Taking the Veil

SALOME

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd June, 2017

 

Oscar Wilde’s one-act tragedy is far from a particular favourite of mine.  I prefer his epigrammatic, frothy word play to the heightened, florid language of this retelling of the Biblical story, where the characters speak mainly in similes and declamations.  How refreshing it is when Herodias proclaims, “The moon is like the moon!” – as fed up with the poetic spouting as I am!

Owen Horsley’s production has a decidedly ‘gay’ aesthetic.  Herod’s guards could be bouncers in a fetish club (I imagine) but there delivery is mere recitation.  The action begins to come to life with the first appearance of Salome herself (a gamin Matthew Tennyson) who speaks her lines as though she means them rather than pompous intonation.   Salome is intrigued by Herod’s prisoner, the prophet Iokanann (John the Baptist by another name) played by Gavin Fowler.  Iokanann is filthy, clad only in his underwear, but he still catches the young princess’s eye.  He rejects her advances – with fatal consequences.  What I don’t get is why he is permitted to continue giving his ominous predictions – if characters like Herod and Herodias find his words so annoying or insulting, why didn’t they gag him, at least?  Oh well.  His prophecies add to the sense of impending doom, I suppose.

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Rants in his pants: Gavin Fowler as Iokanaan (Photo: Isaac James)

Fowler is an agile Iokanann, filled with the wild conviction of his beliefs, while Suzanne Burden’s wearily glamorous Herodias is a fine comic counterpoint.  Matthew Pidgeon is imposing as the hedonistic Herod, and there are some fine, compelling moments: for example, a spot of contemporary dance depicting the grief of the Page (Andro Cowperthwaite) for the death of Assad Zaman’s Young Syrian.  The music by Perfume Genius is pulsing and vibrant, with the energy of clubland, which works well to underscore the action.  Singer Ilan Evans, a world-weary M.C. adds torch-song resignation to events as they unfold.

But it is Matthew Tennyson’s Salome that holds the attention.  Seemingly fragile, almost bird-like, he evokes rather than impersonates the female.  His dance is a high-energy, jerky affair, reflecting the lust of Herod and his court – Polly Bennett’s movement direction brings angst and tension and above all expression to Wilde’s difficult exchanges.  Tennyson is boldly defiant – Salome is accustomed to using her wiles to get her own way but is also strong and stubborn enough to stand her ground when denied.  She is determined to kill the thing she loves – ooh, that sounds familiar… The story culminates in horror as Salome remonstrates and coos with the head of the man who rejected her advances.

A rather patchy affair, I’m afraid, this tale about unrequited passions, but on the whole I think I enjoyed the production more than the actual play.

Salome production photos_ June 2017_2017_Photo by Isaac James _c_ RSC_220811

Wilde at heart: Matthew Tennyson as Salome (Photo: Isaac James)

 


Mods and Mockers

ROMEO AND JULIET

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 20th June, 2017

 

The consistently excellent Oddsocks Productions revisits Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-cross’d lovers, this time giving it a mods and rockers setting.  There is more of Brighton than Verona and, in keeping with the company’s fun-loving style, it works extremely well.  The two households are divided by musical differences; the Montagues are the mods, the Capulets the rockers, and the audience is also divided along these lines for a running joke of participation that, instead of becoming more tired as the play goes on, becomes more hilarious.

Director and resident genius Andy Barrow appears as both Capulet, a pot-bellied Black Country rocker, and a bandana-sporting, sneering Tybalt.  At one point he is called upon to argue with himself behind the bar of the Capulets’ Cavern of Rock – just one of the many highlights that exhibit the man’s comic superpowers.  This is also the first time I’ve heard a rendition of ‘Black Betty’ in a Shakespeare production.  Barrow is generous is sharing the laughs out among the rest of his cast of six, a group that comprises familiar faces and new recruits.

Returning favourites include Rebecca Little as the Nurse – another of her remarkable characterisations, distilling the essence of the Shakespearean model and blending it with Oddsocks energy.  It is remarkable how the moment can turn, and knockabout antics suddenly become heartfelt.  I’ve said it before, many times, this is what Oddsocks does so brilliantly: giving us a lot of fun but remaining true to the spirit of the play.  Every now and then Shakespeare asserts himself and the drama comes to the fore.  One such moment tonight is the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio (Alexander Bean).  It’s all fun and games until someone loses a kinsman.  Cartoon, slapstick violence is suddenly deadly serious.  Kudos to fight director Ian Stapleton!

