Louder Than Words

#JESUIS

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th February, 2018

 

Everything has a hashtag these days, doesn’t it?  We all remember the #JeSuisCharlie one used as a show of solidarity after the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris.  But other atrocities don’t receive the coverage on social, or any other media.  The idea behind this new dance production is that other atrocities are being perpetrated and the people caught up in them also exist, they can also proclaim “Je suis” (I am.  I exist)

Director-choreographer Aakash Odedra has put together a troupe of dancers whose initial brief was to portray what life is like in present-day Turkey, but the show developed into something less specific yet more universal.  Rather than particulars, we get types.  A man in a long, military coat, moves jerkily, making weird angles.  He is the oppressor, it transpires, preying on the rest of the ensemble, often singling one member out, male or female, and putting his hand over their mouth and dragging them away, like a lion picking off individuals from the herd.  To a soundtrack of sound effects: sirens, feedback, electric humming, the action plays out, becoming more frenetic, more distorted when loud music is added to the mix.

The ensemble, faced with a microphone, fall over each other for their chance to speak out – until the Man comes. Between blackouts, we glimpse striking tableaux, some of them Caravaggio would be proud of.  Imprisoned in narrow strips of light, they shake wildly.  They are wrapped in lengths of cling film, robbing them of individuality, dehumanising them.  To sound effects of the sea, they crawl, washed up on the beach, dead – we have all seen images of refugees who have met this fate, especially their children.

The show is a kaleidoscope of imagery and sound.  Some of it is abstract and you get a general feel for what’s going on.  Much of it is more directly recognisable.  All of it is powerful.

I don’t think ‘exhilarating’ is the word I want here, but I am certainly invigorated in a way by the energy of the performers.  Involving disturbing material translated into movement, this piece is not only a demonstration of what Dance can do but also a reminder of what is going on, what people are doing to each other in the world today.  Gripping, inventive and pertinent, #JeSuis engages us intellectually and emotionally.  Admirable.

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Stuff and Nonsense

THE BALD PRIMA DONNA

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 13th February, 2018

 

Eugene Ionesco’s work is a staple of any self-respecting Drama course, but the Romanian-French playwright is hardly a household name.  Which is a pity, considering the influence his absurdist style had on the works of Monty Python and the like.  In fact, much of what we find in Ionesco is now deemed ‘Pythonesque’.   Ionesco holds up social convention as something bizarre.  His dialogue is full of nonsense and non sequiturs, repetitions and random outpourings – and this play is a prime example.

Mrs Smith (Emma Beasley) enthuses about lunch while her husband (Thomas Hodge) tuts and grunts behind a newspaper.  She declares her affinity for all things English – including mayonnaise.  Hearing such remarks in today’s England, I can’t help finding resonance with the nonsense of the Brexit vote.  Almost everything we consume is imported from elsewhere.  The play is vibrant with significance, it turns out.

Mr and Mrs Martin (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes) arrives late for dinner and are admonished.  This couple struggle to recollect the circumstances of their acquaintance – even though it transpires they travel on the same train, live in the same street, the same flat, it turns out they are not who they think they are… This is a puzzling little sketch, beautifully performed by the pair, and expertly built to a crescendo by director Steve Farr.

The Maid (Claire Bradwell) is the only character to address us directly, breaking the frame, and is the most artificial of the bunch, flipping from hysterical laughter to wracking sobs in a flash.  Bradwell radiates impudence and fun, to the exasperation of the waspish Emma Beasley and the boorish Tom Purchase-Rathbone.  The company is completed by Barry Purchase-Rathbone’s Fire Chief, who is touting for business.  He regales the group with rambling, pointless anecdotes and impenetrable fables, and his deadpan delivery is hilarious.

The whole group play things dead straight and speak what can be meaningless strings of words with conviction, and so the dialogue sounds as though we ought to understand it.  Scenes are broken up and interrupted by a lighting change and the chimes of a clock, during which the characters tip back their heads, close their eyes and open their mouths, before getting on with their lives.  These interludes symbolise how our lives are governed by time, by natural processes, by convention.  Above all, these surreal episodes remind us what we are watching is stylised and artificial – just as the manners and etiquette of society are stylised and artificial.

Repetition of phrases, that become slogans, does not imbue them with meaning.  And so, “She’s a true blue Englishwoman” spoken in a loop reminds me of “Brexit means Brexit”.  Vague remarks about British decency and fair play are bandied around as if there is consensus on what these things are, or that they exist.  The play ends as it began, with the opening lines of dialogue, except the Smiths have been usurped by the Martins, who now refer to themselves as the Smiths, and on the nonsense goes…

On the surface, this is a very funny production of a difficult script, with an excellent cast breathing life and emotion into nonsense.  Beneath the surface, the play couldn’t be timelier as a snapshot of the nonsense of living in Britain today.

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Something out of Nothing

NOTHING

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 11th February, 2018

 

Lulu Raczka’s play from 2014 is all talk and no action.  The ‘nothing’ of the title is exactly what happens.  And that is the point.  The cast of eight sit among the audience; each has a story to tell, a monologue to get off his or her chest, and the actors pipe up, not in turn exactly, but when the moment feels right, and so there can be several stories being told concurrently.  It’s a bit like flipping channels and amusing collisions arise, as if the speakers are responding to each other, at times.  I understand the ebb and flow of the monologues changes at every performance and so each performance is truly unique.

Today, Oscar Street kicks off with his story of how his obsession with tattoos led him to follow a young man onto a bus on which he later became a public hero.  He is ‘interrupted’ by Sam Wilson, a troubled chap who traces his sexual confusion to an assault he suffered at the age of eleven.  Next, Emma Friend pipes up, in a scandalously delightful account of shitting on the doorsteps of those who cross her.  We hear from Shaun Hartman’s film enthusiast, struggling to help a friend with depression; from Alexis Meshida, craving graphic vengeance for the rape of her best friend; from Rose Pardo Roques who claims to have achieved nothing, and has dreams and fantasies rather than ambitions; from Varinder Singh Dhinsa whose experience at a humdrum house party leads to an horrific encounter; and from Abigail Westwood, an avid porn watcher who is not at ease with her proclivities…  The characters speak frankly (do they ever!!) in ways that people rarely do in reality.  There is a confessional air to the piece and it reminds me very much of the writing of Steven Berkoff in the depictions of sex and violence and sexual violence.

There is humour and tension in the air – we don’t know who might speak up next: it could be our neighbour or anyone across the rows.  We listen, we laugh, we wince, and it feels as though anyone of us could have a story to tell.

Director Andrew Cowie elicits assured and effective performances from every member of his young cast, each one as credible as the last (or the next).  In a way, the cast direct themselves, deciding when to chip in and when to keep shtum during the performance, but they are clearly well-trained in getting across the truth of their characters’ tales.

An unusual piece of theatre, superbly and simply presented, Nothing is a snapshot of modern society, our fears, our hang-ups, our solipsistic world-views… and this production further cements the reputation of the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio as a venue for challenging, rewarding work.

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Who’s The Daddy?

MAMMA MIA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 7th February, 2018

 

The mother (the Mamma) of all jukebox musicals arrives in Wolverhampton as part of its bid for world domination.  Regular readers will know my views on jukebox musicals but where this one has an advantage is the back catalogue it raids for its score is one of the richest seams of pop music ever written.  Songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are one of the greatest partnerships of all time and their work is part of the fabric of popular culture.

It’s a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it’s great to hear the songs again; on the other, the songs are so familiar it is difficult to appreciate the context into which they have been thrust.  And so, some songs are shown in a new light (The Name of the Game) while others are rendered meaningless.  Some songs are simply too ‘big’ – most are stories in themselves and feel diminished, shoehorned into the storyline.

Ah, the storyline.  It reminds me of Shirley Conran’s blockbuster, Lace, (Which one of you four bitches is my mother?) but here a young girl seeks a father from three candidates.  She invites them to her wedding in the hope of recognising her dad right away.  It’s this little mystery that motivates the return of the three men, now middle-aged, and their reunion with their former flame, the girl’s mother Donna, who used to sing in some kind of glam rock vocal group.  Spoiler: the identity of the dad isn’t revealed, in a wishy-washy copout.  Now, if one of the guys had been a complete and utter shit, then we would have had some tension.  There would have been some stakes in the unfolding drama.

But everyone’s nice.  Everyone’s an extrovert.  Everyone’s funny.  Everyone is basically the same character.  And it all takes place on a Greek island, flooded with sunshine, and so the Scandinavian introspection and melancholy of the lyrics is mostly swamped.

Lucy May Barker is an appealing Sophie, Donna’s bastard daughter, while Helen Hobson’s Donna (who looks better when she gets out of her Rod, Jane & Freddie dungarees) has the big sings.  She can’t quite pull off the full Agnetha, opting to sing-speak some lines.  As her old chums and backing singers, Rebecca Seale is a lot of fun as Rosie and the elegant, leggy Emma Clifford makes a striking impression as Tanya – a kind of Patsy Stone figure, without the nihilism.

Catherine Johnson’s book keeps things frothy.  We are amused by the antics of these people rather than touched by their plight (such as it is).  Other than as a spectacle, and a chance to sing and clap along, the whole thing is emotionally uninvolving.  Only Slipping Through My Fingers tugs at the heartstrings.

Perhaps I’m missing the point.  It is more fun than I’m perhaps suggesting, and I especially enjoy the staging of the earlier numbers, where choreographer Anthony Van Laast adds a touch of humour (their heads appearing in doorways, for example).  Curiously, the chorus disappear to be replaced by disembodied back-up vocals.

If you want undemanding, feel-good fun, and a chance to revisit some fantastic songs, this is for you.  After all, “Without a song or a dance, what are we?”

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Helen Hobson and Lucy May Barker (Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)


Close Encounters of the Brief Kind

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th February, 2018

 

Emma Rice’s adaptation of the Noel Coward script makes a triumphant return to the REPa decade since its first incarnation.  Trimmed down to a jam-packed 90 minutes, this new production is a roller-coaster of theatrical invention and charm.  The illicit, irresistible romance of central couple Alec and Laura plays out in a crazy, stylised world in which the other (working class) characters act as a kind of chorus, their own uncomplicated love lives contrasting with the restraint and guilt of the protagonists.  It strikes me, this time around, how much the elements play a part in the telling of this story: air, fire and water are particularly prevalent, in the wind that blows through the station, and water in the waves of emotion that wash over the scenes… A fire is present and the earth, is represented I suppose, by the stacks of coal to one side.  The most elemental force in play though is Love.

Jim Sturgeon is every inch the English gent as Dr Alec Harvey, going against type to express his feelings.  He is matched by guilt-ridden Isabel Pollen’s Laura.  It’s all ‘teddibly, teddibly’ in its stuffiness but the emotions come up fresh and relatable.  They are surrounded by supporting players (sometimes, physically supporting!) with old-fashioned accents – the show strongly presents a bygone age: the romance of steam locomotion, when brandy was thruppence a glass, when middle class morals defined action… Propriety has given way to political correctness in society – and this is not a bad thing, but this quaintly English piece (English in its humour, its tea-drinking) is deliberately skewed away from the naturalistic.  The world was never like this, so don’t get too nostalgic for what didn’t exist.

Beverly Rudd absolutely shines as café girl Beryl, among other roles, and Lucy Thackeray’s Mrs Baggott is a remarkable characterisation and no mistake.  Dean Nolan, who also doubles as Laura’s becardiganed husband, is a lot of fun as railway worker Albert, while Jos Slovick’s Stanley leads the singing, his voice at odds with his silly hat.

This being a Kneehigh show, there is live music almost throughout, played by the cast and a complement of musicians.  A few Noel Coward numbers are included, because it’s not just about the brilliance of Emma Rice, you know.  The production reminds us of Rice’s skills and insights as a director.  There is much playful sophistication behind her ideas: Alec and Laura swooning in love, rising on chandeliers, the splash of water as they each tumble into a river, the puppet children being beastly to each other… The show bursts with ideas we appreciate on an emotional as well as analytical level.  The form delivers the content in a symbolic, stylised manner enabling us to engage emotionally, rather than keep us distant through theatrical alienation.

Exhilarating entertainment that reminds us why we fell in love with theatre in the first place, this is an all-too brief encounter with brilliance and a ride you don’t want to miss.

 

Isabel Pollen (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec)

Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon getting a bit carried away


Moving Moves

TRANSLUNAR PARADISE

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 31st January, 2018

 

Theatre Ad Infinitum are reviving their hit show from seven years ago and it’s a good fit for the Hippodrome’s studio space.  The cast of two, accompanied by an accordionist-vocalist, perform a dumb show about loss and moving on, using masks and movement and a bit of heavy breathing.  It is the story of a widower, an old man at a loss because of loss.  He makes two cups of tea, forgetting his wife is gone.  Flashback scenes replay his memories: taking her to the hospital, her flatlining… We go back to earlier, happier times: how they first met, for example, their first dance.  There are also unhappier times: her miscarriage – sensitively and poignantly portrayed.  In the memory scenes, the masks are removed and the movements are more stylised, more staccato.

Masks usually dehumanise the wearer – ask any psychopathic killer in a horror film – and all expression comes from the actions and gestures of the wearer.  Even though the actors use one hand to hold the masks, this doesn’t reduce their ability to express what their characters are going through, their thoughts and reactions, while enabling swift donning and doffing of their old faces as we go in and out of flashbacks.  We recognise the humanity of the elderly couple, and it helps that their life together follows a familiar pattern, moments we can recognise and to which we can relate.  It’s basically the first ten minutes of Up! performed with grace, dance and gentle humour.

