The Original Walk-in Wardrobe

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th December, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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All Puns Blazing

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY SISTERS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Ugly-Sisters-Credit-Robert-Day

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

 


Spot On

THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) (3)

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


Afternoon Delight

AN EVENING OF SEX

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

 

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

Paperless

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

Fred and Ginger

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

Painting a Picture for the World

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

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

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Magic and Mess make for success

CINDERELLA

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 1st December, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Pleasure Voyage

TREASURE ISLAND

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Inexplicable Elephant

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 21st November, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bilston carol

 


Christmas Turkey

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

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

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

 


A ‘Night’ to Remember

TWELFTH NIGHT

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Boots and All

HOBSON’S CHOICE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 12th November, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Blonde Ambition

LEGALLY BLONDE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Friday 10th November, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blonde ambition: Lucie Jones as Elle Woods


Sorry State

(sorry)

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th November, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yanks and Francs

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Dominion Theatre, London, Wednesday 8th November, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Thrilled to Death

DEATHTRAP

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace host a cardigan festival

 

 


A Fool Aloof

EUGENE ONEGIN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 3rd November, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mum’s the word

BABY DADDY

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Full of the Devil

LIVING WITH THE LIGHTS ON

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spell Trouble

MACBETH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Schlock Treatment

THE TOXIC AVENGER – The Musical

Arts Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Blind date: Emma Salvo and Mark Anderson

 


An Absolute Scream

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Garrick Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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She has her knockers but I think Lesley Joseph is great

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

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

A great big monster hit.

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Hay there! Hadley Fraser and Ross Noble

 

 


Christmas Comes Early

NATIVITY! The Musical

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nativity The MusicalPhoto Credit: The Other Richard

Simon Lipkin (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 

 


World Class

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andrew Pollard and Michael Hugo be trippin’

 

 

 

 

 


Harried Potters & The Tea-Service of Secrets

DIRTY LAUNDRY

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rosie Abraham and Angela Bain (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 


Troy Story

DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 


Firm Favourite

HAIRSPRAY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 9th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hairspray

Good morning, Birmingham! Rebecca Mendoza IS Tracy Turnblad


Dodgy Lodger

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Blue Orange Theatre, Thursday 5th October, 2017

 

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

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

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

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William Hayes (Eddie) and Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane)

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

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

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

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Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane) and Elaine Ward (Kath)

 

 


Mummy’s Little Soldier

CORIOLANUS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coriolanus

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


Knowing

I KNEW YOU

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Funny, touching, insightful and fabulous.

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

Lorna Laidlaw and Brenton Hamilton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Window on the World

SKYLIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th September, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jacob Williams as Edward (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

 

 


One Man Woman

MAN TO MAN

The Studio, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 27th September, 2017

 

This production from the Wales Millennium Centre is a new translation of Manfred Karge’s 1982 piece – although it could have been written much earlier in the last century.  There are dark shades of Kafka here in the dehumanisation of man in the service of industrialisation, echoes of Brecht and especially Beckett in the execution.  I am also reminded of Berkoff’s reworking of Metamorphosis, when our protagonist literally goes up the wall…

At the root of the fractured narrative is the story of a widow who adopts her dead husband’s identity so she can take over his job as a crane driver.  This means she has to change her behaviour to fit in and become part of the blokey circle of his workmates.  Because a woman shouldn’t be doing man’s work, of course.  I’d like to think the world – especially the world of work has moved on a little since 1982.  But cross-dressing is a classic trope in drama and always has been, giving rise to all sorts of complications and talking points.  Here, it’s Nazi Germany where many had to pretend to be other than they were in order to survive. The stakes are high for our lady in trousers.

Maggie Bain is the sole performer, taking us through a blend of story, anecdote and memory, playing all the parts in a highly physicalised manner.  She is a compelling presence and is supported by some excellent tech work: projections illustrate the fantasy moments; atmospheric lighting slashes across the scene through wooden slats; distortions and echoes in the sound augment the mood; and above all, in my view, the original music by Matthew Scott adds a nursery rhyme/creepy feel to proceedings.

Directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham pull out all the stops to bring life and colour to the grey, monochromatic world.  Surreal surprises abound: for example, Bain climbs into a suitcase and then comes in through the door.  Richard Kent’s sharply angled, expressionistic set complements the early 20th century vibe.  Dark circles ring Bain’s eyes, like a Buster Keaton figure or, given the expressionistic flavour, Claude Rains.

On the whole, I have to say I enjoyed the form of this piece rather than the content, due in no small part to Maggie Bain’s magnetic and skilful performance, using her voice and body to such a plastic extent, you expect the other characters to join her on stage at any given moment.  In the end, it’s a play of moments rather than moment.  It’s dark stuff: David Lynch meets Samuel Beckett.  Spellbinding rather than enlightening, it works on the imagination rather than the intellect.

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Going up in the world, Maggie Bain (Photo: Polly Thomas)


Bowing Out

DUET FOR ONE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th September, 2017

 

Tom Kempinski’s famous play for two actors comes to Birmingham in this new production featuring reliable old hands, Oliver Cotton and Belinda Lang.  Lang is Stephanie, a classical violinist whose career has been brought to an abrupt end by her encroaching multiple sclerosis.  Cotton is Doctor Feldmann, the psychotherapist she visits even though she insists she doesn’t need to.   Through a series of scenes showing her sessions with the doctor, we find out more about her as the truth is teased out – mainly through reading into her vehement denials.  There is a sameness to the scenes: he sits and listens, she rants sarcastically, berating him and using her wheelchair for dramatic turns.

Yes, it’s rather funny as the spiked barbs fly and Feldmann punctures her fury with well-timed questions delivered deadpan, but as it goes on, I find that I don’t particularly care for this woman’s tragedy – the loss of her violin is more than being put out of a job, of course it is – but I haven’t warmed to her particularly, and as for him, well, apart from one unprofessional outburst in which it’s his turn to have a rant about his lot, Feldmann is a closed book.

So what can we take from it?  Can we relate to a classical superstar whose parents ran an artisanal chocolate shop?  “The meaning of life is life itself” – there is that.  Life is more than merely occupying your time.  True.

Lang and Cotton are in good form.  After a couple more shows, maybe even in great form, as the dialogue becomes less slippery and performances tighten up.  Lang is better when she’s mouthing off than during the more tearful moments and Cotton, with his enviable head of hair, listens like a hawk – if such a thing is possible.

Director Robin Lefevre works hard to keep things from becoming too static, getting Stephanie out of her wheelchair as much as possible and Feldmann too gets opportunities to stretch his legs.  The play makes amateur analysts of us all; as we listen, we deduce what’s been going on, why she is the way she is, and perhaps we question what we would do if we were faced with this terrible disease or were similarly robbed of our way of life.

Inevitably, it’s a wordy piece, a radio drama with bookshelves and furniture.  As the professional relationship between therapist and patient/customer develops and looks likely to unravel, we suspect Feldmann has been playing her like a fiddle all along.

Solidly performed and presented, more amusing than touching, Duet For One is worth a look, or rather, a listen.

Oliver Cotton in Duet for One_credit Robert Day

That’s about the size of it – Oliver Cotton (Photo: Robert Day)


Awesome Foursome

QUARTET

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 22nd September, 2017

 

Ronald Harwood’s play is set firmly in Waiting For God territory, here a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians.  Among the esoteric inmates we meet eccentric Cicely, rambunctious Wilfred – who seems more at home in a Carry On film than the Royal Opera House – and prissy Reggie who makes pronouncements about Art – when he’s not hurling abuse at the staff who deny him his marmalade fix.  The trio appear to have accepted their fate and are looking forward to performing in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.  Their peace is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of former diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, Jean.

Will three become four in order to perform a quartet?  Will they be able to recapture at least a glimmer of their former glory?

