the marks of flood damage caused by her body clogging the watermill, the stains as much as a spectre as the memory of the act itself.  Proceedings are beautifully lit by Neil Austin, with daylight starkly streaming through the windows, and lamplight dimly glowing on the murky ancestral portraits that glare down on events.

Tom Burke strikes a plaintive note as widower John Rosmer.  Having lost his faith, he is torn between opposing factions in the upcoming general election, both of which see his pastorhood (if that’s a word) as a vindication of their stance… Burke shows strength in his grief, even if his Hamlet-like indecisiveness causes him to waiver and dither.  Rosmer is clearly in the thrall of his late wife’s best mate and erstwhile nurse, Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young woman, clawing her way up from nothing and asserting both her independence and her will.  As Rebecca, Hayley Atwell is a Marvel (pun intended).  The former Agent Carter from the Captain America films gives a sparky performance – we like her immediately, and when the Truth comes to light, and she makes impassioned defences of her questionable actions, we admire her, even if we don’t agree with her.  It’s easy to see how Rosmer is enchanted.

Giles Terera is nothing short of superb as sardonic Governor Kroll.  Assured to the point of smarminess, he makes witty observations that mask his ruthlessness and objectionable politics.  There is sterling support from Lucy Briers as housekeeper Mrs Helseth, and Peter Wight puts in a memorable turn as bedraggled radical Ulrik Brendel, more like a homeless Michael Foot than a Jeremy Corbyn.  Finally, Jake Fairdbrother’s tabloid newspaper editor Peter Mortensgaard makes a brief but effective appearance.  The play has no love for newspaper owners nor those who believe what they read in the papers – again, the prescience of the piece is uncanny.  Or perhaps it’s just dismaying to note that society has not moved on in a century, people have not improved – and it’s the same the whole world over.

A stunning production with more laughs than you might expect, culminating in personal tragedy, the net having tightened around the characters until they feel they have no other option.  The final moment is brilliantly realised.  Perhaps director Ian Rickson is also addressing global issues here.  Unless we radically change our ways, we will very soon find ourselves in deep water.

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Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 


Class Struggle

EDUCATING RITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 8th July, 2019

 

Almost forty years after its first production, Willy Russell’s acerbic two-hander is doing the rounds again, and it’s a pleasure to reconnect with the story of hairdresser Rita as she pursues her academic aspirations in order to better herself and improve her lot.  The tutor assigned to her by the Open University is jaded lecturer and functioning alcoholic Frank, who overcomes his reluctance and forms a bond with his persistent and unconventional new student.

We laugh at Rita’s gaffes, as we meet her through Frank’s eyes – the play credits us with a modicum of literary knowledge – and we see, also through Frank’s eyes, how education changes the bright but awkward young woman into a confident, knowledgeable scholar.  Frank thinks he has created a monster, Frankenstein-style – but what Rita has done is break the mould of her working-class upbringing.  By aspiring to something other than material gain and a ‘good night out’ down the pub, Rita has changed her life.  She now has something she never had before: choices.

As Frank, Stephen Tompkinson does a flawless job, dripping with bitterness and sarcasm.  Jessica Johnson’s Rita has impeccable comic timing, although her accent can wander around the Mersey estuary (and sometimes across the Irish Sea).  There is nothing to say that Rita has to be from Russell’s hometown of Liverpool; she could spring from any working-class community.

The star of the show is Willy Russell, and it’s great to be reminded of the richness of his writing. There is much more to the play than the snappy jokes and the developing relationship and mutual respect between tutor and student.  There is social commentary about the rigidity of the class system and the perceived need to maintain the boundaries that define who people are.  Rita battles against the prevailing working-class attitude that art, books, the opera and so on are ‘not for us’, but once the genie is out of the bottle, she is unable to go back to pub singalongs and settling down with her lot.

Director Max Roberts navigates Rita’s mercurial mood changes: one minute she’s mouthing off, making wise cracks, and the next she’s revealing some home truth; Roberts keeps his cast of two busy.  Both characters are somewhat histrionic in their own way so there is no danger of things becoming static.  Patrick Connellan’s set, with books everywhere, encapsulates dishevelled academia (representing Frank himself) with Rita as an agent of change, for herself and for her unwilling tutor.  Neither of their lives will be quite the same again.

There are plenty of laughs, and even a couple of touching moments.  The message is not heavy-handed, but I wonder how relevant it is today.  And then I think of the obstacles placed in the path of working-class people that hinder their access to higher education, some of which come from the working-class mindset itself, and I think, yes, the play still has currency.

A modern classic, finely presented, this play will make you laugh and make you think.

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Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson


Table Talk

THIS HAPPY BREED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th July, 2019

 

Noel Coward’s play from 1939 deals with two decades in the lives of the Gibbons family of Clapham in the turbulent years between the Wars – except of course they didn’t know they were between Wars at the time.  We see the events of their lives – weddings, affairs, arguments, celebrations, some of them affected by what’s going on in the wider world – and each scene jumps forward in time.  In this respect, the play reminded me of recent TV series, Years and Years, which does much the same thing, except of course the series is futuristic and the Coward play is retrospective.

At the centre of the set is the dining table, the heart of the house and the forum for family life.  Family members gather for tea, or something stronger, and it’s here that views and opinions are aired and sparks fly.  Top of the bickering parade are Amy Findlay as hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Skye Witney as cantankerous grandmother Mrs Flint.  The barbs fly freely; Coward’s dialogue for this lower-middle or upper-working class family is now rather dated, don’t you know, I should say, and no mistake, yet the cast deliver it with authenticity to match the period furnishings and the superlative costumes (by Stewart Snape).

As the Gibbons daughters, Emilia Harrild is in good form as dissatisfied, snobbish Queenie, with Annie Swift equally fine as down-to-earth Vi.  Griff Llewellyn-Cook makes an impression as handsome, ill-fated son Reg, with a strong appearance from Sam Wilson as his firebrand friend Sam Leadbitter.  Wanda Raven is spot on as Edie the maid, to the extent that you wish Coward had written a bigger part.  Simon King plays neighbour Bob Mitchell with truth – especially in his drunken scenes! – and Hannah Lyons is sweet as Reg’s girlfriend Phyllis.

It’s a fine cast indeed but the standouts are Jenny Thurston as the upright and unyielding Ethel Gibbons, the marvellous Jack Hobbis as sailor boy-next-door Billy, and the mighty Colin Simmonds as genial patriarch Frank Gibbons.

Director Michael Barry has the cast fast-talk the dialogue, adding to the period feel of the production.  The comedy has its laugh-out-loud moments, while the more dramatic scenes have the power to shock and to move.  It may be a play about a bygone era, but we can recognise the feeling of living in uncertain times as this country faces unnecessary damage, not from war but from Brexit, and the world teeters on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change.  Frank’s view that it’s not systems or politicians to blame for our ills but it all comes down to human nature strikes me as somewhat complacent, an attitude we can ill afford.

The play reminds us of what has been lost from family life: the gathering at the table, which was first usurped by the television and has now been superseded by the individual screens everyone peers at.  Progress isn’t always a good thing.

A thoroughly enjoyable, high quality production to round off what has been an excellent season at the Crescent.

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Frank and Ethel (Colin Simmonds and Jenny Thurston) Photo: Graeme Braidwood


Dreamy

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd July, 2019

 

The only problem with this show, the first collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is its brevity.  Having start out as a 20-minute piece for a school assembly, the running time has been expanded by the addition of new songs in order to reach a more conventional length for a night out at the theatre.  Some of the additions add little more than repetition.  We get previews of songs before they appear in the storyline.  We get reprises and reprises.  Joseph’s coat begins to feel like a padded jacket.

But beneath the padding, there is the kernel of brilliance.  Rice’s witty lyrics and Lloyd Webber’s score of many colours are at their finest here.  Name another Lloyd Webber show that has such a range of melodies.  Answers on a postcard, please.

The show hinges on its leading man and here, in Jaymi Hensley, it has one of the best I’ve seen.   Hensley’s vocals are richly textured and infused with emotion.  His Close Every Door is breath-taking – it’s the show’s best number and, mercifully, is not reprised to death.  Hensley’s acting matches the quality of his singing.  He is expressive and funny, his reactions fleshing out the part: some Josephs can be arrogant and smug; Hensley combines strength with vulnerability.  He also looks great in the loincloth.

As the narrator, Trina Hill is at her best when belting out, rock-star style.  At times she is swamped by the action and you wonder where her voice is coming from.  Andrew Geater’s Pharaoh replicates Elvis’s intonations – to the point of losing a little clarity.  Even Joseph has to ask him to repeat himself.  Geater pulls it off through energy and commitment.  (At the time of the original production, Elvis was very much still in the building, and the show pastiched popular music genres of the day.  Now its references may be dated, and its satire diminished but it’s still a lot of fun.)

Henry Metcalfe is not only a dignified Jacob and an elegant Potiphar, he also choreographed the production.  With new moves by Gary Lloyd, the dancing is slick, sharp and funny too.  The pas de deux in Those Canaan Days is as impressive as it is anachronistic.  Mrs Potiphar (Amber Kennedy) is a glamorous cougar, stalking her prey.  It’s the anachronisms that make the show endearing and somehow timeless.  The French ballad, the cowboy song, the calypso.  This show is bonkers.  Some might say post-modern.

Among the lyrical and musical wittiness, the power of the story comes through.  The reunion scenes have the power to move – director Bill Kenwright wisely includes moments of silence as events impact on the characters, and Hensley’s Any Dream Will Do, when it is performed in the context of the story, is a tear-jerker.

This production does the material justice, with a superlative ensemble of brothers, wives, and a highly disciplined children’s choir.  But it’s Hensley’s star that shines brightest.

Dreamy.

Jaymi Hensley (Joseph) - Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - UK Tour (096_96A0754) - Pamela Raith Photography

Dreamboat: Jaymi Hensley as Joseph (Pamela Raith Photography)


A Load of Ballads

THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 2nd July, 2019

 

First produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011 as a piece of pub theatre, David Grieg’s engaging play gets a production on a grander scale at the New Vic.  It begins as a meeting of academics at a conference about folk ballads and, as everyone speaks in rhyming couplets, there is a heightened sense to the narrative.  We meet our heroine, the bookish, strait-laced Prudencia (Suni La) fighting her corner against pretentious naysayers and revisionists.  We meet Colin (Matthew McVarish) blokey and annoying.  We meet a host of characters as the ensemble of four populate the increasingly rowdy and drunken conference.  It’s funny stuff and the humour is engendered and enhanced by the writing.  The rhymes are sophisticated and witty; director Anna Marsland is at pains to retain the patterns of naturalistic speech without glossing over the rhymes.  Grieg makes great use of enjambment and assonance and other things I barely remember from A Level English Lit.

Prudencia sets out in the snow to find a B&B… An encounter with a character from her beloved ballads changes things forever.  ‘Nick’ (David Fairs) is all the more sinister because of his normalcy.  He is in fact the Devil, come to take Prudencia to Hell.

It’s a play of two halves.  After the verse of the first half, the second is mainly in prose.  It gets a bit meta as Prudencia tries to use verse to assert power and make her escape.

Suni La makes Prudencia an appealing figure, who loosens up as the action unfolds.   For her, Hell is a transformative experience.  David Fairs is superb as the satanic Nick, funny, charming and formidable – scary at times.  Matthew McVarish is great fun as the drunken Colin, the unwitting hero, and there is sterling support from Eleanor House as a moustachioed professor and Alice Blundell as a plaintive Woman.   All the cast play musical instruments and sing, keeping the pub flavour of the entertainment going.

E. M. Parry’s design has books suspended like bunting – the books are integral to the storytelling, with illuminated pop-up versions displaying locations. Marsland uses books as stepping-stones to help Prudencia along her journey, which is symbolic as well as visually satisfying. Daniella Beattie’s lighting and charming projections enhance the storytelling nature of the piece.  All levels of the auditorium are put to use, so while we don’t get the intimacy of a pub theatre, we are surrounded by the action as well as being part of it.

Irresistibly engaging, beautifully presented, and ultimately life-affirming, this unusual yet accessible play is a delight from start to finish.  And who doesn’t enjoy a bit of Kylie? (And no, it’s not Better The Devil You Know)

Fiendishly good.

NewVicTheatre_TheStrangeUndoingOfPrudenciaHart_9-1170x780

Suni La as Prudencia Hart (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 


Cliff Tops

CLIFF RICHARD: Diamond Encore 2019

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Monday 1st July, 2019

 

Sir Cliff reprises his show from last year, commemorating sixty years in The Business, in this open-air concert set among the beautiful buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, where the burger bars and portaloos look woefully out of place, yet the rainbow flag seems apt, bringing a splash of colour to the grey edifices.

