Train of Events

ONE UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 20th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Julie, Madly, Deeply

AFTER MISS JULIE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drama is served: Katherine Parker-Jones and John Lines

 


Stella Performance

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 10th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Act of Remembrance

POPPYFIELDS The Musical

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Concerted Effort

COSI FAN TUTTE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Friday 8th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

Classical Opera 29 January 2019

Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page

 

 

 


Coming Out in the Wash

MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johnny Fines and Omar Malik (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 


The Joker is Wild

RIGOLETTO

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th November, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bravo!

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

 


Kin Dread

THE SON

Duke of York’s, London, Saturday 2nd November, 2019

 

French playwright Florian Zeller’s searing family drama – helpfully and brilliantly translated into English by Christopher Hampton – deals with the effects on young lad Nicolas when his dad leaves his mum and sets up a new family with a new wife and a new baby.  It’s not an uncommon situation but Nicolas takes it very badly, spiralling into mental illness and out of control.

Laurie Kynaston is magnetically good as the volatile Nicolas, going beyond teenage tantrums in his portrayal of the boy’s disturbance.  It’s heart-breaking to watch and we feel as helpless as his baffled parents.  Mum (Amanda Abbington) is forthright in her condemnation of her ex-husband’s inactivity.  Dad (John Light) struggles to access his emotions but when he does, it’s explosive.  New wife Sofia (Amaka Okafor) tries to make the best of things – such is Zeller’s writing, we appreciate everyone’s point of view.

Mostly, this is about the dynamics between father and son in the light of mental illness, as they try to negotiate a peace and a way forward.  The play highlights how unprepared we are to deal with loved ones afflicted in this manner.  “Love is never enough” says Martin Turner’s Doctor, rather starkly, as events culminate in devastating scenes.

Lizzie Clachlan’s set with its white walls and unfolding panels, showing rooms behind rooms, enables director Michael Longhurst to stage simultaneous scenes: while characters interact, we see someone else elsewhere in the house, and so on.  The mess created by Nicolas is represented physically and symbolically.

Longhurst elicits powerful and compelling performances from everyone, compounding the sense of impending doom with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s unsettling sound design.  It’s not all dread though; there’s a glorious scene of Dad-dancing (John Light has all the moves!) and the occasional glimmer of hope – making the darker moments all the more distressing.

Utterly compelling and almost unbearably moving, this is one of the most powerful pieces I have ever seen.  I only wish I’d seen it before the final day of its run so I could go back and see it again!

Give it every award going!

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John Light and Laurie Kynaston (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 


Nursing a Grudge

SNAKE IN THE GRASS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st November, 2019

 

Two estranged sisters are reunited in the neglected garden of their family home, following the death of their abusive father.  The elder, Annabel, hasn’t been back for decades, but stands to inherit the lot.  It fell to the younger sister, Miriam, to care for the old bastard, with the help of a hired nurse, whom Miriam has recently sacked.  The nurse, Alice, confronts Annabel, claiming to have evidence that Miriam had a direct hand in the death of her father.  Blackmail rears its ugly head and Annabel finds herself in a situation where she is forced to protect her sister…  So begins Alan Ayckbourn’s taut little thriller, a tale of coercion, bitterness, resentment, and murder.  More celebrated for his comedies, Ayckbourn shows here a different string to his bow.  The premise, the intrigue, and the subsequent twists and turns are Hitchcock-worthy.  A deceptively simple three-hander, the play offers plum parts for older women to get their teeth into. moustache of epic proportions.

Rachel Alcock plays hard-faced Annabel, who barely lightens up at all and remains rather severe throughout.  It is the character’s defence mechanism, I suppose, given the tribulations of her life, but I would like to see her reveal a more vulnerable and sympathetic side – especially during her lengthy speech about her failed marriage.

Alex Kapila turns in a compelling performance as the disturbed Miriam, displaying emotional immaturity one minute and inner fire the next.  As the power shifts around the trio, we’re forever changing our minds about who exactly is the victim here.

Completing the trio is Barbara Treen, pitch perfect as the sinister blackmailer.  Ayckbourn’s superlative writing is in good hands with these three, and director Lynda Lewis navigates the highs and lows, the lights and shades of the dialogue to great effect.  The physical action needs to be tighter; the actors need more confidence in their moves, and I think the climactic scene in the middle of the night can afford to be darker, so that almost all of the lighting comes from the two handheld lanterns.  This would augment the eeriness and the unsettling nature of proceedings.

There are more scares to be had if the director pushed the envelope just a little farther.  Still, this is a solid and entertaining production of a dark and clever play, and it’s well worth an evening of your time.

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The upper hand: Alice (Barbara Treen) comes between sisters Miriam (Alex Kapila) and Annabel (Rachel Alcock)

 


A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

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Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Skills and Thrills

CIRCUS 1903

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 25th October, 2019

 

One hundred and twenty years ago, the first incarnation of the Hippodrome was a circus (Hippo meaning horse, of course, and drome meaning arena or stadium).  Now, the theatre’s birthday celebrations culminate in this postmodern version of the traditional entertainment form.  In fact, I am surprised by how up-to-date it all is, given the retro title which led me to expect something more in the way of a historical reconstruction, perhaps.

What we get is a succession of traditional acts: balancers, tumblers, high-fliers, hosted by a ringmaster (although there is no ring).  He is ‘Willy Whipsnade’, a charming, older gentleman who exudes warmth, bonhomie and an American accent from behind a stunt moustache of epic proportions.  The production leans toward the other side of the Atlantic in its aesthetic, with its razzmatazz and sideshow.