These are questions posed by the plot but really it’s a play about things we can all recognise: the ageing process, our own mortality, what will be our legacy…

The four singers are presented as flawed individuals but above all as relatable, likeable human beings.  The unseen villains of the piece are the spectres of death and dementia which make their presence known from time to time.  The characters approach old age and infirmity humorously and philosophically but every now and then we glimpse the sting of their predicament.  Kevin Hand brings a lot of fun as the coarse and lecherous Wilfred while Graham Tyrell’s effete and brittle Reggie is a perfect foil.  Juliet Grundy is endearing as the dramatic and lively Cecily, gradually losing her marbles before our very eyes.  Margot McCleary’s haughty, haunted diva has an air of faded royalty.  We like them all immensely and enjoy their company.

Director Estelle Hand balances comedy with poignancy – Harwood never allows us to dwell in mawkishness, touching on themes such as the sexual appetites and histories of the elderly, the necessity of living in the present rather than the past, of making the most of whatever time we might have left.  Hand gets nuanced and well-observed performances from her cast.  Yes, there are a few first-night stumbling over lines, but the tone is spot on.

“Art is meaningless unless it makes you feel,” observes Wilfred in a rare moment of insight.  This entertaining and touching production certainly makes us do that.

Quartet-Web-Home


For

AGAINST

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017

 

Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it.  When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better.  There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.

Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics.  He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations.  And he is fallible.  His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets.  Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.

Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are.  The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider.  Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here.  One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.

Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush.  Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter.  Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness.  The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.

Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today.  Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.

Ben Whishaw Against

He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very pretty boy. Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 


For the Record

SON OF A PREACHER MAN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 13th September, 2017

 

The words ‘jukebox musical’ are enough to send a shiver down this reviewer’s spine.  Stephen King should write one.  Perhaps Pet Sematary using the music of The Animals.   Mr King, however, would endow his show with a plot worth following.  Here, sadly, writer Warner Brown does not.

Paul (Michael Howe) yearns to reignite his crush on a boy from his youth spent in a Soho record shop; Alison (Debra Stephenson), newly widowed but reeling from an attraction to one of her students, has a hankering to visit the Soho record shop her mum was always banging on about; Kat (Diana Vickers), following the death of the grandmother who brought her up, finds her way to the Soho record shop in which her gran had so many happy times…  Three strangers with the same record shop in common – sort of – meet at the corner of Old Compton Street only to find that record shop is now a coffee franchise, called Double Shot (although the cup motif on the sign could represent a different vowel).  Here’s where the shoehorn comes in: the record shop’s name was Preacher Man.  The proprietor was some kind of community guru, also called the Preacher Man.  They are both long gone, but living above the coffee shop and working there as manager is Simon (Ian Reddington) who, all together now, is the Son of – well, you can see where it is going.  Simon embarks on a quest to solve the problems of the three strangers but, frankly, I couldn’t care less.

I think it’s the overall tone that stops me from engaging.  The story is tosh but they carry on as if it’s somehow mystical and significant.  A bit of tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink to say, Look, we know it’s tosh, but come along with us, would have made the show more fun.  This means the songs, each one a belter of a track from Dusty Springfield’s oeuvre, are made ridiculous: at a bereavement group, the members sing mournfully ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, dancing with empty plastic chairs.

The performers range from competent to excellent, many of them playing instruments with flair and panache.  Of the lot, Diana Vickers has by far the best voice and it’s a treat to hear her – but, of course, no one can match Ms Springfield.  Mercifully, they don’t try to.   A stand-out number for me is ‘Spooky’ performed by Sandra (Ellie-Jane Goddard) accompanied by Michael Howe.

There is a trio of backing singers, the Capuccino Sisters, who like the girls in Little Shop of Horrors add harmony and humour to proceedings.  Vocally, Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berekely-Agyepong are great but in this po-faced world, their sassiness comes across as cynical and mean-spirited.  Or perhaps I’m just projecting my responses onto them!  There is Madge, the cleaner, a ‘comic’ role (played by Jon Bonner) which is a throwback to the era of the fictitious record shop of the time.  One word: cringe.

