Poldarker

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE

Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 14th July, 2018

 

This revival of Martin McDonagh’s 1993 play is a showcase for the Oscar-winning writer’s talent and also for leading man Aidan Turner – Ross Poldark himself.  Fans of Poldark flocking to the Noel Coward theatre to be in the presence of the handsome hunk will find very different fare on offer.  The setting is a rustic dwelling (hardly Nampara) in the Irish countryside – instead of Cornish vistas, there is a stylised representation of greenery, a tree that seems almost topographical, painted on a curtain.  Rivalries, betrayals, violence… All of these are heightened for comic effect, and this is a very funny play indeed.  Less Poldark and more Quentin Tarantino does Father Ted or Sam Peckinpah tackling Mrs Brown’s Boys.  The humour is blacker than a pint of Guinness.

The killing of a cat is the trigger for the action.  The puss in question belongs to wild-eyed Padraic (Turner) a freedom-fighter and vigilante, who interrupts his torture of a hapless drug pusher (Brian Martin) to receive news of ‘Wee Thomas’s’ welfare – and it is in these moments we see the character in all his madness, from his matter-of-fact sadism to the sentimental depth of his attachment to his only friend.  Turner is screamingly funny, and while his bloodied white singlet shows off his well-turned arms and shoulders, the character is much to monstrous to be attractive and swoon-worthy.  Turner has a credible intensity to his fanaticism; volatile and yet pragmatic, his Padraic is as scary as he is funny.

The rest of the cast are equally good.  McDonagh doles out the funny lines even-handedly, and each character is touched with a particular madness of his or her own.  Padraic’s dad, Donny (Denis Conway) to whom the care of the cat is entrusted while Padraic is off trying to bomb chip shops, has his otherwise better judgment skewed by drink; young Davey (Chris Walley) a mulleted Motorhead fan who rides a pink bicycle, is the scapegoat for the cat’s demise, gifted with his own brand of logic, founded in idiocy.  The imposing and sinister Christy (Will Irvine) out for vengeance for the eye he lost to Padraic’s crossbow, accompanied by henchmen Joey and Brendan (Julian Moore-Clark and Daryl McCormack) have some darkly funny exchanges – it is Irvine who exudes the most menace, despite our gleeful horror at Padraic’s excesses.  Charlie Murphy’s boyish, cow-blinding Mairead shows how deep the madness infects the population, where adherence to a cause overrides sanity.  She and Padraic seem to share a moral code, centred on a mutual love of cats, and so it is not surprising when they form an alliance.

Christopher Oram’s cosy cottage set throws the decidedly un-cosy conduct of the characters into stark relief.  The gore and violence of the faction are at odds with the chintzy diddly-diddly-dee of Oirish country life.   Director Michael Grandage balances tension with the comedy, ensuring his cast deliver McDonagh’s relentless punchlines with exquisite timing, wringing the laughter from the audience, along with the shocks and the schlock as the action escalates.

Post-peace process, the play is perhaps now a warning of what Ireland could become again, when the lunacy of Brexit kicks in.  More generally, it’s a stark demonstration of the kind of things people will kill and be killed for, with the unlucky black cat as a metaphor for what drives the murderous pursuits of the misguided.  Violence is an answer, the play says, but it’s the wrong answer.

An exhilarating production of one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time.  Hail, McDonagh!  Hail, Turner!  Hail bullets… well, perhaps not that last one.

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Gun show: Aidan Turner as Padraic (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 

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Dreamboats and Chainmail Coats

KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE

The Arts Theatre, London, Thursday 12th July, 2018

 

The jukebox musical is a long-established genre and a lucrative one (when it comes to the likes of Mamma Mia!) taking the back catalogue of an artiste or a period or a genre and shoehorning songs into a paper-thin plot.  Here, show creator Jennifer Marsden goes a step farther by shoehorning quotations from classical literature into the dialogue.  And so we get swathes of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer, along with Tennyson, Blake, Burns… The programme has three pages listing literary references… The overall effect, apart from showing how adept Marsden is at cutting-and-pasting, is perhaps not the desired one, as ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ give way to song lyrics in which characters refer to each other as ‘Baby’.  That clunking sound may not be the scenery being manoeuvred into position but the gear change in your mind as we lurch from period to period.

What this means is Name That Tune collides with Place That Quotation, keeping us at a distance from the characters and the unfolding drama.  Moments of emotional impact are therefore diluted by our, what Brecht would call, alienation from what’s unfolding.  Any engagement we have is with the performers, all of them working hard to keep this balloon in the air, and all of them wildly impressive.

Everything is played straight.  To spoof it up would give us another Spamalot.  To give us another Camelot, the show would need an original score.  No, Knights of the Rose is definitely its own thing.

Leading the cast as Prince Gawain is former-Hollyoaks star Andy Moss, who proved his mettle as a vocalist in a recent nationwide tour of Ghost.  Moss here proves himself more than capable of delivering rousing speeches to his troops – next stop, The RSC? – and he does his best with a character that has no flaws or self-doubt, or anything to get his teeth into.  He gets a couple of Bon Jovi numbers to belt out, so all is well.

Oliver Savile is floppy-haired Sir Hugo, the romantic lead, singing pop, rock (and later, classical) with a clear, sweet voice.  His rival Sir Palamon (in this performance, played by Ian Gareth Jones) brings musical theatre intonations to the rock songs, along with a meatier stage presence.  Matt Thorpe’s Sir Horatio does extremely well with his songs in a high register, while Ruben Van Leer’s humble John perhaps has the purest, most searing voice of all.

Van Leer sort of narrates, linking scenes together with recitations of verse.  He speaks with feeling and clarity but there are perhaps too many of these, keeping John out of the action, commenting on it (sometimes tangentially) rather than taking part, and slowing things down for the rest of us.

Katie Birtill’s Princess Hannah and Rebekah Lowings’s Lady Isabel, supported by handmaid Emily (Blue Woodward) provide a couple of the show’s highlights, absolutely killing Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero and Total Eclipse of the Heart.  The vocals are superb, and the staging by director Racky Plews gives us 1980s rock video.  Plews blends modern choreography with period moves, and so we get Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale meets Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale.

Bringing gravitas to the piece are Adam Pearce as Aethelstan and Rebecca Bainbridge as Matilda, King and Queen, two more mature players in this young cast.

There are moments of brilliance.  A stylised battle, complete with horses’ heads and animated rain, is evocative and effective.  A medieval chant, from Adam Pearce’s King Aethelstan, reverberates with drama as well as his beautiful bass baritone…

The creative choices are audacious, at turns bemusing and gobsmacking, but it’s the performers that give us the enjoyment, that sell us this hodgepodge and we like it.

How to fix it?  Me, I’d start lighter, to give more time for us to get attached to the characters and accustomed to the style before the action proper kicks in.  The transitions from poetry to rock song should be smoother, rather than speedbumps in the way of our engagement.  And give us a song we can sing along with for a more rousing finale.

Somewhere within in all this is the potential for a great show.  As it is, it’s a lot of fun – as a rock concert cum poetry recital delivered in fancy dress.

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Gawain down in a blaze of glory… Andy Moss (Photo: Mark Dawson)


Oatcakes and Circuses

ASTLEY’S ASTOUNDING ADVENTURES

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th July, 2018

 

When pressed to come up with names from the history of circus, you might recall worthies such as Billy Smart or Mary Chipperfield.  You probably won’t even know of the father of it all, the inventor of the modern circus, one Philip Astley, an innovative impresario and equestrian performer.  Now, this brand-new production staged in his home town brings this unsung hero firmly into the limelight.  We learn that he was a military man who fought in the Seven Years War – the redcoat of his uniform inspires the traditional attire of the ringmaster – and his riding school, based on marshland in Lambeth, like him, was snubbed by the nobility whose patronage he craved.  Dubbed ‘the major with the funny voice’ Astley doesn’t fit in, he’s a solecism made flesh, until inspiration strikes, and he draws together pre-existing elements (horse-riding tricks, clowns, musicians) and invents the standard for the circus ring (still in use today…)

Frazer Flintham’s snappy script leavens the historical detail with sharply comedic, sometimes saucy, dialogue, delivered with verve by a superlative ensemble.  Irrepressible clown Michael Hugo narrates – when he’s not engaged in hilarious business – and the entire enterprise crackles with fun.

Nicholas Richardson plays Astley as a swaggering, handsome figure.  Beneath the posturing is a man driven by his heart, and his heart is in the right place.  He’s also very, very funny.  He is matched by Danielle Bird as love interest Patty Jones, a spirited, driven young woman who becomes Astley’s rock and life-partner.  Their romance is decidedly unsentimental but is encapsulated in an aerial acrobatic sequence high above the stage and without a safety net, providing one of the truly jaw-dropping moments of the night.

An accident befell the mighty Andrew Pollard, causing him to break his foot the day before the dress rehearsal last week.  A swift piece of re-blocking has him sitting among the audience with his injured extremity raised, as per doctor’s orders, but this is not enough to dampen his performance.  He gives us a range of comic characters via a variety of hats and wigs – his George III is a scream, reminding us of the present Duke of Edinburgh.  Pollard’s marginalisation is only physical; his contribution remains at the heart of this production and it befits his high-status roles (the King, Colonel West) to have them apart from the main action.

Jason Eddy declaims and postures as Astley’s treacherous rival, Charles Hughes, while Nickolia King-N’Da impresses as Astley’s talented but rebellious son, John, who doesn’t wish to be saddled with horse-riding tricks for the rest of his days.  Luke Murphy does a star turn as Billy the Little Military Horse, in a hilarious scene of audience involvement.  Gareth Cassidy is also great fun as Astley’s BFF Alfie, while Oliver Mawdsley lends splendid support as Bert.  The cast is augmented by a quartet of circus performers who tumble and juggle and brandish fire around, bringing the thrills of the circus to this already-entertaining show.

Director Theresa Heskins brings her hallmarks to bear (non-contact combat, letters thrown across the stage…) and they work like a dream.  There is also a wealth of inventiveness that heighten the theatricality of the piece and add to the humour: walking across the marshland, for example; judicious use of ladies’ fans…)  How do you stage trick-riding when you have no horses?  Cleverly, is the answer.

There is also much that is deeply traditional, from the clowning to the carnival barking, but it is married with amusing anachronisms and contemporary references, making this just as much a play of the now as it is of the then.  Co-director Vicki Amedume ensures the action looks and feels like it belongs in a circus.

James Atherton’s original music is suitably circussy and melodramatic, providing the perfect accompaniment to the daring of the acts and the perfect underscore to the twists of Astley’s fortune.   The New Vic Workshop has outdone itself with the props: bicycles converted into fairground horses are wonderful to behold, and Lis Evans’s costumes keep the 18th century to the fore.

I come away having laughed a lot and having been charmed by the story, thrilled by the acts, and above all with a sense of injustice.  Surely Astley, the progenitor of an entire form of popular entertainment, deserves a more permanent monument than this excellent but ephemeral entertainment?

Meanwhile, this is the New Vic doing what it does best, and I cannot recommend this wonderful show highly enough.

Astounding!

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Linked in: Jason Eddy and Nicholas Richardson (Photo: Clara Lou Photography)


Girl Powers

MATILDA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 5th July, 2018

 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s most successful production ever comes to Birmingham for the summer, making itself at home in the Hippodrome, just 20-odd miles from its point of origin in Stratford upon Avon.  It’s been a few years since I last saw it and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to be reminded of its brilliance.

Based on one of Roald Dahl’s novels for children, it contains a host of grotesque characters – gifts for any actor!  – monstrous, unreasonable adults in contrast with our clear-thinking, upright young heroine.  Matilda’s parents (Sebastian Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill) are cruel in their selfishness and neglect of the little girl they don’t know how to handle; Torkia comes into his own with a paeon to television to open the second act, while Thornhill gets to demonstrate her moves with some wild ballroom dancing, accompanied by a snake-hipped Matt Gillett as Rudolpho, her instructor – it’s like Strictly on too much sugar.  The most grotesque of them all is, of course, sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull, in a show-stealing performance by Craige Els.  It’s a delicious role, and Els makes a meal of it.

They’re not all horrible.  Matilda finds succour from her friendly neighbourhood librarian, the attentive Mrs Phelps (Michelle Chantelle Hopewell) and especially from her teacher, Miss Honey (Carly Thoms).  Thoms brings the right amount of mousiness to the part as Miss Honey develops a backbone, without being insipid or overly sentimental.

But the night belongs to the children.  No one elicits quality performances from young actors like the RSC, and this current troupe keep the bar held high.  Among the class, some stand out (although they are all disciplined, committed, and talented!): Dylan Hughes’s cake-guzzling Bruce, Madeline Gilby’s spirited Lavender…  And, above all, a breathtakingly commanding performance from Lara Cohen in the title role, often holding the stage on her own.  It’s incredible – with Cohen’s skills almost matching her character’s superpowers (Matilda is a kind of benevolent Carrie!)

Dennis Kelly’s book is redolent with Roald Dahl fun and nastiness, while Tim Minchin’s score is charming and clever, with plenty of good tunes – my favourite being the wistfully bittersweet When I Grow Up, joyfully presented on playground swings.  Director Matthew Warchus elicits broad playing from his colourful cast.  This is larger-than-life stuff, the stuff, indeed, of storybooks, but Matilda has no problem working her magic on young and old audience members alike.

29-RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Lara Cohen (Matilda). Photo Manuel Harlan.

One for the books: Lara Cohen as Matilda (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Stable Relationship

EQUUS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 30th June, 2018

 

The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production.  Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.

The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night.  Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny.  Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on.  Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.

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Sam Wilson and Colin Simmonds (Photos: Graeme Braidwood)

Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others.  Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life.  An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…

Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child.  Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.

Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses.  As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness.  John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks.  The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.

The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship.  The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself.  Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes.  John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.

This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.

In a word: blinding.