The set is comprised of hit songs from each of Richard’s six decades, with a change of jacket for each era, each one snazzier than the last.  Move It, the first rock and roll record by a British artist retains a raw power – and Richard is still in great voice and is still able to move it.  It’s as if the years drop away when he’s on stage.  From where I’m sitting, he’s a tiny figure on the distant stage but he can’t half shift himself.  Huge video screens flanking the stage afford close-ups and, when the stage lighting hits him in a certain way, he’s still the handsome heartthrob of yesteryear with cheekbones that go on for days.

In the 60s section, it’s Summer Holiday that really gets everyone singing along, as well as Living Doll – a song changed forever by his Comic Relief collaboration with The Young Ones.  And, of course, the song that gave the comedians their name, is still splendid.

When it comes to the 70s, there’s Devil Woman which is perfectly rendered here, but as a cover, Sir Cliff doesn’t opt for any glam, disco or punk hit from the decade.  Instead, he gives us a haunting rendition of the Art Garfunkel number from Watership Down, composer Mike Batt’s wistful contemplation of death, Bright Eyes.   The songs are linked by funny stories: Cliff is both falsely immodest and self-deprecating.  He takes a swig from a plastic bottle, grimaces and complains to someone in the wings, “This is water!”

Miss You Nights is just beautiful and Wired For Sound goes down excellently well but it’s a shame his hundredth single (“I release one a year”) is a bit of a dud.  Renowned for his religious bent, Richard keeps the sermonising to a bare minimum with From A Distance – tonight is more about the party.  New song Rise Up obliquely refers to surviving the recent hard times he was unnecessarily subjected to by an ill-advised broadcast of a police raid on his home.  Again, Sir Cliff keeps things light: we are here to enjoy ourselves, and the die-hard, dyed-hair fans are out in force.

The evening comes to an end with his biggest hit, We Don’t Talk Anymore.  A phenomenon in British pop culture, Sir Cliff shows no signs of retiring, even with his 80th birthday looming this October and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him play live after being a presence in my life since my childhood.  As showbiz veterans go, he tops the lot.

cliff

 

 


He Is What He Is

JOHN BARROWMAN: FABULOUS

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 30th June, 2019

 

He arrives on stage to a rousing welcome from the Birmingham audience and the appreciation never dips from that point.  Shimmying around in a blue suit and black shirt, Barrowman exhorts us to ‘Celebrate good times, come on!’.  This is a party as much as a concert.  The premise is a retrospective of his thirty years in The Business – he deals with his stage and screen appearances in a jokingly curt manner, but I am reminded of his early days on Saturday morning television, and a younger, nervous me going to the stage door after a matinee performance of Sunset Boulevard and meeting a younger, just-as-handsome him.  There were about three of us at the stage door on that occasion; nowadays there are mobs.  He signed my programme and I stammered out a couple of compliments.  (I met him again years later, at a pantomime launch, and managed to get my words out that time!)

There is an emphasis on fun.  Barrowman swaps dick jokes with the on-stage sign language interpreter.  He shows us photographs and video clips of his family and his pets.  And he sparkles and shines every minute.  There’s a bit of Q&A about his time in the celebrity jungle, and there’s more upbeat numbers so we can clap along.  It’s a bit wedding singer at times, but Barrowman can pull off the cheese by dint of energy alone, and the support of his excellent band.

What works best though are ballads like Barry Manilow’s I Made It Through The Rain and the Perry Como classic, And I Love You So – the latter being perfect, beautiful in fact.  Songs like these and show tunes are better platforms for Barrowman’s vocal stylings.  He performs a doctored version of The Wizard and I (from Wicked) and I prickle with shivery nostalgia.  His Doctor Who character, Captain Jack Harkness, was a ground-breaking representation of non-heterosexuality in prime time TV and gave the openly gay actor’s career a jump start.

Barrowman gets us all to wave our hands in the air while he records a clip for Instagram with a rainbow flag in the foreground.  It’s World Pride Day, after all, and we gays (especially those of us who are no longer twinks, twonks or twunks) should be proud of the positivity Barrowman represents.

In the second half, he brings his octogenarian parents on stage.  No ‘slosh’ from them this time, but Barrowman père can out-sauce his cheeky son any day of the week, while Barrowman mère surprises us all into a standing ovation for a well-sung, beautiful song.  She may be visibly frail but there’s clearly nothing wrong with Marion’s vocal pipes.  And we see where he gets it from: the humour from his dad, the singing from his mum.  There is also an appearance from Barrowman’s handsome husband Scott – clearly not at home on the stage, Scott acquits himself with a decent and enjoyable rendition of Quando Quando Quando.

I can do without the In Memoriam section for audience members’ dead dogs; I’d much rather he invited us just to think about loved ones we have lost while he sings Goodbye My Friend – but that’s just my taste, I suppose.  He makes up for it with a gobsmacking performance of the empowering anthem, I Am What I Am.  ‘Fabulous’ has never been more applicable.

The show overruns – we won’t let him go – and it finishes with a soaring version of Loch Lomond.  You can’t accuse John Barrowman of not giving value for money – although at fifteen quid a pop, the souvenir programmes are a bit steep!

Uplifting, funny and inspirational, Barrowman is one of our finest entertainers, with talent as big as his onstage personality.  I can easily imagine being back in another thirty years for more.

To revert to an earlier catchphrase: Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic!

fabulous

 

 

 


Wolf at the Door

CROOKED DANCES

The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th June, 2019

 

This captivating new work from playwright Robin French tells the story of ambitious journalist Katy and cocky photographer Nick as they travel across France to interview a reclusive concert pianist in her country retreat.  It starts as a comedy, sparkling with social commentary and feels very ‘now’.  Director Elizabeth Freestone has the actors facing front as the characters ride on the Eurostar, affording us a kind of split screen view – a simple idea that effectively exposes character.  This is a production brimming with ideas, some more simple than others, but most of them are brilliantly effective.

At the retreat, a cottage in the woods, things are not what they seem.  The pianist is cagey, abrupt and mercurial.  French draws us into the mystery, offering metaphysical speculations before bringing us to the edge of our seats with shocks and surprises.  Freestone handles these gear changes splendidly, marrying the naturalism of her actors with video effects and the otherworldly music of Erik Satie.

Jeany Spark is spot on as the driven journalist, snooping around in drawers and handbags at every opportunity.  We both like and dislike her at the same time; above all, we understand her.  Olly Mott is a real treat as laddish photographer Nick, complete with that modern London accent that has cropped up in recent years.  It’s a very funny performance but played with utter credibility.

Ben Onwukwe charms as long-suffering manager Denis, a faithful retainer and exasperated host.  But the show belongs to Ruth Lass and her portrayal of the enigmatic pianist Silvia de Zingaro.  Forthright and formidable, she weaves a spell, playing Satie live on the set’s grand piano and recounting the composer’s strange personal history.  Suddenly we are in horror movie territory, isolated in the woods, with wolves on the prowl… Here French leads us up the garden path somewhat: Satie dabbled in the occult and so does Silvia.  Something happens and this snappy comedy flips into a provocative chiller.  Our intellectual response to the material becomes a more emotional, visceral one.

An engaging, entertaining and exciting new work expertly executed.  I was enthralled.

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Ruth Lass (Photo: Ellie Kurtz (c) RSC)

 


Look Who’s Stalking

THE BODYGUARD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 26th June,2019

 

Never having watched the Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner film, I come to Alexander Dinelaris’s stage adaptation of Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay without expectations – other than I expect to know the songs (the score is Houston’s back catalogue).  But will the whole enterprise be nothing more than a glorified, glamourised jukebox musical?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: yes, it is.

Rachel Marron is a diva at the top of her game, and as stroppy a Queen of the Night as her namesake in The Magic Flute.  When security expert Frank Farmer is hired to protect her from the nutter who has been sending creepy messages, she digs in her high heels and stubbornly refuses to comply with the measures Frank puts in place.  You can see where it’s going: she gets in danger, Frank rescues her, and it’s not long before they’re snogging.  Frank is conflicted with this blending of his professional and personal lives.  Meanwhile, the nutter is becoming more audacious, and Rachel’s overshadowed sister is mooning over Frank with unrequited affection…

It’s a loud, brash, lavish affair and I have to say I enjoyed it immensely.  As the determined diva, Jennlee Shallow is the real deal, a phenomenal belter-outerer of Houston’s signature songs.  (Alexandra Burke will take over the role for the second week of the show’s sojourn in Wolverhampton).  Shallow is matched by Micha Richardson as sister Nicki – her renditions of Saving All My Love For You and All At Once are definite highlights for me.

French actor (and renard d’argent) Benoît Maréchal is unbelievably handsome in the role of Frank Farmer, bringing Gallic charm and charisma to the role.  His lacklustre karaoke version of I Will Always Love You is hilarious.  In fact, the best scenes between the two leads are when they lighten up with each other.

Phil Atkinson is an imposing and menacing presence as The Stalker, although I wonder how he has time to run a campaign of terror when he is clearly never out of the gym.

The plot may be simplistic but such are the production values, with Tim Hatley’s sliding set and Mark Henderson’s cinematic lighting, we are swept along.  It’s a love story, a thriller and above all, a reminder of how many great tunes Whitney Houston put out there.  The hits keep coming and the orchestra, led by Michael Riley, is superb.

This is musical theatre on a grand scale, a spectacle, a chance to escape from reality for a couple of hours, and it manages to deliver the goods without descending into schmaltz and sentimentality.

I may not have seen the film, but I have heard the old joke about Whitney Houston’s favourite kind of coordination…

Hand-eye………………….

Jennlee Shallow and Benoît Maréchal in The Bodyguard UK Tour - 2704 - Photo by Paul Coltas [1]

Up in arms: Jennlee Shallow and Benoît Maréchal (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 


Pillow Talk

THE PILLOWMAN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 25th June, 2019

 

Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play is given a fresh revival in this Bear Pit production directed with great care by Steve Farr.  One of the first things I notice is the gender-swapping of a couple of characters, and this is more than a nod to equal opportunities or the prevailing fashion in contemporary theatre.  Farr chooses to make female the play’s most violent characters: a brutal police officer and a mentally stunted killer, thereby bringing a new dynamic to key scenes.  It works brilliantly.  And so, Hannah McBride’s tough-talking, volatile Ariel can be mock-seductive in her interrogation of the suspect Katurian, and the scene drips with menace; and there is something more sinister about Emma Beasley’s childlike Michaela and her homicidal re-enactments of her brother’s macabre short stories.  It is these stories that have brought the writer Katurian to the attention of the police because of the similarities between the gruesome narratives and a recent spate of child murders…

The action unfolds in the interrogation room of the police headquarters in a totalitarian state, somewhere vaguely Eastern European maybe… Farr creates tense atmosphere on an almost bare stage by eliciting compelling performances from his superlative cast, wringing just as much menace and tension from the silences between outbursts as from the outbursts themselves.  As with other works by McDonagh, the language is strong, the humour a deep shade of black, and the subject matter exceedingly dark.  We laugh to relieve the horrors McDonagh makes us contemplate, and Farr, wisely, works on our imaginations rather than overusing schlocky stage effects.

Equally as strong as the women in the cast are the blokes.  Graham Tyrer is pitch perfect as Detective Tupolski, the putative ‘good cop’ while Alexander Simkin shines as troubled writer Katurian, blending fear with indignation, vulnerability with inner strength.  Special mention must be made of Annabel Peet’s onscreen appearance as ‘Little Jesus’ in a pre-recorded visualisation of one of Katurian’s twisted tales.

It’s gripping stuff, intriguing and hilarious, a dark mystery with absurdist elements.  It’s about stories and storytelling, the stories we tell to protect ourselves, to protect our loved ones, the stories that carry our understanding of an often senseless world.  The explicit horrors within Katurian’s tales are matched by the implicit horrors of the unnamed totalitarian state, where the police have powers to bypass the judicial system.  Also, this production contains some of the most disturbing noises off this reviewer has ever heard.

It’s yet another top-quality production at the Bear Pit, following the great success of The Cripple of Inishmaan back in March.  Perhaps McDonagh should be sponsoring these endeavours!

pillowman

Alexander Simkin as Katurian


Venice not v nice

VENICE PRESERVED

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 24th June, 2019

 

Thomas Otway’s play from 1682 is revived in stylish form for the RSC by director Prasanna Puwanarajah, who sets the piece in a 1980s noir-cum-comic book setting of darkness and drains, of pulsating music, with nudges to Blade Runner – and there’s even a character who looks like Grace Jones.  Here, as in Otway’s original where he was critiquing the government of the day, this is not about Venice then or now.  It’s a veiled comment on our present (woeful) government – and in this respect it works quite well.

Central to the action is married couple Jaffeir (NOT the villain in Aladdin) and Belvidera (NOT a guest house in Southport) whose relationship is sorely tested when he loses his money and they have to turn to her estranged father, Senator Pruili (an underused Les Dennis).  Jaffeir is drawn into a group of revolutionaries by his bezzie mate Pierre (a cocksure and pragmatic Stephen Fewell) putting his wife up as collateral to prove his allegiance to their murderous cause.  Belvidera doesn’t take too kindly to being offered up as a hostage and narrowly escapes rape by the swaggering Renault (Steve Nicolson) a man so rebellious he brazenly sports an alarming mullet.

