Lear and Now

KING LEAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st September, 2016

 

Gregory Doran’s new production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy has an austere, almost Spartan feel.  The aesthetic is medieval but it’s as much Middle Eastern as it is Middle Ages, an interesting setting that could be Now, could be Then.  Here, the homeless and the dispossessed remind us of the refugees we see on the news on a daily basis (and also, extras on The Walking Dead!)

Lear makes a grand entrance, carried in on a chair in a glass box, paraded around like he’s an old relic.  In his opening scene, Antony Sher shows us the power of the king, albeit dwindling, as well as giving us glimpses of the mental deterioration that is to come.  It’s a commanding performance, in more ways than one, but Sher is at his most powerful in his quieter moments, in the details of his dementia, when he is recognisable and relatable as a human being in distress rather than a declaiming, despotic head of state.

Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams soon show their colours as evil daughters Goneril and Regan, while Natalie Simpson’s Cordelia makes a sweet impression that lasts – she has to; she disappears from the stage until after the interval.   Antony Byrne is a suitably heroic and noble Kent, disguising himself as a skinhead, and Graham Turner works hard to wring laughs from the Fool’s babblings, like a Dave Spikey in his underwear.

The RSC’s current golden boy Paapa Essiedu is deliciously wicked as the bastard Edmund, displaying a casual facility with the language and conveying a sense of being at home in the world of the play.  Surely a Richard III can’t be too far in his future.  Oliver Johnstone has a harder time of it as his brother Edgar.  Those Poor Tom mad scenes are not an easy act, but Johnstone throws himself into them with gusto and, by the time Edgar is reunited with his blinded father (the redoubtable David Troughton, marvellous as ever), we see how far he has come from his early foppishness.  The reunion between father and son is the most touching moment of the evening.

Niki Turner’s design gives us open landscape, punctuated by a lone, barren tree.   It’s almost Beckettian, as Lear and Poor Tom prattle and wait for Godot.  Music by Ilona Sekacz is largely percussive – key moments are underscored by drum rolls and crashes.

The only thing I question is Lear’s final scene, when he mourns the loss of Cordelia.  He rolls in on the back of a farmer’s cart for some reason, cradling her in his arms.  It makes for a striking Pietà, but I can’t help wondering where he got the cart and who is pushing it.   Oh, and in the blinding scene, which is literally eye-popping, the Perspex torture booth with its fluorescent lighting seems out of keeping with the rest, suddenly wrenching the action into the present – in which case, it works as an alienation effect, shocking us into considering the play’s currency.  Which, I guess, is fair enough.

A more than serviceable production, excellently played – but then, I never really enjoy Lear, as such – showing us a world where violence and madness reign.  In that respect, it’s the perfect play for 2016.

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Branching out: Oliver Johnstone as Edgar as Poor Tom. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

 

 


Wheel Meet Again

GHOST

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 19th September, 2016

 

The musical by Bruce Joel Rubin, Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard gets a new lease of life from Bill Kenwright in this new touring production.  Gone are the gliding TV screens I found a distraction in the show’s previous incarnation; instead the action is stripped down.  It’s low-tech and old-school and to my mind the story benefits from this approach immensely, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Scenes like Sam’s death and the subway ghost’s anger are simply but effectively handled by director Bob Tomson.  In fact, Tomson handles every aspect of the tale well, be it comedy, drama, thriller, supernatural, or just plain romantic.

Former Hollyoaks heartthrob Andy Moss is no stranger to coming back from the dead (his TV character Rhys reappeared as a ghostly figure in the soap, a symptom of another character’s psychosis.  Don’t ask!)  He is the perfect fit for the male lead.  Handsome, funny, charming and sweet, Sam is the boyfriend you wouldn’t want to have gunned down in a bungled mugging.  Moss proves he is leading man material, from Sam’s effortless humour to his confusion and anguish as a powerless ghost.  The singing is powerful, emotional and strong.  Moss carries us with him on Sam’s journey and we are in very safe hands.

Sarah Harding (Girls Aloud) plays bereaved girlfriend Molly – it’s a bit of stunt casting, perhaps, but Harding acquits herself more than adequately.  I find her pop voice suits the rather poppy score.  Her rendition of the heart-breaking With You is sweetly stirring.  If anything, it’s the acting that’s a bit one-note, but her accent is strong and consistent and, let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a thankless role, all grief and vulnerable victim.  Her voice blends well with Moss’s, and she does a good job.

If Moss is the beating heart of the show, Jacqui Dubois as psychic charlatan Oda Mae Brown is the life and soul of the party.  Hilarious in each of her scenes, Dubois really lifts the piece, steering us away from mawkishness.  The comic timing is spot on and the singing to die for.

A slick and smart ensemble supports, with a neat cameo appearance from James Earl Adair as the Hospital Ghost, and Garry Lee Netley as the aggressive, bad-ass Subway Ghost.