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Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

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Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 


Rough Magic

THE TEMPEST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 19th June, 2018

 

It’s not the first time The Tempest has been set in outer space.  The film, Forbidden Planet, translated the action – and the text – to a sci-fi setting; then a stage show, one of the first jukebox musicals, Return To The Forbidden Planet used Shakespearean lines in tandem with 1960s songs.  Now, Oddsocks Productions return to the play with sci-fi in mind, along with their trademark silliness and pop music… and it all makes for an evening of bonkers entertainment.

The Shakespeare is peppered with sci-fi references, with Star Trek featuring heavily, and Star Wars a close second.  Prospero is a kind of Old Ben Kenobi figure, with daughter Miranda’s hair curled in Princess Leia-like buns.  An engineer called Scottie even puts in an appearance.  The stroke of genius is having Trinculo, usually a jester, portrayed as a droid – Top marks to Gavin Harrison for his Anthony Daniels/C3PO impersonation!  Harrison also appears as the villainous Antonio, a baddie in search of a panto; although the cuts to the script mean he doesn’t get up to much, Harrison poses and postures beautifully, and it’s a pleasure to boo him.

Another stalwart returning for more madness is Dominic Gee Burch.  His Caliban, a mutant fish-man, as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon got too close to a nuclear reactor, is a gift for a gifted physical comedian.  New to the company, Amy Roberts makes a snooty ‘Alonza’, while her drunken ‘Stephanie’ is straight out of Starfleet Academy – the Geordie Shore campus.  Making her Oddsocks debut as a feisty, petulant Miranda, Alice Merivale is wildly enjoyable.  Her scenes with Ferdinand are especially good – mainly because it’s a moment when Shakespeare is allowed to come to the fore.  As Ferdinand and also an alien Ariel, Matt Penson speaks the verse beautifully, while maintaining the sense of anarchic fun that characterises an Oddsocks performance.

Director/genius Andy Barrow plays Prospero, like a bald Gandalf wafting his magic staff about, and he’s as gloriously silly as you’d expect, yet when it comes to the big speeches, Prospero’s famous lines (We are such stuff as dreams are made on…) he plays it straight, as though establishing his credentials.  Not that he needs to, of course, but he wisely reins in the slapstick and the silliness and the mucking around and lets the power of Shakespeare’s words work its magic.  Speaking of magic, the special effects are all gloriously low-tech, with some simple conjuring tricks adding to the atmosphere.

There are a couple of misfires but overall, it’s more hit than miss, and you’re never waiting long for the next thing to laugh at.  I feel more could be made of the Caliban and Trinculo under a blanket scene, for example, but then there are moments of sheer brilliance: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Ridley Scott’s Alien has a lot to answer for.

If you haven’t seen The Tempest before, you might not find this version all that enlightening.  If you haven’t (and if you have!) seen Oddsocks before, you’re in for a wild ride and a rocking good time.

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Brave new worlds! Prospero (Andy Barrow) and Miranda (Alice Merivale)


Blissful

HAY FEVER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th June, 2018

 

Noel Coward’s 1924 play is perhaps best described as a ‘comedy of bad manners’.  Set in the country retreat of the Bliss family, it depicts what transpires one weekend when each member of the family decides to invite a guest to stay.  In terms of plot, that’s about it – the play lacks the depth and development of Coward’s later works, but the beastly behaviour of the Blisses provides such fun, we don’t seem to care about the script’s narrative shortcomings.

Ruling the roost as former actress Judith Bliss is Lesley Wilcox, serving up the ham in hefty slabs – but all without breaking character.  Judith has quit the stage but has never stopped acting; she spends her days in the throes of melodramatic hyperbole.  Wilcox is a monstrous joy to behold.

Following in their mother’s footsteps are waspish daughter Sorel (Zoe Mortimer in fine form) and dapper son Simon, played by Josh Whitehouse-Gardner, who is perfectly cast.  Of all the company, it is he who gives the best clipped, Cowardian delivery.  As the father, David Bliss, Roger Harding warms into the role and is soon hurling himself into histrionics along with the rest of his brood.

The hapless guests include Vivien Tomlinson, good fun as a kind of prototype ‘cougar’ figure, Myra Arundel; Paul Tomlinson as Richard, delivering a nice line in awkwardness; Thomas Hodge flounders around agreeably as nice-but-dim Sandy; while India Willes’s Jackie is a study in social anxiety and shyness.

Judith’s thunder is almost stolen by her maid of all work, Clara, played by Shirley Allwork, in a hilarious piece of character work in perfect contrast with all the posh nobs she has to serve.

Director Colin Lewis Edwards gets the pacing of the rows and arguments spot on, and the funniest scene comes when our hosts attempt to entertain their motley guests with an abortive parlour game.

Special mention must go to Bel Derrington and Graham Robson for their elegantly detailed and substantial set, contained within the confines of the Bear Pit’s intimate performance space.

Coward is a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde and a forerunner of Edward Albee, and this high quality, classy production delivers the goods.  What does the play have to say to us today, 90-odd years since it first appeared?  Perhaps it’s that the ‘elite’ are still riding roughshod over the rest of us, callous and careless in their conceited conduct.  Or perhaps it’s just that impoliteness and rudeness remain terribly funny – as long as someone else is on the receiving end.

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Lesley Wilcox as Judith Bliss (Photo: Sam Allard)

 


Joy Ride

SUMMER HOLIDAY

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 13th June, 2018

 

The 1963 Cliff Richard film about a bunch of lads who travel across Europe in a London double-decker bus is now a vehicle, haha, for Ray Quinn and a ball of energy shaped liked the rest of the cast.  The minimal set, apart from the bus of course, gives them plenty of space to dance in – and boy, do they dance!  Quinn is an incredible mover – they all are – and director Racky Plews’s quirky 1960s choreography pulls no punches.  The staging of the musical numbers is a spectacular display of talent and skill.  It’s breath-taking and fun – fun being the watchword of this effortlessly likeable show.

There are plenty of iconic songs (the title song, Do You Wanna Dance?, The Young Ones, and so on) and some nondescript ones, but these are salvaged and redeemed by the energetic staging.  The script by Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan is charmingly funny, cheeky rather than smutty; it’s all light-hearted stuff, and I forgive the odd anachronisms (like ‘anger management’) because I’m having too good a time to care.

Like I said, as Don, the Cliff role, Quinn is incredible.  Even his speaking voice is mannered to suit the period and he seems to chuck himself around with ease.  He is supported by his mates: Rory Maguire is funny as Cyril; Billy Roberts is funny as Steve, in a low-brow kind of way; and Joe Goldie is funny – no, make that hilarious – as Edwin, especially when he’s attempting to mime.  They meet a trio of girls in France, on their way to stardom in Athens, and guess what, they’re all funny too, even if there’s not much to differentiate their characters other than hair colour.  The girls’ numbers are real treats.  I like Alice Baker’s Alma, Laura Marie Benson’s Angie, and particularly enjoy Gabby Antrobus’s Mimsie.

Adding drama to the bus ride is the marvellous Sophie Matthew as Barbara, starlet on the run, bringing Shakespearean transvestite intrigue when she stows away on the bus disguised as a boy (she’s in disguise, not the bus).  As well as being glamorous and elegant, Matthew is also funny – there’s a great scene when Quinn is towelling off after a shower and asks the ‘boy’ to assist.  Quinn is in impressive shape, by the way, and his cheeky smile is never far away.

Villain of the piece is Barbara’s pushy showbiz mother Stella, played to the hilt by Taryn Sudding.  The Muttley to her Dick Dastardly is none other than veteran entertainer Bobby Crush, having and being great fun under a dreadful toupee.  Crush proves himself a fine comic actor as the long-suffering Jerry; the delivery of his lines and the timing of his reactions is spot on.

This is relentless entertainment, harking back to a more innocent time and kept fresh and alive by an indefatigable company.  I leave the theatre with a big grin plastered over my face – and there’s not many bus journeys that have that effect.

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Music à la King

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th June, 2018

 

This biographical musical, telling of the rise to prominence of songwriter Carole King, feels different from other shows of its type.  Yes, it’s a rags-to-riches tale but the young King seems to have had a smooth ride to the top, from 1950s Brooklyn to 1970s Los Angeles.  Pressure from her mother to give up ‘sawng-wriding’ and become a teacher is easily overcome.  Resistance within the industry is deftly swept aside.  She sells her first hit, meets a handsome chap, forms a writing partnership with him, becomes his wife, mother to his daughters… It’s almost the interval when the first cloud appears, and dramatic tension at last enters the piece.  The second act is rife with marital stress, but King comes through, using the break-up of her marriage to lyricist Gerry Goffin as the basis for material for her phenomenal album, Tapestry.

As King, Bronté Barbé‏ is magnificent, delivering the self-deprecating Jewish humour along with the goods when it comes to singing à la King, that distinctive reedy voice combining vulnerability with power.  At this performance, Grant McConvey steps up as the charming but troubled Gerry Goffin and there is some excellent character work from Carol Royle as Carole’s mum.  Amy Ellen Richardson is also fabulous as Cynthia Weil, Carole’s best friend and songwriting rival, while Matthew Gonsalves’s Barry Mann is humorously hypochondriac and wildly talented.

The hits keep coming – it’s a real nostalgia fest of songs that were old when I was a nipper, but somehow they have entered my consciousness.  Up On The Roof, Some Kind of Wonderful, Will You Love Me Tomorrow… These are performed by members of the ensemble as ‘The Drifters’ and ‘The Shirelles’, recreating the authentic sound of those iconic acts, complete with doo-wop choreography, but it’s Little Eva (Esme Laudat) and The Locomotion that really raises the roof.  The remarkable breadth of King’s influence on popular music emerges, all the more astonishing for the era when ‘women didn’t write music’.

Beautiful is a fantastic piece of entertainment, slick and classy, heart-warming – and funny, due to a wryly witty book by Douglas McGrath.  You don’t have to be a Carole King aficionado to enjoy it, but by the end, you will be.

Beautiful.

BEAUTIFUL.-Bronte-Barbe-Carole-King.-Photo-by-Craig-Sugden-2

Bronté Barbé as Carole King (Photo: Craig Sugden)

 

 


A Nudge To Arms

TRYING IT ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Friday 8th June, 2018

 

At the grand age of 70, playwright David Edgar turns performer for the first time in this self-penned piece that blends autobiographical material and interviews with fellow activists, people who were active (for want of a better word) in the student movement of 1968 and beyond.  A survey of the political landscape of the past fifty years, a potted life story, and history lesson, the play’s didactic elements are leavened by humour and theatrical devices: Edgar converses with himself at age 20 via a voice from an antiquated cassette player; ‘stage manager’ Danielle Phillips upbraids him for his shortcomings, his dated language, his previous dismissal of feminism… It’s a searing attack that Edgar takes on the chin – the left has always been prone to bickering and in-fighting.  Indeed, the Labour party today is chronically divided, even if it has veered away from socialistic ideals and is squabbling over centrist pursuits.

It is a cliché that people become more right-wing as age withers them.  It is shocking to realise that the hard-won changes in legislation regarding race, gender, and gay rights were fought for by the same generation that largely voted for Brexit.  What happened to them?  Surely it is more than the ageing process?  Edgar attempts to enlighten us on this point and it’s a s sobering as it is entertaining.  He’s an engaging presence, seemingly effortless in his fascinating discourse.  The altercation with Phillips creates tension – this is no cosy lecture – and we are made to think for ourselves and our own position, as the world turns backwards and the progress we have made is threatened with erasure.

There is a lot to take in and ruminate over here.  It’s amusing, insightful and dismaying all at once, although there is a sense that Edgar is preaching to a choir of liberals, people who willingly and regularly attend the theatre and regard it as an arena for social commentary and change.  Perhaps we will be shaken from our comfortable complacency, our classical music and our Waitrose cuisine, and take up the cause to continue the fight before the political gains we have made are lost.  This is in addition to the long way we have still to go.

edgar

 

 

 

 


Fun with Heartbreak

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Jephson Gardens, Leamington, Thursday 7th June, 2018

 

This version from the aptly named (for this play) Heartbreak Productions sets Shakespeare’s supreme rom-com at a village garden fete as the Great War draws to a close – also apt in this centenary year of the end of that conflict.  A quintet of villagers is staging the play to raise money for the Red Cross and the action begins with a scene of them bickering as they set things up.  So, as well as playing two or three (or even four) of the Shakespearean roles, there is this additional layer.  For the most part, this framing device works very well, but when the action is interrupted for the first time for a protracted argument between the girl playing Hero and the girl playing Beatrice, which includes audience participation, the flow of the main event is stalled.  Other instances later on, when they are changing the simple scenery, work better as interjections, reminding us of the conceit.

Director Paul Chesterton keeps things moving apace, adding plenty of physical comedy to this wordy, witty piece; his cast have a snappy delivery, differentiating the characters with a range of accents, rendering this version of Messina a microcosm of Britain!  Shaun Miller’s affable, Scots Benedick is a strong foil for Bryony Tebbutt’s fiery, trouser-sporting Beatrice, which is contrasted nicely with one of her other roles as the pompous, malapropism-dropping Dogberry.  Faye Lord is an appealing Hero to George Naylor’s remarkable Claudio – Naylor brings out the fun and humour of Claudio, (before events take their dramatic turn, that is, changing the prevailing mood from fun to heartbreak) and during the wedding scene, which is handled magnificently by all, plays the angry bridegroom with power and conviction.  Man of the match though is Ashleigh Aston playing Leonato, Don John (here Countess Joan) and Don Pedro.  She also manages a turn as a hilarious watchman.

The adaptation, with a few cuts here and a few re-attributed lines there, keeps all the action and intrigue intact, placing an emphasis on rumour and misinformation.  There’s only a couple of instances when it feels like they’re spreading themselves thin – needs must, I suppose.

Above all, the wit, charm and intensity of the Shakespeare comes through, despite the odd splash of drizzle and the noise of the church bells and the ducks flying overhead.  It’s an entertaining and pleasant way to pass a summer’s evening, with an engaging cast and one of the bard’s most delightful works.