The first half gives us a stylised look ‘behind the scenes’ with some energetic roustabouts wielding sledgehammers to represent the erecting of the big top.  There are acts, going through their routines, including a couple on a seesaw, The Daring Desafios, a balancing act: The Sensational Mikhail Sozonov – and you wonder what a health-and-safety officer would make of it all.  It’s impressive, death-defying stuff and, unlike on the telly, the jeopardy is almost palpable.  A contortionist (‘Serpentina’ aka Senayet Asefa Amare)  bends your mind as her bottom half runs rings around her own head.  It’s compelling and slightly sickening and yet marvellous all at the same time.

Between acts, our host enlists children from the audience to assist with his magic tricks.  The banter here will be familiar to panto-goers, and Whipsnade is adept at it, quick-thinking and witty.  Of course, the kids deliver the goods in terms of cuteness and surprise.

There’s another balancer, this one going for height, The Great Rokardy Rodriguez, and an aerial duo, the Flying Fredonis (Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych), a graceful couple whose act is beautiful despite or because of the inherent danger of it.

The first half climaxes with the arrival of a couple of elephants, mother and baby.  Fear not, animal rights supporters; these are puppets, War Horse style, and they are magnificent.   You have to remember it’s the puppeteers you’re applauding rather than the animals!  In 1903, of course, and for a long time after, real animals would have been drafted in to provide ‘entertainment’.  Things have come a long way since then, thank goodness.

The second half is more of a circus proper.  There’s a juggler (the Great Gaston, aka Francois Borie) and a woman who spins hula-hoops while balancing on a ball (Mademoiselle Natalia Leontieva) and they’re great at what they do, but I’m practically gasping for some clowns.  A bit of slapstick to leaven all the jeopardy.

Then comes ‘The Training of Wild Animals’ in which Willy Whipsnade gets five young kids up and introduces them to his baby racoon – another puppet, on a simpler scale!  Not only is it the funniest part of the evening, it’s one of the funniest  of such routines I’ve ever seen.  Whipsnade (to give him his real name, David Williamson) is brilliant at this, and the Hippodrome should snap him up for panto next year.

The Remarkable Risleys close the show with a display of breath-taking acrobatics, where the one uses the other as a prop, spinning him around in the air with his feet.  All the acts are impressive – they have to be – and I clap my hands off in appreciation of this international cast.  But I still would like a custard pie or a bucket of water to complete this circus that overlooks a bit of slosh.

circus

Queenie and Peanut, stealing the show

 

 

 


Terribly Funny

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: Terrible Tudors

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 23rd October, 2019

 

Based on the popular series of children’s non-fiction books by the extremely popular and prolific Terry Deary, this show by the Birmingham Stage Company is playing in tandem with Awful Egyptians, which I imagine is just as much fun.

A cast of three, led by Doctor Dee (played in this performance by director Neal Foster) take us through the reign of the Tudors, from the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field through to the succession of James I after the demise of Elizabeth.  Along the way, there are interludes examining other aspects of Tudor society, like the cruel punishments meted out to criminals (some hilarious practical effects here) and the disgusting elements of medical practice.

Foster is a delight, whether its in one of his many characters (including Henry VIII) or when he’s addressing the audience with a good old-fashioned ‘Shut your face!’.  He is supported by a more-than-able pair, Dross (Lisa Allen) and Drab (Izaak Cainer) who take on all the other roles, as well as being enjoyable characters in their own right.

The facts come as thick and as fast as the jokes.  The declamatory style of storytelling is leavened by silly voices and camp gestures, and the action is augmented by cartoony sound effects (thanks to Nick Sagar) and animated projections on the screen that forms the backdrop.  The performance style owes much to Monty Python and pantomime, and the script has a touch of the Carry-Ons, without the bawdiness.  There are plenty of mentions of poo and grisly deaths to keep the kids fascinated, while the adults will find much to enjoy in the execution (heh) of the comic business by these three talented players.

The second half has the added ingredient of 3D effects to make you flinch and gasp, as the Spanish Armada is blown to splinters and blood from the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots splatters across the screen.  There are catchy songs, including one to help you remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, and even Will. I. Am. Shakespeare crops up with a version of I Gotta Feeling.  The anachronisms make the history accessible and keep the laughs coming.

And then, as the reign and life of Elizabeth come to an end, she recaps the dynasty, in a powerful moment from Lisa Allen, bringing depth and gravitas to the piece – but don’t worry, there’s another catchy song to round things off.

Thoroughly enjoyable, informative and hilarious, this Horrible History makes for Terrific Theatre.

1 Terrible Tudors by Birmingham Stage Company. Photo by Mark Douet

Terrible Tudors: Lisa Allen and Izaak Cainer are armed and dangerous (Photo: Mark Douet)

 


Chart Show

PRESSURE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 20th October, 2019

 

David Haig’s play is set the weekend before D-Day – a date enshrined in history, but of course, at the time they didn’t know exactly when the Normandy invasion would take place.  And that’s the crux of the plot.  General Eisenhower is relying on weather forecasts to predict the best conditions for making his move and sending 350,000 men into danger.  One expert is predicting fair weather, another says there’s a storm coming.  But who is right?  And which way will Eisenhower jump?