As Jaffeir, Michael Grady-Hall brings passion and intensity, torn between his love and his friend.  Grady-Hall is always great value, bringing out the depths of the role.  Equally, Jodie McNee is compelling as tragic-but-dignified Belvidera, although I spend a lot of time wondering why she’s the only one with a strong Liverpudlian accent…  Puwanarajah has his cast express emotion in broad strokes: there is a lot of falling to one’s knees, a lot of menacing each other with daggers, and while this makes for exciting viewing I find that, coupled with Otway’s scornful script, I don’t much care for anybody.

Amid the bleak melodrama, there is humour, provided mainly by the marvellous John Hodgkinson’s sleazeball senator Antonio, heavily into S&M and fully aware he can stun opponents into submission by making long speeches.  The satire is ladled on thick as Hodgkinson hops around, his trousers at his ankles, alternating baby talk with oratory and verbiage.

It’s a production of bold moves, in its performance and its presentation.  Belvidera’s cell, demarcated by lighting, looks like she’s being detained in a nightclub.  The V for Vendetta masks sported by the revolutionaries are a bit on the nose.   But I like the darkness of it, the dripping water, the coming-and-going with umbrellas.  And Les Dennis navigating a gear change from hard-hearted gammon to tender, repentant father, is the finest performance of the night.

The message I come away with is that while those who oppose the government are too wrapped up with fighting among themselves, they will never achieve their aim, leaving the sleazeballs in power where they thrive and they flourish.

Venice Preserved

Family fortune: Jodie McNee as Belvidera and Les Dennis as Priuli. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

 


Wizard!

IAN McKELLEN on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and YOU

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 21st June, 2019

 

It begins with a reading from The Lord of the Rings; you know the bit, where Gandalf faces down the Balrog on that narrow subterranean bridge so that the rest of the Fellowship can get away.  McKellen treats us to a vivid piece of storytelling – the first of the night – the battered paperback merely a prop.  He has it by heart and puts his heart into it.  It’s spellbinding stuff and I’m almost sorry that he doesn’t do the entire saga!

Gandalf is the role that brought one of our finest actors to global attention but, as McKellen reminds us, his career has been long and varied.  The first half of this retrospective brims with anecdotes, from film and theatre, of his early life in Bolton – a three-year-old McKellen visiting Manchester’s Palace Theatre proves fateful, when a production of Peter Pan alerts the young boy to the magic of the stage…

From a huge cardboard trunk, plastered with stickers from theatres this tour has already visited, McKellen takes out souvenirs, prompts for each anecdote.  A young man is beckoned from the audience to try out Glamdring, Gandalf’s renowned sword.  At other times, McKellen is keen to include us, en masse, because of our shared love of the theatre.  Audience members murmur in nostalgic recognition as he throws out names of actors, many of whom are long since gone.  The REP itself merits special mention for its history and influence on many a career.  The story of receiving his knighthood is played out with delicious comedic skill.  A real treat is to get a glimpse of his Twankey, as he recalls his time in pantomime at the Old Vic.

Using only the warmth of his personality and, of course, that marvellous voice, McKellen has us in the palm of his hand.  There are no video clips, no projections, just the objects from the trunk.  The stories often come with punchlines, delivered with exquisite timing;  the readings, of works by T S Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, are captivating, electrifying.  The story of how, after many years, McKellen came out, driven to it by Section 28, is inspiring and heartening.

The second half is devoted to Shakespeare.  McKellen unpacks stacks of books from his trunk and invites us to name all 37 of the plays.  Each title comes with an anecdote, an interesting titbit, or a performance of a key scene.  Hamlet and Macbeth get especial attention with lengthy extracts, but it is the eulogy from Cymbeline (Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun) that is especially powerful.  It’s an absolute treat and again I am almost disappointed he doesn’t recite the complete works!

Designed to commemorate the actor’s 80th birthday, this tour is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time in the presence of a national treasure.  It’s a privilege to hear him perform, entertaining to listen to that wicked sense of humour, and a joy to see him in action.

A thoroughly lovely evening, joyous, poignant and life-affirming.  We need more positive forces like Sir Ian in these benighted times.  We need more nights at the theatre to bind and unite us during these dark days of division.

sir ian


Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

Oddsocks return, not only to Coventry, but also to Athens, the fictional Athens of Shakespeare’s romcom, for this new production that marks thirty years in the business.  Director Andy Barrow never fails to come up with new ideas to reinterpret and restage the Bard, with his pared-down cast and signature Oddsocks humour.  A stroke of genius is to have the ‘Mechanicals’ as builders working at Theseus’s palace: and so the set is initially draped in their dustsheets before ‘transforming’ into the forest.  Barrow himself appears as Bottom the Builder (yes, he can!) complete with beer belly and builder’s bottom.  We laugh straight away but even dressed like this, Barrow can wring nuances from his characterisation.  His Egeus is a blustering gammon, and his Oberon is a towering faun, with cloven hooves and curling horns.

Most of the humour, most of the playing, is done with broad strokes, and Barrow’s cast prove masters (and mistresses) of the in-house style.   Alex Wadham’s cocky Demetrius and desperately melodramatic Thisbe; Asha Cornelia-Cluer’s upper-class twit of a Hippolyta, her plucky Helena and graceful Titania; Peter Hoggart’s sheepish Lion – (Hoggart brings slapstick, physical comedy to his Lysander); and Christopher Smart’s easy-going Theseus and officious Peter Quince… Alice Merivale’s feisty Hermia and her energetic Scouse Puck… The entire ensemble works tirelessly to populate the scenes, adlibbing when they need to but also delivering Shakespeare’s verse with expression and conviction.  This is Shakespeare at its most accessible – the inclusion of popular songs, played live by this versatile cast, adds to the fun and to the story.  I’ve seen many a jukebox musical where the song choices don’t work anywhere near as well.  Hermia and Lysander give a rendition of The Corrs’s Runaway, Helena sings You Can’t Hurry Love, Bottom treats us to Passenger’s Scare Away The Dark (I suspect Andy Barrow would be a rock star in another life)… The whole thing ends with Oberon and the Fairies Dancing in the Moonlight.  And it’s a blast.

Of course, the play-within-a-play is achingly funny, with the added bonus of a member of the audience selected to portray the Wall, for a spot of good-natured victimisation.  Where some productions attempt to make us feel with Thisbe’s mock-plaintive words, Barrow goes all-out for big laughs.  And gets them.

A joyous version, both faithful and subversive, that shows Oddsocks are still at the top of their game after all this time.  Here’s to the next thirty years!

A Midsummer Nights Dream

It Takes Two: Oberon (Andy Barrow) and Titania (Asha Cornelia Cluer)


All’s Fairy in Love and War

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 9th June, 2019

 

The Crescent’s summer touring production this year is Shakespeare’s enduring romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, and I am lucky enough to catch an indoor performance rather than brave the vagaries of the British summer!

This is an enjoyable, accessible production – Director Georgina Evans opts for modern-dress on a simple set of slender branches and fairy lights; although, I do find the draconian laws of Athens at odds with the familiarity of the attire.  I think more needs to be made of the sheer unreasonableness of the patriarchy here (Marry whom I tell you to or be celibate for the rest of your life) and poor Hermia (Charlotte Thompson) needs to be more terrified/upset/resentful/what-have-you at the onset, so that when Lysander (the excellent Jacob Williams) steps forward with an escape plan, it comes as more of a relief, a desperate measure for desperate times.  Hold up, I did say this is a comedy… In Shakespeare, a comedy is where the problems of the drama are overcome by the characters (as opposed to tragedy, where the characters are overcome by the problems).  After this dark and severe (and potentially tragic) opening, the fun and frolics in the forest should come as sharper contrast.  Evans has an eye for comic business, and it’s the little details, the interplay, the fleeting expressions, that bring the joy to this production.

Ollie Jones is Duke Theseus – he warms into the role as the play goes on, lacking the imperious tones and power of Andrew Cowie’s magnificent fairy king Oberon (special mention to Angela Daniels for his striking costume and headdress).  Aimee Ferguson is a subdued Hippolyta, yet this conquered Amazon is not shy to express her views, through action, while Shady Murphy’s Titania is a dynamic presence.  Les Stringer brings gravitas as the unreasonable Egeus, softening into a kind of Polonius figure when he is finally overruled by the Duke.

Charlotte Thompson has her moments as Hermia – particularly the slanging match with Jessica Shannon’s marvellous Helena.  Jordan Bird is a pleasing Demetrius, vying with Jacob Williams’s Lysander – both do the lovestruck fool bit rather well.  Dayna Bateman is thoroughly charming as the hardworking Puck, whose meddling in mortal affairs does not always go to plan.

The Mechanicals are a likeable bunch, led by ‘Rita’ Quince (Nicole Poole) with Scott Wilson’s Flute blossoming into a sublimely ridiculous Thisbe, towering over a diminutive Pyramus (Crescent stalwart James David Knapp having a crack at Bottom, so to speak).  Knapp’s comic instincts are sound and I’d say he could afford to be even more bullish as Bottom dominates the group’s rehearsals.

While there are some line-readings that don’t quite come across, on the whole everyone handles the language rather well and with conviction, which is no mean feat when there are scenes comprised of rhyming couplets.  Of course, the play-within-a-play provides the most laughs – it’s one of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare, in all theatre, probably, and the company do an excellent, raucous job with it.  There’s a lovely celebratory feel to the closing moments and a rousing song to finish.  Funny and sweet, the show would perhaps benefit from starker contrast between the dark and light to intensify the impact of both.

bottom

Top Bottom: James David Knapp (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th June, 2019

 

John Vanbrugh’s comedy from 1697 is given an exuberant revival in this new production for the RSC by Phillip Breen.  A prologue points out that the playwright got his inspiration from us, the audience – and this is all we need to remind us that human nature, and in particular, human foibles have not changed a jot.  Breen sensibly keeps everything in and of the period and because of this, the show works admirably.  Mark Bailey’s set is a theatre, with plush crimson drapes and a pelmet, and footlights around three sides of the stage, setting the action against a backdrop of artifice, while the lavish costumes denote both class and character.

Lady Brute (a magnificent Alexandra Gilbreath) seeks distraction from her loveless marriage to Lord Brute (Jonathan Slinger in excellent form) by plotting with her niece Belinda (the charming Natalie Dew) romantic intrigues involving her suitor Constant (Rufus Hound has never been more dashing).  Constant’s best mate, professed woman-hater Heartfree finds himself enamoured of Belinda – in a masterly comic performance from John Hodgkinson, tossing off Vanbrugh’s sardonic epigrams with effortless bitterness.

A big name draw for this splendid company is TV favourite Caroline Quentin as the monstrously vain and conceited Lady Fanciful.  Quentin is made for this kind of stuff, and gives a hugely enjoyable performance.  Hardly subtle, Vanbrugh names his characters to suit their natures – Quentin’s portrayal is far from one-note and is an absolute joy to behold.

Also appearing, but mainly as a supernumerary is veteran comic Les Dennis, cutting his teeth at the RSC.  I’m assuming he has a more featured role in this play’s companion piece in repertory – but more of that anon.

Released from the confines of their gallery, the musicians feature on stage, coming and going to cover transitions and to accompany the songs – Paddy Cunneen’s  original composition, vibrant, sometimes discordant, enhance the period flavour and the comical nature of proceedings.  Rosalind Steele and Toby Webster are in splendid voice as Pipe and Treble respectively.

After much farcical comings-and-goings, including Lord Brute donning a frock and beating up the night’s watch like Old Mother Riley, the action takes a more dramatic turn, and we appreciate the depths of despair and danger Lady Brute endures.  Gilbreath and Slinger flip from wry comic barbs to horribly tense domestic abuse and it’s gripping stuff.  The plot is resolved with a quick succession of gasp-worthy revelations but the Brutes remain together, a bitter note among the hilarity and happiness.

Expertly presented, this production will get you laughing from the off.  It does run a bit long; this bum on a seat was a bit numb on the seat well before the end.  I advise you to get out and stretch your legs during the interval.  It’s a long haul but it’s more than worth it.

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

Behaving badly: Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanciful (Photo: Pete Le May, c RSC)

 


Worth a Gander

HONK!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019

 

This musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling gives us the bird’s-eye view of life in a duck yard.  When the largest of four eggs hatches to duck-parents Drake (Chris Thomson) and Ida (Ellie Nunn), the poor soul to emerge from it faces mockery and rejection for being different.  “Ugly” sets off, inadvertently, on a journey until his true identity is revealed.  The message is simple and clear, and Anthony Drewe’s script is riddled with puns and animal-based idioms, ranging from corny to witty.  Aimed at a family audience, Drewe also includes the occasional risqué line to keep the grown-ups engaged.