 

 


Breaking the Ice

TITANIC – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 4th June, 2018

 

This story about belief in the infallibility of technology is delayed by a technical hitch, sort of foreshadowing what is to befall the ill-fated ‘unsinkable’ ship – although there can’t be a soul in the house who doesn’t know the story; it is a disaster branded in the public imagination and therefore, any retelling is flooded with dramatic irony.  The audience knows what’s coming but the crew and passengers do not, and so it is the job of the script to try to engage us with the lives of individuals before the main event disrupts everything.  And here – and only here – is where this musical adaptation is scuppered.  It’s a safe bet that the women (and children) are likely to survive; their husbands, beaux, fathers etc, not so much.  There are too many characters and too little time for us to be manipulated into caring about any of them very much, given that we know they have a date with an iceberg, and there is very little opportunity for characters to develop and endear them to us.  Lines like “I believe this will be my final voyage” clang like dropped anchors.

But it’s very well presented.  David Woodhead’s riveted steel proscenium frames a simple set with an upper and lower deck and a movable set of stairs, while his fabulous Edwardian costumes evoke the sense of period.  Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are Sondheimesque in tone and effect (I mean that as a compliment, of course), giving the cast, individuals and chorus alike, plenty of opportunity to belt their hearts out.  Director Thom Southerland tackles the wrecking of the ship with simple, stylised staging, enough to tease the imagination – we don’t even see the lifeboats, let alone the iceberg, but where the show has greatest impact is where the survivors stand before a role call of all those who perished, the lettering too small to be read, because those lost souls are, after all, unknowable.

Among the large cast several stand-out performances arise: Simon Green’s arrogant, hubristic J Bruce Ismay; Greg Costiglioni’s passionate Mr Andrews; Claire Machin’s social-climbing Alice; Lewis Cornay’s appealing Bell Boy and bandleader; and the mighty Niall Sheehy as Fred the boilerman.  Sheehy is set up as the hero of the piece and sings like one – but of course, poor Fred is no superman, and his sacrifice is almost understated.

Others have their moments: Judith Street and Dudley Rogers as the elderly Mr and Mrs Straus have a touching scene, deciding to face their fates together; Captain Smith (Philip Rham), Mr Ismay and Mr Andrews have a great scene in which they lash out, each blaming the others for the shipwreck.  A trio of girls, introduced as the Three Kates, show promise but only one (Victoria Serra) gets any real stage time – and makes the most of it.

By the end, I’m wondering if musical theatre was the way to go.  Perhaps a docu-drama style would have been more appropriate in bringing home the scale of the enterprise and the enormity of its loss.  And should a disaster – any disaster – be the basis of a piece of entertainment?  As it is, this Titanic is great on the ears, but leaves the heartstrings of this reviewer unplucked.

Photo-by-Scott-Rylander-001

Niall Sheehy’s Fred before it all goes belly-up (Photo: Scott Rylander)


Sweet and Sour

MOUNTAINS: The Dreams of Lily Kwok

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 31st May, 2018

 

When Helen leaves her native Manchester to work as a lawyer in Hong Kong, she feels out of place, a fraud, an English girl in a Chinese body.  She encounters the spirit of her grandmother, but as she was when she was younger.  Grandmother Lily is entreated to tell her life story and to pull no punches, with Helen taking on the role of Lily while Lily narrates.  Storylines from the past and the present entwine, with Helen and Lily often at odds.  Put this way, it may seem confusing but in practice, it isn’t.  Director Jennifer Tang maintains clear focus throughout so we’re never wondering who is whom and when is when.

Siu-See Hung is delightful as Helen, with her plain-speaking Mancunian humorously undercutting some of the more melodramatic aspects of Lily’s story.  Tina Chiang makes a formidable Lily, but there is warmth behind the austere looks and the anger.  Matthew Leonheart gives a powerful performance as the dashing Kwok Chan brought low by his addictions, while Ruth Gibson’s Mrs Woodman develops from colonial racism to genuine warmth for her hard-put-upon maid, Lily.  Rina Takasaki brings glossy glamour as cabaret singer Gong, and Minhee Yeo gives a sensitive portrayal of Mrs Lee, a woman desperate for a child.  Completing the cast, Andy Kettu has contrasting roles as Helen’s hopeless date and a terrifying Japanese soldier.

In-Sook Chappell’s adaptation of Helen Tse’s novel, Sweet Mandarin, depicts the rich tapestry of Lily’s life, the highs and the many lows, the rough with the smooth, the sweet with the sour.  It’s an epic saga, covering decades of Chinese history, including some harrowing war-time scenes.  Tang includes many effective ideas to get the story across, like a silk jacket becoming a puppet to represent Lily on her 12th birthday.  With Ruth Chan’s original, ethereal compositions, the show has a traditional feel while being bang up-to-date and fresh, as Helen learns of her heritage and finds her place in the modern world.

Funny, touching, endearing and heartrending, there’s a lot packed into the running time and it’s all performed with style and skill by a captivating ensemble.  I savoured every flavourful moment.

Mountains new leader

Tina Chiang and Siu-See Hung

 


Heart to Heart

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 30th May, 2018

 

In the 1950s, Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York, contacts a bookshop at the eponymous address, in search of an out of print book.  So begins a correspondence that lasts a couple of decades.  The ever-demanding customer and the stuffy but efficient bookseller establish a friendship over the years, and there is always the promise that one day they might meet in person.

Cambridge Arts Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse bring us this new adaptation by James Roose-Evans, in which all the dialogue is taken from the letters.  The passage of time is signalled by the other members of the bookshop staff, coming and going and playing incidental music and traditional songs – This is a nice touch, rather than having Rebecca Applin’s original and wistful compositions on tape.  By keeping the bookshop staff busy, director Richard Beecham goes a long way to prevent this wordy show from becoming too static in presentation.

Hollywood and Broadway deity, Stefanie Powers doffs her usual glamour for the comfortable slacks and woolly pullies of the pernickety writer.  Hanff’s humour is delivered with a wry twinkle and Powers brings warmth even to the most demanding of her book orders.  She looks and sounds great, even in this dishevelled state.  Of course, these days, Hanff would trawl the internet for her books and that would be the end of it, but we can appreciate, in our ‘enlightened’ times of social media, the friendships one can strike up with people across the world that you may never meet.  Powers commands the portion of the stage that represents Hanff’s apartment – Norman Coates’s detailed, cluttered set evokes the frozen-in-time aspects of all good bookshops.

Clive Francis also excels as bookseller Frank Doel, gradually thawing and loosening up.  Even the act of listening to Powers narrate Hanff’s latest missive is imbued with emotion.  Of course, being British, Doel is never going to be effusive, but the chipping away at his reserve is sweetly handled, and there is a real sense of affection between the two.  Other members of staff chip in with their own letters to Hanff – details of social history are alluded to and the play delivers a strong impression of the way people come and go through life as well as the changing face of life in post-war Britain.

Charming and amusing, this gentle piece turns poignant as it reaches the end, with a final scene that is irresistibly moving.  It’s about closeness across distance, and it’s also about anticipation and disappointment, and friendship and loss, and I loved every minute.

A classy production that deserves a larger audience.

stefanie powers pic by Richard Hubert Smith

The Powers that be. Stefanie Powers as Helene Hanff (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

 


Pees and Queues

URINETOWN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018

 

It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time.  Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation.  The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’.  Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns.  Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it.  In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.

Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock.  His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown.  Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work.  This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.

Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves.  Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better.  And I start to get chills…

Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong.  Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation.  Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers.  Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell.  There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.

Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown.  Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots!  James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself.  The production values of this show are of the highest order.

And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment?  Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again.  The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS).  It all rings ever-so-relevant.  How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising?  Every bloody time, that’s how many.

An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.

urinetown

Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Pros and Cons

OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 24th May, 2018

 

This production comes to Birmingham from Nottingham Playhouse, working with Ramps On The Moon – casting deaf and disabled actors and tailoring the performance for hearing impaired audiences.  Rather than having an interpreter at the side of the stage, signing for everyone, the signing occurs as part of the action: convicts, eavesdropping on the dialogue, sign it to each other… Also, screens display surtitles, scrolling the script as it occurs.  So well is the signing incorporated, it becomes part of the choreography of the piece.

The play, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, tells of a colony of convicts, transported to Australia to serve their sentences in exile.  The militia that guard them are brutal and cruel but the leader, Governor Phillip (Kieron Jecchinis) is of the view that criminals can and should be reformed.  He consents to the rehearsal and staging of a play, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, much to the consternation of his men.  As if the situation was not already a powder keg, waiting for a match.  Charged with directing the production is Second Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) who finds his patience tested and his emotions engaged.  Also among the redcoats (although this is no holiday camp!) is Colin Connor as the aggressively alliterative Major Ross, Jarrad Ellis-Thomas as the expressively inarticulate Captain Campbell, and Dave Fishley as Captain Collins.  Excellent among this strong team is Garry Robson’s Harry Brewer, whose relationship with one of the convict women goes beyond the usual exploitation. The men argue the nature of their work, some favouring punishment over rehabilitation – a question that rages still today.

The prostitutes and convicts we meet are a lively bunch, to say the least.  Caroline Parker is a hoot as the coarse Meg Long; Sapphire Joy is appealing as Mary Brenham; and Gbemisola Ikulemo is superb as the formidable Liz Morden.  Tom Dawse makes a likeable Wisehammer, and Will Lewis an amusing Arscott – there are plenty of laughs in the rehearsal scenes, as Lt Clark struggles with melodramatic posturing, reluctant servants, and Liz Morden’s fierce and rapid delivery.  Fifi Garfield’s Dabby Bryant and Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling Smith are wonderfully expressive in their silence, their expressions and attitudes unmistakable.  Gradually, the civilising power of the theatre takes hold, but can the cast members escape the rope of hangman ‘Ketch’ Freeman (a sympathetic Fergus Rattigan) long enough to perform the play?

Fiona Buffini directs Timberlake Wertenbaker’s funny and incisive piece with verve.  The worst excesses of the guards are kept offstage (this is a comedy, after all – as Clark keeps telling his ragtag company) and production values are high.  Neil Murray’s evocative set is bathed in Mark Jonathan’s luscious lighting – added to which, it’s a warm night in the Rep’s auditorium, giving us a real feel for the place!  If the play is about the humanity of those regarded as ‘lower’ and ‘lesser’ by society, the production is a prod, for those who need it, that deaf and disabled performers and technical crew and what they bring to the table is also of value.

There is a haunting, dignified appearance by Milton Lopes as an Aboriginal Australian; the effect of colonisation of his land is devastating.  Britain’s disregard for other cultures is nothing new, of course.

An engaging, entertaining evening and a relevant revival.

Nottingham Playhouse

Dabby (Fifi Garfield) and Liz (Gbemisola Ikumela) discuss the finer points of Farquhar’s elegant comedy

 


Canvas Opinions

ART

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 21st May, 2018

 

When Serge splashes out 200 grand on a white painting, it becomes a bone of contention and causes a rift between him and his two best friends, Marc and Yvan.  Or rather, it brings to the surface, resentments and feelings hitherto buried, and the 25-year friendship is in danger of exploding.  This welcome revival of Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic production reminds us of how funny Yazmina Reza’s script is, through the prism of Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation.  And so, these three middle-aged Frenchmen and their triangular association becomes a searing statement about the nature of friendship, more than a commentary on contemporary art.

Nigel Havers has never been better, in my view, than he is here as the urbane but uptight Serge.  He is matched by a magnificent Denis Lawson as the scathing, cynical Marc, and an absolutely brilliant Stephen Tompkinson as the emotional, put-upon Yvan.  Tompkinson gets to deliver a lengthy monologue about wedding invitations that is as hilarious as it is long.  In fact, the comic timing of all three is impeccable and it is a joy to see these old hands, excelling at their craft.

Mark Thompson’s sparse but stately set serves as the friends’ apartments, suggesting also a gallery space with its bare walls and low furniture, while Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, with its shadows of a Venetian blind, suggests the supposed surface of Serge’s precious painting.  Snappy asides from the characters are demarcated by sharp lighting changes, accompanied by the jazz-informed tones of Gary Yershon’s ultra-cool music.

It’s a breath-taking hour and a half, of bitter backbiting and savage rejoinders.  An act of selflessness on the part of Serge salvages the trio – they will live to squabble another day – and furthermore, Marc is brought to his own understanding of what the painting signifies.

Like an actor on a stage, the painter covering a canvas is transient.  Serge’s white canvas reminds us we are all figures moving through a space, and then we are gone.  It’s a real punch in the gut from a show that has already made our sides ache with laughter.

Superb.

ART 2

Picture this: Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson (Photo: Matt Crockett)


Whisky Business

WHISKY GALORE

New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018

 

Based on true events, which were subsequently novelised by Compton Mackenzie, this adaptation by Philip Goulding arrives at the New Vic via Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre.  It bears the hallmarks of what could potentially be a hilarious show.

Framed as a play-within-a-play, the set-up is a fictional theatre group, the Pallas Players, are to stage the story of two remote islands where a dearth of whisky, due to the War, turns into a glut when a ship carrying thousands of bottles runs aground.  The group is all-female, presumably because in 1943, all the men are off warring. The cast of seven will play all the parts, islanders and outsiders alike, led by Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby, our narrator (among other roles). This framing device is a well-worn one.  The hapless troupe in The Play That Goes Wrong springs immediately to mind, and the mighty Oddsocks employ the same convention for all of their productions of Shakespeare and other classics.  Even Brecht uses it, when a load of factory workers present The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  And so, we are on familiar ground.

The performance style is akin to the wildly funny The 39 Steps where a cast of only four do everything.  Perhaps seven is too many to maintain the necessary madcap pace and to keep the sense of heightened theatricality constant.  Larger-than-life characterisations, quick changes and smart ideas for the staging ought to add up to a whole that is funnier than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, the overall effect is patchy.  This kind of approach works best with scenes that involve action (Waggett’s car and the cut-out sheep, for example)  Director Mark Babych’s staging ideas amuse but do not blow us away with their inventiveness.  We have seen it all before and in places (such as some of the staged ‘mistakes’) it comes across as a bit tired.