Martin Tedd’s Dr Stagg is a grumpy Scot, a Victor Meldrew of a man, but he knows what he’s talking about.  His certainty of his own knowledge and experience contrasts with the uncertainty around his wife going into difficult labour with their second child.  But Stagg is under lockdown at Southwick House and is powerless to help.  Tedd is good at Stagg’s short temper but he stumbles sometimes with the specialist language, phrases that should trip off the tongue.  His American counterpart, Colonel Krick is played with assurance by Robert Laird.

Alexandria Carr is marvellous as the only female character in the piece, Lieutenant Summersby – her accent matches her period hairdo, and she performs with efficiency, showing the human behind the British aloofness.

The mighty Colin Simmonds portrays Eisenhower with a blunt kind of charm, exuding power easily and bringing humour to the piece.  As ever, Simmonds inhabits the character with utter credibility and nuance.  It feels like a privilege to see him perform.

There is pleasing support from Griff Llewelyn-Cook as young Andrew, and from Crescent stalwarts Dave Hill and Brian Wilson in some of the smaller roles.

Director Karen Leadbetter keeps us engaged with all the jargon flying around by handling the highs and lows, the changing weather of human interactions, with an ear for when things should be loud and when quiet, and when silence is most powerful.

The simple set, in wartime greens, gives us a sense of time and place, and is enhanced by John Gray’s lighting – especially for off-stage action, like an aeroplane in trouble, for example.  The room is dominated by the charts, huge maps with isobars swirling across them, and you marvel that the technology of the time was adequate for its purpose.

This is a solid production of a play that sheds light on an esoteric yet crucial part of the war effort.  Haig has obviously researched his subject matter extensively and manages to tell the story without being overly didactic or preachy.

pressure

Alexandria Carr and Colin Simmonds feel the pressure (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Fun & Femininity

PRIDE & PREJUDICE* (*SORT OF)

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th October, 2019

 

A sextet of servants narrates and performs Jane Austen’s most celebrated story in Isobel McArthur’s irreverent adaptation.  People expecting historical accuracy and verbatim enactments will be disappointed.  Everyone else will be delighted by this consistently hilarious reimagining of the quintessential romantic novel.  Riddled with anachronisms and with heightened theatricality, the script adheres to the storyline but swaps Austen’s wry observations and commentary with coarse humour and clever silliness.  Oh, and there’s songs in it too, karaoke versions of pop standards that are entirely apt to the scenes in which they feature and are delightful without exception.  Elizabeth singing You’re So Vain after a run-in with Mr Darcy, for example, or the dastardly Wickham’s You’re Just Too Good To Be True, sung to Elizabeth while her sisters are backing dancers… The whole thing is a joy from start to finish.

The entirely female cast play all the parts, often with quick changes, and it’s impossible to pick out a favourite.  There is so much to enjoy in the comedic playing: Christina Gordon’s haughty Lady Catherine, Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s blokey Mr Bingley (doubling as his bitchy sister), Felixe Forde’s pouting, posturing Wickham, Tori Burgess’s put-upon, oddball Mary… Isobel McArthur herself is a hoot as the hypochondriac Mrs Bennett, puffing away on an inhaler, and is suitably repressed and pompous as the infamous ‘mard-arse’ Mr Darcy, while Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth is spirited and hard-drinking…

Director Paul Brotherston gives his versatile cast plenty of comic business and keeps the action fast-paced with some clever and inventive theatrics.  The timing is impeccable and the script is snappy, and while it is true to the plot, it shows that a well-placed swearword can bring the house down.  Somehow, Jane Austen asserts herself and the emotional impact of her love story comes through intact, despite the profanity and the mucking around.

Above all, it’s a right good laugh.  A thoroughly entertaining, camptastic piece, impressively performed by a pack of very funny women, this is the best version of Pride and Prejudice since the story was infested with zombies.

Recommended!

4. (L-R) Felixe Forde and Meghan Tyler. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

Felixe Forde and Meghan Tyler as Wickham and Elizabeth (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic)


Losing the Light

PRISM

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Tuesday 8th October, 2019

 

The prism of the title refers, on one level, to a vital component of an old-school movie camera, a piece of glass that splits the light so that colour film photography is possible – something like that, I’m no physicist.  The protagonist of writer-director Terry Johnson’s new play is the celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, The African Queen…) who certainly knows how it all works, except his prism got broken years ago and the camera that looms in a corner of the set can’t work without it… So, it’s a metaphor for Cardiff’s brain, because Jack has dementia, eating away at his memories, his vocabulary, his ability to recognise faces and places.

Robert Lindsay is magnificent as the cantankerous, irascible Jack, bringing to the fore the humour of the situation – talking to someone with dementia can be very funny; it is also touching, moving and a little scary.  Lindsay dominates proceedings, while his wife, son and brand-new carer bend over backwards to keep him happy.  Son Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is keen for Jack to write his autobiography so that all his expertise and experience is not lost.  Wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald) just wants Jack to remember who she is and not conflate her with Katherine Hepburn.  Carer Lucy (Victoria Blunt) has her own reasons for proving she is up to the job.

In the second act, the script swerves and suddenly we are on location with The African Queen.  Tara Fitzgerald does a marvellous Hepburn, while Hembrough’s Bogart is nicely observed.  Later, Victoria Blunt effectively evokes Marilyn Monroe – and it is here we realise, we are looking through the prism of Jack’s dementia, as scenes are repeated with people from his present taking the forms of people from his past.  It’s a powerful way of staging the experience of the dementia sufferer – but also those suffering because of a loved one’s dementia.  Tara Fitzgerald is heart-breaking when Nicola reveals her husband doesn’t know her anymore.