George Mann and Deborah Pugh are remarkable in their range and precision.  Inventive use is made of sound effects: the man’s wartime experiences, for example, and his PTSD.  On the accordion and singing or whistling all the way through, the versatile Sophie Crawford provides the soundtrack – there is humour here too, like the sudden shift into Girl From Ipanema when the couple get into a lift.

It’s an absorbing piece, amusing, touching and uplifting, deceptively simple and impressively presented.  Mime worthy of your time.

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Facing up to loss: George Mann and Deborah Pugh (Photo: Idil Sukan)

 

 


Something’s Got To Give

THE LATE MARILYN MONROE

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2018

 

We’ll never know what happened during the last moments of the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Conspiracy theories abound, each one wackier than the last (the CIA, the Mafia, she was about to tell the world about the existence of aliens…); here, writer-director Darren Haywood, following extensive research, pieces together an impression of what might have been, but his play is more than a dramatic reconstruction.

We spend Marilyn’s final hours with her in her bedroom.  The constantly ringing telephone is a source of annoyance and also comfort as she takes and makes calls, looking forward to plans for the next day, the next week… For a time, we don’t believe this is a woman on the verge of suicide.  But then, as Tania Staite’s impressive portrayal reveals, Monroe is not exactly stable.  Capricious and volatile, she rounds on those closest to her, hurls colourful invective down the phone at Bobby Kennedy, and then switches back to a child-like persona, desperately insecure about her looks, caving under the pressure of having to be Marilyn Monroe.

Tania Staite gets the cadences of Monroe’s voice – it’s an evocation rather than an impersonation, and Staite settles into the role; it’s the first night and I can’t tell whether first-night stumbles are actually part of Monroe’s distracted state!

There is sympathetic support from Ellie Darvill as housekeeper Mrs Murray, a maternal, nurturing presence who is on the receiving end of Monroe’s paranoid flights of fury.  Dru Stephenson is also good as Monroe’s long-suffering friend and publicist, while Martin Rossen’s visiting psychiatrist adopts more of a friendly and paternal bedside manner than a professional detachment.

Haywood’s writing is excellent – his Monroe really comes alive when she’s recounting anecdotes of Hollywood gossip – and, thanks to Staite’s performance, we do care about this vulnerable victim of the celebrity machine.  The whole thing is flooded with doom and dramatic irony.  We know she’s not long for this world and so lines like “I may just go to sleep and never get up” and “You’ve got time ahead of you” have resonance the characters don’t realise.

Marilyn’s early death speaks to our age directly.  Not just because of its fairy-tale-gone-wrong aspects but because her story reveals times have not changed.  The celebrity machine churns on, chewing up and spitting out stars, and our culture is still obsessed with every detail of their private lives.  Also, Monroe discloses (although it’s not secret) that she had to sleep her way through a slew of directors and producers to get her break, and this brings the production bang up-to-date with the spectre of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.  Show business has not changed and, by extension, the world has not changed.  Monroe’s demise remains a powerful indictment of the sleazy patriarchy that both made and broke her.

Absorbing and well-played, the production could benefit from a few cuts – especially in the second act – so that it makes its points more efficiently.

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Going off the Rails

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 29th January, 2018

 

Based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, this adaptation by Craig Warner plunges us into an amoral world, where man’s actions are not punished by the rule of law – the judicial and law enforcement systems exist but only to the extent that they are bogeymen, incited to shape the course of the action.  One man introduces himself to another as they travel on the same train across 1950s Texas.  A few drinks and a bit of chit-chat give rise to a deadly pact between them.  The extrovert Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) proposes to murder the troublesome wife of Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) in exchange for Ashton’s murder of Bruno’s stingy father… It seems like a joke, a bit of drink-induced fun.  Except Bruno goes through with his part of the bargain and soon expects Haines to do his…

As the loudmouth Bruno, Harper dominates the action, coldly amusing – the life and soul of any party, were he not such a chilling killer.  Harper recites Bruno’s account of the first murder with icy relish.  On the other hand, Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines is a complete contrast.  Initially more reserved than Bruno, we see him shut further in on himself as the consequences of the pact begin to pinch.  Both of these central roles are compellingly portrayed.  Haines struggles to keep his life on the rails while Bruno keeps crashing into it like a runaway train.

There is excellent support from Hannah Tointon as Anne, Guy’s second wife, showing more backbone than we might expect by the play’s denouement.  Also impressive are Helen Anderson as Bruno’s doting mother and brief appearances from Sandy Batchelor as Frank and Owen Findlay as Robert.

The star name for this tour must be John Middleton.  Formerly the mild-mannered vicar Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale, Middleton gives a more assertive performance as Arthur Gerrard, the trusty retainer of Bruno’s late father, who smells a rat and winkles out the truth.  Just as the murders occur off-stage, so does the bulk of Gerrard’s investigation, and so it does seem as if he stumbles across the facts with ease – but this is not a whodunit, rather a will-they-get-away-with-it, and the focus is on the aftermath’s effects on the protagonists.

David Woodhead’s set places the scenes in compartments with sliding panels that reveal and conceal parts of the stage accordingly.  This means the actors don’t have much room to manoeuvre, adding to the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense that events are closing in on the killers.  Woodhead dresses the cast in sharp suits of the period, complementing the strains of cool jazz that serve as incidental music for scenic transitions.  The production is suffused with an Edward Hopper feel: murky yet dispassionate.  In the confined settings, director Anthony Banks keeps things from becoming too static (although the lengthy opening scene on the train is in peril of becoming just that) by drawing out the intensity of the performances.  Each character is heightened in some way.

Consistently intriguing rather than gripping, the production offers, via Highsmith, a different take on morality.  Whether we want either Bruno or Haines or both of them to get off scot-free is a reflection on us.

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Chris Harper and Jack Ashton getting acquainted on the train


Love Bites

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th January, 2018

 

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is the most Stephen King-like book I’ve read that isn’t by Stephen King.  The film version that followed is a masterpiece in understatement and now this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne streamlines the story even further.  Several characters and scenes are completely excised, allowing the central relationship to come to the fore.

Director Liz Plumpton gets the tone exactly right, from the stilted naturalism of the dialogue to the shocking moments of violence.  In fact, horror aside, this is a very subtle production.  A snow-laden setting is suggested as walk-ons toss handfuls of snowflakes over their heads in an establishing montage; costumes (by Pat Brown and Vera Dean) hint at Scandinavia with its sweaters and bobble hats; and the lighting by James Booth adds a wintry chill to the multi-purpose set (also by Booth) that combines starkly striped tree trunks with interiors: a locker room, a bedroom… with a window… Kevin Middleton’s sound design gives us the impression of the world beyond the set: a swimming lesson, hospital noises, and so on.

There are lots of scenes, some of them quite short, but Plumpton engages us from the off and, as the story unfolds, thrills and touches us in equal measure.

Niall Higgins’s Oskar has ‘victim’ all over him.  The kids in the story are played a bit older than they appear in the original and so Oskar comes across as perhaps being on ‘the spectrum’.  Bullied and alone, prone to shoplifting sweets and unable to communicate with his separated parents, Oskar is a sympathetic fellow.  Simon King is terrifyingly efficient as the murderous Hakan.  Deronie Pettifer makes an impression as his mother, who drinks; and there are strong appearances by Mike Baughan as the police chief investigating a series of murders in the locality, and by Oliver King and Elliot Mitchell as the bullies.

But the piece works as well as it does chiefly due to a captivating performance by Molly Packer as the beguiling Eli, an ancient being in a young girl’s body.  Packer is truly excellent, balancing moments of unhuman-ness with childlike fun.  Her violence is as credible as it is merciless.  Eli’s relationship with Oskar humanises her while it gives him backbone and independence.  It’s not just a vampire love story, it’s about real-life monsters and loneliness and resilience.  It’s also the sweetest horror story going.

A fantastic start to 2018 at the Crescent, this production gets everything right.

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Oskar worthy: Niall Higgins and Molly Packer (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Taking a Hedda

HEDDA GABLER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

 

The National Theatre’s celebrated production is doing the rounds, and it’s a real treat to have such prestigious work on one’s doorstep.  It’s a new version of the Henrik Ibsen masterpiece translating the action into a contemporary setting or, I should say, a kind of timeless setting: the play still has people writing letters to convey important plot points, even though there’s an electronic visitor cam and door buzzer…

Jan Versweyveid’s set is an empty box, ostensibly the yet-to-be-decorated apartment of the newlywed Tesmans.  Sparsely furnished, often its only light source is the huge side window.  It makes for a stark landscape, suitable for any urbane Nordic noir drama… Hedda’s piano feels out of place – just as she does – and her late father’s brace of pistols, already in their own little display cabinet, lend foreboding.  Hedda shoots both them and her mouth off to express her boredom and frustrations.  We realise that the apartment is not so much Hedda’s space as her headspace, and the action takes a more symbolic turn.  By the final act when the other characters are actively boarding up the only window to the world she has, we are beyond the realms of the literal.  Director Ivo van Hove makes bold choices, most of which I approve of, in his presentation of a classic text in a new light.  Ibsen’s (via a Patrick Marber reworking) naturalistic chitchat is underscored by a slowly pulsating, throbbing sound that is disconcerting and ominous, coming to a sudden halt at the moments of high drama – it’s its absence we notice, as Hedda is starkly confronted with turns of events.

Lizzy Watts heads a strong ensemble in the title role.  Her Hedda is headstrong, coldly sarcastic and manipulative.  Having surrendered her own power, her own identity by becoming Mrs Tesman, she seeks to have power over someone else.  We enjoy her barbed outbursts and see her cruelty for what it is.  What I don’t really get is the source of her dissatisfaction: Abhin Galeya’s Tesman is an affable chap, enthusiastic and lively – yes, Tesman’s area of expertise (medieval trug makers) is esoteric and, frankly, dull as ditch water, but that doesn’t make him a basket case.  If, through Hedda’s eyes, we were shown a Tesman more annoying, more gauche, more bookish, we might appreciate more her frustration at having settled for this nerd.  Similarly, Richard Pyros’s Lovborg, doesn’t have, for me, the irresistibly sleazy charisma, the sense of brooding, romantic danger, that gets the ladies’ heads turning.   Annabel Bates is an appealing Mrs Elvsted – even though she’s already left her unsuitable husband (a course of action Hedda doesn’t even consider) – she’s very much the victim role, an innocent caught in Hedda’s web.  Adam Best swaggers and strides as Judge Brack, the male authority role and the villain of the piece.  Seen through the prism of Hedda’s mind, the physical liberties he takes with her become symbolic – he wouldn’t get away with such excesses in their literal sense, one would hope.  Best is enjoyably hateful, tightening his hold on Hedda – no woman can escape the patriarchy, after all…  Christine Kavanagh makes an impression as Tesman’s stylish, interfering Aunt, and Madlena Nedeva’s Berte the maid is a constant presence – a bit like a museum attendant on her seat at the intercom, but also as a kind of familiar to Hedda, silently conjuring props and messages, often unbidden.

It’s a thought-provoking staging that illuminates the Ibsen in such a way we appreciate the richness of the original.  For me, the sense of being trapped doesn’t quite come off at the end.  Perhaps I would have had the walls closing in, almost imperceptibly; Hedda’s vast empty box of an apartment is simply too vast.

A bold production that engages our intelligence rather than packing an emotional punch, it’s certainly worth seeing and, get this: if you’re one of those young people (26 or even younger) you can see the show on tour for merely a fiver!  Definitely worth it.  All you have to do is quote IBSEN5 when you book.

HEDDA GABLERUK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

Keeping a cool Hedda: Lizzy Watts (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)


Looking Back in Anger

BONES

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th January, 2018

 

Mark is a 19-year-old with a temper – to put it mildly – in this production by Gritty Theatre of Jane Upton’s one-hander.  As the story unfolds, we learn of his situation and his past.  He’s unemployed, blowing his money on blow-outs from McDonalds and blow jobs from spotty prostitutes, his only respite from a living hell with his drug-abusing mother and the unfortunate baby sister at whom he directs his anger and frustration.  He plans to kill the child, just to get some peace but, the more we learn about him, the more we realise he won’t go through with it.  Will he?

He relives memories of happier times: a seaside holiday with Mum and Grandad – until the spectre of drug abuse ruins everything.

All in all, it’s a grim tale, ameliorated only by glimpses of humour, but a raw, fearless and intense performance by Dominic Thompson, who not only narrates the story but inhabits it, keeps us entranced.  Director Ian Robert Moule has Thompson utilise pub props and pub furniture to represent what’s going on in the account: and so, a spillage of lager becomes the young Mark’s pissed trousers; his hoodie becomes the prostitute; a toppled stool becomes the incapacitated mother the little boy desperately tries to dress… It’s inventive stuff and highly evocative but, of course, the power of the production comes through Thompson’s volatile presence.  Mark is quick to boil over into fury.  It’s not so much a short fuse as no fuse at all, and while there are quieter moments and even calmer moments, perhaps Mark could do with more time to simmer.  He seems to go instantly to 11, as though a switch is being flicked.  Thompson maintains the energy and intensity of his portrayal and is never short of compelling and credible in what is a bravura performance.