The cast, though, is indefatigable.  There is much to enjoy in the playing: the stuffy posturing of pompous Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Isabel Ford) brings to mind the likes of Kenneth Connor and Arthur Lowe; Shuna Snow as young Sergeant Major Fred Odd gives a convincing portrayal – you could easily imagine Fred swaggering into the Queen Vic; but the scenes that really come alive are those that feature Christine Mackie as the fierce Mrs Campbell, mother to the timid George (Lila Clements).  Mackie is a real hoot as this formidable woman, keeping to the right side of caricature.  Joey Parsad has her moments as pub landlord Roderick, among other appearances, and Alicia McKenzie is great fun as Waggett’s wife Dolly.  There is a running joke: cast members share the role of the brazen and coquettish Annag, and also that of Paddy the Waggetts’ dog.  There is a lot of coming and going but it needs speeding up in places, and I don’t think the re-blocking of the action for the New Vic’s in-the-round arena always works.

And so, I’m afraid what should be heart-warming and intoxicating as any dram of the good stuff, turns out to be in need of a splash of soda to liven things up.

Christine-Mackie-Shuna-Snow-and-Isabel-Ford-1170x780

Shuna Snow as Fred, Isabel Ford as Waggett, and Christine Mackie as Paddy the dog (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)


Sex and Violins

THE STRING QUARTET’S GUIDE TO SEX AND ANXIETY

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th May, 2018

 

This new piece from director-creator Calixto Bieito is an exploration of mental illness and sexuality, taking its text from a range of writers, most notably Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621.  In fact, the show begins with an extract from that worthy work, delivered by Miltos Yerolemou, one of the four actors who will appear tonight.  While he orates, the other cast members arrange wooden chairs and set up musical stands, moving slowly and in silence.  The Heath Quartet comes on – they play movements from Ligeti’s second string quartet between monologues; the music is disquieting, unsettling, troubling, underscoring the mental anguishes of the four characters.  Lots of pizzicato, lots of squirling high-pitched strings like you get in horror films.

Yerolemou narrates an account of receiving oral sex from an anonymous woman – we assume prostitute.  Later, Mairead McKinley speaks of giving head to her husband; she is anxious about her technique and reveals she ‘practices in secret’.  Whether we are meant to infer some connection between the two is unclear…  It’s graphic stuff but doesn’t shock those of us who’ve enjoyed the occasional Berkoff.

Nick Harris brings a note of humour to proceedings listing all the pharmaceuticals, the therapies (conventional and alternative) and the alcoholic drinks he has tried to assuage his anxiety.  He discloses he has mastered the art of appearing calm, anxious that people will discover his anxiety – and it’s a salient point: it’s not all sobbing and curling up in a foetal position.  We never know what other people are battling with internally.

About half an hour in, we first hear from Cathy Tyson, in what is the strongest section of the piece.  She recounts a kind of modern-day folk tale about the killing of a child in a road traffic accident.  Tyson’s storytelling is compelling and ultimately moving, as it emerges she is the child’s mother from the tale, and the events must have taken place years – decades – ago.

Annemarie Bulla’s set is deceptively simple, giving a concert hall aesthetic of blond floorboards and stacks of chairs.  These stacks advance and retreat, almost imperceptibly, before crashing to the floor.  And that’s when we realise why this production is staged in the Rep’s main house rather than the studio.

Meanwhile, the Heath Quartet switch to Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, and this is where I run into a problem.  The Ligeti worked as incidental music and an underscore.  The Beethoven is too exquisite and the playing of it is divine.  I am transported by the music and neglect to pay attention to what the actors might be up to.

Interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes bleak, and sometimes gripping, this Guide gives us examples of suffering but offers little in the way of guidance.  The Anatomy of Melancholy advises us (Be Not Idle; Be Not Solitary) but Bieito keeps his actors largely separate, with very little in the way of interaction.  That said, the simple action of the application of lipstick suggests that even a trauma that has bedevilled someone for decades, can be overcome.

thumbnail_The company_The String Quartets Guide_copyright Robert Day

The Heath Quartet and, from left to right, Cathy Tyson, Miltos Yerolemou, Mairead McKinley, and Nick Harris (Photo: Robert Day)


Last of the Summer Vin

HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018

 

Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gerald Sibleyras’s Le Vent des Peupliers fits into a niche of comedy we’re familiar with in the UK.  I think of Foggy, Compo and Clegg cooking up their latest madcap scheme, of Waiting for God, which concerned the inmates of a retirement home, and also I think of Quartet, the play about retired opera singers.  In that play, they’re working toward a final concert; in this play, the characters’ objective is escape!  They want to climb a hill, rather than just being over it!

Claire Armstrong Mills directs this gentle comedy, with its barbed remarks and the occasional raucous moment.  There is some nicely handled physical business with a garden hose, and we enjoy spending time with this trio of old soldiers in their retirement home.  John Whittell’s Henri displays a nice line in comic timing.  He’s a sort of lanky Alan Bennett figure who delivers some killer one-liners with the precision of a sniper.  Brian Wilson is the ailing Phillippe, brimming with conspiracy theories and prone to blackouts due to the shrapnel in his noggin.  Wilson’s Phillippe is affable but fragile, and we find we care about him.  Dave Hill’s curmudgeonly, cynical Gustave has a vulnerable side – we see how the Great War has affected these men: Henri’s leg, Phillipe’s blackouts, Gustave’s nerves – and now they have the infirmities of old age to contend with on top of it all.

They’re a likeable if sexist threesome and there’s something almost absurdist about the script.  A nun (Alice Abrahall) stalks silently across the stage from time to time like the Woman in Black or the Angel of Death.  And completing the cast is the stone figure of a dog, who gets to upstage the lot of them at the end.

It’s an amusing couple of hours, finely presented.  Keith Harris’s set evokes France, nuns, old age and death in one economic design. That the home is adjacent to a cemetery puts a certain perspective on the residents’ point of view.

There are a few instances when the lines aren’t quite ready to come out in the right order, but I’m sure this will sharpen up as the run continues.  The show gives us plenty to laugh at and about, while gently prodding us to ponder what keeps us going, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what are we going to do while we’re still able to do it.

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Dave Hill, Brian Wilson and John Whittell (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Steps to Heaven

THE 39 STEPS

Bear Pit Theatre, Friday 11th May, 2018

 

Patrick Barlow’s affectionate spoof draws more from the Hitchcock film version than the John Buchan original novel – and indeed, his script is peppered with direct nods to Hitchcock’s filmography for those in the know.  Director Nicky Cox’s ambitious production is an excellent fit for the Bear Pit’s intimate space; her set design maximises the performance area with a raised level, including judicious use of a screen for projections that both identify the location and bridge the scenes of on-stage action.  Cox works her cast of just four hard; this is a show where the hand of the director is clearly visible, especially during inventive moments like a chase on the roof of a train, and an aeroplane conjured up from a propeller and a ladder.  Also clearly in evidence is the wit of the writer: Barlow’s wordplay spoofs the stilted dialogue with the addition of extra-silliness.

But, of course, it is the actors who draw our admiration the most readily.  Tony Homer is perfectly cast as the protagonist Richard Hannay, tall, slender, his old-fashioned matinee idol looks enhanced by his neat moustache.  Homer proves adept at facial expressions, especially the world-weariness and the self-congratulatory wink, and he uses his pipe to great effect.  I would say he could emphasise Hannay’s R.P. and his stuffy manner to make the most of the character’s ridiculousness, but that’s a quibble, and I don’t wish to detract from his wildly enjoyable portrayal.

Carol Roache reappears as Hannay’s love interests, from a German femme fatale (What is German for femme fatale?) to a crofter’s wife and Pamela, a terribly English young woman who finds herself handcuffed to our hero to great comic effect.  Roache pitches each role perfectly: larger-than-life but never going over-the-top.  That indulgence is permitted to the remaining two cast members, Natalie Danks-Smith and Roger Ganner, who play (tirelessly, it seems) everyone else.  This versatile pair undergo the quickest of quick changes, their characterisations becoming broader and broader, in some breathtakingly silly moments.  Danks-Smith is hilarious as a crofter and the landlady of a hotel; while Ganner excels as the evil professor and the twitchy hotel landlord, to name but four of their many roles.

There are a few first night glitches: a wayward moustache and a runaway pen – but the cast handle these mishaps with aplomb, and it all adds to the fun.  A couple of times, the pace could be quicker – especially during a couple of scene changes – but I’m sure things will sharpen up as the show’s run gets into its stride.

All in all, this is comedy heaven, an excellent opportunity to exercise your laughing muscles for a couple of hours and, generally, the moments when we’re not laughing are times when we’re just marvelling at the brilliance of it all.

tony as hannay

Jolly good show! Tony Homer as Richard Hannay

 


Repeat Offender

FLEABAG

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 9th May, 2018

 

It’s a real treat to be able to see Maddie Rice reprise the hit one-woman show, three years since I first enjoyed it in Birmingham.  Since then, the TV version starring the show’s writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge materialised, opening the show out to six half-hour episodes – each of them brilliant, but it is refreshing to return to the original format of just over an hour, one actor, one chair… The simplicity of the presentation is deceptive.  This is a highly sophisticated piece of storytelling, and Waller-Bridge’s script still feels fresh and funny as ever.

Rice interacts with pre-recorded voices at times but mostly she delivers both sides of a range of conversations, switching in and out of characters in the blink of an eye, while providing asides as narrator.  It’s a dazzling display with precision and impeccable comic timing.  Rice is expressive in many ways.  Sometimes it’s a look, a mere shift of the eyeballs.  Sometimes it’s her entire stance.  Director Vicky Jones ensures it’s always the optimum expression, pacing the exchanges to perfection, allowing for reaction time among the snappy delivery and moments of reflection among the rapid-fire anecdotes.  Elliott Griggs’s subtle lighting signals shifts in mood, location and timeline.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny stuff as our narrator, seemingly without filter, recounts her experiences, sexual and otherwise, and yet it’s as endearing as it is outrageous.  Amid the funny stories, tragedy and pathos surface as we learn of mistakes made and we come to understand the excesses of her behaviour, the destructive spiral she is in.

The hour flies by in Rice’s entertaining company and virtuoso performance, and I’m left trying to think of a better one-person show, and I fail to come up with one that comes close.

My original review from 2015 can be found here.

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Funny girl: Maddie Rice

 


Some You Gershwin…

CRAZY FOR YOU

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th May, 2018

 

The songs of George and Ira Gershwin provide the music in this musical comedy – and there are some timeless classics here: Someone To Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away From Me to name but two.   There are also a few lesser known ditties and, hearing them tonight, you can see why.  But the super-talented company do their best with these bland numbers – the cast play instruments live on stage, without sheet music, and play flawlessly.  It seems in musical theatre, being a triple threat is no longer sufficient.  As well as singing, dancing and acting, you now have to be a musical virtuoso!

The plot is sheer musical comedy froth.  Chap is sent West to foreclose on a theatre but decides to save the building by putting on a show because, wouldn’t you know it, he happens to fall for the daughter of the theatre owner and, because nothing is straightforward, has to adopt disguise and subterfuge in order to secure the girl’s affections…  You can tell where it’s going but Ken Ludwig’s lively script with some zinging one-liners keeps the laughs coming.

Claire Sweeney is every curvaceous inch the glamorous vamp, Irene, strutting around, shooting her smart mouth off.  It’s a shame we have to wait until well into the second act before she gets a big production number.  Kate Milner-Evans matches Irene barb for barb as domineering matriarch Lottie Child, but it is Charlotte Wakefield’s Polly who takes the crown.  Her singing voice is sweet, even when she’s belting, and her solos are standout moments: But Not For Me is shiver-inducingly good.

Ned Rudkins-Stowe is quietly dashing as nominal baddie of the piece, saloon-owner Lank, and Neil Ditt amuses as Ziegfeld-like impresario Bela Zangler.

Heading the bill is Strictly alumnus Tom Chambers, who is hardly ever off, and hardly seems to stop dancing.  His tap skills are impressive, especially when he’s leaping around the set, from balcony to piano, or scaling the proscenium arch without use of a safety net.  It’s a star turn, to be sure, but unfortunately I fail to warm to his characterisation.  Bobby Child is a child by name and also by nature.  He’s a full-on ‘funny guy’ show-off who becomes annoying very quickly, and Chambers plays him to the hilt.  What he gains in over-the-top goofiness, he loses in truth and charm.  I think he should be less Jerry Lewis and more Bob Hope.

This is light-hearted stuff that needs a light touch.  Escapist fluff that, due to the impressive display of talent from the entire cast, does its job, taking us out of ourselves for a couple of hours and allowing us to visit a fantasy world where problems aren’t all that serious and can be overcome with a positive attitude and a spirit of cooperation.  There is a fundamental goodness in people, the show reminds us, even if real people don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Crazy For You UK TourPhoto Credit : The Other Richard

Happy hoofers: Tom Chambers and Charlotte Wakefield


Hired and Fired-Up

THE HIRED MAN

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 4th May, 2018

 

If Thomas Hardy upped sticks and moved north to Cumbria (or Cumberland, as it was known then) the chances are he would have come up with something very like Melvyn Bragg’s family saga about farm-workers and miners near Cockermouth.  There is plenty of Hardyesque bonhomie among the lower orders, strife from the owners, plus most crucially, a love triangle.

Ian Page is John, the eponymous hired man, newlywed to Emily (Jenne Rhys-Williams).  Page has a striking tenor voice and comes into his own later in the story with a plaintive song about his son.  Rhys-Williams, as female lead, bears the emotional brunt of the story, singing the gamut of feelings in a moving portrayal.  The couple is supported by lively turns from Anya McCutcheon as daughter May, and Will Page as stubborn son Harry.