Director Craig Revel Horwood needs to loosen things up and not try to sell this lightweight fare as something we should take seriously.  Horwood also choreographs and, while the dancing is tight, sometimes balletic even, the moves are often inappropriate, needlessly suggestive – as though he has remembered this is a show adults will go and see and perhaps will swallow the juvenile plot if he spices things up a bit.  The Capuccino Sisters virtually humping the tables they’re serving is at odds with the heartfelt/bubblegum stylings of Springfield’s exemplary pop.

Banal twaddle though this may be, it is performed well by a talented cast who work their socks off, making me wish they would dispense with the story and just give us a concert instead.

Ah well.  I’m off to write a show about a woman who loses a scratchcard at the seaside, using the back catalogue of, I don’t know, Alma Cogan or somebody.

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Diana Vickers putting Mike (Liam Vincent-Kilbride) in his place


Train of Thought

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 11th September, 2017

 

With delicious irony, the fates delay the curtain up on this play centring around trains.  Ha, ha, universe!

But when this production from Exeter Northcott Theatre does get under way, it’s full steam ahead for a lovely piece of theatre.

When their father leaves them under mysterious circumstances, siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter move from London with their mother to a quaint but humble country cottage near to a railway.  As a distraction from their newfound poverty, the children take to waving at passengers on the trains, notably an ‘Old Gentleman’ who proves to be crucial to later plot developments.  They also strike up friendship with stationmaster Perks and his eldest son, John.

On the surface, the show drips with Brexiteer nostalgia for an England that never existed.  A closer look reveals this to be a place where people are nasty and suspicious when a foreigner in need enters their midst – but not E. Nesbit’s heroic children, whose only impulse is to help the poor man.  It’s a place where people worry about the expense of seeing the doctor – he runs some kind of private health insurance club the locals chip in to.

Against the backdrop of this society, the three kids learn that sharing is best, that people have pride and there is a difference between gifts and handouts.  I am gobsmacked; I had no idea the story was so political.  Dave Simpson’s adaptation of the classic novel does not shy away from the author’s socialist leanings.

As Roberta, the eldest, Millie Turner captures the essence of a girl between youth and maturity, while as her siblings Peter and Phyllis, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton are spirited in their immaturity.  The kids squabble but never lose their sense of decency and fair play.

The immensely likeable Stewart Wright narrates as the avuncular Perks; Callum Goulden does a nice comic turn as his tearaway offspring.  Will Richards makes a striking Russian, expressive before he even utters a word in any language, while Andrew Joshi’s increasingly knackered doctor provides much of the broader humour.  Joy Brook shines as the authoritative, firm but fair mother, all stiff upper lip and sacrifice for the sake of her children while espousing their Russian houseguest’s revolutionary ideals.

Timothy Bird’s set, costume and video designs not only evoke the Edwardian setting but add layers of artificiality, blending practical effects (a cut-out carriage is a hoot!) with projected animations, reminding us that this seemingly cosy place is not real.  Director Paul Jepson ensures the energy of his performers is not overshadowed by the impressive technical features of the production, and adds effective bits of business to keep the actors to the fore: a slow-motion moment during Perks’s birthday party, for example – there is some lovely character playing by Andrea Davy as Perks’s wife.

The iconic moments are all here.  Averting a rail disaster by ripping up Roberta’s red petticoat and waving it like mad.  The touching reunion… Misty-eyed?  Me?  Must just be a bit of steam in my eye.

All right, I admit it, I am touched right in the feels and the needle on my nostalgia dial is in the red, but most of all I am struck that this tale from a more innocent age over a century ago speaks so strongly to us today and has such currency.  There is a lot to be said for Englishness, for doing what is right, for supporting the underdog; just as there is a lot to be said against the nasty, narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic attitudes of many English people today!  In 2017!  As if world events since the book first appeared mean nothing.

How much underwear do I have to tear up and wave around to stop this country going off the rails?