Gregor Duncan is Ugly, a plucky and sympathetic figure, but it is Ellie Nunn as his mother who provides the emotional heart of the show.  Nunn is in great form – the songs are delivered with conviction and power.  In fact, the cast, whose choral singing is just lovely, do their utmost to sell the songs.  Some of George Stiles’s tunes are stronger and catchier than others but all of them are enriched by Anthony Drewe’s sophisticated lyrics.

It’s a small but hard-working cast.  Notable moments come from Peter Noden as a Black Country bullfrog and Emma Barclay’s haughty mandarin duck.  A highlight for me is a tango between two cats (Danni Payne and James Dangerfield).  Dangerfield in particular impresses with his villainous characterisation as the Cat, managing to be sinister and funny at the same time, using movement and physicality to enhance the role.  He also plays a mean violin, augmenting the band at the side of the stage, led by musical director Oli Rew.

It’s all well and good, amusing stuff, but I question some of the design choices.  The bird characters are totally anthropomorphised, with only orange stockings to signify their duck legs.  The Cat has ears poking through his hat.  But the three ducklings are puppets, with beaks, and umbrellas for bodies.  It’s a neat idea but seems to be at odds with everything else.  Similarly, the Bullfrog sports a spotted hoodie, but his Frog Chorus are goggle-eyed and green, and presented in a highly inventive way.  I think the production needs to decide which way it’s going to jump to give it a more coherent style.  I would have put beaks on the leads or flippers for their feet.  Or I would have done the puppets differently.  But that’s me.

There is much to admire and enjoy here.  Director Andy Room is not short of ideas: particularly effective is the swimming lesson that takes place on a couple of swivel chairs, and it’s great to hear a cast that can sing so well, with humour and emotion, elevating the rather slight tale into a piece that can be charming and delightful, if a little uneven.

S Rylander

James Dangerfield as the Cat (in the hat) and Gregor Duncan as Ugly (Photo: Scott Rylander)

 

 

 

 

 


Grail Trail

SPAMALOT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd June, 2019

 

Eric Idle’s musical parody of Arthurian legend speaks of a leader who will rise from chaos to unite a divided country… We couldn’t half do with King Arthur today!  I doubt such a leader will spring from the current Tory leadership contest.

This lavish production at the Crescent is directed by Keith Harris, bringing together all the technical elements of the production and marrying them to an outstanding cast, with the result being a hugely impressive, massively enjoyable visit to the theatre.  They really have pulled out all the stops with this one.  Colin Judges’s splendid set of castle walls, towers and trees has just the right amount of storybook illustration to it, while Stewart Snape’s costume designs remain true to the period (when they need to) and introduce glamorously anachronistic specimens (when they don’t): the Camelot presented here has more in common with Las Vegas than Medieval England!  There is also an appearance by a magnificent wooden rabbit.  Of course there is.

Joe Harper heads the cast as King Arthur, imperious, regal and daft in equal measures.  He has a fine singing voice too – in fact, when the knights all sing together, the quality enriches the material.  Idle’s songs are pastiches, sometimes simplistic in structure, but the chorus at the Crescent still delivers the goods.  The musicians, under the baton of Gary Spruce add pizzazz and texture to the score.   Beautiful.

The female lead is Tiffany Cawthorne’s Lady of the Lake, with a dazzling display of vocal fireworks that doesn’t take itself seriously, mocking the over-singers and belters of musical theatre and elsewhere.  Cawthorne is also a delightful comic player and doesn’t miss a trick.

Among the knights there is plenty to relish: Mark Horne’s camp Sir Robin, Paul Forrest’s heroic Lancelot (who has a surprise for us later on that is deliciously realised), and Nick Owenford’s Marxist-peasant-turned-loyal-knight Dennis Galahad.  I always have a soft spot for the faithful manservant Patsy, and here Brendan Stanley does not disappoint in a masterclass of a portrayal that demonstrates how supporting roles can make a mark.  Brilliant.

There are so many highlights, so many hilarious throwaway moments, I can’t mention them all, but I have to bring attention to Katie Goldhawk’s defiant posturing as the stubborn Black Knight, Jack Kirby’s Hibernian enchanter, Tim, Luke Plimmer’s Not Dead Fred, and Dave Rodgers as a taunting French soldier.

For me, the funniest scene is between Herbert (Nick Doran) and his father (Toby Davis), with a couple of dim-witted guards and a daring rescue by Lancelot.  Doran plays the gayness of the role without mockery or stereotype and his Herbert is all the more endearing because of it.

You don’t have to be a Monty Python aficionado to be royally entertained.  For those of us that are, it’s fun to identify where Eric Idle nicked the ideas from.  Only the other day I was bemoaning the fad for adapting every bloody film into stage musicals – this is one of the best ones, not least because it makes fun of the theatrical form as much as sending up the content.

Director Keith Harris gets the tone spot on and for almost all of it, the required energy levels are there to carry it off.  This is a real tonic of a production, joyous, silly and glorious – now, if only I could stop whistling THAT SONG from The Life Of Brian…

spamalot

Brendan Stanley and Joe Harper (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Child’s Play

TORCH TOWN

A secret location, Selly Oak, Birmingham, Friday 31st May, 2019

 

As a reviewer I get invited to all kinds of shows but this was my first in someone’s living room.  Tiny Change Theatre Company is currently previewing a new play prior to a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Written by Mark Fenton, who co-directs with Megan Farquhar, Torch Town is the story of two runaway children, holed up in a house, each of them escaping problems at home.  They build a city out of cardboard boxes, and festoon it with fairy lights, a place where they can make the rules as they see fit.

Alice (Lara Sprosen) is bossy, almost a proto-feminist in her assertions that girls are better (they write more neatly), brimming with the earnest absolutes of a childish worldview that sees things as black or white.  Beneath the bossiness lies fear and vulnerability and creativity infused with innocence.  With her is Peter (Tom Garrett), a troubled young lad who can match Alice in terms of imagination and innocence.  Both actors give captivating portrayals in highly detailed performances: Alice daring to say ‘fuck’ for the first time, Peter’s look of surprise when he manages to whistle – we see beyond the grown-up bodies of the actors to the children they are playing, bringing to my mind Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.  And there’s plenty of playing; the only time I feel this intimate space may be too small is when the kids are galumphing around, battling dragons in space or flying to the moon.

The innocence of the characters gives rise to much of the humour of the piece as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of their friendship.  There is pathos and poignancy, and some powerful moments – Alice’s fears when she’s left alone, and Peter’s startling monologue when memories swamp him and he has a breakdown.  Tom Garrett is superb.  Heart-breaking, in fact.  The pacing of these scenes is handled perfectly, contrasting with the interludes when the children play.

The directors turn the constraints of the production to their advantage, using handheld torches, table lamps and a projector to transform the stripped-bare domestic setting into a performance space that serves the story.

The writing is rich, allowing for intensity and levity from the players – and there’s a coda, set years later, that packs a punch.  An engaging hour of vibrant and refreshing drama, Torch Town shows that Tiny Change Theatre is an excellent young company with great potential.

I loved it.

torch


Plucking at Heartstrings

CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 29th May, 2019

 

Rona Munro’s masterly adaptation of the Louis de Bernieres bestseller reimagines the novel as an exuberantly theatrical piece.  Directed by Melly Still, this production uses a child-like approach: the weapons are all mimed, exploded soldiers perform pratfalls onto their backpacks – but this war game is deadly.  There are consequences beyond the bang-bang-you’re-dead action.  Still uses heavily stylised, emblematic elements to create some striking imagery: the dead caught in a web of death is particularly horrific.  Augmented by Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Jon Nicholls’s sound, the storytelling is impeccable.  This is grown-up theatre at its finest and the scenes of violence are all the more powerful rendered in this way.

Alex Mugnaioni is the titular officer, a remote figure at first before he comes to occupy a room in the house of Dr Iannis (an avuncular joseph Long) and insinuate himself into the affections of the doctor’s resourceful daughter Pelagia (Madison Clare).   The couple’s relationship is tainted by the encroaching events of the war in Greece; their love story is searing and romantic, and we see the life-changing disruption caused not only by conflict but also by the passage of time.  Mugnaioni and Clare are sweet and touching in their portrayal of these star-cross’d lovers.  Corelli’s mandolin playing is a reminder of the beauty humans can create, a counterpoint to the man-made horrors of war.  He plays wonderfully but will Corelli be able to pluck up the courage to do what is necessary?

The presentation may be stylised but human nature is revealed through raw emotion and truthful playing.  Eve Polycarpou performs some heart-rending vocalisations as the grief-stricken Drosoula; Ryan Donaldson’s imposing presence is offset by his character’s tender nature – we feel it when Carlos falls for Francesco (Fred Fergus) and are heartbroken by Carlos’s noble act of sacrifice.  Ashley Gayle is a passionate Mandras, while Stewart Scudamore brings a touch of humour as Velisaros, the local strongman.

Truly fascinating are the performances of Luisa Guerreiro as a goat and Elizabeth Mary Williams as Psipsina, a pine marten.  In fact, I often found myself focussing on their behaviours while the human characters were speaking!

Mayou Trikerioti’s set, almost spartan you might say, with a stepladder used as a door and two huge copper squares suspended at the back, somehow evokes Cephalonia.  There is something about the metal that suggests the history of the island – the squares serve as screens for video effects too.  There is original music by Harry Blake that enhances the local colour and stirs the emotions.

Rona Munro selects from de Berniere’s rich writing so that snippets and descriptive phrases work on our imaginations – adaptation is more than just retelling the plot.  While I wasn’t reduced to floods of tears as I was when I read the novel, this is a superbly effective production, both shocking and moving, and above all thoroughly absorbing.

marc brenner

Fret not, Captain Corelli’s here! Alex Mugnaioni (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 


Naked Ambition

CALENDAR GIRLS – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 28th May, 2019

 

First came the calendar, then the film, then the play, and now this musical version.  Original writer Tim Firth has teamed up with Gary ‘Take That’ Barlow to rehash the true story of a group of women whose charity calendar turned heads and raked in the dosh thirty years ago.

If this piece is anything to go by, the Yorkshire village of Knapley is inhabited by a homogenous bunch of deadpan Northern charmers, the women are almost uniformly blonde and the cuddly men are interchangeable.  It’s a bit Stepford Wives, but funny.  There are so many characters it takes a while to get a handle on who they all are.

When Annie’s husband’s cancer treatment fails to save him from the disease, her mates at the local Women’s Institute rally in support.  Best mate Chris (Rebecca Storm) comes up with the idea of a nude calendar – in the best possible taste, of course – and some of the women require more persuasion than others.  It’s a long time coming but the best scene of the night is the taking of the photographs, posed with some carefully placed props: plates of cakes, balls of knitting, all the accoutrements of the WI.  While other scenes are mildly amusing, the photo-shoot is the highlight and brings the house down.  It’s a moment of rejoicing, as the women celebrate body positivity and have a reet good laugh while they do it.  It’s like The Full Monty without the social commentary or the economic imperative.

Sarah Jane Buckley heads the ensemble as the eventually-widowed Annie, a more staid counterpart to her best mate Ruth.  Single parent Sue Devaney has the best singing voice but the Christmas Carol medley she has to belt out is a let-down: it’s just unfunny.  Lesley Joseph is in her element as retired schoolteacher Jessie, supposedly respectable but game for a laugh when the crunch comes.  Lisa Maxwell is suitably cocksure as the surgically enhanced Celia, and Danny Howker has some very funny moments as inexperienced teenager Danny – it’s a strong cast without exception but all the while I’m thinking they would be better served in the straight play version.

Barlow’s songs are serviceable but hardly memorable.  Rather than adding depth to the piece, what they bring is length.  Firth’s script aspires to but doesn’t quite reach the genius of the late, lamented Victoria Wood, using the bathos of domestic details to bring out the emotions of particular moments.  Contemplating her husband’s death, Annie wonders who’ll take her to Tesco and argue about margarines with her.

The heart-warming story survives this treatment, and is still a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but (producers, take note) not every bloody film needs to be turned into a musical.

Calender Girls Tour

The Cast

 


Two Piece

DUET FOR ONE

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 17th May, 2019

 

Brand-new company, Aspect Theatre is doing the rounds with their production of Tom Kempinski’s acclaimed piece about a concert violinist who consults a psychiatrist when she is stricken with multiple sclerosis and is forced to change her life in all manner of ways.  What could be timelier in Mental Health Awareness Week?  The play consists of six scenes, each a different session.  He, Dr Feldmann, is constant and unchanging; she, Stephanie Abrahams, runs the gamut from bitterness, anger, sarcasm, resentment…

It’s a showcase for both actors.  As Stephanie, Katherine Parker-Jones gives us the arrogance and the sneering sarcasm, and yet somehow manages to evince our sympathies for this rarefied creature, when the defensive facades fall away, and we are allowed to see the human being brought low by this debilitating disease.  Parker-Jones delivers lengthy monologues with truth and conviction, and while we laugh at her barbed remarks, we are ultimately moved by her predicament.  Martin Bourne gives his Feldmann a gentle cadence rather than a strong Cherman accent, and the portrayal is all the better for it.  He has to do a lot of listening-acting, maintaining professional detachment – when he finally flips his lid and puts Stephanie in her place, it may be a shock tactic on the psychiatrist’s behalf, but it’s an electrifying moment, to be sure.