Also back for more is the marvellous Gavin Harrison as Benvolio, in parka and pork pie hat, and ‘Jimmy Paris’ a Rockstar guitarist.  Harrison is fast becoming a fixture in this company – they’d be hard pressed to find anyone to better him.

Newcomer Alexander Bean’s Mercutio surprises us with the sudden beauty of the Queen Mab speech, and his West Indian Friar Laurence is a deadpan delight.  The rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse fits many accents – Oddsocks certainly puts that to the test!

Also new are the eponymous lovers.  Pippa Lewis’s rock chick Juliet is wonderfully immature and, unbelievably, credible!  She also plays a mean saxophone.  Good-looking Matthew Burns is a great find as Romeo, moody, volatile and very funny.

This tight ensemble all play instruments and sing.  Oddsocks productions of late have become musicals, interpolating hits of yesteryear (and sometimes of the present day!) into the action.  The choices are always spot on.  And never more than at the end, when the stage is littered with bodies and Benvolio leads a rendition of ‘Enjoy Yourself, it’s later than you think’.

Bloody bonkers and bloody brilliant.

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Called to the bar: Andy Barrow as Tybalt


Knocking it out of the Park

CHRISTOPHER PARK in recital

Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 19th June, 2017

 

The longest piece on the programme opens the show, Variations & Fugue on a theme by Handel by Brahms.  It’s the ideal piece to commence the evening and establishes Christopher Park’s virtuoso status from the off.  At times florid, light, jaunty and sombre, the piece is a little like switching through television channels, and Park handles the sometimes abrupt changes of mood and tempo with ease.  Every gear change Brahms throws at us is skilfully handled – we are in safe hands, but are his hands safe?  When it’s over, Park announces he has to leave the stage to fetch a plaster.  He has cut his finger, and I’m not surprised.  Such robust, intense playing could result in a keyboard like a butcher’s shambles.

He returns for a couple of Chopin pieces, the Nocturne Op 9 No 3 and his own transcription of the Larghetto Op 2 from Piano Concerto no 2.  This is how I like my Chopin, moody, stirring and romantic, melancholy as a rainy day.  This is the highlight of the evening for me.

After the interval comes Olga Neuwirth’s 2016 piece, Trurl – Tichy – Tinkle (you what, mate?).  It begins percussively and its seemingly random nature reminds me of when people see modern art and say their two-year-old could draw better.  I think that’s the point.  Neuwirth captures the primitivism of someone idling at the piano, a child before the rigours of classicism are introduced.  But that’s not all.  This piece gives us atmosphere, sometimes eerie, sometimes playful, it’s like a soundtrack to a cartoon we can’t see.  You won’t be whistling this one on the way home but it certainly demonstrates the versatility of the instrument and, yet again, the mastery of Christopher Park.

We finish with Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Petrouchka.  Some assertive, heavy-handed yet melodic pieces as though Park is fighting off the Russian army.  It’s stirring, vigorous stuff and seems conventional coming after the Neuwirth.  It culminates in a bashing crescendo and, I don’t know about Park, but I am spent.

Park returns for an encore, a comparatively frothy bit of Beethoven.

There might be blood on the piano but there is also the risk that my hands will be reduced to bloody stumps from all the applause.

christopher park


Come Die With Me

DINNER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 17th June, 2017

 

One of the many commendable things about the Bear Pit Theatre Company is they are not shy of staging productions of works that provide challenges for cast and audience members alike.  Ostensibly, Moira Buffini’s 2002 play takes us to somewhere similar to Ayckbourn country, with its premise of a middle-class dinner party attended by monstrous people.  Buffini is less subtle than Ayckbourn; here the savagery is not beneath the surface, the savagery is the surface.  Also, while Ayckbourn’s middle-class monsters are often likable or at least amusing, Buffini doesn’t bother trying to endear us to any of hers.  They’re a pretty rotten bunch and that’s all there is to it.  That’s not to say they’re not fun, and the roles are gifts for the actors.