Of course, Unchained Melody features, along with the most famous potter’s wheel since the Interlude (ask your gran).  It all adds up to an engaging evening’s entertainment, sweet, touching and at turns hilarious.  It makes me glad this Ghost has been resurrected.

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Andy Moss and Sarah Harding


Wilde Thing

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 14th September, 2016

 

“We live in a world of surfaces,” says Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece that holds a mirror up to society.  Designer Isla Shaw takes this at face value and gives us a set that is all mirrored surfaces.  It’s opulent and bright, and a nifty idea, but rather than draw us in, suggesting that the play is showing us ourselves, I find it distracting to see the actors reflected from all sides.

There seems to be a desire to give the piece – over a century old – a contemporary feel.  This is entirely unnecessary; the lines are as fresh and funny as ever.  Rather than blasting out electro-dance music, director Nikolai Foster should allow the play to speak for itself, and let it remind us how contemporary it feels without these jarring trappings.  Poor Gwendolen (Martha Mackintosh) has to wear a period dress lacking a front from the knees down.  It’s entirely out of keeping and I find myself questioning the design choices rather than listening to the dialogue.  Fela Lufadeju’s John Worthing fares a little better: one of his suits makes him look like a bus conductor and his mourning clothes are a little too steampunk.

Apart from these disturbing elements, this is a highly enjoyable production, especially when the genius of Wilde is allowed to come to the fore.  Handsome Edward Franklin seems most at home as the hedonistic Algernon, while Cathy Tyson’s Lady Bracknell is as formidable and imperious as you could hope.  There is some neat character acting from Dominic Gately as Dr Chasuble and Angela Clerkin as Miss Prism, and I like Sharan Phull’s youthful energy as Cecily Cardew.  Darren Bennett gives us two markedly different butlers; I’ve never seen a Merriman so camp. Some of the timing needs sharpening – the bitchy scene between the two young girls could be more arch – but on the whole, the cast deliver Wilde’s often convoluted sentences very well.  They also, at times, need to ride the laughs a little better so that follow-up ripostes are not lost to us.

The delights of Wilde’s contrivances still tickle us.  This seemingly trivial play is rich with social commentary and satire, and the revelations at the denouement are still breathtakingly silly.  This production for the most part is a lovely confection; there are just one or two things I would leave on the side of my plate.

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Edward Franklin and Sharan Phull (Photo: Tom Wren)

 

 

 


Ostriches to Fortune

OSTRICH BOYS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th September, 2016

 

Keith Gray’s wonderful coming-of-age novel is brought to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by Carl Miller.  A quartet of actors narrate and enact the story of three boys, Blake (Fred Haig), Sim (Carl Au) and Kenny (Faaiz Mbelizi), who embark on a journey to Scotland, taking with them the stolen ashes of their recently dead friend Ross (Shea Davis – ever-present as a ghostly observer, appearing in flashback scenes and as a range of characters along the way.)

The action is slick.  The boys share the narration, often arguing about who should represent whom, dropping in and out of character with split-second precision.  The style reminds me of early Godber.  Teechers, say, or Bouncers.   Director Tony Graham makes the most of his cast’s physicality in order to populate Jason Southgate’s sparse but versatile set.  Movement sequences (by Tom Jackson Greaves) bridge events in the narrative, often portraying what the boys’ words cannot articulate.

Carl Au is superb as the highly-strung but pragmatic Sim, flipping to the other end of the scale to portray Kat, a girl Kenny encounters on the way.  Faaiz Mbelizi’s Kenny is gauche and uncool, contrasting with Fred Haig’s sensible and mature Blake.  All three are splendid but it is the willowy Shea Davis who mesmerises, shaking out his long hair with a slow smile as Ross watches his friends bicker and mess around.  The performances are flawless from all four and are chock-full of nicely observed details alongside the more choreographed, stylised moments.  At times, the imagery is as beautiful as the writing.  The bungee jump, for example, played against a reconstruction of the accident that killed Ross.  Arnim Preiss’s lighting adds to the physical and verbal lyricism of the moment.

This is a show where memory and narrative entwine, until the truth is teased out.  A story of boys going on an emotional, developmental journey as much as a cross-country train trek.  Told by blisteringly skilful performers, Ostrich Boys gives us endearing characters, verbal and physical humour, fun, tension and a deeply poignant denouement.  This is superior storytelling, as entertaining and moving as theatre should be.  Get your head out of the sand and get your arse to Coventry; this is one production you would be foolish to miss.

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Shea Davis as Ross (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Hats off to the Grand!

PRESS LAUNCH

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 8th September, 2016

 

Since it first opened its doors in 1894, the Grand Theatre has been the best reason to visit Wolverhampton.  Now, 122 years later, the theatre is entering the next phase of its evolution with a massive and thorough refurbishment of the bars and front of house areas.   The transformation is remarkable.