The peril of this piece is that with one character confined to a wheelchair and the other taking notes behind his clipboard, proceedings can become too static.  Director Marc W Dugmore avoids this problem in the close confines of the Attic Theatre, where it feels like we are in the consulting room alongside the characters.  The intimacy means Dugmore can bring out the contrasts between the characters and between the sessions with subtlety and with broader moves, as the piece’s mood swings between comedy and tragedy.  I’m not a fan, though, of the slow fade to spotlight whenever Stephanie launches into her longer speeches; I want to see Feldmann’s impassive expression and perhaps some betrayal of a reaction.

A straightforward, high quality production of a powerful piece.  I’m looking forward to Aspect Theatre’s next show already.

Duet For One-056

Martin Bourne and Katherine Parker-Jones (Photo: David Jones)


Picture Imperfect

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Saturday 11th May, 2019

 

Tilted Wig Productions bring this new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel to the stage, courtesy of Sean Aydon, who also directs.  It’s a stylish affair, with a set by Sarah Beaton that suggests Victorian grandeur left to rot.  Beauty in decay is an emblem throughout this tale of handsome young Dorian who, wishing to retain the beauty captured in his portrait, makes a wish… As time goes by, it is the painting that shows signs of age, cruelty and dissipation, while the subject himself is unchanged.  Dorian takes to covering his painting, only to display ‘poor traits’ in his conduct.

Gavin Fowler begins as a sweet, appealing Dorian, subtly hardening his characterisation as his hedonistic pursuits increase his sociopathy. Dorian models himself on his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, played by Jonathan Wrather (evil Pierce off of Emmerdale).  Wrather is marvellous in the role, lazily debonair and louche, the aphorisms dripping from his lips.  Aydon’s script fizzes with Wildean wit, and Wrather has the perfect delivery.  In contrast is Daniel Goode as Basil the artist.  Here Aydon brings Wilde’s homoerotic undertones closer to the surface, although nothing is explicit.

Jonathan-Wrather-Lord-Henry

Rather good! Jonathan Wrather as Lord Henry

Kate Dobson is a lively Sybil Vane, the actress who captures Dorian’s fancy, and she shares a funny scene with Samuel Townsend’s Romeo, where Sybil misses her cues.  I adored Phoebe Pryce’s pragmatic Lady Victoria Wotton, inured to her wayward husband’s shenanigans.  Adele James makes a strong impression as Ellen Campbell, ensnared in Dorian’s web.

Beneath the humour and the urbane epigrams, there is an undercurrent of dread and foreboding, accentuated by Jon McLeod’s music and sound design.  The peeling walls and general dinginess aid the idea that beauty is transient and decay is inevitable.  As they seek pleasure in whatever form, the characters are overshadowed by impending mortality.  For a story that concerns the passage of time, this production is curiously timeless in his setting: there are nods to the story’s Victorian origins, in the costumes, but then there are also dresses and slacks that are out of period, and Basil’s plastic bottles of white spirit, let alone the polythene sheet Dorian makes use of, American Psycho style.  Some of these anachronisms jar, others seem to fit, but nothing dilutes the overall tone of the production.

Dorian’s decadence is stylised, with choreography by Jo Meredith and a few masks and electropop beats.  It’s all rather classy so when a murder happens, it’s all the more visceral.

All in all, it’s a gripping version, although I did find it slows a little as it heads towards the climax.  A little more intensity in those final encounters would not go amiss.  I love the way the dreaded painting was handled.  Like Wilde, Aydon leaves it to our imaginations, and imagined horrors and imagined depravities are invariably more effective than depicted ones.

Dorian

Look at his face; it’s a picture! Gavin Fowler as Dorian Gray

 


Dropping the Soap

SUMMER STREET

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 10th May, 2019

 

Four actors from a defunct Australian soap opera are reunited for a commemorative special in which they are to play all the parts (“Nobody will notice”).  Their week of rehearsals will culminate in a live broadcast.  There is a lot at stake.

That’s the premise of Andrew Norris’s bonzer new musical, which satirises the sunny optimism of the shows that dominated television in the 1990s.  The rehearsal scenes are hilarious, sending up the exposition-heavy dialogue, the public service information, and the outlandish plots.  But Norris intersperses them with glimpses into the actors’ lives.  We see the effects of being killed off and being unable to escape your typecasting.  The show is much more than silly satire; there is substance here in the melodrama of the actors’ real lives.

The songs are stonkers.  Disillusioned Angie, now working at a fish counter, sings the searing ‘Take the Knife’ bringing the show’s first dark moment.  Brock and Marlene belt out a smashing duet, ”Don’t Give Up” – the soap was a musical serial, a genius idea, ripe with comic potential.  There’s a brilliantly catchy parody, “Lucky Plucky Me” that infects my mind for the rest of the evening.  The highlight though is “Chains Around My Heart” in which Bobbi (the amazing Sarah-Louise Young) treats us to a dazzling display of vocal dexterity while parodying pretentious pop videos and earnest oversinging.  The number, quite rightly, brings the house down.

Young is hilarious as budding lesbian-mechanic Bobbi, and she is matched by Myke Cotton’s Brock (with mullet attached to his cap!).   Simon Snashall plays the father figures and the doctor – a deathbed scene is painfully funny – while Julie Clare is practically perfect as veteran soap actress Steph, who plays the soap’s busybody Mrs Mingle, and star-crossed lover Marlene.

Special mention goes to Pogo, the soap’s canine superstar, who makes a vital contribution to the plot!

The laughs keep coming but I get the sense of an underlying affection for the material that inspired the mockery.  There is also commentary here about the changes in televisual fare reflecting a loss of innocence and optimism in society, as the sunshine soaps have been usurped by so-called reality TV.

Thoroughly exhilarating, this show, like the serials it sends up, ought to run and run indefinitely!  With book, music, lyrics and direction all coming from the same man, Andrew Norris is some kind of genius, I reckon.

I loved it.

summer street

Mullet over: Myke Cotton as Brock

 


Splendid!

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th May, 2019

 

Khaled Hosseini’s novel comes to the stage in this engrossing adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma.  Set in Afghanistan after the Soviets left, this is the story of two women who are married to the same man.  Sharing hardship and mistreatment, the two women form a bond that lasts for years, leading to one of them making the ultimate sacrifice.  It’s a gripping tale, superbly told.  Sarma’s script brings out humour and warmth in horrendous circumstances as bombs drop on Kabul and the Taliban takes control.

The production hinges on the central performances of the two women.  Sujaya Dasgupta is instantly appealing as young Laila, driven by tragedy to marry the man who rescues her from the rubble of her family home.  Laila is primarily a victim of circumstance and oppression, but she has an indomitable spirit.  Dasgupta brings her to life without sentimentality; we are with her all the way.  Also great is Amina Zia as the initially resentful Mariam, regarding Laila as a threat but warming to her as events unfold.

Pal Aron is perfectly villainous as the tyrannical Rasheed, while Waleed Akhtar cuts a sympathetic figure as Tariq, Laila’s young love.  We meet Tariq in flashbacks, with Akhtar and Dasgupta displaying youthful vigour and innocence.  There is solid support from Shala Byx as Aziza and Munir Khairdin in a range of roles.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set is a rocky landscape, serving as all the story’s locations – the characters are forever stuck between rocks and hard places!

This is a fitting swan song for the REP’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, before she leaves Birmingham for pastures new.  Thoroughly involving, this is an excellent piece of storytelling, casting light onto a part of the world we don’t hear much about.  The play emphasises the humanity of the characters – of all the characters, even the loathsome Rasheed! – and we see just how ordinary and relatable they are, even in the face of extreme events.  The story could be played out in other countries (Syria, for example) to remind us that behind the statistics and the headlines, these are real people’s lives and experiences.

A wonderful piece of theatre, powerful, pertinent and captivating.  Splendid, in fact.

splendid

Sujaya Dasgupta as Laila and Amina Zia as Mariam (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Great Scott!

JASON DONOVAN: Amazing Midlife Crisis Tour

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Wednesday 8th May, 2019

 

I remember a Jason Donovan gig at the NEC at the height of his teenybop fame.  I remember standing and watching over a sea of screaming tweens, with the heads of parents dotted here and there, bobbing like buoys.   Tonight, thirty years later (bloody hell) the mums are out in force and there’s no sign of a kid in sight.    As Donovan has grown and developed from teen idol/soap superstud so his audience has matured.  The show is not a concert but a retrospective natter about Donovan’s life and career, prompted by reaching his 50th birthday last year, and he proves himself an engaging raconteur, regaling us with anecdote after anecdote, all of them laced with down-to-Earth Aussie humour and swearing.

He speaks of his early life as only child to a famous single parent, his early forays into television before his big break in sunshine soap Neighbours, culminating in the iconic wedding of Scott and Charlene.  We are shown brief clips, but it’s enough to get the nostalgia gland working.

There’s his pop career, his relationship with Kylie, the diversification into musical theatre.  I have fond memories of him in his loin cloth, playing Lloyd Webber’s Joseph at the London Palladium.  Sigh…

There’s Priscilla, the ‘Jungle’, Strictly…

Donovan speaks frankly about the highs and the lows of finding fame so young.  The cocaine (highs, which are lows, I suppose).  He suffers from a throat problem that means he has botox injections in his neck every few months.  We can hear the croakiness – luckily, his singing voice is unaffected and, he quips, he now has the best-looking neck in showbusiness!

He is joined on stage by guitarist Marcus Bonfanti and we are treated to acoustic renditions of a couple of his biggest hits.  We sing along and it’s a lovely communion.

There’s a Q and A to round things off.  Audience members have jotted questions on postcards and he reads them out and answers them with good humour.  Most of them involve propositions (and no, I refrained from adding my plea to the pile!); I suspect a couple of them are staged, providing funny call-backs to earlier stories.

What comes across most of all is openness, warmth and a complete lack of pretension.  Jason Donovan may not have reached the Hollywood heights of Neighbours co-star Guy Pearce or the apotheosis of Kylie Minogue, but he reminds us tonight of how ingrained he is into popular culture.  It’s touching to hear him speak about his wife and kids.  It’s also moving to reflect on the passage of time, how life has affected him, how it has affected us, in the decades that have passed since he first pointed out there are too many broken hearts in the world.

Ah, Jason, you didn’t break my heart but you certainly touched it.

Donovan


Camptastic!

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 3rd May, 2019

 

Charles Ludlam’s camp classic is more well-known in the USA than on this side of the pond.  A two-hander that parodies Victorian melodrama, Gothic romances, and creaky old horror films, this is a chance for a pair of actors to showcase their versatility and, equally importantly, their quick-change skills.  Lady Enid, second wife to Lord Edgar, pries into the history of the family estate of Mandacrest.  She unearths a tale of vampires, werewolves and Egyptology, while beyond the French windows, a wolf preys on lambs, spreading terror…

Stuart Horobin is great as stuffy Lord Edgar, more tweed than man, clinging to the memories of his late first wife.  Horobin throws himself into his roles with gusto: Edgar conjuring a long-dead Egyptian queen, for example; or as dour housekeeper Jane, serving up huge dollops of exposition.

He is joined by Darren Haywood, his match in wide-eyed histrionics.  Haywood is a hoot as stable man Nicodemus, stumping around on a ‘wooden’ leg, and he’s magnificent as the lip-quivering Lady Enid.  His appearance as the reincarnated mummy is a highlight – in fact, whenever he’s on stage, which is most of the time, he delivers, in a consistently funny performance that is a real treat to behold.

Both actors handle the florid verbiage Ludlam liberally doles out with conviction.  The dialogue paraphrases the likes of Shakespeare, Wilde and Poe and is riddled with daftness and peppered with some choice double entendres – I could always do with more of these.  Ludlam’s script comes across as somewhat patchy but director Simon Ravenhill keeps the laughs coming with some delicious bits of comic business.  Nicodemus screwing his wooden leg back on, for example, or the hilariously pedestrian werewolf transformation scene.

In the end, it’s the playing not the material that proves the more entertaining.  Not so much Hammer, as Sledgehammer Horror, this is a case of the high quality of the production compensating for any weakness in the script, making for a hugely entertaining evening that deserves to be seen by greater numbers.

irma vep

Darren Haywood in a publicity shot

 

 

 


Shrewd Moves

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 2nd May, 2019

 

Gender-swapping is all the rage in theatre these days but if there’s a play where changing the men to women and vice versa actually makes a point about the world we live in, it’s this one, Shakespeare’s not-so-romantic comedy about conformity to gender roles.  The setting is a matriarchy, instantly conjuring memories of The Two Ronnies and their Worm That Turned series.  While that show was about revolution, Shakespeare’s is about moulding the individual to comply with societal norms.  Both, I think, show the limitations of expecting as gender to behave in a certain way.  Unlike The Two Ronnies’ serial, which was set in a dystopian future, this production is set very much in the 1590s and things are ticking along nicely, thank you, with women, mature women, ruling the roost as captains of trade and industry.