The material is gritty – as we might expect! – and we do feel for Mark, who has had to deal with matters no child should ever encounter.  The play finishes on a life-changing shock, a culmination of horribleness, that leaves us with a nasty aftertaste.  Upton shows us a dark side of society without offering a way-out, or a suggestion of how things could improve, and so Bones is ultimately bleak.  But the powerful presentation gives us something to admire in this gruelling, gruesome tale.

Bones


The Wizard of Oddsocks

THE WIZARD OF OZ

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 14th January, 2018

 

In the summer, they do Shakespeare; in the winter, the funniest theatre company in the land turn their attention to classic stories.  This year, the inimitable Oddsocks Productions take us to the land of Oz in this new adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel by writer/director/genius Andy Barrow.  His cast of five actors, supplemented by puppets, do the lot.  An original twist has Dorothy’s Toto narrating the action but on the whole, the show sticks to the familiar plot, albeit streamlined and seen through the prism of Oddsocks’s trademark style.  It is not a spoof – the source material is never mocked but the pantomime styling of the presentation makes for a fresh interpretation of the time-honoured tale.

Making her Oddsocks debut as our heroine is Freya Sharp; her Dorothy is perky and fun without being saccharine or overly earnest (looking at you, Judy G!).  The rest of the cast are familiar faces:  Andrew McGillan, among other roles, appears as the tallest munchkin and an impressively physical scarecrow, for which he must have had several major bones removed.  If not, I want the number of his chiropractor.  Joseph Maudsley returns, mainly as the Tin Woodman – he gets to utter the most blatant innuendos with a look of utter innocence (The show has plenty of laughs for the grown-ups but is never smutty).  Also back is the hilarious Gavin Harrison, with ten roles to play, including a pantomime villain of a Wicked Witch of the West and the Great and Terrible Wizard himself.  Finally, the funniest woman in Britain (and probably Europe) Elli Mackenzie excels as a ‘gender fluid’ Cowardly Lion.

The cast perform with seemingly indefatigable gusto and charm, while Andy Barrow’s script keeps them busy and keeps us laughing.  Practical effects are brought into play to depict such moments as things blown away by the cyclone, the Lion swimming, the Scarecrow dropped from the sky… These throwaway moments are delightful in their invention and execution, while big moments: the melting of the Wicked Witch (spoiler, sorry) and the big reveal of the Wizard (a magnificent giant puppet head) to be none other than the great and terrible humbug currently in residence in the White House, reveal the genius of Andy Barrow, the Wizard of Oddsocks.  Yes, we’ve had a lot of laughs; yes, the story and meaning of Baum’s original remain intact, but also we get topical references and political satire added into the mix.

Along with some familiar numbers, there are original songs by Felix M-B, all of them pretty good.  The closing number in particular has me humming all the way home.

Above all, the show is fun, fun, fun.  Silly, irreverent and clever, Oddsocks are in magnificent form and this is a wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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Friends of Dorothy: Freya Sharp, Joseph Maudsley, Elli Mackenzie and Andrew McGillan


Sold!

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Playhouse Theatre, London, Saturday 13th January, 2018

 

David Mamet’s classic play gets an invigorating new lease of life in this snappy revival at the Playhouse.  It’s a top-drawer production that allows the quality of the writing to shine.  Mamet’s naturalistic dialogue, with its interruptions and stichomythia, is peppered with the argot of the characters’ occupation: they are real-estate salesmen, and the script relies on our intelligence and ability to put two and two together to garner what the terms mean.

Stanley Townsend almost steals the show as down-on-his-luck Shelly Levine, getting a new injection of enthusiasm when he makes a big sale.  Townsend’s reliving of the scene in which his clients sign the contract is a scream.  Townsend is a superlative performer and utterly, utterly credible.  In fact, credibility is the watchword of Sam Yates’s production; his direction paces the scenes perfectly, with outbursts, crescendos and moments of stillness.

Kris Marshall is suitably wound-up as office manager John Williamson and there are big laughs from Robert Glenister’s outbursts of profanity as the volatile Dave Moss.  Don Warrington is superb as the inarticulate, unassertive George, while Daniel Ryan elicits our sympathy as a customer trying to revoke a deal.

But the show belongs to Hollywood star Christian Slater in the powerhouse role of hard-selling Ricky Roma.  Slater’s fast-talking but at ease, inhabiting the role exquisitely; Roma is the big fish in this particular pond.  Both the humour and intensity of his performance are accentuated by his trademark circumflex eyebrows and smart-alec smirk.  Expertly supported by a flawless ensemble, Slater’s charismatic presence is magnetic.  Mamet allows us to see the character for what he is, exposing the tricks of the trade, or else Slater would have signing our lives away to all sorts of things.

Chiara Stephenson’s detailed set (a Chinese restaurant, then the guys’ office) grounds the action in its reality.  The play gives us a window into a high-pressure world and, by extension, shows us the dark underbelly of capitalistic pursuits, which tend to lead to corruption and crime.  Also, the play reveals how men are, what they talk about, how they express themselves.  Yes, the play is dated, a period piece, with its references to typewriters and so on, but the racism, the sexism and the way men feel they have to lock horns with each other and compete, are still very much with us.

The brief running time keeps things punchy, condensing the brilliance of the script and the brilliance of the performances into a perfect, highly entertaining piece that still has a lot to say and that remains very funny indeed.  Definitely not past its sell-by.

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Top dog: Christian Slater as Ricky Ross (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Hair Bare Bunch

HAIR

The Vaults, London, Thursday 11th January, 2018

 

I am lucky to catch this 50th anniversary production just before it reaches the end of its run and I can only kick myself for not going sooner and allowing time for return visits.  Ground-breaking back in 1967, in terms of sound and format, the show comes across as fresh as a daisy you might wear in your hair.  Members of the ‘Tribe’ make observations of society: civil rights, pollution, war, while the ongoing plot involves handsome Mancunian-wannabe Claude (Robert Metson in fine voice) wondering whether to burn his call-up papers and stay with his hippy friends, chiefly Berger – the excellent, nay perfect, Andy Coxon.  Berger, king of the tribe, is a charismatic figure, sexy, funny – Every time I see Coxon perform I fall in love with him all over again, and that’s before he gets his bum out.

Shekinah McFarlane’s Dionne gets things off to a searing start with her powerful vocals in ‘The Age of Aquarius’; she also plays a mean saxophone later on.  Liam Ross-Mills’s Woof gets carried away with a Mick Jagger poster; Patrick George’s Margaret Mead has fun recruiting an audience member to be her ‘Hubert’ – in fact, everyone gets their moment to stand out: Laura Johnson’s Sheila, Jammy Kasongo’s Hud, Jessie May as barefoot and pregnant Jeanie… The strength of the solo singing is matched by the beauty of the ensemble’s harmonies.  Galt McDermot’s rock-informed score is rich with variety and contrast, while the lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado (and William Shakespeare) range from witty to hard-hitting.  The show is one big highlight.

The cast is not the only thing stripped bare.  The staging is kept minimal, keeping the performers to the fore.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle makes simple but sophisticated use of parachute silk and the occasional prop, keeping us in the Tribe’s trippy world.  An extended tripping sequence is chock-full of striking imagery.  Obviously, the lighting (by Ben M Rogers) helps tremendously with creating atmosphere and a sense of place, but I want to make special mention of the sound design by Calum Robinson and Max Perryment:  aurally, the show is magnificent. Solo voices, ensemble singing, the band and sound effects are all blended to the utmost clarity.  It is a real feast for the ears.

The band, under the musical direction of Gareth Bretherton, is kept behind a fence in an upstage area, but the sound fills the Vaults.  The choreography from William Walton avoids 1960s clichés and exudes an invigorating energy.  The music, the performers, the message, are all irresistible.  The show’s social conscience has resonances with today’s messed-up world just as much as in the 60s.  But beyond all that, it’s an exuberant celebration of life.

Let the sunshine in!  Peace, love and understanding, man.  Etc.

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What a whopper: Andy Coxon’s Berger leads a love-in


Play Politics

IMPERIUM Parts One and Two

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th January, 2018

 

Dramatist Mike Poulton took it upon himself to adapt Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy for the stage, condensing the action into two evenings.  In six one-hour chunks, we rattle through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, along with many other characters, while our main man Cicero (Richard McCabe) weathers every storm.  It’s like binge-watching a TV series.

For the most part, the action is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave/secretary (an agreeable Joseph Kloska) while McCabe’s Cicero comes across as a blend of Zero Mostel and Ian Hislop.  There is plenty of humour here, irony and barbed remarks and, inevitably, parallels with the modern world abound.  “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people,” Cicero observes, pithily explaining our current government.  The phrase, “The will of the people” is bandied around as though it excuses everything.

Peter de Jersey is a volatile Caesar, friendly and menacing – often at the same time, while David Nicolle is a suitably weasely Crassus and Michael Grady-Hall a ranting Cato.  Oliver Johnstone’s Rufus gets his moment to shine in a court scene, while Pierro Niel-Mee is roguishly appealing as the naughty Clodius.  It’s not just Cicero who has the gift of oratory, it turns out.

Siobhan Redmond brings humorous haughtiness as Cicero’s Mrs, Terentia – vulnerability too.  There are many performances to enjoy: Joe Dixon’s brutish Catiline, Hywel Morgan’s drunkard Hybrida, Nicholas Boulton’s bombastic Celer… and I especially like Eloise Secker’s forthright Fulvia.

The precarious, perilous nature of political life in ancient Rome is an ever-present menace and there are moments of ritualised action that heighten the differences between our culture and theirs, while the motives and behaviours of the characters reinforce the notion that human nature doesn’t change and politicians are some of the worst people.

The action is played out on an all-purpose set, designed by Anthony Ward: a flight of wide steps leads to a mosaic backdrop – a huge pair of eyes watches all.  Above, a large sphere is suspended, onto which projections and colours are cast to complement the action.  Yvonne Milnes’s costumes immerse us in the period while the lowering of the stage to floor level sort of democratises the plays: as observers, we are often addressed directly as members of the Senate.

Part Two sees the assassination of Julius Caesar (spoiler, sorry!) and the resulting fall-out.  The conspirators bump him off with no strategy in place for a new regime.  Et tu, Brexit?

Oliver Johnstone reappears, this time as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, youthful but determined.  When he coldly asserts, “I am a god” it’s a chilling moment, and we glimpse the kind of emperor he will become.  Pierro Niel-Mee is back as a serious Agrippa, a perfect contrast to his Clodius from Part One.  In this performance, Nicholas Boulton is excellent as roaring drunk Mark Antony, a hothead impotent to prevent the rise of cold Octavian.   Siobhan Redmond has an effective and amusing cameo as Brutus’s mother (bringing to mind the Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus who ‘wanks as high as any in Wome’).

Once you get used to the host of characters coming and going, this is a hugely enjoyable watch, funny, thrilling and sometimes shocking.  On the one hand it makes me glad that politicians of today, bad as they may be, don’t go around burning each other’s houses down or lopping each other’s heads off.  On the other, it makes me wish they would.

It has become usual practice for the RSC to broadcast to cinemas its productions in the main house and then sell them on DVD for home viewing.  Productions in the Swan are not preserved in this way, which in a lot of instances is a great shame.  All that will remain of a good production will be what Cicero claims is left of any good man: what is written down.

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Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)


Strictly the Best

CINDERELLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd January, 2018

 

It’s my final panto of the season and I’ve saved the biggest until last.  The Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza can be relied on to provide glitz and spectacle, almost to excess – Can you have too many sequins?  I think not.

In the title role, Suzanne Shaw is a spirited Cinderella, warm and friendly and assured – Alan McHugh’s script doesn’t give Cinders chance to demonstrate her goodness (and therefore worthiness for the Prince) – there is no gathering firewood for an old woman scene, for example; we have to take her goodness as hearsay…

Local girl and soul diva Beverley Knight is absolutely stunning as the Fairy Godmother – vocally, a dream, but she also enters into the panto spirit, playing on her Wolverhampton accent to comic effect.  A duet with one Grumbleweed (hilariously sabotaged by the other one) is a highlight of the evening.  Yes, the Grumbleweeds are back, having undergone something of a Sugababes change in line-up.  They bring old-school, variety club comedy to their roles as the Broker’s Men – their routine involving a treacherous padded stool remains funny no matter how many times you see it.

Hollyoaks heartthrob Danny Mac is perfectly cast as Prince Charming and, of course, there is plenty of opportunity to show off his Strictly skills.  Watching on the telly is one thing, but nothing beats the impact of seeing such dancing and showmanship demonstrated live.  Almost impossibly handsome, Mac could make a living as a Disney prince.  He is supported by Gary Watson’s camp and likeable Dandini, but Mac’s highlight is a dance-off with the Hippodrome’s resident funny man, Matt Slack, back for his umpteenth year in a row.

Slack is in his element as Buttons.  Hardly what you might call a subtle performer, he manages to wring a little pathos into Buttons’s unrequited love for Cinders, and his routine with children volunteers from the audience shows off his skills and tests his professionalism.  The show affords him chance to rattle off innuendo (there’s a snack-related scene and one in which he lip-synchs to a host of song clips) and we know we’re in safe hands for a good laugh.  There is one moment, however, when the wheels almost come off.  It is usually the prerogative of the villain to insult the audience – otherwise, any interplay with individuals is usually good-natured and cheeky.  Here though, Slack turns a video camera on the crowd, projecting faces onto a screen for all to see.  It’s excruciatingly uncomfortable and unnecessary, and more to do with Theatre of Cruelty than pantomime.  That part aside, this is a marvellously entertaining production.