This is a biographical piece about a particular man and his rarefied career, but it deals with the disease in a universal way.  There is a fascinating, nostalgic appeal about the golden age of cinema; I was dismayed to hear talk during the interval that there are people among us who have not seen any of Cardiff’s work!  It would be a great shame if such wonderful movies were to disappear from our collective memory.

Funny, fascinating and filmic, this is a hugely enjoyable, edifying piece, with an endearing central performance from Robert Lindsay and stellar support from a talented trio.  The production is superbly realised with cinematic elements in Tim Shortall’s design and Ben Ormerod’s lighting.  Above all, it shows Terry Johnson back at the top of his game.

Loved it!

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in Prism_photo credit Manuel Harlan (1)

I am a camera! Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Rice and Cheese

THE ENTERTAINER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 7th October, 2019

 

Archie Rice, washed-up, old-school, tax-dodging comic treats his audiences with scorn, but they’re not lapping it up anymore.  Meanwhile, at home, there’s a son away in a war, and Archie’s second wife is feeling the strain.  Daughter Jean is reaching her limits – she’s not going to put up with the old ways for much longer, while grandpa Billy Rice rants about immigrants and gives rise to friction… Archie’s home life is no picnic either.

Director Sean O’Connor brings John Osborne’s play forward in time from the Suez Crisis to the time of the Falklands Conflict.  But for all the pop music of the era and the references to Shake & Vac and Rising Damp, this is very much a play for today.  The bigoted, anti-immigrant attitudes expressed by old Billy, laughable in an Alf Garnett kind of way, have resurfaced in today’s Britain – and so Billy (played with conviction and credibility by Pip Donaghy) isn’t funny but alarming.  He’s a Sun reader, so what can you expect?  Headlines from that ‘newspaper’ are projected across the scene, and the anti-Argentine rhetoric of then is strikingly similar to today’s bile levelled against the EU, with whom we are not even at war.

Diana Vickers is a steadying presence as young Jean, whose boyfriend troubles bring her back to the family flat.  Jean becomes the ‘angry young woman’ of the piece, letting rip in a tirade that is a long time coming, while Alice Osmanski witters and frets effectively as Archie’s second wife Phoebe.  Christopher Bonwell has some strong moments as young Frank but of course the show belongs to the star.

Shane Richie is on excellent form as Archie Rice, from his off-colour, sexist jokes, to his Max Wall-esque clowning, and his cheesy cabaret singing.  Richie not only performs Archie’s act, he acts his decline – Don’t go expecting an evening of comedy!  This is heavy duty stuff, about the dynamics of this dysfunctional family at a time of political and economic uncertainty; it’s about personal failure, and also the human condition.  “I’m dead behind the eyes,” Richie claims acidly, before accusing all of us of being in the same state.  It’s a bitter moment in a bitter play.

The drama takes place on a conventional box set, but it’s kept back, behind a false proscenium arch, physically keeping the characters at a distance from us, the edges and tops of the flats clearly in view.  We are not part of the scene, not part of the family, but held at bay so we can examine them from afar.  Osborne’s scathing writing holds these people up, not for our admiration or sympathy, but for our ridicule and disparagement.  Characters step forward, speaking their opinions in broad asides, again reminding us of the artifice of the production.

It’s a challenging piece but as a statement on the country before its post-Brexit decline, it couldn’t be more on the money.  Fortunately for us, Shane Richie is more of an entertainer than poor Archie Rice could ever hope to be, giving a masterful performance with genuine star quality.

shane

Joker! Shane Richie as Archie Rice


Body Politic

FRANKENSTEIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 3rd October, 2019

 

Rona Munro’s new stage adaptation of the novel that gave birth to the genre of science fiction puts its author, Mary Shelley at the centre of the action.  Tightly wound, spirited and full of youthful vigour, Mary is bursting with creativity as, before our very eyes, she rights the book that will render her immortal.   She narrates, breaks the fourth wall, and even collaborates with her characters as she starts and stops the story – we, of course, know how it will turn out, but it’s an effective and stylish way to present events we have seen portrayed time and time again.

As Mary, Eilidh Loan is a dynamic stage presence, hugely entertaining, wry and knowing, transmitting Mary’s passion to get her story written.  Her characters, seemingly under her control, are played by a strong ensemble: Ben Castle-Gibb is excellent as the driven Victor Frankenstein, showing his descent into obsession and insanity with great power; Thierry Mabonga is strong in three different roles, the salty Captain Walton, young William Frankenstein, and Victor’s best mate Henry; Greg Powrie brings authority to his roles as Victor’s father, and Waldman the doctor who recruits Victor as his assistant.  Natali McCleary brings vulnerability and strength to Elizabeth, but it is Michael Moreland as the ‘Monster’ who captivates our attention, from the jerky movements that bring him to life, to his augmented voice.

Becky Minto’s wintry set is striking and functional, giving two levels and a range of possibilities; her costume designs are elegantly tailored to denote the period.  Simon Slater’s discordant music and eerie sound design add to the tension, while Grant Anderson’s lighting bathes the action in cold beauty.  Director Patricia Benecke makes sparing use of shadowplay and mist for atmosphere and effect, and on the whole, this is a gripping and inventive retelling.  Oddly though, very little sympathy is elicited for the Monster – the script allows him no opportunity to show his potential for goodness. We only see him as a killer, an angry reject of society, and that’s a shame.  It’s like he was built with a bit missing.