Thom Stafford (no relation) is eminently likeable as John’s hedonistic brother Isaac, contrasting nicely with Gavin Whichello’s Seth, the other, more principled brother, trying to stir up interest in a miners’ union.

The rest of the ensemble get their moments too.  There is pleasing character work from Julian Bissell as the landowner and other roles; Ralph Toppin-Mackenzie as a vicar; Iona Cameron’s Sally gets a lovely duet with Emily about prospective lovers…

Mark Shaun Walsh is magnificent as the handsome, caddish Jackson Pennington, brimming with emotional intensity and vocal power.  His scenes with Rhys-Williams are electrifying, his characterisation so engaging, we care about the character’s fate, despite his transgressions.

Director Kirsteen Stafford (no relation either) works her ensemble of 12 hard and to great effect.  Group scenes are handled well and there are moments of brilliance: a slow-motion fight between John and Jackson while Emily emotes through song is particularly well realised (with fight direction by Thom Stafford).

Howard Goodall’s rich, stirring and moving score is performed by just two musicians.  Musical director Chris Davis and Maddy Evans sound like more than two, delivering all the colours of the music, achieving great variety in tone within a unifying piano-and-violin based sound.  The ensemble singing is beautiful where it needs to be, and rousing and atmospheric as the story demands.  Chris Lamb’s emblematic set evokes farm fences, pubs, the trenches… in an economic but versatile design.

It’s an involving, melodramatic piece with some good tunes, excellently presented, managing to be both intimate and epic in scale.  We get the sense of family and marital strife (universals) against the backdrop of a changing world – oh yes, the First World War rears its ugly and unnecessary head too, changing lives and circumstances forever.  It’s very moving too – expect to come away with wet cheeks!

Great stuff!

hired man


Take This

THE BAND

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st May, 2018

 

Regular readers will know of my aversion to jukebox musicals and so it is with some trepidation that I approach this production.  An out-and-proud Take That fan from way back, I had seen some of the auditions for the titular band in a BBC talent programme, and that wasn’t enough to put me off!

Not, as the woman behind me expected, the story of Take That, this is instead the tale of Rachel and her schoolfriends.  The Band, a Take-Thattish quintet of handsome lads, form the soundtrack to their lives, and encapsulate their hopes and dreams.  Teen Rachel (Faye Christall) cranks up their music to drown out her parents’ quarrels and escape her problems – boy band as metaphor for heroin, perhaps!  When her best mate Debbie (Rachelle Diedericks) wins concert tickets, the group of girls set off on an adventure that changes their young lives.  The other members are sporty Claire (Sarah Kate Howarth), promiscuous extrovert Heather (Katy Clayton) and swotty Zoe (Lauren Jacobs).  We realise the show’s title refers not only to the omnipresent boyband but also to the rubber bracelets on which the girls swear undying friendship, in a kind of Blood Brothers move.

The boy band work as a kind of dispassionate Greek chorus, hardly ever off apart from costume changes – the songs don’t necessarily relate to the action or the characters – and it’s like a play with songs, until the characters start singing too and we’re launched back into musical theatre territory, although, even then, they sing because they want to, rather than to express emotion or character or to further the plot.  And it doesn’t matter.  The musical numbers are spectacularly staged – production values are high, indeed.  Relight My Fire, for example, turns the last bus home into a chariot pulled by the band in Greek helmets, while jets of flame leap from the footlights…

The story jumps 25 years and forty-something Rachel has won a competition to see the band’s reunion gig in Prague.  A reunion is on the cards and there is much humour and more than a little poignancy with the regard to the passage of time and the way life turns out.  Rachel Lumberg is the keystone of the story as grown-up Rachel – with her partner Jeff (Martin Miller) the script takes a John Godber turn, with the relationship strife and the planned trip abroad.  Jayne McKenna and Emily Joyce are good fun as the grown-up Zoe and Heather respectively, but it is the once-sporty Claire who steals the show and our hearts in a lovely portrayal by Alison Fitzjohn.  Andy Williams (not that one) crops up again and again in a range of roles, each of them humorous in an economical, throwaway style that demonstrates his versatility and comic timing.

Tim Firth’s script channels Victoria Wood with its down-to-earth North-Western bathos, and Willy Russell in its female empowerment.  There are plenty of laughs, more than a smattering of wit and a touching denouement that has me wiping my eye.

And the boyband?  Wow.  Selected for their vocal abilities, they also have to dance their socks (and in some cases their tops) off, in a dazzling and energetic display.  Kim Gavin’s choreography evokes the pop videos of Take That and the boys (AJ, Nick, Curtis, Yazdan and Sario) seem tireless in their efforts.  Very impressive.

Kim Gavin also directs, along with Jack Ryder, and they get the pace and feel of the piece just right, keeping us on the right side of sentimentality and teasing us with just enough nostalgia to set the scene while allowing this new story to have legs of its own.  This charming, warm-hearted piece blends down-to-earth humour with spectacular staging and it all fits together beautifully for a show you’ll Never Forget.

band

The boys in the Band (Photo: Matt Crockett)

 


Girls Just Wanna Kill Pigs

LORD OF THE FLIES

The Old Rep, Birmingham, Thursday 26th April, 2018

 

It can be difficult, when your class of students is entirely female, to find suitable material for performance.  Director Jade Allen tackles this problem by taking a play she wants to put on and giving the characters a gender swap.  And so William Golding’s all-male story (via Nigel Williams’s adaptation) is given a twist – a plane-load of schoolgirls crashes onto a deserted island – rather than having the actresses play as male (which would have been interesting in itself).

It works.  Mostly.  Some of the time I can’t escape the idea that this is St Trinian’s doing Castaway but there are some excellently-realised moments that deliver the power of the original tale.  It begins with a stylised movement sequence as the girls are jolted through air turbulence before the crash itself – and then the screaming starts!  This should be used sparingly, I think, otherwise proceedings take on the air of a Justin Bieber concert.

Emily Taylor warms into her role as elected leader ‘Raffy’, while her rival Jack (Hennesha George) has her moments too – some of them snide, some of them menacing.  Anyone who has taught secondary school will tell you, you are never more than a couple of steps away from savagery – and there is plenty of schoolgirl bitching and bullying to go around here.

Emma Hackett and Emma Howes make strong impressions as twins Erin and Sam, although their completion of each other’s sentences could do with speeding up.  Megan Davies adds a touch of humour as Marie, goofing around, while Sophie Keeble’s Rowena is a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  Amani Khan makes a convincing enough oddball as Simone, while Beth Townsend’s Piggy, the voice of civilisation, has impassioned moments – Piggy’s fate is cleverly staged.  In fact, it is during the stylised moments that this production really hits the heights.  Although the dance at the feast is not primal enough, being too controlled, too choreographed, it leads to one of the most horrific moments I’ve ever seen on stage, as the girls turn on ‘the beast’ in a frenzy of which the Bacchae would be proud.

Even though the action is somewhat cramped and the energy levels sag a couple of times, this makes for an interesting experiment and while it didn’t get me thinking about the thin veneer of civilisation (you know, the one that cracks as soon as you see something you disagree with on the internet) but of notions of casting in the theatre, and how relevant is a character’s gender to a piece?

Hmm…

boa lord

 


Just My Cup of Chai

THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHAI

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th April, 2018

 

Marivaux’s 18th Century French farce, The Game of Love and Chance, gets an update from Tara Arts and Nigel Planer of The Young Ones, no less.  It’s a remarkably good fit, translating the action from the French bourgeoisie to a present-day Indian family in Britain, where notions of class and caste dictate social mores and aspirations.  Widowed Kamala-Ji is keen to marry off daughter Rani, who is a successful, independent young woman who works as a solicitor.  Rani wishes to retain her independence until she can marry for love, if there is such a match to be made.  She faces pressure from trashy cousin Sita, who contrasts with Rani in every way possible.  A prospective groom is on his way to size up his potential wife… Rani and Sita concoct a plan to switch identities and do some sizing up of the groom for themselves.  Unbeknownst to them, the groom has hatched an identical plan and has switched with his unlicensed Uber driver…

The script is peppered with bang up-to-date references along with Punjabi (I think it is) words and phrases but the performance style is all traditional.  There is a declamatory aspect to the delivery, direct audience address, and much heightened posing and posturing.  The characters are drawn with broad strokes and the action is almost cartoonish at times.  It is, all of it, hilarious.

Director Jatinder Verma has an eye for comic detail and doesn’t miss a trick, keeping things snappy so this fabulous confection has no opportunity to stale.  The action is broken up with Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, all performed with gusto and fun – where the French originals would have featured courtly masques or brief balletic interludes.  Claudia Mayer’s set gives us a garden of privet archways for the comings and goings, with a backdrop of suburban semis peering over the top.  Her costumes strongly signal the characters (and their disguises) and there is a glorious nod to Marivaux in the finale, courtesy of designer Adam Wilshire.

Goldy Notay is absolutely delicious as matriarch Kamala-Ji, with Deven Modha great fun as Rani’s camp brother Sunny.  Ronny Jhutti throws himself into the role of Nitin – the driver masquerading as the groom – with relish, while both Kiren Jogi’s Sita and Sharon Singh’s Rani clearly differentiate when they are pretending to be each other.  Singh is especially good, bringing more than a hint of snobbishness a la Penelope Keith to her portrayal of the snitty Rani.  Adam Samuel-Rai makes an energetic, passionate, even neurotic suitor, as the handsome Raj.  The entire ensemble rises to the demands of this kind of material, popping off quickfire asides and larger-than-life reactions with skill.

This fast and funny production reminds us that the old theatrical forms and conventions still have currency and that people have much in common whatever their cultural background.  A fabulous treat of a show; I loved every second.

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Adam Samuel-Bal and Sharon Singh wrestling (with their emotions)


A Merry Widow

THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018

 

Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies.  The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her.  She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages.  Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont.  Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.

There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries.  This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before.  The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.

Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going.  At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat.  It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested.  Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.

Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018

 

I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself.  The Sting, formerly of The Police.  He who used to dream about blue turtles.  Yes, him!  It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me).  Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage?  The latter, I suspect.

This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome.   There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about.  And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal.  The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.

The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it.  In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references.  The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.

As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like.  His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters.  The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now.  McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments.   Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all.  McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy.  Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.

There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible.  Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.

The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.

Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example).  The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.

028_The Last Ship_Extra Production Photographs_Pamela Raith Photography

Richard Fleeshman gets to grips with Frances McNamee (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Pinkie Blinder

BRIGHTON ROCK

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th April, 2018

 

This new production from Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal rocks into town with an irresistible swagger.  Composer Hannah Peel’s score is designed to quicken the heartbeat, the drum-heavy arrangements tribal and exciting like jungle drums.  Our jungle is the criminal underworld of 1950s Brighton, where rival gangs of protectionists rule the streets.

Leading one such gang is Pinkie – a perky performance by Jacob James Beswick.  His Pinkie is cocksure, tough and volatile, who sees his youth (aged 17) as no handicap.  In fact, his lack of years is a plus: he can’t be hanged for his crimes.  He also has a cavalier attitude to eternal damnation – planning to play the Catholic get-out-of-Hell-free card by repenting in the last minute of his life.  Superstition is a recurring theme, be it church-going or dabbling with a Ouija board.

Brighton Rock 2018 Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie..

Pinkie promise: Jacob James Beswick (Photo: Karl Andrew Photography)

Sarah Middleton is the perfect contrast to Pinkie in every way as Rose, the girl whose affections Pinkie waylays in order to stop her from going to the cops with what she knows.  Rose is blinded, not by the vitriol Pinkie waves in her face, but by his attentions, proving herself fiercely loyal albeit misguided.  A tight ensemble plays the supporting roles, notable among them is the versatile Angela Bain, as Spicer, a priest, and others.  Jennifer Jackson, appearing as the ultra-cool rival boss Colleoni, is responsible for the stylised movements – the violence is savagely choreographed – and Jackson performs a sinuous bit of expressive jazz dancing to accompany the turmoil of the lead characters.

Dominating the action is Ida, seeking justice for a murdered beau.  Gloria Onitiri is thoroughly magnificent.  Funny, determined, passionate and with a dirty laugh, she also treats us to her rich singing voice in a couple of cool torch songs.

The show is ineffably cool in the way that bad boys are cool.  But we are definitely on Ida’s side, as the moral compass of the story.

Director Esther Richardson keeps things slick and sharp as a razor, employing the ensemble as stagehands to keep the action continuous and the transitions seamless.  Bryony Lavery’s splendid adaptation of the Graham Greene novel delivers the feel of the era, the argot of the underworld, while Sara Perks’s all-purpose set evokes Brighton Pier chief among the other locations.  There is a Kneehigh feel to proceedings with the stylisation, the onstage musicians and so on – and there’s nothing wrong in that.  Quite the contrary!

Gripping, entertaining and inventively presented, this is one stick of rock that has QUALITY running all the way through it.

Brighton Rock 2018 Gloria Onitiri as Ida

The mighty Gloria Onitiri as Ida (Photo: Karl Andre Photography)

 


Nailed It

TURN OF THE SCREW

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th April , 2018

 

Henry  James’s classic ghost story is often cited as an inspiration for Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black – and  in this masterful new stage adaptation by Tim Luscombe, you can see why.  A stranger arrives at a lonely mansion, there is mystery about dark deeds of the past, and apparitions stalk the scene…  Where the James differs from the Hill is the emphasis is on the psychological aspects.  It’s a slow-burner and we’re never sure if the ghosts are ‘real’ or figments of the imagination of the young Governess (Carli Norris).  Freud would probably say the apparitions are manifestations of the young woman’s repressed sexuality – she did take a fancy to her dashing employer (Michael Hanratty) before he dashed off, and indeed the action that suggests the show’s title, a young girl twisting a mast into a toy ship, triggers one of the Governess’s episodes… Also, having the same actor portray all the male roles supports the idea of her fixation on her employer, the uncle of her two charges.