Here the Ugly Sisters are vicious drag queens: Voluptua (a deadpan Ceri Dupree) and Verucca (a gurning David Dale) swan around in ridiculously OTT outfits, spouting barbed remarks, many of them off-colour.  It’s wonderful stuff but their nastiness is in keeping with the needs of the plot: their bullying of Cinderella loses none of its cruelty, much as we enjoy their bitchiness.

The transformation scene that closes the first act is splendid on the grand scale but it is the dancing and the old-fashioned humour that really make this show sparkle, with Beverley Knight and Danny Mac bringing the star quality to a solid and skillful cast.

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Having a ball: Suzanne Shaw and Danny Mac

 


Rubbing Us the Right Way

ALADDIN

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Wednesday 27th December, 2017

 

Aladdin is up there with Cinderella as one of the stronger pantomime plots, but it has the advantage of a strong villain role in the evil magician, Abanazar – played this time by Kai Owen.  Owen is a formidable presence, menacing but not really threatening, and it falls to him and his machinations to keep the story going – otherwise it’s a lot of singing, dancing and messing around.

Back yet again is the dream duo of local star Jonathan Wilkes and everyone’s favourite dame, Christian Patterson, in the roles of Aladdin and his mother Widow Twankee respectively.  The pair also co-direct and we are in safe hands: they know what they are doing to optimise the fun.  In fact, it’s the interval before I notice the omission of Wishee Washee, but then I realise when your leading man is so funny, the show doesn’t need another comic presence.  Wilkes and Patterson are perfect foils for each other, but they are also strong in their own right.  The ageless Wilkes, with his cheeky smile, juvenile humour and pop star vocals is an irresistible, naughty boy persona.  Patterson is never short of a twinkle in his heavily made-up eyes and you get the feeling whenever he utters something naughty, there’s something even naughtier just bubbling under the surface.

They are aided and abetted by a vivacious Amanda Coutts as the Spirit of the Ring, and an avuncular Simon Nehan as the Emperor – who has an Elmer Fudd speech impediment but is never mocked for this.  Yazmin Wood’s Princess Jasmine sounds as good as she looks – she could do with better songs, to be honest.

The show is fast-moving and fresh (in more than one sense) and the fun is augmented by a couple of 3D sequences for which we all have to don the plastic glasses provided.  Spectacles, indeed!  The cast is supplemented by an ensemble of energetic, often acrobatic dancers, with Nikki Wilkes’s choreography adding to the exotic atmosphere, and there is a host of children from the Wilkes Academy for the big production numbers.  There are pyrotechnics, an elephant, and a magic carpet, all adding to the wow factor, but in the end, it’s the humour that keeps people flocking to the Regent year after year.  Traditional word-play routines, innuendo, and some apparently slapdash slapstick – there is a song about alternative jobs for the characters that requires split second timing to get it right (and wrong).  The humour is crude but never crass, and the jokes come thick and fast.  Two hours zoom by and it’s a real treat to be spend them in the company of these two pantomime favourites.  Wilkes and Patterson had better be back next year or the riots will be in the streets rather than on the stage.

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The Cheeky Boys: Christian Patterson and Jonathan Wilkes

 

 


Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

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E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Nearly Perfect

CLOSER

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 14th November, 2017

 

Patrick Marber’s award-winning play from 1997 is brought to fresh life in this production from final year students at the Birmingham School of Acting (which, I believe, is now part of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire).   A four-hander, it charts the ups and downs, the comings (I use the word advisedly) and goings of two couples, glimpsed at various stages of their encounters across a period of years.  Gaps of months and years occur and it is largely down to the audience to fill in those gaps.

We meet Dan (Shobat Kadara), an obituary writer and failed novelist, who leaves his girlfriend to strike up a relationship with Alice (Mara Huf) whom he has rescued from a minor traffic accident.  Alice is a young, chaotic, impulsive and American stripper – it’s no wonder Dan’s head is turned.  He later cheats on Alice with photographer, Anna (Muyiwa Ibie) who, thanks to a prank sex-chat Dan has online with dermatologist Larry (Seabert Henry) finds a husband.  But not for long, because Dan is on the scene and Alice is out of the picture – until Larry meets her at a gentleman’s club…

The twists and turns keep coming, to the gasps of the audience.  It is not the sexually explicit nature of the dialogue that shocks us, it’s how unbelievably (or perhaps all-too-believably) selfish these people are – the men especially.  The irony is that they never get any closer to each other.  Desire, it turns out, gets you nowhere in the long run.

The excellent quartet of performers play out these melodramatic moments with a strong degree of truth, firing off Marber’s rapid-fire barbs.  Director Vik Sivalingam paces the arguments well so there is a naturalistic feel to the exchanges.  Even though these people seem somewhat rarefied, with their jobs, for example, and Marber’s spiky script aims for punchlines and come-backs, and the minimalist setting of movable blocks and frames stylises the presentation, the watchword for this production is Truth, both as a theme and as a performance quality.  The traverse staging adds to the intimacy of the already cosy Ron Barber studio.

Other themes might be, “The grass is always greener” and “You can’t handle the truth!”

Not a great advertisement for human beings and relationships, this nearly perfect production is a superb showcase for the talents of these young people at the threshold of their careers.

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Left to right: Shobat Kadara, Seabert Henry, Muyiwa Ibie, Mara Huf

 


The Original Walk-in Wardrobe

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th December, 2017

 

Mention C S Lewis’s classic book for children and people get a bit misty-eyed with nostalgia, and indeed, the idea of finding a mythical land at the back of your closet has entered the popular imagination.  It’s only when you (and by you I mean me) return to the material that you realise the idea of it is better than the actual experience.  Glyn Robbins’s stage adaptation is faithful to the novel, and that’s probably where it falls short.  It couldn’t half do with a few laughs in it.  Lewis’s dialogue is earnest, sometimes ponderous – they all need to lighten up a bit.  I have several problems with Narnia, but I’ll try to focus on the production playing out before me.

As ever with the Crescent, production values are high.  The costumes in particular (designed by Jennet Marshall) are impressive, sticking to a WWII aesthetic, even in the land beyond the wardrobe.  There is no attempt to animalise the actors playing roles such as Beaver (here presented as a regular Tommy) and his Mrs (all overall and headscarf, like a stereotypical housewife), so when we come to Aslan, he’s very much a high priest sporting a lion’s head hat, his leopard acolytes in ceremonial robes with Cleopatra beads in their hair.  Ruth Collins’s set is basically a stone wall with a central flight of stairs, but there is scenery within this scenery, opening out to show us Mr Tumnus’s cottage, for example.  It falls to the lighting to denote changes of location, time and season – some excellent design here by Kenny Holmes, providing some dramatic visuals;  for example, the sacrifice scene is superbly presented, and the direction matches the visuals, as raggedy creatures in black dance around while the White Witch stands supreme isolated in a white spot against a red wash.

Speaking of the White Witch, Nikky Brady is marvellous in the role.  Imperious, coolly cruel, she stalks around with a regal, if evil, presence.  I do wonder how this witch, who struggles to recognise a human boy when she sees one, knows all about Turkish delight.  Andrew Lowrie is similarly imperious as the pompous Aslan (who strikes me as a neglectful ruler, deserting Narnia for generations and thereby enabling the White Witch to hold sway) and could do with a bit more warmth in his welcome of the Pevensey children.  He shows moments of humour but is perhaps too aloof overall.

Of the po-faced Pevensey children, Lucy (Charlotte Upton) is earnest and passionate; Edmund (Jason Timmington) is mischievous, sulky and lively; but Peter and Susan, the elder ones, played by Sam Wilson and Molly Wood respectively, come across as bossy and bullying prefects.  It’s only when they become involved in the action that I warm to these two killjoys. In fact, Peter becomes quite the dashing hero, while Edmund has all the sass knocked out of him.

Jacob Williams makes for a sympathetic, nervy Mr Tumnus, but most impressive about the casting this time is the chorus of ‘snow spirits’, figures in white who observe the action, creeping around the stage, adding to the atmosphere and creating some rather eerie moments.  Director Alan K Marshall maintains an artistic integrity in his production, even if I’m not particularly enamoured of the material.

Looking at the children in the audience, wrapped up in the story, you can see that C S Lewis’s magic works best on them.  And I can imagine them in years to come, taking their own families to see a production of the story, because they will have a fond memory of it that doesn’t necessarily go deeper than fascination with the idea of it.

This is a high-quality production of a story that’s not my favourite, but it’s commendable in every aspect.  One final point: the children, during wartime, are sent away from home as evacuees to live many miles away with complete strangers, but before curtain up, we the audience are admonished not to take photographs because there will be children appearing on stage.  An indicator of how times have changed!

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Those crazy Pevensey kids: Sam Wilson, Charlotte Upton, Molly Wood and Jason Timmington (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

 


All Puns Blazing

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY SISTERS

B2, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 8th December, 2017

 

One Christmas tradition that doesn’t get me bah-humbugging all the way home, is the Belgrade Theatre’s annual alternative production to the (excellent) pantomime in the main house.  The B2 studio becomes home to a show for the grown-ups, in a genre- as well as gender-bending cavalcade of bad jokes.  This year, riffing on Cinderella, writer-director Nick Walker gives us a Western with a cast of four women, playing cowboys.  There is a plot, a chase to beat the bad guy to some buried treasure, and along the way we encounter a range of tropes (the saloon, the train, the Native American guide) as well as a host of larger-than-life characters performed by this versatile and industrious quartet.

Doc (the mighty Katy Stephens) is our protagonist and narrator.  Such is her wry charm, we let her get away with the worst puns imaginable without rising up and lynching her.  She is supported by the Magnificent Three: Miriam Edwards, Laura Tipper and Aimee Powell, in this relentless barrage of fun.  Some of the jokes are as old as the hills and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but there is plenty of invention in the pun-fire, lots of new material to make groan-ups of us all.

Walker evidently spends the rest of the year writing jokes for Christmas crackers, and is possessed of a particular kind of genius.  For example, the treasure could be silver, could be gold – it could be either ore.

I can hear you groaning from here.  This type of thing is perhaps an acquired taste.  It is certainly right up my alley.

Performing with indefatigable brio, the cast pull out all the stops to keep the laughs coming, and the knowing looks add to the fun.  We are not expected to take a second of it seriously – but the cast certainly do, playing with commitment and skill – the comic timing is superb; and the production values are certainly no joke.  The Belgrade’s in-house production services dress the show in quality costumes.  I love the tumbleweeds that punctuate the script’s worst excesses and the horses are hot to trot.  A simple but effective set with a sunset backcloth serves for all locations, allowing the performers to do most of the work, while the sound effects (Rob Clews) and the lighting (Chris Munn) evoke the genre while augmenting the humour.

It’s an hour of fantastic fun and it makes me think we don’t see many Westerns on the stage.  Yes, there are musicals and opera set in the Wild West but no ‘straight’ plays?  It’s a gap in the market perhaps I can head off at the pass…

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The Magnificent Four: Laura Tipper, Aimee Powell, Katy Stephens and Miriam Edwards (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Spot On

THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017

 

Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 popular classic provides a perfect package of festive fun as the REP’s Christmas show for this year.  Keeping a 1950s aesthetic in its clothes, furniture and voices, Tessa Walker’s production resonates with innocence and charm in its storytelling and theatrical brio in its execution.  Of course, we wonder how so many puppies are going to be represented; Walker and her team of talented puppeteers do not disappoint.  Jimmy Grimes has designed some economic but expressive dog and cat characters: an opening sequence of various people walking their various breeds of dog gets the show off to a delightful start.

Often, the plot calls for the puppets to hold the stage on their own.  Oliver Wellington’s Pongo and Emma Thornett’s Missis make an appealing pair of protagonists, while their human counterparts, Morgan Philpott and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, make their potentially bland roles come alive with humorous flair and earnestness.  Lakesha Cammock brings pathos and bravery to the role of Perdita, while Mei Mac’s operating of the Persian Cat and the plucky tabby Tibbs brings diversity to this canine-dominated world.  Not only do the puppeteers demonstrate skill with the animation of their characters, they also give impressive vocal characterisations.  Quickly we overlook the artifice and begin to care for the creatures and their plight.

Of the humans, the baddies attract the most attention.  Jo Servi is the least overtly wicked as Cruella De Vil’s husband Horace, indulging and enabling her worst excesses, almost humanising her.  Luke Murphy is a lot of fun as dozy bad ’un, Saul Baddun, while Lewis Griffin shines as his energetic brother Jasper Baddun, with some hilarious physical comedy and moves that make him appear to be made of elastic, or perhaps he’s really a puppet himself!

Storming the stage in the iconic role of the vile and villainous Cruella is the magnificent Gloria Onitiri, parading around like a spoilt diva, like Ru Paul in his worst mood.  Onitiri is a scream – her wild-eyed driving is a maniacal treat.  But the production does not shy away from the story’s nasty side.  The horrors and evils of the fur trade loom large – Dodie Smith was ahead of her time in her criticism of this barbaric practice – and so while we revel in Onitiri’s performance, we recognise Cruella for what she is.