This production is a fresh take on the well-worn tale, in which Mary Shelley has a message for us today, for our government in particular, above and beyond the usual don’t-dabble-with-nature theme.  She says, “If you neglect those you are supposed to care for, the weak, the poor, their destruction will be your shame.”  The play goes to some length to bring out Shelley’s revolutionary politics.  Right on!

Michael Moreland (Creature) and Ben Castle-Gibb (Frankenstein) - credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan-033

Daddy issues: the Monster (Michael Moreland) and Victor (Ben Castle-Gibb) Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

 


Dark Deeds Come To Light

GASLIGHT

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 30th September, 2019

 

This new production of Patrick Hamilton’s classic thriller impresses from the start with an imposing set designed by William Dudley.  The perspective is so forced the ceiling looms large over proceedings and the sense of claustrophobia is almost palpable.  The box set is augmented by judicious use of gauzes so we can see who is eavesdropping outside the room or going up and down the staircases, and there are video projections, also by Dudley, that give us a view into the uppermost room and, more importantly, the mindset of our heroine, Bella.

Written in 1939, the play has given its name to a form of systematic psychological abuse, and Hamilton gives us a textbook example here as Jack Manningham uses every trick in the book to send his wife around the twist.  From the off, Bella (Charlotte Emmerson) is tightly wound and Jack plays her like a fiddle.  James Wiley is perfectly villainous as the domineering, manipulative husband, while Emmerson, increasingly unhinged, quickly gains our sympathy and keeps it.

There is strong supporting character work from Mary Chater as Elizabeth, and Georgia Clarke-Day as Nancy, two maids of the household, contrasting nicely with each other; but the piece centres around a star turn from the mighty Martin Shaw as Rough, a detective with an Oirish accent.  Shaw’s Rough is humorous and yet authoritative, a charmer who takes control – a Professional, if you will!

Mic Pool’s sound design adds eeriness and the all-important lighting, by Chris Davey, creates a suitably murky atmosphere for the dastardly goings-on.  Director Lucy Bailey wrings suspense out of moments of silence, and the action builds to a rather lurid climax in which we see the villain’s ultimate fate.

Even if you’ve seen the play the before, this high-quality production shows there is still plenty of mileage in the material.  Gripping, amusing and thrilling, Gaslight deserves a glowing review!

shaw

Nice bit of Rough: Martin Shaw

 


Disappearing Act

THE LADY VANISHES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th September, 2019

 

Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1938, this brand-new production from the Classic Thriller Theatre Company, begins in Austria during the Nazi occupation.  Imagine, if you can, a world in which fascism is on the rise… Oh, wait.  The action begins with a train being delayed – Imagine if you can, the trains not running on time – Oh, never mind!  These modern parallels aside, this is an entertaining period piece, old-fashioned in both form and content.

Gwen Taylor leads the cast as the titular disappearing woman, the tweedy Miss Froy.  It’s not until she does her disappearing act, that the play picks up momentum.  Up until then, it’s been character after character charging around, a little too much exposition, perhaps.  Taylor’s Froy is spot on for dotty old English biddy, harmless and friendly; she comes to the aid of young Iris, who is, rather contrivedly, bashed on the head at the station.  Scarlett Archer does all the right things as the plucky damsel, distressed over the old biddy’s disappearance, while everyone around her denies Miss Froy even existed.  It’s an intriguing mystery and keeps us interested.  Director Roy Marsden does a bang-up job of bringing matters to a head by the end of the first act, with Iris’s desperation rising to a crescendo amid the consternation of everyone else.

The rest of the company includes some stalwarts of this kind of thing: the mighty Denis Lill is paired up with Ben Nealon as a pair of cricket-obsessed duffers who provide much of the show’s comedic moments; Mark Wynter combines silver foxiness with arrogance as an adulterous barrister, while Rosie Thomson is suitably despairing as his embittered mistress.  There is a cold, chilling turn from Andrew Lancel as dodgy Doctor Hartz, while Joe Reisig makes for an imposing presence as a Nazi official striding around as if he owns the train.  Providing support for Iris is the funny, handsome and charming Max (played by the funny, handsome and charming Nicholas Audley).

The transmutable set, designed by Morgan Large, serves as both station and train, including compartments, is impressive and, coupled with lighting effects from Charlie Morgan Jones, sound effects by Dan Samson, and subtle bobbing on the spot by the cast, the sensation of being on a train is superbly evoked.  Antony Lampard’s adaptation of the screenplay has a bit too much of the characters describing what they can see happening through the windows of the train but, that aside, the story builds to a climactic and thrilling gunfight and reaches a pleasingly romantic resolution.

Solid and dependable fare, the play delivers what you expect, with high quality production values and a skilled and effective cast.  Reliably gripping, this is an enjoyable night at the theatre.

Lady Vanishes hi res 2620

Scarlett Archer and Nicholas Audsley are not convinced by the delay-repay scheme

 


Rebels With A Cause

REBEL MUSIC

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 23rd September, 2019

 

The new piece from playwright Robin French charts the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement, itself a response to the surge of far-right groups in Britain in the late 1970s.  The play focuses on the friendship of Denise, a mixed race girl with an absentee Jamaican father, and Trudi, a white girl whose brother shows National Front tendencies… Together the girls discover the great music being produced in Birmingham and the West Midlands at the time, with politics shaping their experiences and their development.