Our hostess is Paige (an enjoyably arch Charlotte Froud).  She has hired a man off the internet to act as waiter for the evening.  The dinner party is in honour of the success of her husband’s book, success that Paige begrudges.  The book, Beyond Belief, sounds like a dreadful tome bursting with self-help psycho-babble.  Husband Lars (a strong and convincing Tony Homer) behaves like a spoiled brat and moody teen from the off.  He is also pompous and condescending in his bitterness, most of which he directs at his wife.

The sparks fly between Froud and Homer as this embattled couple, although we never really get to the bottom of why they are at loggerheads.  Could it be Lars’s reacquaintance with old flame from college, hippie throwback Wynne (Penelope Sandle-Keynes in a hilarious, detailed characterisation)?  There are cheap laughs at Wynne’s vegetarianism but otherwise Buffini serves up a buffet of barbs that are generally as sharp as poisoned darts.

Abi Deehan is laugh-out-loud funny as the blunt and outspoken Sian while Ben Coventry warms into his role as her husband Hal, providing some of the funniest moments of the night.

The dinner is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of young Mike, a stranger whose van has broken down in the fog.  Nathan Brown is instantly appealing as the cocky interloper who is not all that he claims – it’s a fine contrast with Richard Ball’s stony-faced menace of a Waiter.

Arguments boil over and fizzle out.  Rows build to crescendos and are followed by immediate silence.  This is always effective but it happens at least once too often as director Steve Farr helps his cast ride out the sometimes patchy quality of the script.  Farr injects some lovely touches of comic business and keeps the action far from static – always a danger when the set is dominated by table and chairs.

What’s it all in aid of?  There’s a lot of grandstanding, point-scoring and cod philosophical discourse.  The nature of life is bandied around between the courses of Paige’s ridiculously pretentious and ultimately inedible menu.  It turns out there is nothing like death to make you appreciate life.  The Waiter has other services to offer and the middle-class ritual of the dinner party becomes a darker and more arcane, more primal affair.

With Buffini serving up seafood and the C-word in generous measure,  this is perhaps not to everyone’s taste but there is a great deal to delight in the comic playing of this committed and capable cast.

Dinner-Web-Home


Rome About

VICE VERSA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 14th June, 2017

 

Phil Porter’s new play ‘borrows’ heavily (to put it mildly!) from the works of Roman comic genius Plautus – Porter is by no means the first to do so; everyone from Shakespeare to Frankie Howerd has been influenced by Plautus’s outlandish plots and larger-than-life character types.

Colin Richmond’s set is a painted representation of two Roman houses – the artificiality is undisguised, as a prompt to tell us we are not in the real world.  In this world, characters are broadly drawn, driven by particular foibles and appetites.  First among them is General Braggadocio (Felix Hayes), a swaggering braggart, a vain, posturing despot – clearly ripe for duping.  Hayes chews his lines with bombast and relish in a massively enjoyable performance.  He quotes and paraphrases Donald Trump – which should tell you all you need to know about what kind of dreadful, narcissistic idiot he is.

Running rings around him is Dexter, the cunning, conniving slave.  This is the Frankie Howerd role, played here by Sophia Nomvete, a hugely likable presence full of charm and warmth.  Her schemes are ludicrous but we take delight in watching them work out, as Dexter copes with each new obstacle that is thrown in her path.

Aiding and abetting (but mostly hampering and hindering) are fellow slaves, Feclus (a hilarious and tightly wound Steven Kynman) whose desperation and frustration are a lot of fun, and  Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl) who, as his name gives away, eats a lot but is at his comic best when he is pissed off his face.

Geoffrey Lumb’s handsome but dim young lover, Valentin, is a wide-eyed twit, while his other half, the general’s concubine Voluptua gives the performance of the night.  Ellie Beaven is the cream of this very rich crop of comedic talent, flitting between characterisations with impeccable timing and nuance – and it’s not the kind of show where you expect much nuance!

There is superb support from Nicholas Day as game old codger Philoproximus and a star turn from Allo Allo’s Kim Hartman as raddled old prostitute, Climax, hurling herself into Dexter’s schemes with energy and style.  Jon Trenchard reinforces the silliness of the whole enterprise, scampering around as Braggadocio’s monkey Terence (named for the other famous Roman playwright, I’ll wager).