Tessa Walker maintains a fast pace, giving us laughs and tension through a myriad of inventive touches, aided by Jamie Vartan’s multi-level set, giving us cars driving off into the distance, model buildings.   A muted colour palette, augmented by Simon Bond’s beautiful lighting, gives the set a watercolour feel, like picture-book illustrations, with the only splash of colour the red lining of Cruella’s coat.

James Frewer’s original music, played live by onstage musicians and members of the cast, underscores the action with jazz-informed pieces, adding to the cartoonish feel, and there are a few good songs to heighten the mood and add to the fun.

All in all, it’s the REP’s best Christmas show for years.  It runs until January 13th – you’d be barking to miss it.

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) (3)

Dogged determination: Gloria Onitiri as Cruella de Vil (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Afternoon Delight

AN EVENING OF SEX

A E Harris Building, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd December, 2017

 

A small but discerning audience gathers on a chilly afternoon in a converted factory building in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.  On offer is ‘An Evening of Sex’ but before we can get too excited, the programme notes reveal that the three short plays we are about to see are united by one factor: the characters do not have sex.  Frankly, I’m relieved.

Paperless

First up is a one-hander, so to speak, written and directed by Dominic Thompson and performed by Jack McBride.  Martin wakes up hungover and handcuffed to a toilet.  It’s his first wedding anniversary and he’s missed a lot of voicemail from his Mrs.  He’s due to fly with her to Dublin and time is running out.  McBride holds our attention well – as the bottom falls out of Martin’s world, and the arse hangs out of his trousers.  There is some neat physical comedy here as Martin drops his phone into the bowl and has to fish it out again, using a sock as a glove, and McBride swaps in and out of the character of a cleaning woman with clarity and ease.  This is a natty piece of writing from Thompson, fresh and contemporary.  We never learn why Martin’s so-called mate has done this to him, but that’s a minor point.

Fred and Ginger

Next up: a two-hander that charts the relationship between schoolfriends, Carl and Izzy.  We meet them at rehearsals for their annual school production, in a sort of Neil Simon Same Time, Next Year kind of way.  In four scenes, we see them grow up before our very eyes, from immature kids eating sweets and playing with Matchbox cars, to young adults, catching up with each other, both having their own lives.  Tilly Farell-Whitehouse undergoes quite a transformation in terms of look and attitude as the earnest, sweet-natured Izzy, quoting her mom and gran as the ultimate authorities on just about everything.  Dominic Thompson is equally credible as the wayward Carl, for whom school is not the best place.  Writer Michael Southan leaves it to us to fill in the gaps between the scenes, keeping the exposition of each scene to the minimum, and this works very well.  It’s sweetly played, and nicely paced by director Ian Robert Moule.  One of the mission statements of Gritty Theatre is to put West Midlands voices, West Midlands stories on the stage.  One of the advantages of the local accent is it readily lends bathos to any statement, a gift for any comedy: witness Izzy’s line, “That last chorus of Fame shredded my larynx.”  It would be interesting to see how the accent plays in the metropolis.

Painting a Picture for the World

Third and last, we have another two-hander, written by Dave Pitt.  The setting is the neat but sparse boudoir of one of your higher-class prostitutes.  Kitty (Jessica Melia) admits her latest ‘trick’, Mark (Damien Dickens), a nervous fellow who just wants ‘to talk’.  And so begins an exchange of observations rather than bodily fluids, the upshot of which is that money can’t buy you love.  Well, we could have told him that from the start.  The play does provide something of a window into the world of the working girl but comes across as an interview rather than a conversation.  Melia cuts a sympathetic figure and Dickens gets Mark’s awkwardness across, but we know he’s going to go away unsatisfied.  The tart with a heart pecks him on the cheek ‘for free’ and he shuffles out.  The session peters out and the play ends.  Nicely played but with no real pay-off.

All-in-all, a fresh and delightful afternoon of brand-new writing.  Perhaps Gritty Theatre have played it safe this time around but I look forward to seeing more of their work.

gritty_theatre

 


Magic and Mess make for success

CINDERELLA

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 1st December, 2017

 

Writer, director and jovial genius Iain Lauchlan is back at the Belgrade for another triumphant year with a winning pantomime that blends traditional with new elements.

Oddly, it gets off to something of an underwhelming start, with Fairy Godmother (Maggie Robson) springing on and giving us some sub-Disney waffle about dreams.  What, no rhyming couplets?  She introduces us to our heroine straight away – a winsome Alice Rose Fletcher, looking every inch the part and with a sweet singing voice.  This is a Cinderella we can take to right away, but her song is somewhat wistful and reflective, and not really an opening number.  Energy levels crank up when the chorus of villagers pour on – and we’re off at last!

The ugly sisters, Dyspepsia (Lauchlan in his element, it appears) and Listeria ( an equally excellent Greg Powrie) are a superb double act.  Ostensibly the villains, they are too enjoyable to be bad.  The crux of villainy in this version is found in Cinderella’s stepmother (Maggie Robson, doubling, and having more to get her teeth into), a delightful snarling diva.

Adding to the fun – shovelling it on – is Craig Hollingsworth as Buttons.  A natural crowd-pleaser, Hollingsworth is a cheeky chappie, a quick wit with impeccable timing.  His scenes with the sisters are the comic highlights of the show.  An extended slosh scene involving waxing strips and fake tanning equipment is relentlessly funny in an old-school way.  Slapstick still works.

An iconic scene we don’t get is Buttons trying to cheer up Cinderella when she can’t go to the ball.  Cut because of running times, I suspect, but Hollingsworth gives us hints of the pathos that is an essential part of the Buttons character.

In this performance, a charming Vicky Field plays Prince Charming – Lauchlan gives us two principal boys to balance the two dames – and Letitia Hector gives us an elegant and full-throated Dandini.  In panto, no one bats an eyelid about cross-dressing and gender and blind casting.  Everyone is accepted.  Any joshing is good-natured.

From the chorus there is strong support from Lashane Williams and Vicki Stevenson in several featured moments, but undoubtedly this is the Ugly Sisters & Buttons show, and we don’t mind that at all.

There are moments of wonder – the transformation scene is straightforward in its execution but still works its magic on the children – plenty of audience participation, with some individuals being ‘volunteered’ to prove themselves good sports – and the time-honoured story still comes through.  There is something about Cinderella that strikes a chord with everyone: the worthy underdog whisked away from servitude; but it’s more than a lottery win.  Cinderella’s generosity of spirit is what sees her through.

One final point: I look around the stalls and from what I can see, the people of Coventry have turned out from all corners.  It’s quite simply the most diverse audience I’ve seen at a pantomime.  And everyone’s enjoying this peculiarly British tradition and having a great night at the theatre, and I think this is the kind of Britain I want to live in.  Inclusive, good-natured and friendly.  Well done, the Belgrade!

Greg Powrie, Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth in Cinderella - Credit Robert Day (2)

Greg Powrie, Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth messing about (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Pleasure Voyage

TREASURE ISLAND

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 25th November, 2017

 

With this new adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic adventure, Theresa Heskins plots a course for another big Christmas hit.  Setting her version firmly in the North West, there is a host of Merseyside accents here – a change from the now-cliched West Country aarrs we immediately associate with the genre!  Our hero is plucky Gem Hawkins (a plucky Nisa Cole) who has to disguise herself as a cabin boy, having stowed away on board a ship bound for the titular island.  Cole is a ball of energy, likeable and expressive, and our guide through this dangerous, exciting world.

Another change is that Doctor Livesey is also female (Ellen Chivers) but if the TARDIS can have one, why not the Hispaniola?

Into the sleepy coastal pub where Jem works with her mother (a forceful Jessica Dyas) comes a stranger – in the book he’s Billy Bones, here he’s Captain Flint (Richard Costello), bringing with him intrigue, mystery and action but also electric guitars! Suddenly, James Atherton’s score is alive with heavy rock!  It’s a surprise and a welcome one.  Atherton can write in any style, it seems, and this deliberate period-smashing inclusion heightens the energy levels and the theatricality of the storytelling.  Heskins directs with customary wit and invention (Flint polishing off plate after plate of eggs and bacon is a delight!) and everything is in service of the narrative.  However, it does feel at times that the narrative loses momentum and needs crank-starting every now and then as the next iconic moment appears on the horizon.

The production is rich with gems: Andy Burse’s Squire Trelawney is a hugely enjoyable, upper-class buffoon; Lauryn Redding’s Darby McGraw is in great voice and is the most menacing of the pirates (female pirates are well-documented); William Pennington is a sweetly mad Ben Gunn – and he plays a mean xylophone; and Gareth Cassidy’s Red Dog is amusing in his intensity and attempts at subterfuge.

Tom Peters’s Long John Silver lacks the impact or charisma of Costello’s Flint, and it takes quite a while for the character to come alive.  His first scene requires him to sit, static, an approach which provides contrast to all the action we’ve seen so far, but denies him a big introduction.  We need to engage with him in order to be taken in.  Stevenson makes him a morally ambiguous figure and his relationship with Jim/Gem is key.

Certain moments are perfect.  A dance of tropical birds, fleshed out by members of the Young Company and accompanied by Atherton’s rousingly tropical score, is a delight for eye and ear.  The scene with Gem and agile baddie Israel Hands (Leon Scott) in the ship’s rigging is the best scene of the piece: tense and expertly executed.  The pirates’ song that opens the second act.  James Atherton’s score as a whole.  The New Vic’s production team: Lis Evans’s costumes, Daniella Beattie’s lighting, Alex Day’s sound… as ever, production values are high, from the big ideas (the wooden frame that lowers to represent the ship) to the smallest detail (the puppet parrot is elegantly performed (by Jessica Dyas).

There is a wealth of good ideas here, enough to get us through the patchy (eye-patchy?) bits when the dramatic thrust of the plot is becalmed.

Funny, thrilling and inventive, this is one worth setting sail for.

The-cast-of-Treasure-Island-at-the-New-VicJPG

The show is rigged! Nisa Cole leads a cast of pirates

 


Inexplicable Elephant

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 21st November, 2017

 

First version of the classic seasonal tale I’m seeing this year, this version’s staged by Bilston Operatic Company.  Oddly, the programme doesn’t credit any writers or composers, not even Charles Dickens.  A bit of research reveals the score is by the great Alan Menken.  I would never have guessed – it’s hardly his best work.

It’s a rather sanitised, musical version with samey songs and everything happening at the same pace, but the show is not without its merits.  There is a strong central performance from Nicholas Sullivan as the miserly Scrooge; reminiscent at first of the Child Catcher, he becomes more expressive and lively as the story unfolds.  After a seemingly interminable opening number, things ironically come to life with the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Tim Jones in a spirited performance, flying high over a chorus of zombies…)

Lydia Tidmarsh sings well as the Ghost of Christmas Past – she deserves a more supernatural entrance rather than just strolling out from behind Scrooge’s bed.  After the impressive Marley, the arrival of the other three ghosts is underplayed.

Jacob Kohli is in excellent voice as the Ghost of Christmas Present but his song becomes a weird production number in which the Victorian aesthetic is elbowed in favour of sequins, shorter skirts and tap shoes.  It is here we see an inexplicable elephant, also in a skirt.  WHY?  I can’t think for the life of me.  There is a nod to Dickens’s socialist agenda with an appearance by Ignorance and Want – sadly still rife in Tory Britain.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be transforms from a blind beggar in a hooded cloak to a kind of exotic, acrobatic performer, all veils and sequins, like a belly dancer getting married.  Again I ask WHY?  Imogen Hall is undoubtedly a lovely mover but this interpretation robs the role of the terror it must strike into Scrooge’s withered heart.

There is clearly no money in the Cratchit household for Tiny Tim to have singing lessons but Harry Lewis performs the role with such gusto, he wins us over.  Confidence is half the battle.

There is some nice character work from Stephen Burton-Pye and Alison Inns as the Fezziwigs and an underused Sarah Houghton as Mrs Mops.

Everyone seems to be putting in a lot of effort but the crowd scenes lack focus – all the more important when your chorus is so populous.  On the whole though, the germ of Dickens’s perennial morality tale comes through and events reach their sentimental but satisfying conclusion in a production that tries hard, means well and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

bilston carol

 


Christmas Turkey

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th November, 2017

 

For their Christmas production this year, BMOS have chosen to mount this musical adaptation of a creaky old film, a perennial favourite – in the USA more than here perhaps.  The story of a department store Father Christmas who claims to be the real deal and is put on trial for his sanity.

Things are much worse over there than they are here – in terms of the commercialisation of Christmas, I mean.  Although… there are people here who get all excited about department stores’ Christmas TV ads and practically wet their pants to see a lorry delivering Coca-Cola… so the rot is definitely spreading!

Written by Meredith (Music Man) Willson, the show is a cracker that doesn’t bang.  The original songs are uniformly awful and unmemorable – for which I am grateful – and the book is leaden and cringeworthy.

Jo Smith (Doris, shopworker and single mom) and Matt Collins (Fred,ex-army, wannabe lawyer and child befriender) work hard to bring life to the clunky dialogue but they are acted off the stage by young Willow Heath as Susan.  Heath is spot on in terms of accent and intonation, and we are spared moments of saccharine sentimentality.  Stewart Keller’s Kris Kringle thaws as the action unfolds.  At first he’s a little pompous and you don’t know if he’s going to sell you a bucket of chicken or unleash resurrected dinosaurs.