A scene from Turn of the Screw by Henry James (adapted by Tim Luscombe) at the Mercury Theatre Colchester. Directed by Daniel Buckroyd. Designed by Sara Parks. Lit by Matt Leventhall.

Michael Hanratty (Photo: Robert Workman)

Carli Norris is splendid as the composed, older Governess, come to attend an interview.  As her story unfolds and she becomes her younger self,  she is driven to distraction by events.  Her interviewer is spirited and commanding, and in the flashbacks becomes young girl Flora, energetic to the point of exhausting, in a highly effective performance by Annabel Smith.  There is some steady character work from Maggie McCarthy as the lowly Mrs Grose, lending bags of atmosphere to the piece, and in the male roles Michael Hanratty demonstrates his versatility and magnetic presence – especially as young boy Miles who has been expelled from school for unmentionable reasons.

Director Daniel Buckroyd builds the intrigue, punctuating the storytelling with moments geared up to jolt or cause a shiver.  Sara Perks’s set keeps things simple: covered furniture becomes landscape, for example, so the one location – the Governess’s room (or her mind, depending on how you look at it) – serves for all.  Matt Leventhall’s lighting makes excellent use of side-lighting, giving the characters a dramatic, almost statuesque, appearance, and John Chambers’s compositions and sound design underscore the action to an unsettling degree.

This is a classy, stylish and captivating production, made in conjunction between Dermot McLaughlin Productions, Mercury Theatre Colchester and Wolverhampton’s Grand – it’s especially gratifying to see the latter extending its reach into producing new work.  Bravo, the Grand!

Carli Norris (Photo: Robert Workman)

 


Copping It Sweet

POLICE COPS IN SPACE

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 6th April, 2018

 

Wondering whether the show will live up to the promise of its title, I settle into my seat.  It’s a packed house – word has got around that the Pretend Men (Nathan Parkinson, Zachary Hunt and Tom Roe) are in town with their award-winning brand of theatre.

A sequel to Police Cops, which I regret not seeing, this is a fast-paced frolic, telling the story of Sammy Johnson (Parkinson) who, following the murder of his Police Cop father, seeks to become the best damned Police Cop in Space ever.  Sammy teams up with Ranger, an alien pilot (Hunt), and they go after the killer, megalomaniac robot Tanner (Roe).  Along the way, we meet a host of unsavoury characters, all portrayed with infallible gusto by this energetic trio of performers.  The action is choreographed to maximise the silliness.  Characterisations are broader than the Milky Way and the script is riddled with nonsense and word-play.  If the Pretend Men were ever tamed, they could be churning out comedy programmes for Radio 4.

I enjoy the wild inventiveness of it all.  It’s not so much low-tech as no-tech – although judicious use is made of glow-sticks from time to time.  Very much a physical show, the movement of the actors is at the forefront of the performance, the daftness augmented by some silly props, among them a rat sellotaped to a remote-control car… The show is packed with moments of genius – a motorbike conjured out of next-to-nothing, for example, a balletic sequence between Parkinson and Roe, depicting the love story between Roe’s Terminator-like character and Sammy, his target… Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl crops up later, and it’s never been put to better use.

It’s an hour of non-stop delight and a great workout for your laughing gear.  Sometimes a show comes along that represents everything I love about the theatre.  If Police Cops in Space has something other to say, perhaps its holding up models of masculinity for our examination and ridicule.  Perhaps it’s just celebrating the daftness of genre fiction as a version of the human condition.  I don’t care; all I know is I had a great night.

police cops in space

 

 

 

 


Twisted but not Bitter

THE TWISTED TALE OF HANSEL AND GRETEL

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th April, 2018

 

In the first of a planned series of collaborations, Birmingham Hippodrome, Open Theatre Company and Metro-Boulot-Dodo stage this new production to bring learning disabled performers to the fore, during the creative process and the performance.  This is perhaps the biggest ‘twist’ on offer, although the show has a few pleasant surprises in its retelling of the Brothers Grimm story.

At the helm is our Storyteller (Nicky Priest) bombastic, condescending and all the funnier because of it.  He bows to the will of the cast when they demand the story needs ‘jazzing up’ and we watch in delight as things slip out of his control and he descends into neurosis.  Priest is superb, the lynchpin of the performance, holding things together.  He is assisted by Mockingbird (Charles Craggs) whose musical accompaniment and sound effects underscore the action.  Mockingbird is a subversive presence, undermining the Storyteller, but he is a vital cog in the show’s machinery, providing vocalisations that allow the actors to focus on choreographed movements.

Director Esther Simpson enables the cast to play to their strengths.  Her script gives most of the dialogue to the Storyteller and Mockingbird so that lines spoken by other characters comes across as punchlines and make us laugh.  It’s a very physical performance style, as cartoon-like, the characters enact the events of the old tale.  They’re all rather adept at this but Jake Jervis, appearing as the evil Stepmother and later as the Witch, is delightfully funny.  Luke Greenwood is charming as the Dad and a Chef (yes, there’s a Chef in it), while Kimisha Lewis makes for a feisty Gretel, fighting against the stereotypical behaviour the story expects of her.  Rishard Beckett is an expressive, energetic Hansel, but it is Vicki Taylor’s deadpan Duck who steals the show (yes, there’s a duck in it) – a running joke, or rather, a waddling one – holding up placards as speech balloons with immaculate timing.

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Bake-off! Jake Jarvis as the Witch (Photo: Kate Green)

Kate Unwin’s costumes are like children’s drawings of the characters.  Her set of building blocks that are stacked up and reconfigured to represent the family home and the gingerbread house, add to the storybook-nursery feel, but setting them up and taking them down takes a lot of time and interrupts the otherwise fast-paced action.

On the whole, this is an amusing and charming way to spend an hour or so.  The back-and-forth between the Storyteller and the Mockingbird (excellently delivered though it is) could do with trimming to keep the pace punchy but, as the production embarks on a tour, I’m sure things will tighten up as they go.

Fun for all the family, this is an age-old story of child poverty, neglect and abuse – but don’t let that put you off!

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By the book: Luke Greenwood, Kimisha Lewis, Rishard Bennett, Jake Jarvis and Nicky Priest (Photo: Kate Green)

 


The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting.  An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway.  A water cooler gurgles upstage.  The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality.  Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel.  Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes.  “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.”  Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper.  He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.

David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors.  Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.

Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?

For once, the fault is in our stars.  Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less.  Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage?  Short answer: no.  Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced.  Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.

There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect.  There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office.  And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.

A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.

This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.

Macbeth production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Richard Davenport _c_ RSC_245921

Screwing their courage to the sticking place: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 


Extra Special

STONES IN HIS POCKETS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st April, 2018

 

Marie Jones’s comedy has, rightly, become a modern-day classic.  It tells the story of the intrusion of a Hollywood film company into a rural Irish community.  The filming brings employment prospects, however temporary, and many of the locals take advantage of the opportunity to become extras.  We meet Charlie and Jake, two such extras, and through their eyes encounter a host of other characters: other extras, members of the film crew, even a Hollywood star.  Jones populates her story with some deftly drawn personalities, but it falls to the cast of two, yes, just two, to bring them all to life.

For this production, we are in the safe hands of two of the Crescent’s most reliable and talented actors.  James David Knapp is Charlie, a downtrodden fellow trying to outrun his depression and lack of prospects by palming off a screenplay he has written to anyone who will take it.  Knapp is infinitely watchable and the split-second changes between characters hold no fear for him.  His Charlie is affable, but his Caroline, the Hollywood diva, is a wonder to behold.  Similarly, his British director, Clem, is also brilliantly portrayed.

John O’Neill is Jake, newly returned from the States and trying to restart his life – a kind of everyman figure.  O’Neill is good in this part, to be sure, but he really takes off when he becomes production assistant Aisling, castigating the extras through her pink loudhailer.  Also, as old-timer and movie veteran Mickey, he brings physicality to the part.  In fact, both actors’ use of body language and mannerisms is spot on.  The truth of the characters shines through in every detail.

The play demands a lot from its actors and these two deliver the goods without question.  There is a sharpness and a precision to the delivery and the quick changes that adds to the humour of the situation.  Director Andrew Brooks ensures the pace is maintained and the changes are smooth, to the extent that we can almost see the characters all at once.  It’s hysterically funny but there is more to the play than laugh-out-loud comedy.  Brooks delivers the pathos well too – when tragedy threatens to disrupt the filming, the resentment and indignation of the locals comes to the fore.  A gasp went up from the woman beside me when the significance of the title became clear, in the show’s most poignant scene.

Knapp and O’Neill handle all the requirements of the script with aplomb.  They also ride the waves of laughter they generate and handle impromptu audience input with style and with ease.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of a marvellous piece.  I haven’t laughed so much on a Sunday afternoon for a long time!

Now, what would be really interesting would be a production performed by female actors…

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Extra! Extra! James David Knapp and John O’Neill (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Crooning Glory

CROONERS

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 29th March, 2018

 

As the curtain opens, a David Attenborough-type voiceover introduces us to that rare and endangered species, the crooner, inviting us to observe them in their natural habitat, namely being on stage with a band.  The three specimens presented to us look curiously British, in an old school type of way: bowler hats, tweed jackets and so on.  They each sport an elaborate and not-to-mention false moustache.  A dapper trio, indeed.  We meet Charlie (Roman Marek, who has also written and directed the show), Rupert (Phil Barley) who has something of Lord Lucan to him, and Winston (Jim Whitley) who proves to be the most proficient dancer of the troupe.

The premise is the crooners need to find mates in order to perpetuate their vanishing species and this is the trigger for banter-aplenty with the audience.  It’s good-natured ribbing and the humorous exchanges between the musical numbers are saucy rather than vulgar.  The trio exudes oodles of charm and generates an abundance of fun.  Their urbane cheekiness is irresistible.

The set list is rich with standards.  Come Fly With Me, Fly Me To The Moon, On The Street Where You Live – it’s all solid Rat Pack fare, and the three voices blend marvellously.  They each get solo spots: Charlie’s Frank Sinatra is particularly good but I loved Rupert’s tipsy Dean Martin.  Winston’s Sammy Davis Jr gives us a show-stopping Mr Bojangles.

Some of the jokes are even older than the songs but Roman Marek’s Benny Hill naughty-boyishness pulls them off, and he is an accomplished physical comedian.  There are many moments of undiluted delight.  The second half opens with the men in their underwear.  They perform a reverse strip-tease, getting dressed to music, donning the familiar black-tie attire of this kind of affair.

The band is magnificent and tireless: The Mini Big Band, a ten-piece combo of hot brass, cool sax, rocking drums and moody piano, under the musical direction of Chris and Jon Hibbard.  They underscore, accompany and participate in the action, but above all, sound fantastic.

Oh yes, there’s also tap-dancing, the kind of choreography old Brucie was doing right up until the end.

Utterly enjoyable, entertaining and hilarious, Crooners is a joy from start to finish.

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Pip pip! Phil Barley, Roman Marek and Jim Whitley

 

 


The Bees’ Knees

HONEY

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd March, 2018

 

When you behold a patchwork quilt, you see it at first as a whole.  Then you might move on to look closely at individual patches, and then how they relate to their neighbours.  Such is the fabric of Tiffany Hosking’s sweet and rich new play, named for the produce of Anwen’s bees, but quite easily the play could be renamed or subtitled, How To Make A Welsh Quilt.

Bossy Anwen (Vey Straker) focusses on making the quilt, piecing together hexagons (like a honeycomb!) while her husband is away.  She hopes he is doing his job (defusing bombs!) rather than shacking up with another woman.  Her 22-year-old son Caron (Callan Durrant) is autistic.  He watches Happy Feet on repeat and expresses himself through idiosyncratic choreography (by Lizie Gireudeaux); meanwhile Anwen’s tattoo artist sister Celandine (Jemma Lewis) strives to help out, longing to be loved and for a child of her own.  Also in the picture is their half-sister Armes (Jenni Lea Jones) whom Anwen shuns.  Everyone is superb but Lea Jones really plucks at the heartstrings, and Lewis’s sardonic humour has us in stitches, so to speak.  Durrant is a lovely mover, compelling in his silence, but Straker’s Anwen is the heart of the piece.

It’s a beautiful piece, beautifully played by all and the writing is gorgeous.  Hosking also directs, stitching together a range of styles to make a cohesive whole.  For the most part, it’s naturalistic albeit in a stylised setting: three stacks of boxes represent the beehives but these come apart and are reconfigured to suggest furniture and fixtures of different locations: a post office counter, for example, or tables in the pub… Characters address other characters that we don’t see or hear, in one-sided conversations.  Most revealing, the characters will visit the bees to tell them their news and innermost thoughts (it’s a Thing, apparently), in monologues addressed to the audience.  The action in non-linear but we piece together the timeline, the cause and effect of actions and events.  Gentle drama laced with gentle humour becomes something quietly profound and ultimately touching.  Caron discloses to the bees, in the only instance of him saying anything, that the very chemicals responsible for the decline of their kind may be responsible for the surge in autism – the play’s political point, there, but generally it’s about family and community and connections.  It has much to do with tradition but also feels completely fresh and of the now.  I adored it and audiences should swarm to see it.

The play begins and ends with the same scene: Anwen proudly displaying the completed quilt to the bees, wrapping the story in a neat package and making the show as warming as any such blanket.

honey


The King is not Dead

THIS IS ELVIS

New Alexandra Theatre, Monday 19th March, 2018

 

This new musical is not the usual fare, in that we don’t get the rags-to-riches rise of the protagonist.  When the show begins, Elvis Presley is already the biggest star in the world but, after a decade of making questionable movies, he’s planning a comeback concert on live television.  Nerves are running high, the King’s self-esteem is at a low point and the time he is spending at work is putting a strain on his marriage to Priscilla.  Around him, his entourage of ‘friends’ discuss his plans and problems, like sycophants at a royal court.  Among them are Presley’s best friends, Joe Exposition (sorry, Esposito) played tonight by Ben Stratton, and Charlie Hodge (Mark Pearce).  The dialogue, by Philip Norman, is clunky, heavily laden with factoids, telling us things rather than showing us; it’s a relief when these ‘dramatic’ interludes give way to the songs.  We are not allowed to meet the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, nor Mrs Presley herself – Both of these interesting characters are restricted to telephone calls, and we don’t even get to hear their side.  The show misses out on a couple of humdinger scenes by keeping these sources of conflict off-stage.