I have to say it’s a lot more fun than my description might lead you to believe.  French’s script sizzles with humour and is laced with nostalgic details that give the play an air of authenticity, and his words are brought to exuberant life by the energetic and excellent cast of three.  Lauren Foster’s Denise, an innocent, has a sharp learning curve when it comes to the overt racism of everyday life, be it off-colour jokes or violent assaults, or even Eric Clapton ranting racist remarks at the Birmingham Odeon.  She learns how to handle herself, how to stand up for what is right, and develops and matures, shaped rather than held back by her experiences.  Trudi, on the other hand, in a tirelessly perky performance by Hannah Millward, is torn between her friendship and loyalty to her brother, Dudley.

The third member of the cast, playing Denise’s dad and activist Andrew is the superb Nathan Queeley-Dennis who has a powerful singing voice that handles a range of styles.  All three narrate the action, dropping in and out of supporting roles with ease.  Andrew’s account of a RAR march in London is both poetic and evocative, demonstrating the power of French’s wonderful writing.  Director Alex Brown keeps the action cracking along at a fair pace, and this is supported by the inclusion of popular songs from the time, with the lyrics altered to fit the story – and so we get the nostalgia factor of a jukebox musical but none of the awkward shoehorning in of the songs for the sake of it.  It’s great to hear some classics revisited, from ELO to The Specials and even Sham 69.

There’s a bit of audience involvement in which we are invited to join in with some reggae moves – we’re all a bit sluggish on this miserable Monday evening but we give it a go.  I expect that later in the week, there’ll be more of a party atmosphere.

All the way through, I’m spotting parallels with current events: racists in power, idiots blaming immigrants for the country’s economic woes; and so to some extent the play doesn’t need its final scene, where the action leaps forward to the present and we see how far Denise has come, and how much Trudi is entrenched in her old ways and how the country is revisiting aspects of the past it would be better off leaving behind.

Relevant, relatable and right-on, Rebel Music is irresistibly entertaining and elucidating, a celebration of Birmingham’s multi-cultural identity and heritage and a stark reminder of what happens when the nastier elements of society rear their ugly heads.

I loved it.

Lauren Foster_Denise, Nathan Queeley-Dennis_Andrew, Hannah Millward_Trudi_Rebel Music_credit Graeme Braidwood

Today’s Specials: Lauren Foster, Nathan Queeley-Dennis, and Hannah Millward (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Strumming my pain with his fingers…

Miloš: Voice of the Guitar

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Sunday 22nd September 2019

 

Miloš Karadaglić continues his mission to unite the worlds of classical and pop music by means of the acoustic guitar with this concert of a variety of pieces which he describes as a musical journey from Bach to the Beatles and beyond.  Backed by string quintet, 12 Ensemble, (who get the evening started with a Brandenberg Concerto by JS Bach), Miloš is a quietly intense figure, focussed on his fingers as he extracts audio beauty from his guitar.  It’s marvellous to behold and even better to hear.

He’s quite slight, in his skinny fit, black suit and black shirt, and handsome, like a lost Jonas Brother, with a charming, gently self-deprecating humour when he addresses the audience to tell us what’s coming up.  A native of Montenegro, he seems bemused to be in Wolverhampton – but, who wouldn’t be?  The sumptuous beauty of the Grand Theatre is an appropriate setting for the music we are about to hear.

After the quintet’s Bach opener, Miloš responds with a Bach solo, before they all play together a stirring and dynamic Boccherini fandango.  Other highlights include Tarrega’s Lagrima, wistful in its sadness, plucking at your heartstrings; a piece from De Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat, a bold and rhythmic flamenco; and the famous Spanish Romance, here exquisitely arranged for guitar and strings. Piazzolla’s rousing Libertando rounds off the first half nicely, and I already feel like I’ve been through the wringer – but pleasantly so!

The second half kicks off with a Villa-Lobos prelude in E minor, followed by pieces by Pujol and Savio – all favourites in the guitarist’s repertoire.  A real treat is when Miloš is joined by the first violinist from the quintet for a Piazzola duet, originally written for guitar and flute, that is just lovely.

And then we move onto more recent fare with the title track from the new album, Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence.  There is a danger, I always think, that pop songs rendered as instrumentals can sound like lift music or on-hold music, but the arrangements here add depth to the pieces.  Divested of their lyrics (an important part of any pop song) numbers by Radiohead and the Beatles take on new colours – and you can’t help singing the words in your head anyway.  The Fool On The Hill is given a rhapsodic treatment and it’s just marvellous.  It all sounds great but I prefer the classical pieces, the slow tangos with their bittersweet melancholy.  Probably just the mood I am in tonight!

A splendid evening with a rich and varied programme, showcasing the versatility of the instrument and the virtuosity of the performer.