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Millie Turner, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton (Photo: Mark Dawson)

 


Party Piece

THE GREAT GATSBY

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 10th September, 2017

 

The Crescent’s new season gets off to a fine start with this adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel.  Stephen Sharkey’s script retains the timbre of Fitzgerald’s prose, mainly in the mouth of our narrator Nick Carraway (John O’Neill).  Through Nick’s eyes we visit the partygoing rich of the Twenties, a carefree elite who drink and dance every night away.  By sheer coincidence, Nick happens to be renting a property next to the massive mansion of the titular Gatsby, who happens to be an old flame of Nick’s cousin, Daisy, who has since married Tom Buchanan… Gatsby urges Nick to organise a reunion, an event from which tragedy springs.

John O’Neill is a serviceable narrator, handling Fitzgerald’s heady words in a matter-of-fact way.  As Gatsby, Guy Houston exudes a suave and easy charm; along with Nick we come to understand the man and his motivations.  Colette Nooney’s Daisy is coolly laconic while Laura Poyner’s fiery Myrtle injects passion into the piece.  Mark Fletcher’s Tom Buchanan has an air of Clark Gable to him.  Kimberley Bradshaw seems perfectly at home in the era as famous golfer, Jordan Baker.  All the main players are in fine form, in fact, with strong support from character parts: Jason Timmington’s Treves, for example, and Simon King’s Wolfsheim, who brings a flavour New York into this rarefied atmosphere.  James Browning’s George Wilson is a fine characterisation but he needs to lift his head more so we see more than the top of his flat cap.

The play saves all its action until the end as the consequences of the characters’ behaviour burst to the fore.  We are amused by these people but kept at a distance from them – in the end, we have only warmed to Nick and Gatsby – and so Fitzgerald’s critique of the in-crowd sinks in its teeth.  This is the empty hedonism of Made In Chelsea with dramatic bite.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are strong.  The art deco arches that represent Gatsby’s gaff, with their artificially organic elegance, evoke the period as soon as we see them.  Keith Harris’s set flows swiftly from each location to the next – there are a lot of scenes and changes are enhanced by Jake Hotchin and Tom Buckby’s lighting design, especially the beautiful work on the cyclorama.   Stewart Snape’s costumes fulfil our expectations of the era – Gatsby’s outfits are particularly snazzy – and Jo Thackwray’s choreography gives us all the Charleston moves and black bottoms we could wish for.  If I had to nit-pick, I would say at times the music playback needs to be a touch louder, and a crucial sound effect – a car crash – needs to have more impact.  It is the turning point of the story, after all.

Director Colin Judges keeps a steady pace, allowing moments of humour to surface like bubbles in champagne.  Stylish and elegant, this is a great Gatsby.

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John O’Neill narrates while Colette Nooney and Guy Houston catch up. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Lashing Out

THE WHIP HAND

The Door, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 6th September, 2017

 

Dougie (Jonathan Watson) is gathering family members to celebrate his 50th birthday – he has an agenda, a presentation to make.  The venue is his ex-wife’s house and Dougie is welcomed by her second husband, Lorenzo (Richard Conlon) who is a bit of a liberal and a smoothie with a penchant for artisanal ale.  Running tech support for his uncle is Aaron (Michael Abubakar), Dougie’s mixed-race nephew. Completing the party are the ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and the daughter she shares with Dougie, Molly (Joanne Thomson).    The nature of these relationships emerges along with the purpose of Dougie’s presentation…  He has received an email from an organisation that seeks reparation for the evils of the slave trade – it turns out Dougie is a descendant of a sugar-beet millionaire and slave master.  Prompted by white-man’s guilt and his milestone birthday, Dougie wants to do some good in the world, and has come to ask Arlene to sign over Molly’s college fund.

This production in partnership with Traverse Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Scotland provides a powerful 90 minutes of drama, laced with barbed humour and performed by a strong cast of five who each get their moments to shine, thanks to Douglas Maxwell’s taut and thought-provoking script.   Jonathan Watson is great as the volatile Dougie, contrasting nicely with Richard Conlon’s smooth-talking Lorenzo.  Louise Ludgate impresses as the sarcastic, impassioned Arlene, who has good reason to be cynical and short-tempered where Dougie is concerned, while Joanne Thomson’s Molly goes on a journey of discovery as secrets from the past are wrenched to the fore.  Michael Abubakar’s outbursts as Aaron add intensity to proceedings.