Director Suzi Budd’s choreography gets interesting during a comic number (‘She Hadda Go Back’) performed by Fred and a bunch of marines.  Unfortunately, the song is totally extraneous in terms of plot development and should be cut – anything to shorten the show’s overly long running time.

John Spencer gives a pleasing turn as shop mogul R H Macy but there is one cast member whose performance is of a highly professional standard, in a detailed but larger-than-life characterisation and with a fully supported singing voice: the incomparable Mark Shaun Walsh as Doris’s uptight assistant Mr Shellhammer.  Walsh is an uplifting presence and a joy to behold.  BMOS are unbelievably lucky to have him in their ranks.  No offence to them, but I hope Walsh finds himself a professional engagement worthy of his talents.

The massive troupe work hard to keep things going are there are pleasing moments and amusing touches but I can’t help feeling they are flogging a dead reindeer with this turkey of a show.  The time, energy and resources of the company would be better focussed elsewhere, on material worthy of their attention.

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Stewart Keller, Jo Smith and Mark Shaun Walsh (Photo: Ariane Photography Studio)


Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals.  This is one of the good ones.  Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.  It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir.  Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit.  But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’.   The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase.  I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper.  But that’s me.

As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice.  There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean.  Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones.  Perfection.

As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance.  He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Danny Mac 'Joe Gillis'. Photo by Manuel Harlan (2)

No ordinary Joe: Danny Mac (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive.  Thoroughly convincing.

Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.

Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around.  This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting.  Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma.  The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.

An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it.  Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Ria Jones 'Norma Desmond'. Photo Manuel Harlan (4)

Viva la diva! Ria Jones as Norma Desmond (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 


A ‘Night’ to Remember

TWELFTH NIGHT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th November, 2017

 

Director Christopher Luscombe sets his Illyria in the late Victorian era, with Orsino’s court designated as ‘the town’ and Olivia’s estate as ‘the country’.  Thus the action is divided along the same lines as The Importance of Being Earnest – the characters even travel between the two by train.  There is a distinctly Wildean feel to Duke Orsino’s court.  Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) surrounds himself with witty young men, among them Valentine (Tom Byrne) and a rather striking Curio (Luke Latchford) posing almost naked for a painting.  Later, we meet Antonio (an elegant and dignified Giles Taylor) who openly declares his love for Sebastian while sporting Oscar Wilde’s green carnation – he even gets arrested!

Washed up into this world of witty men is Viola, who is more than a match for them.  Disguising herself as a boy and becoming servant to Orsino, Viola, now Cesario, finds herself falling for the Duke and he for her – although he buys into the disguise.  There is a sliding scale to sexuality and Orsino seems skewed toward one end.

Dinita Gohil makes for a bright-eyed and plucky Viola – it is about her fate we care the most.  Kara Tointon’s elegant and haughty Olivia becomes more enjoyable as she begins to dote on Cesario.  Her protracted period of mourning for a dead brother is clearly to keep Orsino at bay, while Orsino woos by remote control, preferring the company of young men.

As Malvolio, Adrian Edmondson gets across the prudish servant’s pompous officiousness and also his hissing contempt for the others.  In his mad, yellow-stockinged scene, he’s more of a cheeky chappie from the music hall; I get the feeling there is more wildness beneath the surface than he lets out.  His best moments come at the end when Malvolio, a broken man, comes to realise how he has been played and by whom.

Vivien Parry is excellent as Maria, instigator of the practical joke against Malvolio, bringing a lot of fun and heart to proceedings, but John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch (who does more farting than belching) has little of the lovable rogue about him.  He’s a drunkard, a user and a bully – too much of a mean streak for me.  Similarly, Beruce Khan’s Feste is embittered with anger and cruelty, which could be argued to stem from his position, as entertainer to silly white people, but I find the vehemence of his revenge leaves a bitter aftertaste, after an otherwise enjoyable and engaging performance.

There are many high points.  The letter scene involves some hilarious comic business with the garden statuary; Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a posh, bewildered delight; Sarah Twomey’s Fabia is a lot of fun; and songs like ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Death’ are beautifully melancholic, even with added Indian beats and instrumentation.

Nigel Hess’s original compositions bring Victorian music hall flavours but at times the music is overpowering.  It’s a bit like when an Oscar winner speaks for too long and the orchestra strikes up to play them off.  Several scenes suffer from this intrusion.  Some of the humour seems heavy-handed: a pack of servants fleeing the mad Malvolio doesn’t quite work for me.

Overall, I like the style.  Simon Higlett’s design marries Victorian architecture (hothouses, railway stations) with an autumnal palette.  Mortality is ever-present in the piles of dead leaves.

While there is much to admire and enjoy about this lively production with its many fresh ideas, I’m afraid some of the cakes are a little stale and some of the ale is somewhat flat.

Twelfth Night production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_234119 (1)

To the letter: Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Boots and All

HOBSON’S CHOICE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 12th November, 2017

 

Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy first appeared in 1916 when the tide of women’s suffrage was running high.  Set in 1880, it tells of Hobson, a widower and owner of a shoe shop, seeking liberation from the three grown-up daughters who work in his shop without pay, so he can have some peace and quiet.  He sets to marrying off the younger two – the eldest, at the advanced age of 30 is beyond hope, he feels.  This eldest, Maggie, takes matters into her own hands by browbeating the timid on-site shoemaker into marrying her.  She then orchestrates matters so that her sisters are able to wed the men of their choosing, manipulating their father until he is worse off than when he started.

The script still sparkles with sarcastic barbs and acerbic observations and feels fresher than any episode of Open All Hours penned in more recent years.

As blustering, boozing patriarch Hobson, the mighty Colin Simmonds gives a majestic performance in a superb characterisation.  The timing is impeccable; the nuances and the broader moments provide a masterclass in comic acting.  He is matched by two fellow leads: Kimberley Cormack as the level-headed, assertive and somewhat Machiavellian Maggie in a formidable display – you wouldn’t want to cross her; and James David Knapp is endearing and extremely funny as the timid and shy cobbler, Willy Mossop.  You wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, so to speak.

Between them, these three bring the play to remarkable life and they are supported by a strong team of players: Notably, Amy Thompson as Vickey, Emily Jane Carey as Alice, Carl Foster as Fred Beenstock, and Damien Dickens as Albert Prosser.  There are memorable cameo appearances from Jo Thackwray as the haughty Mrs Hepworth and Brian Wilson as Hobson’s drinking buddy, Jim.

Faye Rowse’s set design evokes the period stylishly and effectively, while Angela Daniels’s costumes reveal not only the characters’ status but also the changes in their fortunes as the action unfolds.  Charlotte Robinson’s hazy lighting suggests gas- or candlelight.  Director Les Stringer hits all the comedic hotspots while maintaining the emotional truth of the situations.

Thoroughly engaging and massively entertaining, this is a splendid production of a masterpiece and is a ‘shoe-in’ for one of my favourites of the year.

hobson

The shoe’s on the other foot. Kimberley Cormack, James David Knapp and Colin Simmonds (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Blonde Ambition

LEGALLY BLONDE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Friday 10th November, 2017

 

I have seen this show before, years ago, but if you put a gun to my head I would be able to tell you very little about it.  Now it’s doing the rounds again, I put a gun to my own head and settle into my seat – and it’s like coming to the show completely fresh.

Basically, it’s a fairy tale with protagonist Elle Woods our Disney princess, with her pink wardrobe and her long blonde locks.  She is of the view that ‘love’ (seen here as landing a husband) is the be-all and end-all and, to that end, follows her boyfriend to Harvard Law School, right after he dumps her for not being ‘serious’.  She is willing to change herself to get her man.  She even visits hairdresser Paulette to become a brunette.  So far, so Little Mermaid.

Heather Hach’s book for the show, based on Amanda Brown’s novel and the tepid film, adds a spin to the fairy story, more girl power than out-and-out feminism, as Elle develops and becomes her own woman.   It’s not her ex’s new squeeze Vivienne who is the enemy, Elle learns, but the patriarchy!  Who knew?

In the lead role, Lucie Jones (who did us proud at Eurovision this year) is stonkingly good as the beautiful, not-so-ditzy Elle.  Her performance is central to the energy of the whole and she is very, very funny.   Bill Ward has washed off the mud of farm life in Emmerdale and scrubs up well to become the suave Professor Callahan – in a highly topical turn of events, this powerful man makes a move on his intern.  Things do not end well for him.  Ward is strong, channelling Billy Flynn from Chicago with his own brand of hard-nosed razzle dazzle.

Rita Simons has shaken off the misery of Albert Square and is almost unrecognisable beneath a towering straggly wig as blue-collar hairdresser Paulette, bringing humour and energy to the part.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile before.

Liam Doyle is suitably handsome as the caddish boyfriend Warner Huntington III, contrasting with David Barrett’s sweetly bookish Emmett, and Laura Harrison is in great voice as the glamorous Vivienne.  There is super support from ensemble members: I particularly enjoy Felipe Bejarano’s Nikos and Lucyelle Cliffe in a range of female roles including a Judge and Elle’s mother.  Helen Petrovna’s fitness guru Brooke does wonders with a skipping rope – here the choreography of director Anthony Williams and Dean Street is at its most impressive.

Elle’s sorority sisters serve as a kind of Greek chorus in her mind.  They come and go in a range of outfits and are fit to bursting with energy.  After a while though, I begin to find them a bit too shrill, a bit too bouncy, and I wish I had some Ritalin to throw at the stage. And why is it that whenever live dogs appear on stage, people ooh and ahh as if they’ve never seen such a creature?  A live dog will always upstage the action – tonight ‘Rufus’ – a ‘local star canine’ – almost mounts Rita Simons’s leg in a showstopping, hilarious moment.

And so this time round, I enjoyed it a lot.  The book is good, the lyrics are witty (especially in the rhyming triplets) and the whole thing is engagingly presented.  What keeps the show from being a great musical is, unfortunately, the score.  The songs are instantly forgettable, no matter how well sung.  And there is an entirely unnecessary ‘mega-mix’ at the end to remind me of the score’s shortcomings before I go home.  It really needs a showstopper and a couple of hits that would become standards to cement the show’s place in the musical theatre firmament.  You might say it needs more highlights.

Legally-Blonde-The-Musical-2017-18-Lucie-Jones-Elle-Woods

Blonde ambition: Lucie Jones as Elle Woods


Sorry State

(sorry)

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th November, 2017

 

Millennials are terrible, aren’t they?  Spoiled, impatient, thinking they’re special…  This new piece from writer Susie Sillett shows us three sides of the coin (if that’s possible!) in this monologue sequence engagingly performed by Phoebe Frances Brown.

The first section concerns employment or should I say ‘employment’ as our protagonist details her exploitation in unpaid internships, illegally long shifts – it’s no wonder she and her peers are still living with their parents.  The character both recognises and accepts her lot as though this is the way it is and shall be forevermore – and she makes it clear she’s not complaining.  She daren’t!  Not while she wants to continue on the way up.

The middle section is a cringe-making dinner date with an old friend who is getting married.  This one quickly flips into something painful to hear, and painful to experience, as our protagonist recounts the agonies of online friendships, and how deeply that ‘unfollowing’ or ‘unfriending’ can hurt.  The modern world forges new kinds of relationships and associations through social media – new behaviours and mores have to be negotiated.  But it all does nothing to assuage her loneliness.  It’s an incisive swipe at society, when all these new connections serve to keep us isolated and alone.

The third part finds our protagonist keeping watch beside her dying granny’s hospital bed.  This is the most emotionally affecting section and is more widely reflective of the nature of life.  The writing opens up beyond the personal as our protagonist considers her place in the world, being born at this time, the environment she is inheriting and the problems her generation have to sort out.  Stark comments like ‘no matter what I do, it’s never enough to compensate the damage I do by being alive’.  She can’t make sense of being alive and her reactions and attitude are thoroughly credible.  Forged by what previous generations have done, she is trapped in a world she didn’t make.  And she is sorry for existing.

The show has a strong green message: the seas are full of plastic, of the detritus of our consumerist society.  Our protagonist is most strident in her horror and revulsion, her anger and frustration with what has been done to the world.

An electrifying performance from Phoebe Frances Brown; director Jennifer Davis prevents things from becoming static in the simple, circular space, giving us rises and falls, changes in pace and mood to bring out all the colours of the writing.  Sorcha Corcoran’s set – a chair in a circle, ringed by mounds of paper – becomes more relevant as the show goes on, reminiscent of arctic landscapes…  Alex Boucher’s lighting and Iain Armstrong’s sound design support the performer and help the audience imagine the various settings of the stories.

It all adds up to a taut production, a snapshot of life for young adults, with laughs aplenty and pain in abundance – and isn’t it a particularly British thing for those feeling the most awkward, those in the most pain, those who are pointing out what is wrong, to be the ones to say sorry?

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Sophie Frances Brown considers the pitfalls of buying a can of chick peas (Photo: Hannah Kelly)


Yanks and Francs

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Dominion Theatre, London, Wednesday 8th November, 2017

 

At long last, I get to see the hit show people have been raving about.  The contrarian in me expects to hate what everyone else enjoys but no, it really is at least as good as I’ve heard.