Baptista Minola (a strident Amanda Harris) is trying to marry off her sons.  The one is sweet and lovely (and hilarious – beautifully played by a hair-tossing James Cooney); the other is aggressive and ferocious – but these women are not cowed by such masculine outbursts, mainly because in their world, such displays are exceedingly rare.  ‘Kate’s tantrums are perceived as an individual’s aberrations, rather than the way that men carry on in general.  As Katherine, Joseph Arkley is both a commanding and an appealing presence.  He is a stallion to be broken, a hound to be brought to heel, a direct contrast to the effeminacy prevalent in other men, for example Richard Clews’s camp old retainer, Grumio.

The woman for the job is Claire Price’s wild-haired Petruchia, all gusto and caprice – it’s OK for women to have their norm-stretching eccentricities, of course.  Well up for a bit of ruff, Price is delightfully unpredictable and very funny.  In fact, the production is riddled with funny women.  There’s a joyous double act: Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania – the latter a real hoot when disguised as a noblewoman.  Sophie Stanton’s Gremia glides around as though on wheels, while Amy Trigg’s Biondella, actually on wheels, darts around, adding to the farcical elements of the action.  There is an elegant turn from Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia.  This Padua is more like Cougar Town, with women of a certain age eyeing up the young male totty.

There’s a vibrant, gorgeous score by Ruth Chan and sumptuous period costumes by Hannah Clark.  Director Justin Audibert keeps the staging traditional – apart from the gender-swaps – and it works brilliantly.  A finely-tuned ensemble keeps the laughs coming and the gender-swaps cast new light on what can be a problematic piece for present-day audiences.  Inversion puts the status quo in the spotlight, and we see how ludicrous it can be to expect individuals to tailor their conduct to adhere to one end of the spectrum or the other.

There’s a lightness of touch to the whole enterprise, so don’t dread a sociological treatise.  This is a hugely enjoyable, refreshing take on a classic that works beautifully.  Wonderful.

The Taming of the Shrew production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Ikin Yum _c_ RSC_275034

Joseph Arkley and Claire Price (Photo: Ikin Yum)

 


Holiday Camp

CLUB TROPICANA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 29th April, 2019

 

Don’t you just hate it when your wedding is called off so your mates take you abroad to a hotel to drink it off and you end up at the same place as your intended and their mates?  This is the set-up for this new jukebox musical, the flimsy framework on which to hang hit songs from the 1980s.  Add to the mix a subplot about an anonymous hotel inspector and a stalled love affair between the hotel owners and we’re pretty much set.  As with other shows of this type, we get musical theatre performers emoting their way through vaguely relevant pop songs – part of the fun is the recognition of each song.

But what sets this one above those other shows is the star quality of its leading lights.  Talent show champion Joe McElderry is Garry, the hotel’s entertainment officer, sporting a pink (rather than a red or even a yellow) coat, coming across like the love child of George Michael and Dale Winton.  The pop songs are a walk in the park for McElderry’s excellent vocals but it is especially pleasing to see how much he has developed as a comic actor, with flawless timing, a neat line in facial expressions, and some energetic physical comedy.  It’s camper than Christmas and it feels like McElderry has found his home.

Also bringing the goods is veteran comic actor and impressionist Kate Robbins, appearing as Consuela the maid – from the Allo Allo school of funny foreigners.  In the hands of a pro like Robbins, the character is more than a stereotype, and is a superb comic creation in its own right.  Robbins gets the chance to show off her impressions, through the prism of Consuela attempting to make the hotel look busy by donning a succession of fancy-dress costumes (didn’t they use that idea in Crossroads?).

Other members of the company get their moments to shine.  Amelle Berrabah’s Serena delivers a lovely Only You, Karina Hind’s Lorraine gives a kick-ass Call Me and Cellen Chugg Jones’s Olly shows his vocal range with a-ha’s tricksy Take On Me.  Emily Tierney gives a broad comic turn as accident-prone snob, Christine, who is not all that she seems… Neil McDermott’s Robert appeals, with a neat delivery of some snappy one-liners.

Michael Gyngell’s script keeps the complications uncomplicated; we shrug off the thinness of the plot because he gives us so many funny lines.  Nick Winston’s choreography recalls the signature moves of the decade, and the band, led by MD Charlie Ingles, gets the audience on its feet.

Strindberg or Ibsen, this ain’t, but it’s not trying to be.  While Club Tropicana doesn’t exactly push the boundaries of theatre, it’s undemanding, hilarious, old-fashioned fun, performed by a likeable company.

But it strikes me as odd that the famous and much-loved title song is never sung.  Perhaps the rights could not be obtained.  In that case, they should have called the show something else – but then I suppose Hotel California is too downbeat for this hugely enjoyable farcical frolic.

Club Tropicana 3

Joe McElderry as Garry


Girl Powers

THE WORST WITCH

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 24th April, 2019

 

Long before Harry Potter emerged from his cupboard and went off to Hogwarts, Mildred Hubble attended Miss Cackle’s witching academy in a series of books by Jill Murphy.  The books were adapted for television decades ago, and now they come to the stage in this brand-new version by Emma Reeves.  Here we meet Mildred, her classmates and members of staff as they stage a play about Mildred’s arrival at the academy.  The play-within-a-play format permits the cast to explore theatricality to represent the magic spells and uncanny events.  Rather than high-tech special effects, the show depends on the creativity of the director and the physicality of the actors to pull off magical moments, like invisibility, a flying broomstick display, and a host of other spells. Dramaturgy rather than thaumaturgy.

When the director is the hugely inventive Theresa Heskins you know you’re in safe hands and there will be surprises in store.  Heskins includes some of her hallmarks (if you’ve seen any of her productions at the New Vic, you’ll recognise the ‘flying’ papers) to bring the story to wonderful life.  The show works on (at least) two levels, with the adventure conjured up before our very eyes, and also the joy-bringing display of theatrical invention.  Reeve’s bright script updates Murphy’s novels and I revel in the sideswipes at a certain boy wizard and his school (“We don’t have an evil house; that would be silly”) Honestly, the show is an unadulterated pleasure.

Leading the company as clumsy Mildred is Danielle Bird, instantly appealing, a heroine with whom we can identify, as she attends witching school by mistake and struggles to fit in.  She is supported by Rebecca Killick as bff Maud and hindered by the machinations of snobby bully Ethel (a deliciously hateful Rosie Abraham).  Most amusing though – in fact, downright hilarious – is Consuela Rolle as disruptive newcomer Enid, bringing urban realness to the partay, witches.

Rachel Heaton gives a masterclass in simmering contempt as the hard-faced Miss Hardbroom – making it all the more exquisite when she experiences the effects of a hilarity potion.  Molly-Grace Cutler is great fun as chanting teacher Miss Bat, also playing piano, guitar and cello for the show’s musical numbers, alongside Meg Forgan’s bass-playing Fenella and Megan Leigh Mason’s broomstick teacher/guitarist-percussionist… The band stays onstage throughout, and Luke Potter’s original score is rich with catchy tunes – the choral singing is beautiful, and solo numbers are belted out with expression, energy and humour, not least by the mighty Polly Lister, doubling as Miss Cackle and her evil twin, sometimes appearing as both characters at once.  Lister gives a towering performance, larger-than-life, exuding menace and eliciting mirth.  It’s a marvel to behold.

Simon Daw’s skeletal set, delineating the tottering towers of the academy, provides the perfect framework for the story.  We see the outline and imagine the building, just as we see a stylised action and picture the event being depicted.  Our imaginations and our intellects are engaged simultaneously, but most of all, we’re having a right good laugh.

Enchanting.

Worst Witch98 - credit Manuel Harlan

Charming! Danielle Bird and Rachel Heaton

 

 


Dutch Treat

ROTTERDAM

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd April, 2019

 

Alice is a British girl working in Holland.  New Year’s Eve is fast approaching and she’s in anguish over an email she’s trying to write to her parents, finally telling them that she is gay.  On hand to offer advice is girlfriend Fiona, a down-to-earth northerner – trouble is, Fiona has her own revelation to make: she is a he and wants to present as such.  Alice has difficulties supporting ‘Adrian’, fearing the loss of the woman she loves…

So begins Jon Brittain’s searing social comedy, on tour at last.  The writing is sharp and funny, and it rings true, emotionally speaking.  And there is more to the piece than laughter.  The play gives us an insight into the personal lives of people who transition, in an empathetic albeit hilarious and sometimes moving fashion.  The setting – Rotterdam – a port where everyone is either coming or going, reflects the state of flux of the play’s central relationship.

As uptight Alice, Bethan Cullinane is utterly credible, whether Alice’s outbursts are sarcastic or heartfelt.  Equally strong is the excellent Lucy Jane Parkinson as Fiona/Adrian, plain-speaking in some respects and desperate to articulate emotions and experiences at other times.  As the pair come under strain, we are brought to an understanding of both points of view.

They are supported by Elijah W Harris as Adrian’s brother and Alice’s ex (and now her best friend), Josh (Brittain keeps it in the family for added confusion and comedy value!), and Ellie Morris as Dutch party girl Lelani.  Harris is the mediator, the Apollo to Morris’s Dionysus, pulling Alice in opposing directions.  Both are great, with Morris in particular being very funny.

Director Donnacadh O’Briain gets comedy and emotion from his cast – even the transitions are fun (the scenic transitions, I mean!); there is also subtlety here.  Beneath all the yelling and histrionics, the emotional truth comes out.   It’s a vibrant, extremely likeable and thought-provoking production that sheds light on aspects of today’s society about which there is ignorance and prejudice.  The humour makes the characters relatable, which leads to better understanding of this slice of human experience.  Above all, it’s a love story and everyone can relate to that.

I could have done without the blaring electropop music though.  Perhaps I’m just old.

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Bethan Cullinane and Lucy Jane Parkinson (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


A Ripping Time

AN EVENING WITH JACK THE RIPPER

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 17th April, 2019

 

Having enjoyed the superlative Ebenezer’s Christmas Carol at this venue back in December, I am thrilled and honoured to be invited to be part of a select group at this try-out of a new event.  As with the Dickens show, the Tudor setting of this glorious old building lends itself surprisingly well to the nooks and crannies of Victorian Whitechapel – everywhere looks the same in the dark, I suppose! – and there is something undeniably creepy about the museum with the lights out, with the dark shapes of mannequins looming all around…

Based on an idea by Steve Mitchell, researched and devised by Janet Ford, with dramaturgy and script by Paul Norton, the scene is set for our investigation.  Our host is Inspector Aberline (Paul Norton) who gathers us in a briefing room.  We, the guests, are cast as fellow detectives and are equipped with clipboards and pencils with which to record our findings.  Aberline and his able assistant, Detective Swanson (Hannah Joyce) feed us a lot of information, placing the infamous murders within their social context.  It is immediately fascinating.

The briefing is interrupted by blasts from a police whistle, summoning us into the main house.  We troop in by lantern-light and are led up to the first floor, where we find the outline of a woman on the landing.  Aberline introduces us to the first victim, filling us in on her background before describing in forensic detail and with the help of a volunteer, the vicious murder itself.  (You may be called upon to lie on the floor!)  The inspector takes us through to another room – there’s the second victim…

We return to the briefing room to jot down our notes and discuss our thoughts.  Another whistle blast summons us back in for victims three and four…

There’s a break for tea and biscuits and more discussion, before we are taken to the fifth and final crime scene of the evening.  This is the most detailed, most shocking of the lot, with Hannah Joyce representing Mary Kelly on a bed.  Throughout the evening, Joyce has provided voices for the victims, making them people rather than props in a story, but here it really hits home as Mary Kelly addresses us directly.  Yes, the accounts are shocking, the details gruesome and in some cases, sickening, but the presentation is all the more effective because of its restraint.

We reconvene for a final sharing of thoughts and to posit our theories about the various suspects who were in the frame at the time.  It’s a thoroughly engaging experience but, inevitably, there can be no definite conclusion.  There is an enduring power to this real-life mystery; if Jack the Ripper were ever truly unmasked, the legend would lose some of its attraction.

Although proceedings need a tighter ending, this is an enjoyably intriguing evening that induces us to use our grey matter to tease out pieces of the puzzle.  Once again, it is an unadulterated pleasure to listen to the consummate story-telling skills of Paul Norton, and the splendid support he is given by Hannah Joyce and the unseen presence of Antony Hardy.