The second half is given over to a recreation of a Las Vegas show.  Seeing it in context – we’ve glimpsed the King’s drug abuse, his self-doubt, his loneliness – makes what follows all the more remarkable.  As the man himself is the phenomenal Steve Michaels, who has Presley down pat: the voice, the mannerisms, the moves, in an uncanny performance that brings Elvis into the building.  So many highlights, including Suspicious Minds, It’s Now or Never, Are You Lonesome Tonight?…

The entourage from the first half form the backing band, a taut combo, augmented by a trio of backing vocalists, Sweet Inspirations (Chevone Stewart, Katrina May, and Misha Malcolm).  Together they are terrific, creating an authentic sound.  But it is frontman Michaels who grabs us by the pelvis and, channelling the King, gets our blood pumping and our hands clapping.  And so what starts out as a ropey dramatic reconstruction culminates in an hour-long tribute act that is irresistible and exhilarating.  The King is not dead; he has been reincarnated.

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This is Steve Michaels (Photo: Pamela Raith)

 


Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018

 

Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett.  The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development.  A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings.  The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.

Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue.  The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.

Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob.  Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing.  As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours.  Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity.  After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down.  Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!

It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.

The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.

And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense.  All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves.  Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage?  Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.

All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.

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Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)


Bloody bloody

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th March, 2018

 

Maria Aberg’s trimmed-down version of the John Webster tragedy begins with the title character dragging a headless animal corpse onto the stage.  It’s massive and no easy task.  The thing is strung up by its  hind legs and remains in place throughout the performance.  Aberg is fond of her gimmicks (remember the big balloons in her King John) and this dead cow is the big one for this production.  Not only does this bovine body symbolise butchery (and what self-respecting revenge tragedy would be without butchery?) but it also represents the female form as object, as a piece of meat, of something to be consumed.

The stage is marked by the overlapping lines of a sports hall, a distinctly masculine arena, and indeed the choreography of the male actors comes across like the worlds’ most aggressive Zumba class.

The Duchess’s brothers, one a clergyman, the other a Duke, seek to quash their sister’s independence.  How dare she choose her own husband?!  And so, church and state conspire to have the wayward woman comply to their will.  As Duke Ferdinand, Alexander Cobb is darkly camp, unhinged and psychotic, while Chris New as the supposed holy man is overtly brutal and sinister in his dog collar and white gloves.  They are the villains, to be sure, but so is the world where toxic masculinity is the only way to go.  But it’s #NotAllMen – the Duchess’s love interest is the nerdy, Clark Kent-alike Antonio (Paul Woodson) who has less of the serial killer to him and more of the cereal café.  His love scenes with the Duchess are all the sweeter because we just know their happiness will be short-lived – from our point of view; a few years elapse during the two-hour traffic of this stage.

Orlando Gough’s original music adds otherworldliness to the piece and above all a sense of foreboding.  The absolute highlight of the evening is a blistering rendition of the old standard, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” sung by Aretha Ayeh, while the Duchess and Antonio dance in a loving embrace.  Gradually, Gough’s tones take over.  It is Aberg at her most Emma Rice and it works beautifully.

The ever-present animal carcass is stabbed open by Ferdinand at the top of the second half.  Blood oozes inexorably across the floor, like the inevitable, impending denouement, like the mortality that will inescapably claim us all.  The characters carry on oblivious of the creeping puddle at their feet.  They fight, struggle with, and murder each other, becoming coated and drenched in the stuff.  I suspect this is the reason why the costumes are present-day: for ease of replacement and cleaning!

As the Duchess, Joan Iyola is elegant and commanding, sultry, sensual and above all controlled – a little too much perhaps during moments of extremis.  Hired killer Bosola, (Nicolas Tennant) waxes philosophical, regretting he allowed the horse to bolt before he barred the stable door in a show of conscience awakened too late.  He’s the most interesting character of the lot.  While other cast members can match Tennant’s power and presence, they are not given the range of facets to explore.

At turns brutal and tender, the production proves eminently watchable and provocative but its point, like its blood-drenched characters, proves somewhat too slippery.

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Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) holds the Duchess (Joan Iyola) in a fraternal embrace… (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Playing Doctors and Nurses

MINDGAME

Belgrade Theatre, Wednesday 14th March, 2018

 

Prolific writer Anthony Horowitz turns his attention to the stage with this small-scale thriller very much along the lines of mega-hits Sleuth and Deathtrap – plays that have a small cast, an intriguing plot and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention.  The set-up: we meet Styler, waiting in the office of Dr Farquhar, in an upmarket mental health facility aka hospital for the criminally insane.  Styler, dictating into a recorder, doles out exposition: he is a true-crime writer come to interview notorious inmate, the serial killer Easterman, for his next project; the doctor has been keeping him waiting for two hours…

We pick up right away that things are not what they seem.  Contradictions in the dialogue and, more subtly, changes in the set: a video screen for the window changes imperceptibly, for example.  As soon as Farquhar shows up, the plot gets into motion.  The doctor is something of an oddball – and the discerning audience member will be trying to pre-empt the surprises and guess the outcome.

It’s played with conviction.  Andrew Ryan’s Styler and Michael Sherwin’s Farquhar complement each other well, with the doctor more often than not holding court, adding to the weirdness and the unsettling feeling that something bad is about to take place.  Making up the trio is Sarah Wynne Kordas as Nurse Paisley – or is she?  Violence erupts, power shifts, layers of falsehood and diversion are stripped away… There are a few gasps from the audience who don’t see things coming, but the plot, rather than thickening, seems diluted by each new turnabout, and there are holes in the logic you could drive an ambulance through.

What we are left with is a bit of a mess, an exercise in unpleasantness that doesn’t measure up to the aforementioned greats of the genre.  It’s well-presented and director Karen Henson focusses our attention and gives us surprises at all the right moments but for me the play doesn’t gel, and mental illness as entertainment has surely had its day. I’m not crazy about it.

Not as clever as it pretends, Mindgame teases, amuses and puzzles but is ultimately unsatisfying.

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Michael Sherwin and Andrew Ryan enjoy a cosy chat

 


Bloodless

SWEENEY TODD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 13th March, 2018

 

Stephen Sondheim’s grisly melodrama is not an easy sing, with its discords and broken rhythms as well as its searing, melodic phrases.  And yet Walsall Operatic Society pull off the intricacies of the score with apparent ease.  The singing here is very strong, from both the chorus and the main characters.  Musical director Ian Room has certainly put the work in to create such a sound.

Where this lavish and enthusiastic production comes up disappointing is during the dialogue scenes.  Here things fall flat with actors merely going through the motions.  They hit their marks, get their words out but fail to convince.  This is a general criticism and of course, one size does not fit all.

As the titular ‘demon’ barber, Richard Poynton has his moments of melodramatic grandeur and posturing but Steph Coleman’s Mrs Lovett acts rings around him.  Coleman is a delight, bringing life to her characterisation.  Simon Docherty’s Judge Turpin lacks presence and Nick Hardy’s Beadle struggles with the Sondheim.  Meg Hardy’s Johanna sings in a sweet soprano and makes for a spirited damsel in distress, while Christopher Room’s heroic Anthony has the best voice of the lot for this type of show – he just needs to bring the same verve and intensity to his spoken lines.  Young Neo Hughes gets off to a grand start as Tobias, bilking a crowd, but it seems when he takes off his wig, Samson-like, he loses his strength.  Katy Ball is a suitably disturbed Beggar Woman; she just looks a bit too clean, that’s all!

Also, it’s a particularly bloodless show – in terms of emotional engagement and in terms of the red stuff.  There’s not a drop to be had.  Like Mrs Lovett’s pies, these people are all crust and no filling.  There is also precious little of London in the delivery.  Fleet Street might as well be in Brownhills.  Director Tim Jones shies away from the horror, which is as important an ingredient in this story as any other.  Sweeney Todd without the gore is only half-baked.

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On his Todd: Richard Poynton

 


Nice Try

UP ‘N’ UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 12th March, 2018

 

John Godber’s 1984 comedy is doing the rounds in this new revival by Fingersmiths, a company that incorporates deaf actors and British Sign Language into plays.  Having seen their Frozen (not the Disney one!) a while back and knowing how effective their approach is with a drama, I was interested to see how they’d manage something lighter.  BSL, a visual language, with its gestures and exaggerated facial expressions lends itself very well to comedy, it turns out.  There is one point when it’s purely signed and I can’t follow it – a clever way of demonstrating what it must be like for the deaf when there are no signs or captions.

The plot is nothing groundbreaking: a ragbag team of underdogs strive toward a common goal.  In this one, it’s a pub rugby team struggling to win against the odds.  It’s all because of a rash wager made by Arthur (Wayne Norman).  He bets his house, but the terms of the bet are reduced to three grand.  And so, the stakes aren’t all that high, the jeopardy isn’t that perilous… In the event, it’s not the plot that keeps me interested.  The production is a triumph of form over content as the sign language is supplemented with surtitles and voice-overs, each cleverly and wittily included.  That Arthur can’t speak BSL adds another obstacle to his challenge, and leads to some cringeworthy moments as he persists in raising his voice in order to communicate!

The team is comprised of Frank (Matty Gurney), Steve (Stephen Collins), Tony (Nadeem Islam), and Phil (Adam Bassett).  Each of them is, shall I say, a lovely mover, skilled at heightened expressions, working with clarity and precision.  I was concerned my ignorance of both rugby and sign language would be a barrier to my enjoyment.  I needn’t have worried.  Collins warms into his role nicely, demonstrating excellent comic timing.  Islam is graceful – in a cartoony way.  Bassett performs a dream sequence, a piece of dumb show to a voice-over, that is highly effective, and Gurney, the largest of the group, is both an imposing presence and a subtle one.  Each man brings something to the ensemble and they all get loads of laughs.

The only female in the cast is Hazel (Tanya Vital) the ‘grown-up’ recruited to get these man-children into shape.  Vital also operates as a narrator, starting us off with a prologue and linking scenes with descriptive passages.  Godber’s writing is pseudo-Shakespearean here, elevating the humble pub team to heroic proportions.  Maybe.  Vital’s vitality is the lynchpin of the performance, our touchstone in this esoteric world.

As ostensible villain of the piece, Reg, William Elliott completes the cast, also providing sports commentary.  Added together, this is a tight ensemble.  While the play is now old hat – especially where its sexual politics are concerned – this fresh approach keeps us hooked.  I find myself more interested in the way it is done, rather than what the characters are doing.  Where it works best is the climactic match, cleverly staged: a nifty bit of costume design means the cast can play both teams at the same time.  Director Jeni Draper pulls all the elements together for a pleasing denouement, but I don’t feel the production gets beyond its novelty value to make us care for the characters and their ups and downs (or should that be ‘unders’?)

T Vital with UnU cast

Tanya Vital leading the cast (L-R Wayne Norman, Matty Gurney, Nadeem Islam, Stephen Collins, and Adam Bassett)


Hugo Faster

LES MISERABLES – School Edition

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th March, 2018

 

Stratford Musical Theatre Company’s young division tackle the ‘schools version’ of the renowned Boubil & Schonberg musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel – a story that is grimmer than an omnibus edition of EastEnders.  All the scenes and songs are here but the running time is abridged by about half an hour.  It’s an ambitious project but the stripped-down setting works rather well, giving the space entirely to the youthful performers.  Director Judi Walton is to be commended for the discipline and commitment she has instilled in her multitudinous chorus, who get on and off quickly and efficiently and sing really well – and as though they mean it.

There is much to relish from the principal characters.  I’ll reel off some highlights:  Florence Cain’s expressive Fantine displays emotional depth – her ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a knockout.  Elisea Cooper’s Eponine, feeling the pangs of unrequited love, is also strong.  Marius (a fresh-faced Tristan Barford) is excellent – by the time we get to ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’, he can do no wrong in my eyes. Mollie Dibb’s Cosette hits piercing high notes with apparent ease, while Rachel McDonnell’s Madame Thernadier is a just about perfectly pitched piece of musical theatre character acting.  As her husband, Monsieur Thernadier, John Luke Goodman shows promise but needs to ensure his energy levels are consistent throughout his delivery, rather than throwing away some of the gags.  Nathan Woolley makes a rousing Enjolras, while Samuel Littell’s cocky, Cockney Gavroche could put the Artful Dodger to shame.

Heading the cast as bread thief Jan Valjean, Isaac Aston has some powerful moments, ultimately bringing the house down with ‘Bring Him Home’.

All in all, this production is impressively performed but where I have an issue is the speed of it all.  We rattle through the show at a rate of knots; perhaps musical director Sam Young is worried that the pubs might be shut before it’s finished.  The result is that many moments are robbed of their impact.  There is more to musical theatre than hitting the notes and getting the words out.  The characters need time to emote, to think, to react.  Here, they barely get chance to breathe.  And so, for example, Alexander Fox’s Javert is denied his menace and his anguish as he races through his pieces; the death of Eponine also happens too fast… It’s a pity we skip over the surface of the songs when this talented mob of youngsters clearly has the potential for greater emotional depth.