A new show, based on the 1951 Oscar-winning film, this is much more than a jukebox musical of Gershwin hits.  Set in post-war, post-Occupation Paris, it’s the story of Jerry, former soldier, now starving artist.  A chance encounter teams him up with another American, Adam, a composer whose music is just like Gershwin’s!  Third Musketeer in this group is Henri, a native Parisian who is hiding a dark secret from his stuffy parents (SPOILER: he’s a – gasp – a song-and-dance man!).  Jerry and Adam get work with a ballet company, where Jerry finally meets the fugacious Lise, a young ballerina with a fantastic haircut and even better dance moves.  Each of the three lads forms an attachment to Lise and drama ensues.  Jerry becomes a sort of part-time gigolo for wealthy benefactor Milo (relax, it’s a woman) which doesn’t exactly keep him in Lise’s good books.  This being a Hollywood version of reality, everything comes good at the end, via a series of eye-popping musical numbers.

As ever with musical theatre when they’re doing a show-within-a-show, I wonder why they bother.  They only need to go out onto the street and everyone will readily join in, subjugating their own lives and free will to participate in whatever moment the main characters need to express through song and dance.  In this Hollywood world, everyone is trained and proficient in the performing arts!

In Ashley Day as Jerry we have the perfect leading man, gliding, leaping, twirling and kicking his way through the story.  Day is an excellent singer too and can also meet the acting requirements of the role, the effortless comedy, the emotional points; Day’s Jerry is cheeky, cocky, charming and funny, served with just the right amount of cheese.  But before this review turns into a love letter to Ashley Day, I must remember there are other people in the show.

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Ashley Day defying gravity (oops, wrong musical) Photo: Alastair Muir

David Seadon-Young’s Adam is our contact with this rarefied world, narrating prologue and epilogue.  Seadon-Young is a warm and appealing presence but we know all along he’s not going to get the girl.  We know how these things work.  Haydn Oakley amuses as Henri, bumbling his way through a routine that can’t live up to the Hollywood production number in his head (we get to see both!).  Leanne Cope is a tiny mega-star as Lise, the gamin role, darting around one minute, and then gliding through the air as though it were water, the next.  Lise is a figure of mystery – why is she so resistant to Jerry’s relentless advances? – torn between duty and her true feelings, and Cope brings depth to the part so Lise is more than the object of men’s affections, desire or what-have-you.  Also strong is Zoe Rainey as brassy rich lady, Milo Davenport, with a belting voice as clear as a bell.  There is enjoyable support from Julie Legrand as Henri’s mother, and Julian Forsyth as his dad.

A massive ensemble populates this Paris, keeping the stage busy and giving weight to the big numbers.  They are a joy to behold, dancing in synch, in a range of colourful costumes.  Designer Bob Crowley is not shy of using stereotypes (berets and striped jumpers, for example) as shorthand, and his ever-moving set combines practical pieces with projections to give us impressions of a war-damaged city as seen through Jerry’s sketchbook.

Stephen Ridley conducts a fantastic orchestra, filling the auditorium with Gershwin’s energising, life-giving jazz, yet another element of perfection in this fabulous, glorious show.  Director Christopher Wheeldon also choreographs with vibrancy and plenty of period touches, while Craig Lucas’s book, which contains a couple of ‘shits’ and ‘Christs’ keep us in touch with the darker reality underpinning this balletic world.

The show works superbly well as a piece of escapism; it’s great to get away from the world of Tory sleaze, mass shootings and all the rest of it – but I think it’s doing the show a disservice to count it purely as escapism.  There is, to me, a clear message coming through.  This Paris is broken, seeking to rebuild itself and for that, the people need to keep their spirits up.  When the Brexit insanity and this rotten government have finally finished bringing this country down, we are going to need to keep our spirits up too.  This production reminds us to make time for singing and dancing in our lives.  We need joy to help us through hardship.

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Ashley Day getting to grips with his co-star, Leanne Cope (Photo: Alastair Muir)

 


Thrilled to Death

DEATHTRAP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7th November, 2017

 

Ira Levin’s classic thriller is doing the rounds in this effective new production, featuring two escapees from Albert Square, namely Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace as husband and wife.  He  is a playwright who hasn’t had a hit for a few years; she is the supportive wife with a weak constitution, who has been funding their life together in their smart little barn conversion in the woods… Along comes bright young thing Sam Phillips with an idea for a new play, and the scene is set for double-crosses, shocks and surprises.

Levin’s script is clever, laced with sarcastic wit and tell-tale details – if you know what to look for.  I’ve seen the play before so I knew all its secrets going in but director Adam Penford manages the twists and turns, changes of pace, the violence and the laughs with skill, providing a few jump scares along the way.

Paul Bradley dominates as the desperate and overbearing Sidney, while Jessie Wallace, unusually dowdy in her frumpy beige cardigan and not a hint of leopard print for miles, gives a restrained performance as Myra with the dodgy ticker.  Sam Phillips’s Clifford brings energy and good looks, and there is a wild comic cameo from Beverley Klein as visiting Swedish psychic, Helga ten Dorp.  Julien Ball completes the quintet as Sidney’s smooth attorney, Porter Milgrim.

Morgan Large’s attractive, rustic set bedecked with a range of vicious weapons gives the action its arena but at times Ben and Max Ringham’s music is a little heavy-handed.  Moments of violence are underscored for added atmosphere, heightening the emotion but lessening its realism.

It’s a play that deconstructs itself as it plays out.  The characters discuss the elements of a stage thriller before and after we see them enacted within the plot, and it is this knowingness that makes Levin’s piece a classic of the genre.  A similar approach was adopted much later by horror film Scream.   But like all thrillers, it’s about not-particularly-nice people doing despicable things for (usually) financial gain.  Unusually, there is no detective to wheedle out the truth – a different comeuppance awaits these plotters…

This is a solid production, well played and engaging.  A darkly delicious way to spend an evening.

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Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace host a cardigan festival

 

 


A Fool Aloof

EUGENE ONEGIN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 3rd November, 2017

 

Welsh National Opera’s autumn season is all about the Russians.  Tonight, it’s Tchaikovsky’s melodrama about a moody outcast and his effect on others.  Young Tatyana takes a fancy to the aloof stranger who comes visiting with a friend.  She rapidly falls head over heels.  He turns her down, gets into a row with his best mate and shoots him dead in a duel.  Years later, after travelling, Onegin returns to declare his love to Tatyana but she has married a prince and so Onegin is left alone and even more miserable than he at first pretended.

So much for the plot.  What matters here is the execution.  Natalya Romaniw shines as the love-struck Tatyana, especially in her extended aria in which she writes a letter to Onegin, an outpouring of emotion.  Onegin himself (Nicholas Lester) stalks around in black like Hamlet disguised as an undertaker, all mean and moody – he comes alive in the scene with his BFF, Lensky (Jason Bridges) during which they fail to find a way to cancel their duel.  The duel scene is the best of the opera, combining high emotion with action.  Bridges’s searing tenor brings the house down, and there is an impressive cameo from Miklos Sebestyen as the Prince, who comes across as a Zarastro figure – not the only Mozartian touch about Tchaikovsky’s work; everything from the orchestration to the structure (duets developing into quartets, for example) pays homage to Tchaikovsky’s favourite and mine.  There is pleasing support from Liuba Sokolova as Tatyana’s Nanny and Camilla Roberts as her mother.  Joe Roche makes his mark in an amusing appearance as Monsieur Triquet.

As ever, the WNO chorus is in superb voice – but their dancing, especially at the formal ball, needs polish.  They don’t look like they’re enjoying it which detracts from Onegin’s aloofness and boredom.  The mighty WNO orchestra plays flawlessly under the baton of Latvian conductor Ainars Rubikis, making his debut with WNO.

Tobias Hoheisel’s set design features windows, combining interiors and exteriors, which probably says something about people’s outer facades and their inner feelings, or insiders and outsiders – at times I find it too gloomy to fit with the lighter parts of the libretto.  There is humour here that is fighting against the murkiness of the setting and Andreas Gruters’s atmospheric lighting.

The nature of the material is such that all the action comes in the second act and Onegin’s devastation at the end – I think this production needs to make more of the frivolity of the other aspects for greater contrast with the darker elements and to emphasise Onegin’s otherness.  Tchaikovsky does well to emulate Mozart’s sound palette but he cannot match the Austrian’s sense of the dramatic or indeed the comic.

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He’s behind you! Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana and Nicholas Lester as Onegin (Photo: Betina Skovbro)


Mum’s the word

BABY DADDY

The Door, Birmingham REP, Thursday 2nd November, 2017

 

Single mothers get a bad press.  Stigmatised by society they are seen as scroungers, promiscuous and slatternly – when really it’s the men that should get the brunt of our disapproval.  At least the mothers stayed to bring up the babies, while the fathers disappear.

In this autobiographical piece, writer-performer Elinor Coleman not only states the case for a new appreciation of single mums (“doing remarkable things in difficult circumstances”) she also entertains us with a window into her world.  Pregnant at 20, Ellie goes it alone.  Yes, she has a strong support network of family and friends but it’s still a lonely life.  And everyday business brings with it the sting of public condemnation.  An encounter on a bus is typical of the judgmental looks and remarks she faces all the time.

Also, Ellie feels there is a gap in her family unit.  She seeks a man to join her and her daughter – and after a few false starts – finds one.  Has Ellie found her happy ending halfway through the show’s running time?  It certainly seems that way…

But no.  Life isn’t as neat as all that.  The relationship ends and Ellie decides to abort her second child.  Stark scenes ensue as yet again Ellie lays herself open to criticism.

Coleman is a likeable presence, honest and funny.  There is a lot of wisdom in her words.  This extended monologue with original songs is bright and breezy with a dark undertone.  What comes across is a slice of contemporary real-life experience, an underdog in our society demonstrating her worth and prompting us to re-evaluate any misguided preconceptions or prejudices we may harbour about young single mums.

The show is underscored by live music from Ricardo Rocha, and Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design provides a range of settings for the story and expressionistic effects for the changing tone.

All in all, this is an amusing, affecting piece, vibrantly performed and with something to say.

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Full of the Devil

LIVING WITH THE LIGHTS ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 1st November, 2017

 

I am welcomed into the temporary, pop-up theatre by writer-performer Mark Lockyer.  He shakes my hand and invites me to get a cup of tea and a hobnob.  This informal, cosy beginning gives nothing away of what is to come.   When the audience is all in and settled, Lockyer begins properly, shedding his genial, corporate trainer demeanour to tell us his story – and it is his story.  What follows is a searing account of his experiences but this is no chummy recollection of theatrical anecdotes.  His time at the Royal Shakespeare Company features, of course, including a manic episode as Mercutio.  But Lockyer is more of a Macbeth, his sanity unravelling before our very eyes.

The storytelling is energised, volatile even.  The incidents related are increasingly chaotic and destructive.  When he tells us he has met the Devil, we believe him although SURELY it must be a metaphor for something-or-other.  We are not sure…

Tapping into a long-held cultural tradition of using devils and demons as personifications of mental illness, Lockyer weaves a searing tale of calamity.  In a blistering performance, he gives us a tour of his personal hell.  It’s gripping stuff, sometimes shocking, often funny, always compelling.  Director Ramin Gray keeps Lockyer on the move, making sure the range of characters that populate the story are clearly differentiated, and the tone of the piece forever changing.  There is light and dark here, humour and tension.

More than a showcase for his skills, more even than a confessional, this autobiographical show is a clarion call for more talk about mental health and better provision of services.  The lack of beds in psychiatric wards is a running motif in Lockyer’s story.  Importantly, he shows us that even the lowest point is not the end; you can come back from it, you can learn to live with manic depression, rampant paranoia and so on.  You can live with the lights on.

Lockyer has beaten his demon into submission.  Others can too.  The importance of bringing issues of mental health into the open is more than a hot topic.  For many, it is a matter of life and death.

This important show from the Actors Touring Company deserves a much wider audience.  Cancel your plans and head to Warwick Arts Centre.  Living With The Lights On is playing there for the rest of this week.  It’s a blistering piece of theatre with something crucial to say.

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Spell Trouble

MACBETH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st October, 2017

 

Karen Leadbetter’s strong production takes us to feudal Japan rather than medieval Scotland.  The witches are like vengeful spirits from horror films – in fact, they become increasingly eerie as the action unfolds.  There is more to them than their doll-like exterior.  Dewi Johnson’s excellently researched costumes evoke period and place.  It is a pity then that the approach is not consistent.  Jarring elements, like Fleance’s flashlight and the occasional handgun, are at odds with the rest of the aesthetic.  Plus, if Macbeth has access to firearms, why bother fighting with sticks and knives?

I quite like gender blind casting – here, Duncan’s Scotland boasts an equal opportunities army and Malcolm and Donalbain are referred to as his daughters.  Fine, but when Malcolm spouts about becoming King, language gets in our way.  Perhaps the gender neutral ‘Ruler’ might suit better.

These quibbles aside, this is an accessible and effective production where most of the ideas work very well.

Michael Barry’s Duncan is a joy to behold, combining a regal air with strength and benevolence; it is a pleasure to hear him speak the verse and breathe life into the words.  Naomi Jacobs’s wild-haired Lady Macbeth has her share of moments.  She doesn’t seem far from madness from the off and is utterly credible.  Personally, for her sleepwalking scene, I would have isolated her totally rather than surround her with the witches.  But that’s just me.