Director Janice Honeyman doesn’t miss a trick to keep the laughs coming thick and fast, and much fun is had with some well-placed anachronisms.  Roman comedy gives us the opportunity to mock those who would oppress us, while championing the little guy and revelling in the indomitable human qualities of ingenuity and wit.  It’s not the plots we come for but the playing.  And this production delivers some exquisitely funny playing indeed.

Vice Versa

Up Stratford! Felix Hayes and Sophia Nomvete (Photo: Pete Le May)


Back out in the Outback

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

 

Three Spires and Guildhall take a bold stab at the colourful musical, based on the joyous Australian comedy film starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce.  It’s an ambitious task for any company, with demands on all aspects of production and, for the most part, this one pulls it off with exuberance.

Craig Garner is positively luminous as Tick, a drag artist summoned from Sydney to Alice Springs by his ex to perform at her hotel.  Somewhat statuesque when in drag, Garner’s vocals, complete with Aussie twang, are excellent throughout.  Tick recruits Bernadette, an ageing transsexual (Steve Smith) and Adam (Doug Gilbey-Smith) and the trio rehearse their act as they travel through the outback on the eponymous bus.  Smith has Bernadette’s deadpan put-downs down to a tee but sound problems mean some of his killer one-liners are lost in the mix, while Gilbey-Smith proves himself a lovely mover.  They’re a likeable bunch and our sympathies are immediately with them – when the spectre of homophobia raises its ugly head, the fly in their jar of slap, it is very clear whose side we are on.  There are no grey areas in this rainbow-coloured story.  And quite right, too!

Jamie Sheeran, the director no less, appears as a kind of Tina Turner/Grizzly Adams mash-up as club host Miss Understanding – you have to admire him not only for his performance but for being prepared to do what he expects of his company.  The male members of his chorus may all sport dad bods rather than being shaped like anything you might see at G.A.Y. but they give it their all!

Karen Staton is hilariously grotesque as Shirley, as is Sue Biddle’s Cynthia, a kind of ping-pong champion, shall we say?  But before you worry that the show might be misogynistic, there is also Kate Temple-Brown’s Marion, Tick’s ex – pleasant, reasonable and fun.  What is held up for ridicule is homophobia, and ridicule is a powerful weapon.   The show also touches on issues of gay parenting – it turns out Tick’s estranged little boy Benji is more at ease with it than he is himself; Malachi Griggs-Taylor joins Craig Garner on stage for the show’s most touching moment.

Vocal support comes from the Divas (Kayleigh Brook, Kelsey Checklin & Claire Tyler) suspended over the action and belting out the numbers for the others to lip-synch.  As you’d expect, the costumes are many and varied and delightful, based on the original Oscar-winning designs.  You can’t do Priscilla without the iconic flipflop frock!  Julie Bedlow-Howard’s choreography is lively and interesting, combining disco moves with more musical theatre manoeuvres.

There are problems with mics and some lighting cues going astray, but this is the first night at the venue so I expect these will be ironed out.  A couple of moments don’t quite work: getting people from the audience for a hoe-down doesn’t quite come off, and bits of action, like Bernadette fainting at first sight of Tick’s son, need tweaking for greater impact.  On the whole, though, this is a hugely enjoyable evening, delivered with enthusiasm and talent, a feel-good, energetic performance of a life-affirming tale that, in these days of the DUP lurking in the wings of Westminster, makes a bold and proud affirmation that gays are human too.

priscilla


Apollo Mission Accomplished

APOLLO ET HYACINTHUS

Town Hall, Birmingham, Saturday 10th June, 2017

 

A marvellous evening of Mozart kicks off with the Symphony in G major (K45a), the ‘Lambach’, a chocolate box of a piece, sweet and soft-centred with the occasional note of dark-but-never-bitterness.  Classical Opera’s ongoing and long-term project to play out Mozart’s work in chronological order over decades is as laudable as it is ambitious.  The playing here is smooth under the baton of Ian Page, easing us in before the drama of the evening’s programme begins in earnest.

Up next is Grabmusik, a trio of lieder set at Christ’s tomb.  The mighty baritone Benjamin Appl is the ‘Soul’ getting off to a rousing start with plenty of sturm und drang, calling down thunder and lightning on the perpetrators.  Appl storms it, in fact.  He is a compelling presence, as facially expressive as he is vocally – and that voice, rich and versatile, is both a balm for the mind and a prod to the emotions.  The Soul is answered by the ‘Angel’ – Gemma Summerfield’s searing, soaring soprano – before the two sing together, having taken us the full gamut of emotions from anger to forgiveness.