Out of necessity, numbers are restricted due to the nature of the site, but this is an excellent event for a group seeking something different, something that evokes both an intellectual and an emotional response.  Check out tudorworld.com for booking information.

ripper


Soaping Up

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BOBBY (OFF EASTENDERS)

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 10th April, 2019

 

The titular Bobby is a young lad from the fictional London borough of Walford, famed for committing the murder of his elder sister and for braining his mum with a hockey stick before being caught bang to rights and carted off to a detention centre.  This play by George Attwell-Gerhards looks at the psychological effects of such storylines on the child actors who enact them.

Here, Annie (Laura Adebisi) is a twelve-year-old who, being no longer cute enough for yogurt adverts, lands a job in what seems to be a particularly sordid soap opera.  She puts a hockey stick to good use against her mother before getting locked in her father’s basement and fall victim to his sexual predations.  The action jumps from Annie’s audition, to shooting scenes from the soap, to her deteriorating home life… with Attwell-Gerhards’s script charting the blurring of lines between fiction and reality, the pressures of sudden fame on someone so young, the treatment of young stars by the media – there’s a lot packed into this hour-long piece and director Lucy Bird keeps things taut, as her cast of three flick between characters, like switching channels by remote control.

Tom Bulpett is Annie’s dad, thrust into a PR role for which he is unprepared and unsuited.  He is also a casting director, and Annie’s soap co-star.  Cara Mahooney is Annie’s mum, and a friendly make-up artist who takes Annie under her wing, and a TV director, feeling the pressure.  Both actors are top-notch and there is never any confusion about who they are at any particular moment, their characterisations are well-differentiated and clear.  The characters represent a range of abusive and exploitative experiences Annie faces – the play certainly exposes a kind of child abuse that is rarely considered: the effect on the young psyche of playing out extreme and disturbing situations.  We have all heard stories of grown-up child stars struggling to cope with life in the real world, and such stories invariably tell of crime and drugs and mental illness.

As the central figure, Laura Adebisi is credibly child-like, enthusiastic and eager to please.  Adebisi combines vulnerability with stroppiness, as Annie lashes out at her real dad, while chumming up with her onscreen, abusive dad.  We see her psychological decline in tandem with her onscreen character’s deprivations, culminating in a scene with an iron that must be a homage to Little Mo and Trevor, that iconic moment of a woman standing up to her abuser.

This is powerful stuff.  Darkly comic to begin with, satirising the industry, it develops into a gripping psychological drama.  The transitions are slick and effective, and there is dissonant sound underlining Annie’s distress.  I would suggest the TV screen that comes on at the end is too small to have the necessary impact, but the intimacy of the Old Joint Stock puts us right in the action, making us as viewers complicit in the exploitation of a child.

There are a couple of instances when they ask, “Annie, are you OK?” – and I can’t decide if this is unintentionally awkward or intentionally clever…

This is the second show from Birmingham’s Paperback Theatre that I have seen in a couple of months.  They’re two for two in terms of excellence, in my view.

bobby

Tom Bulpett and Laura Adebisi

 

 


Homeless not Hopeless

STREETS APART

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 6th April 2019

 

First off, it’s very pleasing to see new work being created and produced in a town that thrives on centuries-old drama.   This brand-new piece by local playwright Jackie Lines depicts what life is like for an increasing number of vulnerable people who, through no choice of their own, wind up on the streets.  Passers-by give examples of the abuse faced by homeless people and illustrate the negative attitudes and common misconceptions about them.  It’s an effective start.

The play tells of the efforts of a group of volunteers in a centre as they strive, with limited resources, to make life better for the homeless.  We meet a range of characters from the streets, such as ex-army, PTSD sufferer Neil (a powerful Graham Tyrer) who declaims poetry and rants through mental illness, like a latter-day Vladimir or Estragon.  There’s Mick, a former plumber who lost everything after a life-changing injury that led to an addiction to opiates, played by Mark Spriggs with intensity, strength and vulnerability.  The inclusion of a couple of original poems by Spriggs enriches the show.

Largely, the story concerns the fate of young couple Tom (Tom Purchase-Rathbone) and Susan (Emma Beasley) who have found each other on the streets, having each come from horrendous childhood backgrounds.  At first, they are cautious about accepting help from the centre, but gradually, they blossom and thrive, although there are some setbacks along the way.  Mick, who, despite the intercession of bleeding heart Sandra (Rachel Alcock) declines help, does not end so happily: there is some kind of moral message here.  If you accept help, you’ll be fine; if you don’t, you won’t.

Among an effective cast, Zoe Rashwan’s forthright Carol stands out and the drama is leavened by comic relief from Gill Hines as doddering volunteer Edna.  Chris Musson (appearing as guitarist Barry) brings original music, along with Chris Callaghan’s Eddie, as volunteers running song-writing sessions to give the homeless a voice.

As the volunteers, we have Stacey Warner as Anna, Barry Purchase-Rathbone as Greg, and Karen Welsh as Diane – whose elegant exterior masks a tale of injustice and loss that put her on the streets for a time.  The play shows that there are ways out of homelessness, and not all of them are tragic!

In terms of drama, I would like to see more direct conflict, perhaps involving the kind of authority figures whose policies exacerbate the problem.  Certainly, these people need to be in the audience of a show like this.  Director Greg Cole handles the slice-of-life tone, with scenes coming over as credible and authentic, although there are some staging issues.  In-the-round is more intimate, yes, and democratic, which is fitting, but cast members need to ‘share their backs’ so everyone gets a fair look at them!

By and large, the production is an awareness-raising, thought-provoking, conscience-pricking success, depicting the precariousness of life in society today and emphasising the humanity we all share with the homeless.

streets


Cobblers

TIMPSON The Musical

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 4th April, 2019

 

This isn’t the first musical to mine Romeo & Juliet for material, but it’s certainly the funniest.  The setting, such as it is, is Victorian London.  Two rival businesses both alike in indignity, one mending shoes, the other making keys, give rise to a pair of young lovers.  You know the rest – or you might think you do.  The plot takes a few swerves along the way to its resolution: the union of the two families and the formation of the High Street business we all know, the shop where you can get your shoes mended and your keys cut.  Yes, this is the world of the Montashoes and the Keypulets.

Writer-director-performer Sam Cochrane, the driving force behind the project, comes and goes as a range of characters, from a talking portrait to a winsome maid.  He is aided and abetted by versatile maniac Alex Prescot, who seems indefatigably energetic in his quickly-changing portrayals, in an irresistible performance.  I fell for him at once.

James Stirling is bluffly bombastic as Master Keypulet, the Machiavellian patriarch, contrasting with Susan Harrison’s diminutive dipsomaniac Lady Montashoe.  Madeleine Gray is hilariously histrionic as Monty, the Romeo figure, while Sabrina Messer’s Keeleigh (the Juliet) is simply sublime.  Messer can belt out heartfelt numbers and then within the space of a semiquaver, drop into a deadpan aside, forever undermining any emotive content the show might have.  She is delightful, to put it mildly.

It’s a good job there is no scenery to speak of, because this lot would be chewing it.  The acting style is over-the-top-and-a-half, the jokes come thick and fast.  Even the songs are laced with daftness with the onstage trio of musicians (Sophie Walker, Dan Hester and MD Lewis Bell) joining in proceedings.  Those songs, with lyrics by Sam Cochrane and Chris Baker, and music by Tom Slade and Theo Caplan, cover a range of styles and are all fabulously entertaining.  They are performed with gusto by the cast – even the choreography, by Ellie Fitz-Gerald is bloody silly. And they all keep instep!

This tale of cobbler meets key-maker is cutting edge (heh) and performed with sole (heh heh) and is a shoe-in to get tongues wagging.  This show has the power to heel… I’ll stop now.

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Alex Prescot and Madeleine Gray

 


Double Double

WISE CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019

 

On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.

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Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

 

 


Nazi Piece of Work

COLLABORATION

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th March, 2019

 

Ronald Harwood’s 2008 play has, sadly, gained in relevance since its original appearance.  Set mainly in the 1930s, the play charts the working relationship and friendship between top composer Richard Strauss and writer Stefan Zweig whom Strauss enlists as a librettist.  All goes well.  The men establish a rapport but, in the background, the rise of overt animosity toward the Jews eventually encroaches on proceedings.

The first act is a rather gentle comedy, offering insights into the creative process, but things take a much darker turn after the interval, with the interference of the Nazis, represented here by Herr Hinkel.

Bill Barry is positively avuncular as Strauss, with Simon King’s Zweig as a more neurotic contrast.  Both are at their strongest when speaking with passion, about music, about principles, and Barry’s greatest moment (and the play’s sucker punch) comes right at the end when Strauss gives testimony to a denazification board (Spoiler: The Nazis lost the war).  Skye Witney comes into her own as Strauss’s spouse, putting the arrogant Hinkel in his place, while Emilia Harrild as Zweig’s secretary/main squeeze Lotte impresses as she recounts a violent assault.   At other times, the action is a little stiff.  When pleasantries are exchanged, the characters aren’t quite as convincing, and there are times when the blocking seems off with actors in entirely the wrong place for optimal staging.  I’m guessing this is because it’s opening night and points still need tightening up.

There is an effective cameo from Alan Bull as hotel intendant Paul Adolph.  As the arrogant, coldly efficient Herr Hinkel, the excellent Jack Hobbis is utterly chilling, exuding an air of evil through a thin veneer of civility, and we are reminded how this pernicious ideology insinuates itself into the world, before imposing its will and causing all sorts of problems – to make an understatement.

Harwood’s writing is always enjoyable and this is no exception.  Alan K Marshall’s production hits all the high notes, with the dramatic moments powerfully presented, but like Zweig’s struggles with recitative, it’s the linking bits, the casual conversations, that require more consideration.

The play is a stark reminder to nip the Far Right in the bud before it can take hold.  It never ends well.

A worthwhile production that will make you smile, laugh, think and, ultimately, feel.

collaboration

Simon King and Bill Barry (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


War Wounds

GLORY DAZED

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 28th March, 2019

 

It’s closing time in a backstreet pub in Doncaster, and mild-mannered barman Simon and his staff are tidying up.  The peace is shattered by pounding at the door.  It’s Simon’s best mate, former squaddie Ray, ex-husband of Simon’s lady friend Carla, demanding to be let in for a lock-in.  Against their better judgment, they let him in, and what should be an after-hours drinking session turns into more of a hostage situation.

Ray is a bully and boor, a walking war zone with an extremely short fuse and a nasty sense of humour.  We laugh, uncomfortably – in case he turns on us, it feels like!  The humour is very dark and comes a distant second to the tension in this intimate, intimidating piece.  Director Tracey Street makes us feel as though we are in the pub with them, pitching the sudden changes of mood perfectly to keep us on edge.  It’s a gruelling experience and an irresistible one.

Dominic Thompson is in great form as barman Simon, nervous and timid upon Ray’s arrival, before dredging up some inner strength along with some unsavoury details about Ray’s wartime experiences in Afghanistan.  Karendip Phull is suitably dim as teenage barmaid Leanne in a well-observed portrayal, and Sophie Handy is heartbreaking as the ex-wife, embittered and standing her ground while still having feelings for her troubled ex.  She storms it, in fact.

Inevitably, perhaps, the show belongs to Ray.  In a towering performance, Paul Findlay brings this psychotic, damaged individual to scary life, dominating the scene, oozing menace and lashing out.  And yet, such is the power of Cat Jones’s writing, Tracey Street’s direction and Findlay’s rounded performance, we actually feel for the man, as we learn about his harrowing past.  The play highlights the damage, the PTSD, inflicted on soldiers.  As Carla wryly observes, if he’d come back with his legs off, everyone could see it.  Mental trauma is invisible.

Tautly presented, this discomfiting piece packs quite a wallop.  A superlative cast and a director who can orchestrate mood swings like a symphony deliver this sordid and powerful story in a production it is difficult to fault.  I emerge feeling punch-drunk and exhausted from the tension – just like a proper night out!

glory dazed

Sophie Handy, Paul Findlay and Dominic Thompson


Off the Grid

NOUGHTS & CROSSES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 27th March, 2019

 

Malorie Blackman’s seminal YA novel puts a spin on Romeo and Juliet, setting the love story in a parallel world that is rife with segregation and discrimination.  Now it comes to the stage in this pacey new adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz.  Simon Kenny’s set has movable flats that bear the 3×3 grid of the time-honoured game, and incorporates elements of Joshua Drualus Pharo’s lighting design, to create a stylish, non-naturalistic backing for the action.  For all its stylisation, this is a world we recognise all too well…

Society is split into Noughts and Crosses, the former being the underclass, the oppressed white race, with the latter holding all the power, the wealth, and even the orange juice.  Young Callum (from Nought family the Macgregors) and Persephone (Sephy) Hadley grow up together, but theirs is an unconventional friendship, going against cultural prejudices on both sides of the divide.  Sephy’s dad is Home Secretary, striving to placate an increasingly unruly and pro-active population, while of course maintaining the status quo.  The measures he takes are far from enough to appease the militant Noughts, and it’s not long before a terrorist act takes place.