Charlie Woolhead’s Macbeth and Liam Richards’s Banquo at first come across more like schoolteachers or office managers than top notch warriors but by the time Woolhead gets to “If it were done, when tis done…” he has warmed up.  His handling of the soliloquies is particularly good – Macbeth’s unravelling sanity and his final defiance against the forces that have deceived him show us the man he must have been on the battlefield.  The murder of Banquo is handled well, thanks to fight choreography from Tom Jordan, Sam Behan and Gwill Milton, but the slaughter of Macduff’s Mrs and sprogs is disappointing as they are herded off stage at gunpoint.  I’m not (all that) bloodthirsty but we need to be shocked by butchery at this point to show us how low Macbeth will go.

Among the hard-working and competent company, a few stand out.  Khari Moore’s Ross looks at home in this world and sets the right tone.  It seems everyone gets to hug him – I start to feel left out!  Brendan Stanley works hard to make the Porter scene funny – Shakespeare’s knock-knock jokes are barely comprehensible to today’s casual listener but Stanley gets more than a few laughs out of us.  Matthew Cullane makes a strong impression as the Bleeding Captain, spouting exposition at the start, and also as the doctor later on.  Leadbetter’s cast sound like they understand what they’re saying which is a great help to the audience.

Christopher Dover makes a strong Macduff, towering over the rest and his grief seems heartfelt.  Liz Plumpton’s Malcolm speaks with clarity and in earnest but is perhaps a little too sure of herself.  I get the feeling she could sort out Macbeth with a stern telling-off.

Kevin Middleton’s lighting keeps things murky for the most part; the atmosphere is augmented by some eerie sound effects from Roger Cunningham, although I question a couple of choices for music cues: the witches’ dance seems at odds with the rest of the show.

Overall though, the production demonstrates that Shakespeare’s bloody thriller still has power to grip.  Well worth seeing, the show weaves a spell of its own.  The final image (SPOILER ALERT!!) of the witches and their familiars holding the traitor’s head and then looking directly at the audience packs a wallop.

A golden rule of theatre is if you have guns on stage, you better use them.  I suppose in this Japanese-influence production, it’s merely a show gun…  I’ll add another rule: the creepy laughter of children is more chilling if used sparingly.

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You need hands… Charlie Woolhead as Macbeth (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Schlock Treatment

THE TOXIC AVENGER – The Musical

Arts Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

“Based on a film everyone watched when they were stoned” is just one of the knowing lines in this fabulously funny show by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, getting a bang up-to-date revival at London’s Arts Theatre.  Topical references are spot on, along with countless references to other musicals.  The cast of only five go all out to populate the story with larger-than-life, comic book characters in this story of violent vengeance and eco-politics.

Mark Anderson is sweet as nerd Melvin who, after being dumped in toxic waste becomes Toxie – he’s even sweet when he’s ripping off the limbs and heads of his foes.  Love interest comes in the shape of blind librarian Sarah – Emma Salvo in a scene-stealing turn; outrageously funny and a powerful singer, Salvo is an undiluted delight.  Natalie Hope doubles as Melvin’s Ma and as the evil Mayor – the demands of the score require her to sing a duet with herself in a show-stopping number that closes the first act.  It is breath-taking.

Playing all the other roles are Che Francis and Oscar Conlon-Murray is a dazzling display of versatility.  I particularly like Francis’s pouting Shinequa and Conlon-Murray’s overacting Folk Singer.

The humour is dark, the message green, and the music is rocking.  For the most part, the score is strong.  It is ironic that Toxie’s ballad, Thank God She’s Blind, sounds a lot like I Can See Clearly Now!  Led by Alex Beetschen on the keyboard, a tight quintet blast out the tunes while the voices of the cast soar.  A highlight for me is Toxie’s plaintive You Tore My Heart Out.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography adds to the energy and the fun.  Benji Sperring’s direction keeps the action moving so we almost forget the cast is so small.  In fact, the show makes virtues of its perceived shortcomings, with many frame-breaking laughs to be had.

It will win no prizes for subtlety but this small-scale show seems much bigger than the sum of its parts.  Corporate corruption must be tackled, along with dumping of nuclear waste and pollution of the environment – This might seem obvious but sadly we have no Toxie in real life to rampage through Westminster and bring those still at fault today to bloody account.

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Blind date: Emma Salvo and Mark Anderson

 


An Absolute Scream

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Garrick Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

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Mel Brooks’s seminal comedy film comes to the West End in this musical adaptation that stitches together the best of the movie with some cracking new material.  Brooks has an ear for a good tune and the score, which he wrote along with the lyrics, is chockful of catchy melodies and sophisticated, witty rhymes.  Brooks’s sense of the inappropriate is also undiminished: a chorus of women sing proudly about their tits, a blind man inflicts pain… Aficionados of the film will not be disappointed and newcomers to the material are in for a wild and wacky treat.

Hadley Fraser stars as Frederick Frankenstein (Fronkensteen) combining good looks with manic intensity, like a matinee idol on crack.  The man is hilarious and has a clear musical-theatre tenor that means he can belt above the chorus.  Like the machinery in his grandfather’s laboratory, we can see the cogs working in Frederick’s mind.  Fraser is expertly matched by Ross Noble as the hunchback Igor.  Noble’s rolling eyes, stooped posture and incessant gurning evoke something of the great Marty Feldman who originated the role, while permitting us to see Noble is a superb comic performer in his own right.  And who knew he could sing so well?

Summer Strallen is effortlessly sublime as Inga, stretching her accent as well as her legs, while Dianne Pilkington is an absolute scream as Frederick’s fiancée Elizabeth.  Everyone is at the top of their game.  There is strong support from Patrick Clancy doubling as Inspector Kemp and the blind hermit; Shuler Hensley’s Monster is the gift that keeps on giving in a towering performance; but the revelation of the piece is Lesley Joseph’s Frau Blucher, surely the role she was born to play.

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She has her knockers but I think Lesley Joseph is great

Highlights?  The show is one big highlight from start to finish.  Putting on the Ritz turns into an all-out production number with the chorus hoofing in Frankenstein boots, brilliantly lit by Ben Cracknell, bringing Hollywood glamour to his palette of old movie spotlights and colour washes.  Beowulf Boritt’s set uses traditional painted backcloths that heighten the theatricality of the piece while hearkening back to the old movie sets.  The atmosphere is perfect.  Director/choreographer Susan Stroman doesn’t miss a trick to bring out every laugh, every campy turn of phrase or reaction, giving us what is quite possibly the funniest musical ever.

The breast jokes betray the show’s 1970s origins but Brooks is right to keep them in – the master of comedy, he knows how to give us a frisson.  There would be something wrong if we approved of everything and this is how Brooks tests us, pushing at our comfort levels, showing us where our boundaries are and, above all, making us laugh out loud and long.

A great big monster hit.

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Hay there! Hadley Fraser and Ross Noble

 

 


Christmas Comes Early

NATIVITY! The Musical

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th October, 2017

 

It’s too early to think about Christmas, I mutter as I take my seat, along with other curmudgeonly thoughts.   Surely this production is ill-timed, we haven’t had Hallowe’en or Guy Fawkes yet… blah blah.

And then it begins.  A bright and brash opening number with people dressed as elves and reindeer and there’s even a singing, dancing Christmas tree… but before I can utter so much as a ‘Bah, humbug!’ the infectious spirit of the show takes over and I find I can settle back and enjoy it.

It’s the tale of rival schools, vying for a five-star review in the local paper for their annual nativity show.  The private school (aka the villains) led by Andy Brady as Mr Shakespeare go to all sorts of distasteful lengths, culminating in a rock opera about King Herod.  The good guys, bottom of the league Saint Bernadette’s, underdog written all over them, have a reluctant director in the form of Mr Maddens (Daniel Boys) and his irrepressible idiot of a teaching assistant, Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin).  A rumour goes around that a Hollywood producer (Maddens’s ex, Jennifer) is coming to see the show, and things rapidly spiral out of control.

Daniel Boys is excellent as the somewhat downtrodden Maddens, giving enough of a flavour of Martin Freeman to satisfy the expectations of fans of the film, while making the part his own.  Simon Lipkin is irresistible as Poppy – you’d punch him in real life, but on stage he is our narrator, our clown, and our emotional temperature gauge.  Andy Brady is clearly enjoying himself as the preposterous Mr Shakespeare and Jemma Churchill’s beleaguered head teacher, Mrs Bevan, combines passion for the job with humour and heart.  I enjoy the acidic observations of critic Patrick Burns (Jamie Chapman).  Sarah Earnshaw’s searing vocals as lost love Jennifer are a welcome counterpoint to the wall of sound coming from the kids.

The kids.  The RSC has a lot to answer for.  Its production of Matilda set the bar staggeringly high for what we expect from children on the professional stage.  And this lot deliver – outstandingly so.  Working as an ensemble or in solo moments, they all demonstrate commitment and talent.  Director Debbie Isitt (who also wrote and co-composed the show) must have the patience of a schoolful of primary teachers!  The stage is vibrant with energy and charm, sailing on the right side of mawkishness and sentimentality.

Laugh out loud funny and bursting with life, Nativity! manages to warm the heart of even this old grinch.  It’s one present you’ll be glad to open early.

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Simon Lipkin (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 

 


World Class

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th October, 2017

 

An absolute treat to be able to catch this New Vic production for the third time – but what can one say that has not already been said?  I’ll probably repeat many of the plaudits of my previous reviews but here goes:

The hit show has a new lease of life with this lengthy tour.  Originally produced in-the-round, this is a chance to see the action re-directed for end-on stages and, for the most part, it’s a great fit.  With a new set by Lis Evans – all suitcases, packing trunks and umbrellas – a versatile space is created, with an ancient map as a backdrop.  Warwick Arts Centre’s Butterworth Hall is perhaps a bit cavernous, denying us the intimacy of the New Vic’s cosy arena – the regular theatre space is undergoing refurbishment at present – but the cast work hard to get the show across.

All over again I am struck with wonder.  James Atherton’s original score is the beating heart of the production, evoking sense of place and also the passage of time, as well as underscoring the action and the emotional beats of the story.  Andrew Pollard’s stately but silly Phileas Fogg; a Frenchman’s satirical view of the Englishman abroad: eccentric, entitled but ultimately decent.  I wonder if Jules Verne were writing today if his portrait would be less endearing, as we seem to have become a baffling, stubborn joke to the rest of the world.  Kirsten Foster’s beautiful and elegant Mrs Aouda – the subtlety with which she has an effect on Fogg, awakening his emotions is a heart-warming delight.  This is a Fogg to admire rather than to mock.

The action sequences still astound.  The long-distance fighting allows for cartoonish excesses without physical contact, and the running gag of flying banknotes and passports does not get old.  Director Theresa Hawkins has created a classic piece of comic theatre, rich with physicality and also theatricality.  Sound effects, especially, are brought into play to heighten the atmosphere and augment the fun.  The timing is super-impeccable.  It is like watching the intricate workings of an exquisite clock as the indefatigable ensemble dart around, setting and striking scenes, creating illusion and impression as well as over a hundred characters.  This is a show that uses great stores of imagination to get our imaginations working.  We readily buy into the swaying ship’s rails and tilting furniture and there is hilarious interplay between the world of the play and the world of the performance, with audience members enlisted to perpetuate the effects.

And it is absolutely wonderful to see a new audience fall in love with the marvellous Michael Hugo.  His Passepartout sees him at his most energetic, physically versatile and most lovable.  Hugo is a living cartoon and seems to defy the limits of the human body and I suspect he may be a CGI character, projected somehow onto the stage…

The other players lend strong support: Pushpinder Chani’s Mr Naido, Matthew Ganley’s Colonel Proctor, Joey Parsad’s Miss Singh, all rushing about and coming and going to keep us on the move from country to country.  Dennis Herdman’s nominal villain, the meddling Inspector Fix is an excellent foil for Hugo’s sweetly decent and naïve Passepartout.  Herdman is also larger-than-life in his actions and reactions – we almost feel for Fix in his failures.

Above all, the story retains its charm.  A frivolous wager reveals the best of human qualities: selflessness and determination among them.

On the road for more than 80 days, this ongoing tour is your chance to experience one of the finest productions I have ever seen.  Breath-taking in both its invention and execution, uplifting and life-affirming, this is a superlative piece of theatre.

Review ends.  If I have repeated myself, I am not sorry.  I am consulting my gazetteer to see when I can catch it again.

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Andrew Pollard and Michael Hugo be trippin’

 

 

 

 

 


Harried Potters & The Tea-Service of Secrets

DIRTY LAUNDRY

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rosie Abraham and Angela Bain (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 


Troy Story

DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 


Firm Favourite

HAIRSPRAY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 9th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good morning, Birmingham! Rebecca Mendoza IS Tracy Turnblad


Dodgy Lodger

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Blue Orange Theatre, Thursday 5th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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William Hayes (Eddie) and Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane)

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

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

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

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Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane) and Elaine Ward (Kath)

 

 


Mummy’s Little Soldier

CORIOLANUS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Knowing

I KNEW YOU

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Funny, touching, insightful and fabulous.

Lorna Laidlaw (Angela) Brenton Hamilton (Nathan)_I Knew You_c Graeme Braidwood

Lorna Laidlaw and Brenton Hamilton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Window on the World

SKYLIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th September, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jacob Williams as Edward (Photo: Hannah Kelly)