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Apple of my ear: Benjamin Appl

I need an interval drink after that!

Mozart had reached the grand old age of eleven when he penned his first opera – what took him so long, the slacker? – and it’s a treat to hear it get an airing this evening.  The plot is basically a love triangle: Zephyrus loves the boy Hyacinthus but so does the god Apollo.  Zephyrus fingers Apollo for the death of Hyacinthus, but the boy’s dying words reveal the truth.  Meanwhile, Oebalus is hoping to marry his daughter Melia to the god – but the murder of his son casts a shadow over that arrangement.

Stripped to the bare essentials, the staging brings the music to the fore.  Standing in a row like actors in a radio drama, the cast does not stint in expressive delivery.  It is the human emotions of this mythological scenario that matter – and that is the heart of Mozart’s genius, whether it’s Christianity as in the Grabmusik, or older mythology, it is the humanity of the situation that touches us.  The prayer to Apollo, where the cast of five is joined by Appl as the Priest, is as stirring and lovely as any of Mozart’s pieces to the Christian God.  The man could dramatize anything.

Benjamin Hulett is marvellous as King Oebalus, despite being rooted to the spot behind his music stand.  Similarly, Klara Ek’s Melia gives us all the delighted anticipation of a young woman before her wedding to a celebrity.  Gemma Summerfield’s Hyancinthus is blooming great (ha ha) and her dying words, so simply and effectively scored by Mozart, are extremely moving.  Countertenor James Hall is the villainous Zephyrus, while another countertenor Tim Mead makes a regal and dignified Apollo.  When all five sing together, I miss the baritone undertones of Appl – Mozart was writing for a cast of schoolboy performers, after all.

It’s a lovely piece in which each character gets an aria, a moment to shine, a moment to explore their emotional state.  They are human beings in a fantastical situation and that’s what speaks to us across the centuries.

Le The a l'Anglaise chez le Prince de Conti, Salon des Quatre-Glaces, Palais du Temple with child Mozart at harpsichord...


Conservation Piece

RUNNING WILD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 8th June, 2017

 

Michael Morpurgo’s animal stories (think War Horse, think Butterfly Lion) have become prime fodder for theatre aimed at children, but don’t let that mislead you.  The stories tackle grown-up issues and major themes, and this touring production of Running Wild is an excellent case in point.

Nine-year-old Lily’s dad is killed in the Iraq war.  She travels with her mother to Indonesia, where mum is drowned by a tsunami but Lily is saved by the actions of her elephant friend Oona.  Together, girl and elephant live in the rain forest until their Jungle Book lives are interrupted by orangutan poachers.  As if themes of loss and grief aren’t enough, the story packs in themes of conservation, animal protection and consumerism, as Lily goes through an eye-opening, eye-watering journey, a learning experience which is enough to radicalise anyone to vote for the Green Party and join every wildlife charity going.

In this performance, Annika Whiston makes an assured Lily, who finds her place in this cruel world of natural disaster and mankind’s folly.  She is supported by an ensemble that includes Kazeem Tosin Amore as her dear old dad, Balvinder Sopal as mum, and RSC veteran Liz Crowther as Lily’s determined grandmother.  There is likable support from Stephen Hoo in a range of roles and Corinna Powlesland as Dr Geraldine.  Jack Sandle’s Australian baddie, Mr Anthony, exudes the evils of callous capitalism.

But the show belongs to the breath-taking puppets of Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié.  It takes four skilful puppeteers to animate Oona and how quickly one forgets they are there in plain sight.  Oona is life-sized and appears to be breathing, thinking and, yes, farting.  Others too knock your eyes out: a beautiful tiger, a shoal of fish, a vicious crocodile lurking in the undergrowth.  I have seen Olié’s work before – the man is a god, giving life to inanimate forms.  Give him every award going.

Paul Wills’s set is a jungle of junk, comprised of broken bits of furniture, recycling wood to make the trees.  Cleverly, it also suggests we are making a rubbish tip of our world.  Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks pull no punches in telling this hard-hitting story, and carry it off with theatrical sophistication and flair: the tsunami scene is stylishly presented, for example, and the murder of a group of orangutans is brutal and upsetting.  Walt Disney kept the shooting of Bambi’s mother off-screen; here, adaptor Samuel Adamson puts it centre stage and the impact is devastating.