As the central young couple, Heather Agyepong is a spirited and principled Sephy, with an equally appealing Billy Harris as Callum.  They are supported by a strong cast of half a dozen, including Lisa Howard – heartrending as Callum’s mum, Doreene Blackstock as Sephy’s frazzled and alcoholic mum, Daniel Copeland as Callum’s dad, who becomes radicalised by his other son Jude (a strong Jack Condon).  Kimisha Lewis impresses as Sephy’s prejudiced older sister Minerva, while Chris Jack’s Kamal, Sephy’s politician dad, convinces totally.

Director Esther Richardson keeps a naturalistic tone among the spots of narration, and uses expressionistic movements to reveal the characters’ inner lives as well as to stage difficult-to-stage moments (like a bomb going off).  The music and sound design of Arun Ghosh and Xana add to the disquiet and sense of impending doom.  It all adds up to a thoroughly gripping piece of theatre, excellently and compellingly staged.

It’s a provocative piece.  By flipping the races, Malorie Blackman makes us face the dystopian society in which we continue to live.  Even minor details are telling, like when a Nought complains that sticking plasters are not available in their skin tone.

This thought-provoking, tragic drama covers a lot of ground, bringing to the fore issues that have woefully become more urgent in recent times.

Highly recommended.

Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum - Noughts and Crosses - Photo by Robert Day - ASC_3791

Heather Agyepong (Sephy) and Billy Harris (Callum) Photo: Robert Day

 


Having a Nose Around

EDMOND DE BERGERAC

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2019

 

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the greatest historical romance dramas ever written.  Most people will be familiar with the title character and his big nose and perhaps also with the idea of him providing words of love for another man to woo the woman they both love.  This play by Alexis Michalik (in an ebullient translation by Jeremy Sams) tells the story of that play’s making.  We follow the early career of poet Edmond Rostand, his flops and his writer’s block, until he finds inspiration in the form of Jeanne, who happens to be the girlfriend of Rostand’s mate Leo.  To add to the triangle, Rostand is married…

Michalik builds in elements that directly influence Rostand in the creation of his masterpiece, so the action closely mirrors the great work that is to come.  Which is fun – we’re not here for historical accuracy!

As the writer-under-pressure, the delicately-featured Freddie Fox is excellent.  Caught up in a whirl of romantic intrigue and theatrical creativity, Fox dashes around, getting more and more frazzled and then, when inspiration strikes, he bubbles over with enthusiasm.  Of course, there is more to the writing process than this, but we’re not here for verisimilitude!

Fox is supported by a fine ensemble, with featured roles from Robin Morrissey as fit but dim Leo (the model for Cyrano’s Christian) and Gina Bramhill as Rostand’s muse Jeanne (the model for Cyrano’s Roxanne).   Jodie Lawrence is a lot of fun as a fruity-voiced Sarah Bernhardt, among other roles, while Henry Goodman is magnificent as celebrated actor Coquelin (the first to play the role of Cyrano).  Harry Kershaw is hilarious as Coquelin’s son – it takes skill to act badly! And Chizzy Akudolu swans around like a true diva as Maria, slated to be the first Roxanne.  Delroy Atkinson’s Monsieur Honore is immensely appealing – it is he who is the model for Cyrano – and I enjoy Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor as a pair of unsavoury backers.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set is a theatre within the theatre, a stage upon the stage.  This is a theatrical piece about a piece of theatre.  Director Roxana Silbert heightens the farcical aspects of the situation as well as the more dramatic moments, delivering a highly effective piece of storytelling, and that is what we’re here for!  While this is a lot of fun and is excellently presented, it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Rostand’s great work, but then, it doesn’t have to.

We might leave knowing more about Rostand than when we came in, but above all this amusing night at the theatre makes us want to see Cyrano again.

Freddie Fox (Edmond) in Edmond de Bergerac_credit Graeme Braidwood

Fantastic Mr Freddie Fox and Delroy Atkinson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Wise Cracks

VULVARINE: A New Musical 

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 21st March, 2019

 

They’re back!  Fat Rascal Theatre, who gave us Beauty & The Beast – a Musical Parody, the funniest show of last year, bring their new comedy musical to town, and it’s a cracker!

It’s an origin story: we witness the transformation of humble tax-office worker Bryony Buckle into a superhero for our time.  With High Wycombe serving as Metropolis or Gotham City, the fast-paced fun involves an evil plan to rid the town (and then, the world!) of gender equality.  Bryony, like other women, is injected by the local doctor, but on her way home, a well-timed bolt of lightning endows her with supernatural powers: strength, flight, the ability to talk with her cat… Dubbed ‘Vulvarine’ Bryony and her workmate Poppy, uncover the plot of the evil Mansplainer and many comic-book capers ensue.

In the title role, Allie Munro is an absolute hoot as the bespectacled and gauche Bryony learns to have confidence in her newfound abilities.  Katie Wells lends enthusiastic, nerdy support as sidekick Poppy, while Robyn Grant’s mad scientist Mansplainer is a grotesque super-villain, all but chewing the scenery.  Jamie Mawson is great as Lois Lane-figure Orson Bloom, awkwardly trying to establish a relationship with Bryony and distracted by the more assertive Vulvarine; and there is a hilarious turn from Steffan Rizzi as Sonya, wife to the villain.  Where Grant goes gloriously over the top in her gender-swapped role, Rizzi is more subtle in his, creating an amusing portrayal without caricature or parody and yet is still very funny.

Grant also wrote the book, giving it a satirical edge and plenty of good old British smut and double entendres.  The songs, composed by James Ringer-Beck with witty lyrics by Daniel Foxx and Grant, are tuneful, adhering to musical theatre convention with a lightness of touch and some fun choreography by Jed Berry.  This is a show that makes a virtue of its small scale production: the special effects are hilariously low-budget (like the hairdryer that enhances Vulvarine’s flying) and there is a lot of humour to be derived from the knockabout staging and the relentless energy of the five talented performers.

The show makes its points without being preachy.  Feminism can be funny and also self-deprecating, it turns out.  The whole thing is infused with irresistible charm and silliness with an undercurrent of being very clever indeed.  Robyn Grant is some kind of genius, I think, and not the evil kind.

Having a female superhero is no less effective, no less daft, than having male ones.  Given the recent outcry from man-babies over the gender-swapping of Captain Marvel, this show could not be timelier.

Super!

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Allie Munro as Bryony Buckle with Elton the cat (Robyn Grant has a hand in him too!)

 


Fare Play

APPROACHING EMPTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th March, 2019

 

Ishy Din’s new play is set in a small taxi firm in the North East, run by brothers Raf and Mansha.  The death of Thatcher has just been announced but, as we see from the way the action pans out, her legacy did not die with her.  Hard-nosed businessman Raf, obviously ailing from something, offers to let his brother buy him out.  Mansha seizes what seems to be a great opportunity, finding financial support to seal the deal from son-in-law Sully, and cab-driver Sameena.  The trio have big plans for the business except it quickly transpires they have been sold a pig in a poke…

It’s a conventional piece in terms of structure and presentation, but what sets it apart is how it brings the British-Asian experience to the fore.  Din’s writing is well-observed, naturalistic yet emotionally charged, and the characters are imbued with authenticity, thanks to the strong script and the excellent cast.

Kammy Darweish is superb as the downtrodden but optimistic Mansha, a man sold a dream that turns out to be a dud.  He could have wandered in from an Arthur Miller (All My Cabbies, perhaps, or Death Of A Taxi Operator) while Nicholas Khan is in perfect contrast as the smartly clad, tough-talking Raj.  Rina Fatania’s embattled and determined Sameena, working hard to get her kids back, is marvellous: we see how the attractiveness of the dream, the enticement of greed, can offer hope, and how devastating an effect it can have.  Nicholas Prasad is excellent as son-in-law Sully in a nuanced and credible portrayal, and there are powerful moments from Karan Gill as Shazad, Raf’s son, endangered by his father’s business practices.  Maanuv Thiara brings a touch of dark comedy and plenty of menace as Sameena’s thug brother, the true face of Thatcher’s legacy.

Director Pooja Ghal uses the close confines of Rosa Maggiore’s set to add to the tension.  The characters have little room for manoeuvre figuratively and literally, and when violence erupts it is all the more effective.

As TV commentary from Thatcher’s funeral drones on in the background, the play speaks to us today.  You can’t put money before people, is what it boils down to.  Making a living is important but making a killing makes you a c*nt.

A thoroughly absorbing drama, powerfully presented.  I’m tempted to say Ishy Din is the Asian David Mamet (and mean it as a compliment) but that would be a disservice to Din’s own distinctive voice.

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Nicholas Prasad, Rina Fatania and Kammy Darweish (Photo: Helen Murray)

 

 


Buchan the Trend

THE 39 STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019

 

I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.

Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go.  On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’.   The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.

One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music.  Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action.  Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.

As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character.  Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.

But then, so is everyone else.  Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters.  Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.

Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight.  Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility.  The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.

There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting.  For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.

This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it.  The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.

39 steps

In a rare moment of stillness, Isaac Stanmore and Rebecca Brewer take in a show (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Ideas Above Her Station

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 18th March, 2019

 

Paula Hawkins’s smash hit novel comes to the stage in this effective adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel.  Our protagonist is Rachel, a woman whose life has gone off the rails since her divorce from Tom.  She hits the bottle and commutes to London, her journey taking her past her former house.  She makes up lives for the people she sees, especially a young couple she calls Jess and Jason.  Except Jess is really Megan and Megan has gone missing… and Rachel has drink-induced gaps in her memory…

As ramshackle Rachel, Samantha Womack is superb, stumbling through the mystery like a drunken (and much younger) Miss Marple, conducting her own investigation just as the cops are investigating her.  Rachel is on stage throughout, so we only get to find out what she finds out.  Womack manages to arouse our sympathy for this broken woman and she is also rather funny.

Oliver Farnworth is also strong as Megan’s buff and bluff husband Scott, whose fits of rage make him a suspect.  John Dougall is highly enjoyable as Detective Inspector Gaskill, and there is a good supporting cast: namely, Naeem Hayat’s shady therapist Kamal, Adam Jackson-Smith as Rachel’s smarmy ex-husband Tom, and especially Lowenna Melrose as Tom’s second wife, Anna – her exchanges with Womack are bitter fun.  Kirsty Oswald comes and goes as missing Megan; she gets her moment in the spotlight, recounting the harrowing history of her baby in a particularly affecting scene.

Director Anthony Banks keeps the action fluid; the scene transitions run more smoothly than any rail service, with James Cotterill’s pieces of scenery sliding in and out and across, their motion bringing to mind railway carriages – or perhaps I’ve just been commuting too long myself.  Jack Knowles’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s projections suggest the passing trains as well as heightening moments of tension.  Banks brings all of these elements together to give us a taut, twisty thriller that retains the flavour of the book and improves on the film adaptation.

As well as a whodunnit, it’s a play about the abuse of women by men – but don’t let that put you off.  Compelling and intriguing, this touring production is well worth getting on board for.

TGOTT 11 Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack Photo by Manuel Harlan

Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Art Full

FAGIN’S TWIST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th March, 2019

 

Avant Garde Dance Company’s take on the Dickens classic offers a few surprises among an impressive display of contemporary dance, informed by an urban aesthetic.  It certainly is a sight to see: the precision, the skill, the energy, but I have a problem with the first act.  Apart from an introduction from the Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) there is little in the way of exposition.  The scenes that link the dance sequences are therefore not as clear as they could be, and so while I appreciate the mechanised, repetitive dehumanised routines in the workhouse, I’m not entirely sure who the characters are who plot their escape.

At the top of the second act, Dodger gives us a recap and mentions the others by name at last.  It seems a clumsy way to do things, rather than simply amending the dialogue in the earlier scenes, but at least it leads to better storytelling.  There is some clever rhyming and word play in Maxwell Golding’s writing thought, and some cheeky references to song titles from the Lionel Bart musical.

Arran Green’s Fagin is tall and slender, towering over the action in his big coat and top hat.  Green moves with elegance and humour – spoken scenes are also accompanied by choreographed moves and gestures – and there is a lovely, sinuous quality here.

There is a striking duo (or pas de deux, I suppose) between Bill (Stefano A Addae) and Nancy (Ellis Saul) and a surprising twist (as in plot rather than Chubby Checker) from Sia Gbamoi as Oliver.

Yann Seabra’s costumes reference the story’s Victorian origins, while the score (by various) is relentlessly of the now.  Seabra’s set, before it becomes other things, starts off as a big fence.  Which is what Fagin is, if you think about it!  Jackie Shemish’s lighting is as taut and evocative as the performances; it’s as though the lighting is another dancer!

Tony Adigun’s choreography is expressive, mixing fluidity of forms with sharper, jerkier, inorganic moves but I think as much attention needs to be given to characterisation in the spoken scenes as is devoted to the dance sequences.  Rather than being a moving story, I find myself marvelling at the performance of this amazing ensemble rather than engaging with what the characters experience.

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The cast of Fagin’s Twist