Miloš Karadaglić

Strumming and fretting his hour upon the stage: Miloš Karadaglić

 

 

 


Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

nell

Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)


The Glory of Gloria

ON YOUR FEET!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th September, 2019

 

This biographical show tells the story of Gloria Estefan’s rise to fame, from humble beginnings as a Cuban immigrant living in Miami to world-renowned music star.  As far as stories go, it’s pretty straightforward: girl meets musician boy, she fronts his band, they make records, overcome the prejudices of the music industry, hit the big time… It seems quite an easy ride with very little conflict.  There’s some argy-bargy with her mother, who is supposedly envious of her daughter’s career having lost out on her own big chance…

As the show goes on, you come to think, the plot is not the point here.  The point is the performance.  It’s an absolute party of a production right from curtain up.  The energy blasts from the stage and does not let up.  It’s bright and breezy, colourful and cheery, and we are reminded how many hits she (and the Miami Sound Machine, who hardly feature) had.  Dr Beat, 1-2-3, Anything For You…

Heading the cast is Philippa Stefani as Gloria and she is, well, glorious, bringing a Cinderella quality to the role, as Gloria (quickly) overcomes her initial shyness, learns to stand up for herself, and conquer the world.  Stefani is paired with George Ioannides as husband-mentor-business manager Emilio Estefan, a passionate advocate of Gloria’s music, a charming, handsome presence, with some ‘amusing’ linguistic blunders.

Also strong is Madalena Alberto as Gloria’s strident, stubborn mother, and there is fine comic character acting from Karen Mann as Gloria’s abuela, Consuela.  (There is a bilingual aspect to the dialogue, with Spanish phrases translated into English, a bit like Dora The Explorer.)   Robert Oliver also makes an impact as record executive Phil, who overcomes his reluctance when the money starts rolling in.

The bus crash that almost ended it all for Gloria leads to the emotional heart of the piece, not so much her brave fight back to full mobility, but the reappearance of her estranged mother at the hospital.  A flashback scene to Cuba, before the family fled to the US, attempts to add a bit of depth and historical context, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

On the whole, this is light-hearted, easy-going, undemanding fare.  The book, by Alexander Dinelaris, contains some amusing exchanges, and keeps the action zipping along from hit to hit.  Inevitably, the show is at its best during the musical numbers.  The Latin arrangements are infectious, the singing and dancing are top notch – although I find some of the male vocalists a bit shouty.  This is proper feelgood stuff, a surge of sunshine in these benighted times.  The Rhythm is Going To Get You is not an empty threat.  You will get off your arse and on your feet.

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Philippa Stefani and George Ioannides as the Estefans (Photo: Birmingham Hippodrome)

 


Dog Muck

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 2nd September, 2019

 

The publicity material for this two-hander of an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes classic says the show stars “No one famous” but a little detective work on my part leads me to suspect that the performers are called Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille, who share the narration as Holmes and Watson (here, Doctor Jane) as well as playing all the parts in the play.

It’s fast-paced and funny – there is much to be enjoyed in the slipshod way the pair tear around, donning hats and wigs and so on to populate the story.  It’s deceptively slapdash, with lines fluffed and forgotten, crucial props going astray and plenty of onstage bickering.  Every now and then they come together (to use one of their own innuendos) with instances of slick comic timing.  You want innuendo?  They will give you one.  The script (by Thomas Moore) is riddled with double (and single) entendres.  Each characterisation is more grotesque than the last, with Holmes giving us his bent-backed Barrymore and his louche Laura Lyons, and Watson her bizarre Doctor Mortimer and knee-slapping Sir Henry.

Oliver Hayes has a cheeky twinkle in his eye, like a young Michael Palin, while Bibi Lucille is as funny as she is versatile.  The whole thing is camp, cheeky and daft, yet the plot adheres to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, hitting all the main points of action and including all the major characters – we, the audience, are recruited to portray the titular Hound, howling on demand.

Hilarious, energetic, silly, saucy and smart, this show provides a good workout for your laughing muscles, even though some of the gags are a bit laboured and repetitive, which somehow adds to the fun.  The muckiness is in the great British comedic tradition, and these two are such a hugely likeable pair, they can pull it off with ease.

Brilliant!

Hound of the Baskervilles ©The Other Richard

What a pair! Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille (Photo: The Other Richard)


Gang Show

WEST SIDE STORY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 29th August, 2019

 

For the first time in its illustrious 120-year history, Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre is producing its own youth-group musical.  The Bernstein-Sondheim masterpiece is an ambitious choice but it is soon clear that the cast of 40+ young people is more than up for the challenge.

Director-choreographer Matt Hawksworth harnesses the abundance of talent so that it showcases the considerable strengths of the performers, while ensuring creative decisions keep the power of the material to the fore.  It does get off to a bit of a bitty start, though, with some pre-show milling around while the audience comes in, when a clean opening would have more impact, but once the show gets properly underway, and the action is properly focussed, it’s a compelling, emotional piece of theatre.

Matthew Pandya makes an impact as Jets-leader Riff, brimming with attitude.  Fellow gang member Action (Brook Jenkins) comes into his own for Gee Officer Krupke.  In the Sharks, Gibsa Bah is an imposing Bernardo, with Carter Smith on good form as his lieutenant Chino.

Ruby Hewitt’s Anita is remarkable: humorous, sassy, worldly, warm-hearted, vulnerable, in a hugely satisfying portrayal.  There is also some fine character work from Hannah Swingler as drugstore proprietor Doc, despairing at the conduct of the hoodlums.

The show, of course, pivots on its main couple.  Kamilla Fernandes is a knock-out as Maria, going from sweetness and innocence to embittered fury and emotional devastation by the conclusion of the story’s tragic events.  Her scenes with Hewitt’s Anita are where the dialogue really comes to life.  At other points, the quickfire lines of Arthur Laurents’s arcane slang, get a bit lost, especially in large group scenes: the acting needs to be as taut as the singing and the choreography.