No cute and cuddly kiddies’ tale, Running Wild is an action-packed, eventful story that engages its target audience thoroughly.  The emotional impact is undeniable but I wonder how many members of the school parties that fill the auditorium will go home and demand a boycott of products that contain palm oil.  Perhaps it falls to the grown-ups that accompany them to take this necessary step.

Curiously, the story doesn’t make a connection between the cruel treatment and exploitation of animals in the wild with the fate of those who live on Lily’s grandmother’s farm.  That apart, this is quite the Greenest show I’ve seen and I can’t applaud it enough.

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Oona and Nana – Liz Crowther (Photo: Dan Tsantilis)

 

 


Finger-Clickin’ Good

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 6th June, 2017

 

Charles Addams’s characters first appeared in single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker – delicious gems offering snapshots of a dark psyche at work.  When the 1960s TV series appeared, it gave Addams’s family voices and movement, stories that flipped the conventional like a negative photograph.  The show also rendered the characters likeable and appealed to queer sensibilities at a time when there was no other mainstream representation.  We wallow in the Addamses’ morbidity – it is the ‘normal’ that is held up to be ‘other’.

This new musical (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) gives the characters songs, many of them good ones, while providing plenty of laughs in the expected vein.

Cameron Blakely is the excitable head of the household, Gomez Addams, an energetic father figure with a Hispanic flavour.  Last seen drowned in a pool in EastEnders, Samantha Womack kills it as his wife Morticia – her deadpan delivery is impeccably timed.  She is impressively dour and supremely elegant; her song ‘Death is Just Around the Corner’ is a definite highlight.

Wednesday Addams is presented as older here than she usually is, losing her little girl creepiness – this is so that she is interested in boys and thereby giving the show its plot.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is undeniably strong in the role but I would have scored Wednesday’s numbers a little less conventionally to make her sound more like a Lene Lovich or Kate Bush type.   It is the lyrics alone that subvert from the norm.  This Wednesday is a musical theatre student who couldn’t decide for Halloween between Wednesday Addams and Katniss Everdene.

Conversely, Grant McIntyre’s Puggsley, the creepy little brother with a penchant for explosives, actually sounds weird when he’s singing his solo.

Valda Aviks is good fun as the vulgar Grandma, while TV’s Les Dennis is in excellent form as Uncle Fester.  Dickon Gough’s cadaverous butler Lurch almost steals the show with his comic timing.

The ‘normals’ who come to dinner are Dale Rapley as boorish father Mal, Oliver Ormson as Wednesday’s main squeeze, Lucas, and Charlotte Page as mum Alice – the most developed of the three – in a belter of a performance.

Diego Pitarch’s set is beautifully derelict and gothic, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting paints the set in spots and shadows, maintaining an overall darkness with characters in pools of light, just like Addams’s original cartoons.  A baroque chorus of Addams ancestors haunts the stage for added spookiness.

Director Matthew White keeps the thin plot moving along; there is an emphasis on snappy one-liners rather than character development, but everything about this production is exquisite.  We enjoy the time we spend with these people in a show that amuses and delights at every turn.

Addams Matt martin

Creepy and kooky, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack (Photo: Matt Martin)

 

 

 


Party Piece

GREASE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 29th May, 2017

 

When it was first staged in the 1970s, the show was a nostalgic look-back at supposedly simpler times.  The film version, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as positively geriatric teenagers, became a phenomenal global hit, still highly popular, and giving the stage show a new lease of life that shows no signs of failing.  Inevitably, with the film so fixed in the popular consciousness, there are audience expectations that director David Gilmore must meet.  We know how Grease should be done.  Or we think we do.  Some of the songs don’t appear at the same points in the story as they do in the screenplay.  Other numbers, only background music in the film, are given centre stage here.  Conversely, what appears in the film but not in the show, has been interpolated here: chiefly, the opening number by songwriter supremo, Barry Gibb.

Plotwise, it couldn’t be simpler.  Boy meets girl but they’re in different groups at high school, where peer pressure is irresistible… Who will change to overcome the cultural divide?