There is a new bar in the foyer, a long curving counter with mood under-lighting.  This bar will be open from 11am Monday to Saturday, rather than only during show times.   The former stalls bar is now the Encore Lounge – the most drastic refit of the lot, including a new performance space – as I nose around, a jazz trio tinkles away, their music broadcast through the building by the newly installed sound system.   Here, more space is given over to seating.  Booths have been installed and – a lovely touch – bowler and top hats form the lampshades over the tables.

The Dress Circle also has a new bar, Arthur’s of the Grand – so named because of sponsorship from cutlery manufacturers Arthur Price.  New booths give the loggia a more intimate feel.  It all looks rather splendid, I have to say.  The décor is classy and elegant without being imposing.

Further up, on the Grand Circle level, the ‘bar that time forgot’ has not escaped the designers’ attention.  It too is now invitingly swish.  There is also The Spotlight Lounge, a function room and boardroom available for hire.

Bars and hospitality are important, to be sure, but the main business of the theatre remains unchanged.  The plush auditorium has not been neglected.  All 1200 seats have been replaced with new, ‘soft-closing’ seats for noise reduction and, I can testify,  they are very comfortable, soft with firm back support and improved leg room, it seems.

I decide I might move in, Phantom of the Opera style.  Just don’t tell the management.  The casual opulence of the refit has rejuvenated this beautiful old building, giving it a lift and making it the place to be.  I’m already looking forward to a return visit.  You can check out details of the Grand’s new season here, and then go and check out the splendid upgrade for yourself.

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This photo in no way does justice to the Grand’s lovely refurb – I was too preoccupied with sampling the hospitality to take pictures!


Dick jokes (and sings and dances)

Panto Launch: DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th September, 2016

 

Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press launch for the Hippodrome’s pantomime.  This year it’s Dick Whittington and appearing in the title role is the irrepressible all-rounder John Barrowman, star of stage, screen and page – he’s also an author now, writing in partnership with his sister Carole.   I’ve been a big fan from way back in the days of Going Live!  and I first saw him on stage in Sunset Boulevard – and I’ve been low-level stalking him ever since.

Also appearing are The Krankies, with whom Barrowman has built up a rapport having appeared with them in panto in Glasgow.  Musical theatre star Jodie Prenger will be Fairy Bow Bells.  Perennial favourite Matt Slack returns for the fourth year running to play Idle Jack, and King Rat will be none other than Phil Mitchell himself, EastEnders favourite, Steve McFadden.

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I got to hang out with John Barrowman on a splendidly gaudy throne.  What follows is a transcript cobbled together from our chat and a general Q&A session.

Q. Hello, I’m William. I write a blog called Bum On A Seat.

John Barrowman:  Congratulations!  Put your bum here.

We take the obligatory selfie (“Smile, William!  Smile!”) and I tell him I’m looking forward to him giving his Dick to Birmingham this Christmas.

JB: I’m looking forward to giving it.  All over Birmingham.

Clearly the man is up for tiresome innuendo as much as I am.  And that laugh is infectious.  Barrowman is a bath bomb of a man, filling the place with his personality.

Q. John, you spend a lot of time here and a lot of time in the States. You straddle the Atlantic.

JB. There’s a joke for the panto right there!

Q. Why hasn’t panto taken off in the States? Why hasn’t it exported well?

JB. They don’t understand it. They see the dame and they think it’s a drag queen, which is a whole different type of performance.  They don’t understand the humour, they don’t understand the irony; it’s a British thing.   When I came back to the UK in 1989, I kind of looked at it and I thought, what is going on?  But now I get it.  I totally get it.  I love that we comment on social things, local things and political things.  We make fun of the audience and of ourselves.  People in the UK get pantomime, they get the humour.

Q. And what do you think of the Birmingham audience?

JB. I love being here. I love the people – they’re very welcoming. When I do my concerts, they sell out – I do two nights.  I love shopping in Birmingham.  The German market over Christmas is just amazing.  Birmingham people love the tradition of panto and that’s what brings me back here.  Birmingham has always wanted me back and that’s a thrill for me. Birmingham in winter, it’s really cloudy and dull but the people are friendly and warm and there’s always a smile when you walk down the street.

Q. Will you be attempting a Brummie or Dudley accent this time?

JB. Absolutely not! I’m terrible.  The Cat’s going to be Brummie.  I don’t know who’s playing the Cat yet.  I’ve asked for someone very hunky.

Q. Do you find that people travel to see it, because it’s you?

JB. I have an international audience that comes from as far away as China. France… From Germany, from South America…and the States, and Canada…from all over, and it’s not just two, it’s group-loads come. And they don’t come once, they come every night. And the one thing they have to – I’ve told them – they’ve tended to laugh before the joke, because they wanted the audience members to know they knew what was coming, and I had to tell them, Stop! Because he (Ian Krankie) would come off and he’d go, They’re fucking blowing the jokes again, and he’d say, Can you tell your fucking fans to stop blowing the jokes?  I had to go on Twitter and say stop laughing.  He’s not getting to say the tag lines.