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Juan to Watch

DON GIOVANNI

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th March, 2018

 

Welsh National Opera is back in town and this time they’ve brought my favourite opera, Mozart’s masterly take on the Don Juan legend.  The setting is dark: huge slabs hold doorways (which are put to comic use) but also bear reliefs, friezes depicting human figures in a variety of poses.  Are they souls in torment, and a foretaste of what awaits this dissoluto when he is punito?  Or are they souls in love – which, as the opera demonstrates (in case we didn’t know already) brings its own kind of torment?  These huge pieces, further adorned with statuary, speak of a dominant power, of a ruling class imposing its will on the environs.  Which is what Don Giovanni does in spades, of course, under the guise of generosity and general benevolence.  In these days of sexual harassment cases brought against those (men) who abuse their positions of power, the opera takes on a sharp and contemporary relevance, although I doubt the likes of Weinstein will face his comeuppance via supernatural means!

Against this darkness and walls closing in and moving back, plays out the drama and the comedy of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.  Melodrama is countered with wit, high emotion with low, physical gags.  Mozart’s music ties all the mood swings together so we are aware of the contrasts but don’t see the join, and this revival of John Caird’s production serves all aspects, every change of tone, very well.

Gavan Ring’s swaggering Giovanni certainly looks the part and uses his baritone well for seductive decoration.  It’s a pity his voice comes across as somewhat underpowered when singing against the full orchestra: the champagne aria is a bit of a damp squib, alas, whereas La Ci Darem is delicious.  His serenade of Elvira’s maid is ‘accompanied’ by a mysterious, cowled figure, supposedly on the mandolin, thereby aligning Giovanni with the supernatural forces that crop up throughout.  This is the one production choice I query.  If Giovanni is in league with these forces and therefore doing the devil’s work, it doesn’t quite gel with his damnation, brought about by the spirit of the man he murders in the opening scene… Oh well.  I’m not going to let it ruin my night.

David Stout’s Leporello is instantly likeable.  He has the cockiness, the cheekiness and the grovelling down pat, and plays the comedy to the hilt.  Meeta Raval’s Donna Anna provides most of the high drama, while Elizabeth Watts’s Elvira’s melodramatic turn also contributes to the laughs.  Watts is arguably the best actor of this impressive ensemble; her wide-eyed Elvira, like the opera as a whole, balances the dramatic with the comic.  She is a drama queen.  Gareth Brynmor John gives us a solid hothead in his Masetto, while Katie Bray is sweet, funny and charming as his wayward fiancée, Zerlina.  Miklos Sebestyen’s Commendatore is suitably imposing but, for me, best voice of the evening comes out of Benjamin Hulett’s dashing Ottavio.  His tenor soars over the orchestra; his Ottavio is upright, moral and heroic, and not the wet lettuce he is sometimes portrayed as.

The orchestra is in excellent fettle under the baton of James Southall and although the fabulous WNO chorus has little to do, they make an impression with some country dancing at Zerlina’s wedding.

The world is a dark place, the production tells us, and those in charge will seek to exploit us.  Nevertheless, life is to be enjoyed, despite tyrants, despite the tyrannies of love.  At the end, the characters seem unable to embrace life’s pleasures: Anna defers her marriage to Ottavio – who agrees to it! – Elvira heads for a convent – and Leporello seeks out further servitude in a new master.  With Giovanni out of the picture, their lives have lost purpose.  We must allow ourselves a little dissolution, it seems, in order to be happy and fulfilled!

don giovanni

Leporello showing Donna Elvira Russell Brand’s biography – Elizabeth Watts and David Stout (Photo: Richard Hubert Smth)

 

 


Thrilling

THRILLER Live

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th March, 2018

 

This electrifying tribute show is doing the rounds and this week it’s Coventry’s turn to become reacquainted with the back catalogue of the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson.  We have several vocalists and a troupe of dancers performing hit after hit, but the songs are broken up by occasional verbal addresses during which facts and figures are rattled off: in this year, he sold this many copies… and so on.  Nothing controversial is alluded to.  Biographical detail is little more than dates of changing record companies and the release of iconic albums.  All this is relayed to us by two of the male vocalists, Britt Quintin (who has Jackson’s spindly physique) and Shaquille Hemmans (who has Jackson’s falsetto to a T).  It’s a bit like a Show and Tell session in school.  If so, they’d get top marks for effort.

The first half concentrates on Jackson’s early career, including boyhood hits – these are performed in the main by female vocalists Adriana Louise and Ina Seidou – and it’s a nostalgia trip and a half.  I’ll Be There, I Want You Back, ABC – and disco greats like Can You Feel It and Blame It On The Boogie.  The choreography takes us back to the bygone eras of the 60s and 70s and the costumes are spectacularly in keeping, rocketing us back to the golden age of Top of the Pops and Pan’s People.

There is a bit that makes me cringe at first when our hosts Britt and Shaquille divide the audience in two and teach us responses, and it gets a bit panto, but we all get into the spirit of it.  We are pumped and ready to boogie, but instead the number ends, we are plunged into a blackout during which we fumble for our seats, and what follows is a big production number of Remember The Time, which is from Jackson’s later output.  I am ready to bop but am forced to wait until later.  This odd change of gear aside, the production is irresistible.  By the way, the ‘Egyptian’ choreography for Remember The Time is superb.

Rory Taylor’s searing She’s Out of My Life is a highlight, but the hits and highlights keep coming.  The second half gives us all the biggies: Billie Jean (Eddy Lima, the most Jacksonesque of the performers – like an MJ who has done some serious gym time) thrills with the effortless moonwalking – all of Jackson’s signature moves are here: the broken robot, the crotch-grabbing (although this is used sparingly); Smooth Criminal is gobsmackingly staged; but Thriller is the one we’re waiting for, and it does not disappoint.  Dancers in zombie garb totter through the audience, gathering to perform the iconic routine. (Quick trip to Pedants’ Corner: the tropes mentioned in the lyrics belong to the Horror genre, not strictly speaking Thrillers… but what do I know?  Perhaps “This is Horror, Horror Night” doesn’t work as well…) Earth Song is the most emotive number of the night and by the time we get to Black Or White the entire place is ‘getting down’.  The music is played live by a tight ensemble, led by Andy Jeffcoat on the keyboard, with an authentic sound that comes across as fresh and contemporary.

There is a more interesting show, dramatically speaking, yet to be written about Jackson’s phenomenal, troubled life, but this exhilarating act of worship is just the tonic for a chilly evening in Coventry – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Thriller-106

Not Bad: Eddy Lima and the zombies


LOL-alot

SPAMALOT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 27th February, 2018

 

We all know them, the bores who can spout reams and reams of Monty Python scripts and manage to suck all the humour of it, as if just saying the lines is enough, when what matters, perhaps more than the clever-silliness of the words, is the delivery.  The challenge for any Spamalot cast is to go beyond reciting the familiar lines and aping the original performers.  Yes, we expect certain intonations; yes, we expect men as unconvincing women with squawky voices; and yes, we expect iconic scenes from the film (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for those not in the know – P.S. Where have you been?) – Show’s creator Eric Idle wisely gives us all of this with plenty of new material to make something fresh, something new, something with its own life.

I say ‘fresh’ and luckily, I still mean it.  This is my fourth visit to the show.  On previous occasions, in the role of King Arthur I’ve seen comedians: Sanjeev Bhaskar, Phill Jupitus, Marcus Brigstocke, each of whom bring much of themselves to the part.  In this touring production from Selladoor, we have an actor, the excellent Bob Harms, who plays his Arthur as a character.  It makes a lot of difference.  Harms has a touch of the Graham Chapman to him, but also a little bit of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, I think; it adds up to a silly, delightful performance, holding the show together.

King Arthur

All alone, Bob Harms

Harms is supported by equally silly, equally skilful knights.  Johnathan Tweedie’s Lancelot is a ridiculous brute, Norton James’s Galahad transforms from peasant to preening matinee idol; Stephen Arden’s cowardly Sir Robin is a lot of fun, while Mark Akinfolarin’s Sir Bedevere provides a lot of the physical comedy.  Coconut-bearer Patsy (Rhys Owen) nails the show’s most well-known song (Always Look On The Bright Side of Life – filched from Life of Brian, of course).  Sarah Harlington’s scene-stealing Lady of the Lake is magnificent: her vocal skills and parodies are remarkable – the best I’ve heard in the role.  I make special mention of Matthew Pennington, an absolute scream as Prince Herbert, among other roles, but really the comedic skills of the entire troupe are marvellous to behold.

The show is just as much a parody of musical theatre as it is a retelling of the Arthurian legend.  Knowing, self-referential and satirical, the show exposes and celebrates the genre’s conventions, wrapped up in the peculiarly British revelling in silliness the Pythons represent.  Spamalot is Monty Python-lite, lacking the edge, the sense of daring the group had when the Circus first took flight.  There are enough references to the Python oeuvre to satisfy fans, alongside topical allusions that keep the show current.  The show stands as an entity in its own right – I met someone who’d never seen it before, hadn’t seen the film, and she loved it.

And I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with the show’s delights.  Being a touring show, the production is somewhat scaled down (e.g. only two chorus girls) but there is no stinting on talent and fun.  A laugh-out-loud-and-long couple of hours with some great tunes, excellently presented and charmingly daft.  I loved it.

Dancing

A right Herbert: Matthew Pennington, backed by Marc Akinfolarin and Rhys Owen

 


Drama Therapy

HAMLET

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 23rd February, 2018

 

Director Oliver Hume’s production strips Shakespeare’s four-hours-plus great work right down to two fifty-minute chunks.  With much of the text excised, what we are left with comes across as Hamlet’s Greatest Hits.  All the main plot points are intact along with the majority of the iconic speeches and for the most part, the cast of five handle the blank verse excellently, so it sounds and feels like Shakespeare with modern voices.

Hume sets his version in a doctor’s office, complete with portable screens (the arras!) and a full skeleton (doubling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and poor Yorick).  With Ashleigh Aston leading the cast as Hamlet, a psychiatric patient, the rest are dressed as doctors, nurses, orderlies and what-have-you, and double, sometimes treble, as other roles.  The action of the tragedy unfolds, leading to its fatal resolution, and while I enjoy particular scenes very much (Ophelia’s mad scene, To Be or Not To Be, the ‘fencing’ contest, Hamlet visiting his mother’s chamber) and I can’t help wondering where it’s going.  At some points, the setting is little more than a backdrop; at others, it works very well… and I question if this is all in Hamlet’s mind, why are we getting scenes in which he doesn’t appear?

Ashleigh Aston makes for a superb Hamlet, with a sensitive, impassioned portrayal, convincingly unhinged when the need arises.  She is supported by a strong quartet, among whom Bryony Tebbutt’s Gertrude stands out, Hayley Grainger’s Ophelia, and Alex Nikitas’s imperious Claudius.  Edward Loboda makes an impression as Polonius and a hot-blooded Laertes.

Three cast members share the role of Horatio, donning a brown hat so we know it’s him and it is this device that is the key to the entire concept.  Hume pulls his ideas together right at the end when, (SPOILER!!) after all the deaths, the medical staff resurrect themselves and wake their patient, handing her the brown hat.  It has all been a dramatic reconstruction to help Horatio get through the trauma of what he experienced at Elsinore…

Bravo!  Suddenly it all becomes clear and it’s a real ‘Ahh!’ moment.

Truncated it may be, but definitely not lacking in drama and some superb handling of Shakespeare, breathing fresh life into the well-worn lines and coming at the play from a new angle.  This play’s the thing!

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Play to Win

THE WINSLOW BOY

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd January, 2018

 

Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece loses none of its powers in this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.  What begins as a charming observation of Edwardian family life soon develops into a drama with far-reaching implications, as the entire nation follows the case of Ronnie Winslow and his struggle to clear his name following a wrongful accusation of the theft of a five-bob postal order.  Or rather, it’s his father’s struggle: only 14 when it all kicks off, Ronnie is able to get on with his life, secure in his father’s love and support.

As the titular Boy, Misha Butler is an instantly appealing presence, fresh-faced and oozing vulnerability.  As his father, Aden Gillett is old-school paternal: his word is law, but he’s also clearly very much a man who loves his family.  We witness Pa Winslow’s physical decline, his resolve wobble as much as his gammy leg, but his belief in his boy never falters, despite the hardship the expenses of pursuing the case inflict on the family. It’s a masterful performance at the heart of this piece.   Tessa Peake-Jones as Ma Winslow is old-school maternal, responding emotionally rather than rationally: it’s a family to which we’d like to belong – especially with chirpy maid Violet (Soo Drouet) fetching and carrying.  Drouet manages to bring more to this rather stock character.

Theo Bamber’s Dickie, the elder son, is a livewire, a voice of dissent and a nifty dancer!  But it is the sister, Catherine (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) who draws most of our attention.  A suffragiste, she is her father’s daughter, forthright and not shy of voicing her opinions, even willing to make sacrifices in her love-life for the cause of clearing Ronnie… Her intended is no great loss anyway; stuffed shirt John (a dapper William Belchambers) lacks the independence of spirit that makes Catherine stand out so markedly.

There is a magnificent turn from Timothy Watson as the superstar barrister hired to fight the case, Sir Robert Morton.  His cross-examination of Ronnie makes for an electrifying scene and his scenes with Catherine are delicious, as they skirt around a whiff of romance.

Kavanaugh directs with a light touch and the cast rattle through Rattigan’s somewhat wordy dialogue at speed, so the witty remarks and emotional exchanges fizz and spark.  It’s an unerringly entertaining piece.  The Winslows taking on the establishment is a David v Goliath campaign but the far-reaching implications I mentioned earlier have remarkable resonance with us today, a hundred years after the time in which the play is set.  Lines about the ‘desperatism of Whitehall’ encroaching on our freedoms could refer to the woeful Brexit negotiations, for example, and with ‘the despotism of bureaucracy’, Rattigan could be describing the Department of Work and Pensions!  And the figure of Catherine could represent the Time’s Up movement as women continue to fight for equality and respect.

More than a comedy (although it is very funny), this is social commentary that hooks us in with likeable characters, an intriguing situation, and bags of tension and suspense.  A flawless production and a real treat.

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Aden Gillett looks on as Misha Butler is grilled by Timothy Watson