The evening belongs, though, to an absolutely stellar performance from sixteen-year-old Alex Cook as Tony.  His two big solos in the first act are goosebump-inducing marvels, as Cook demonstrates perfect control of his voice and his thorough understanding of the character’s mind.  The skill on display is staggering, and the emotional punch of the playing earns him a round of applause that stops the show.

What comes across as much as the talent and energy of the cast, is the power of the material.  Shakespeare’s plot, translated to 1950s New York, is rife with issues still prevalent to this day: knife crime, the disaffection of youth, divisions in society, anti-immigrant prejudices… and the sumptuous score of Leonard Bernstein coupled with the wit and mastery of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, reminding us why West Side Story is one of the greatest musicals of all time.   An excellent choice, yielding a potent production.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 120 years for the next one.

Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cooke Credit Olivia Ahmadi

Two stars are born: Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cook (Photo: Olivia Ahmadi)


Brolly Good Show

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd August, 2019

 

Once a year, the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham city centre becomes a nurturing ground for young talent with its Stage Experience scheme.  This year the production is the stage musical version of the sublime Hollywood movie musical – it’s a big ask and, as ever, the young performers do more than acquit themselves.  It’s staggering to think how much they achieve in so brief a rehearsal period; it’s thanks to director-choreographer Pollyann Tanner who waves a theatrical wand (or cracks a theatrical whip!) to marshal her company of one hundred and one performers into shape.  Every single one of them performs with commitment, energy and discipline.  Unfortunately, there is no space to list them all here.

Leading the cast is Ben Tanner as silent-movie star Don Lockwood, who shows very quickly he can croon and hoof impressively, bringing warmth to the role.  As his best buddy Cosmo, Sam Rogers has a kind of manic humour that hits more than it misses, while Isabella Kibble is spot on as love interest Kathy Selden, even though it takes me a while to get used to Kathy as a blonde.  When these three get together to perform Good Morning, all the elements align to make this number the highlight of the show for me – it’s just about perfect.

Jessica Walton shines as the villainous Lina Lamont, complete with tortuous accent and monstrous ego, and there is fine support from Thom Lambert as Roscoe Dexter and Jarrad Heath as studio boss R. F. Simpson – although he could do with greying up a little to distinguish him from the other young males.

As we have come to expect, the production/chorus numbers, though densely populated, are beautifully sung.  Special mention goes to Jack Smyth for his assured vocals in Beautiful Girl.  While there is much to marvel at in the organisation and execution of a production of this scale (the costume demands alone are mind-boggling), the show is also a lot of fun and enjoyable in itself.  The specially filmed clips of the silent movies are hilarious, and the title song, with its obligatory rainfall, makes quite a splash.

On the whole, the accents are fine and the pacing works very well.  There are occasions when the dialogue could be crisper, but it would be churlish of me to hold this against them.  Yet again Stage Experience has produced dazzling results, has given a multitude of young people invaluable experience onstage and off, and above all, has given the audience an evening of quality entertainment.

Singin' in the Rain

Gene puddle: Ben Tanner as Don Lockwood (Photo: Sam Bagnall)

 

 

 

 


Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seeing Stars

DARK SUBLIME

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 1st August, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of this world!

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Never drink with your heroes: Marina Sirtis and Kwaku Mills


Will they, won’t they?

SUNDOWN

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

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Strangers at sunset: Davey Ezra and Emily Summers

 

 


Long Haired Love-In

HAIR

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd July, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paul Wilkins (Photo: Johan Persson)


French Kissing

AMELIE The Musical

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela Raith Photography

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


Glowing Colours

THE COLOR PURPLE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th July, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Color Purple_Karen Mavundukure (Sofia)_Photography by Manuel Harlan

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

 

 

 


Flooded with Meaning

ROSMERSHOLM

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 


Class Struggle

EDUCATING RITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 8th July, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica-Johnson-and-Stephen-Tompkinson-in-EDUCATING-RITA

Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson


Table Talk

THIS HAPPY BREED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th July, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

happy breed

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


Dreamy

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd July, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreamy.

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

Dreamboat: Jaymi Hensley as Joseph (Pamela Raith Photography)


A Load of Ballads

THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiendishly good.

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Suni La as Prudencia Hart (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 


Cliff Tops

CLIFF RICHARD: Diamond Encore 2019

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

cliff

 

 


He Is What He Is

JOHN BARROWMAN: FABULOUS

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 30th June, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fabulous

 

 

 


Wolf at the Door

CROOKED DANCES

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

285364_Crooked Dances production photos 2019_2019

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

 


Look Who’s Stalking

THE BODYGUARD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 26th June,2019

 

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

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: yes, it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hand-eye………………….

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

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

 


Pillow Talk

THE PILLOWMAN

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

pillowman

Alexander Simkin as Katurian


Venice not v nice

VENICE PRESERVED

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venice Preserved

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

 


Wizard!

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

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 21st June, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sir ian


Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

A Midsummer Nights Dream

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


All’s Fairy in Love and War

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 9th June, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

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

 


Worth a Gander

HONK!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

S Rylander

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

 

 

 

 

 


Grail Trail

SPAMALOT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd June, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spamalot

Brendan Stanley and Joe Harper (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Child’s Play

TORCH TOWN

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

torch