Q. What’s it like working with The Krankies?

JB. They’re a national treasure. I’ve worked with them for five – six years.  The reason it does work is there’s no egos.  We’re there to have fun.  We’re like a family.  We have our arguments but we fix it and move on.  The chemistry – I can’t explain it – but when you see it, you’ll wet yourself.  Part of the show is what happens in the wings.  If those two go off script, I’ll chuck one on stage.  If things go wrong, we tend to keep it in – the audience think it’s happening for the first time, but if it works, we keep it in, and that’s how it develops.

He is keen to speak out against those who might deride panto.  With the Krankies at hand, his accent reverts to his native Scottish.

JB. Listen, anybody who takes the mickey out of people who do pantomime, they need to have their arses kicked, because this is the hardest – one of the hardest things in theatre and in the entertainment business to do because you’re doing two shows a day, consistently, you have to maintain that over the course – even if you’re sick. Energy levels have to be up; you cannot waver.  And, you know, people – some people come in and they do it for the first time, they get a shock.

I refrain from making a remark about the stamina of his Dick.  Just about.

Q. What can we expect from this Dick Whittington?

JB. The end of Act One – just a tease: I’ll be upside down… (suggestive grin)

Director Michael Harrison adds: King Rat will have the biggest rat.  The end of Act One will not be the usual Dick Whittington dream.  3D is back: there’s an underwater sequence.  The special effects have become as much a part of the show as anything else.

Rehearsals begin at the end of November.  A rough draft will be given to everyone for them to bring ideas, for routines, for songs.  It all sounds like a lot of fun and almost makes me wish I was on the other side of the curtain with them.  I can’t wait to see it but for today I’m glad of the chance to meet a real favourite.

Dick Whittington runs from Monday 19th December until Sunday 29th January.  Tickets are available now on 0844 338 5000 or from birminghamhippodrome.com

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Together at last: Barrowman meets Shakespeare

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Something is Rocking in the State of Denmark

ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th September, 2016

 

The title might lead you to expect a jukebox musical but writer-director Bob Eaton’s new piece is all-new, all-original.  Well, up to a point: the plot is lifted from Hamlet and some of the tunes are Ludwig Van B’s.  Eaton also draws on Shakespeare for iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, which give the show a heightened theatricality and also provide the opportunity for some literary gags.  This is Return to the Forbidden Planet meets That’ll Be The Day.   Eaton’s tunes pastiche classic rock and roll hits.  Performed by a talented ensemble of actor-musicians, the songs have an authentic sound and, unlike some jukebox musicals, the songs develop rather than interrupt the plot.

It’s also very funny.

It’s Britain and it’s 1956 and Michael Fletcher is Johnny Hamlet, returning from national service in the RAF to attend his father’s funeral.  His father’s ghost keeps appearing, driving the young man around the bend with his demands for revenge.  Matthew Devitt is in excellent form as the murdered man and he plays a mean guitar – often at the same time.  Young Hamlet adopts a leather jacket and D.A. hairdo as he goes off the rails, while Ophelia (Chloe Edwards-Wood) rebels against her straitlaced father Polonius (Steven Markwick).  Oliver Beamish’s affable Claud reminds me of Boycie at times – and you question if this character could stoop to murdering his brother… Georgina Field’s Gertrude is an energetically common, gorblimey Londoner, bringing a touch of music hall to her songs.   Meanwhile, Larry (Laertes) is dropping hints about his own emotional trials (the handsome Joseph Eaton-Kent, cutting quite a dash); and Niall Kerrigan brings a lot of fun to his role as Teddy boy/wide boy Waltzer.

Patrick Connellan’s set evokes a 1950s dance hall, enhanced by the backdrops of Arnim Friess’s video designs.  Choreography by Beverley Norris-Edmunds adds to the period setting, although for the most part, the cast are playing instruments while moving, acting and singing.

It’s an engaging, amusing show that proves irresistible, tickling the funny bone and setting the toes tapping.  Eaton tempers the nostalgic appeal with touches of social commentary: those who long to return to Britain as it was in the 1950s would do well to be reminded of the unhealthy aspects of the era, from the prevalence of smoking (it was good for you back then!) and the law against homosexuality, to name but two.  Also, “everything was in black and white and there was no Radio 1” – Every cloud!

This is a feel-good Hamlet, if you can imagine such a thing.  On reflection, I wonder if a different title might suit it better: we expect to hear the titular song but it never comes, although what we do get is more than good enough.

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Michael Fletcher as Johnny Hamlet (Photo: Robert Day)