Frankly, the T-Birds, all leather jackets and DA haircuts, come across as a bunch of twats.  Danny (Tom Parker) feels obliged to deny his feelings for Sandy (Danielle Hope) in order to keep in with his laddish mates.  For her part, Sandy is too straitlaced to be fully integrated into the girls’ gang, the Pink Ladies.  Parker, former member of boyband The Wanted, sings competently; his real strength is in the physical comedy of his portrayal.  Hope is suitably prim as Sandy, her singing voice rich and with a more mature sound than her girlfriends.

Louisa Lytton is a brassy Rizzo.  She gets the ‘dramatic’ moments when a pregnancy scare allows her to belt out There Are Worse Things I Could Do.  Like Danny, she is hampered by her public image.  Revealing her true self would be a sign of weakness.  And so, the show is about the pressures on teens to conform – with whatever group they wish to be part of.   Also, Frenchy (a vivacious Rhiannon Chesterman) feels she can’t tell her friends she has flunked out of beauty school, while her would-be suitor Doody (Ryan Heenan) is physically incapable of stringing the words together to ask her to the dance.

Heenan stands out among the T-Birds as the likeable, little one.  He gets a couple of solo moments, showcasing his talents.

Greased Lightning is a big production number with Tom Senior’s Kenickie cranked up to 11.  It’s loud and brash, laddism writ large.  It’s like being beaten up by a song.

Treat of the night comes from a cameo appearance by ‘Little’ Jimmy Osmond himself as a somewhat superannuated Teen Angel.  Pure showbiz royalty, Osmond knows when to milk it, knows when to be cheesy – how dairy!  His song brings the house down and such is his charisma and the fact that IT’S JIMMY OSMOND, we hardly notice the showgirls swanning around in true Las Vegas style.

The energetic ensemble generates a lot of heat.  Arlene Phillips’s choreography is flashy and fun, adding to the infectious quality of the show.  People are here to have a good time.  This audience doesn’t need warming up.  It’s a party of a show, a guaranteed good time and a chance to escape from whatever it is you might want to escape from.  Cosy and safe, Grease is a reliable crowd-pleaser – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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You’re the one from The Wanted, oo-oo ooh. Tom Parker and Danielle Hope

 


Let’s Twist Again

OLIVER!

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017

 

There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.

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Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Back in Black

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 22nd May, 2017

 

It’s unusual to have a long-running show in the West End (27 years and counting!)  that isn’t yet another musical or The Mousetrap.  The longevity of The Woman In Black is testament to its brilliance – everyone should go and see it at least once. Even when you know what’s coming, the show is still a suspenseful thrill-ride.  And now, with this touring production, you have your chance.

Ostensibly, a two-hander, Stephen Mallatratt’s masterly adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story keeps its theatricality to the fore.  Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has recruited an actor (Matthew Spencer) to rehearse the telling of his own experiences with the eponymous apparition.  Using only basic furniture to represent every location, along with recorded sound effects and well-placed lighting, their narrative works on our imagination – and this is what makes the stage version infinitely superior to the film.  Nothing can scare us more than our own minds.  It begins with humour as the performance style is established and between scenes from Kipps’s story, the men drop in and out of the framing device – there is an ongoing story here that will also come to a chilling conclusion… Gradually, Kipps’s story takes over and the atmosphere grips, the action surprises, makes us jump.

It’s a real showcase for the two performers.  Matthew Spencer is excellent as the effusive ‘actor’ taking on the role of the younger Kipps – it is his reactions that create much of the terror – while David Acton demonstrates his range, first as the nervous, ineffectual orator Kipps and then as everyone else in the story.  Such is the skill of the two that we are made to care about a little dog, Spider, that isn’t even there!

Robin Herford’s direction pushes all the right buttons in all the right places.  Especially effective are the silences, keeping us on edge.  Michael Holt’s deceptively simple design sits well within the Grand’s ornate proscenium.  Similarly, Kevin Sleep’s straightforward lighting proves you don’t need realism to ignite the imagination.  The whole enterprise is decidedly spooky and fills us with dread.  And delight.  Scaring audiences at the theatre is difficult to pull off, with all the coughing and fidgeting and the nervous laughter, but The Woman In Black continues to put the willies up us (if that’s not a contradiction!) and long may she continue!

Go and see her before she comes to see you!!

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Give him a big hand! Matthew Spencer exploring the haunted house…

 

 


Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)