Director Tessa Walker draws us into the play’s discourse first with the amusing naturalism of a comedy of manners, and keeps us hooked with seething animosity, spoken and unsaid.  We suspect from the start the email is some kind of scam but the argument it provokes (that the world we live in is built on the atrocities perpetrated by slavers) is potent – although we don’t agree with Dougie’s means to redress ancient evils.

When the true nature of the scam comes to light, we see that the evils that need redressing aren’t so evil, as Aaron learns the truth about his father’s absence.

Darkly comic and provocative, the piece is in danger of letting its argument overpower our attachment to the characters – it’s one of those where you admire the performers but detest the dramatis personae.  A good advertisement for family gatherings, it is not!  And it shows us that racism, unlike the slave trade, is not a thing of the past.

A slanging match with bite and substance, The Whip Hand stirs up big themes in a domestic setting.  The personal is political and there is nothing more personal nor political than the bitter quarrels of family members.

15. Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

 

 


A Dog Without Purpose

FAITHFUL RUSLAN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 5th September, 2017

 

If George Orwell had written Lassie Come Home it might have turned out something like this: heavy with political allegory and mired in the harshness of life.  Based on a cult novel by Georgi Vladimov, Faithful Ruslan is the story of a guard dog, made redundant by the closure of his gulag.  This is no cosy, heart-warming Greyfriars Bobby – Ruslan is so conditioned by his training, he can’t forego the old regime and would rather suffer and starve than accept food or a helping hand from a stranger.

Max Keeble features as Ruslan in a remarkable display of physicality.  He comes across as a man-dog, his movements and reactions utterly credible.  Other members of the cast crop up as narrators of Ruslan’s thoughts, their anthropomorphic accounts at odds with the canine qualities of Keeble’s performance.  Ruslan’s thoughts give us a view of the action no dog would ever have, speaking of things dogs can’t conceptualise.  If ever you’ve heard someone banging on about a dog’s birthday, you’ll get the idea.

Helena Kaut-Howson has adapted the novel and directs this production with a sharp eye and vigour, putting her cast through a regimen as they become not just dogs and other humans but swinging doors and props for scenic items.  It’s a relentless barrage of ideas, the vast majority of them extremely effective.  (There’s an ill-advised rap quality to one bit of narration about a tractor but I’ll gloss over that!)

Martin Donaghy is Ruslan’s cruel and treacherous Master, an ostensible villain, but of course, it’s the system that’s to blame, here called The Service.  Paul Brendan brings a down-to-earth touch of humour to proceedings as the Shabby Man, who crosses Ruslan’s path.  Isabelle Joss appears as Stiura, Shabby Man’s lady friend who has nightmares about being gangraped by a long line of prisoners.  You see, it’s not just about man’s slavery and exploitation of animals but the way humans treat each other.  Another standout is Hunter Bishop as an energetic and enthusiastic Instructor for the Service dogs who ends up barking mad himself.

There is much to appreciate in this ensemble piece, where the physicality of the performers is enhanced by lighting effects that bring colour to this grim, grey world. Projections of scene captions add to the epic theatre feel.  For this stage adaptation, the story is set as a play-within-a-play, performed by the inmates of a corrective facility on the eve of the centenary of the Russian revolution… All I can say is, that corrective facility has one hell of a sophisticated drama society.

You come out impressed by the form but depressed by the content.  There is nothing uplifting, no ray of light.  The conclusion seems to be that if you’re drowned as a puppy, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Grim, largely unpleasant but compellingly told – it’s going to take a lot of vodka to get the taste out of my mouth.

Max Keeble in Faithful Ruslan - Credit Robert Day

Doggy style: Max Keeble as Ruslan (Photo: Robert Day)


A Breath of Fresh Eyre

JANE EYRE

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 4th September, 2017

 

The REP’s new season gets off to a flying start with this highly-acclaimed production from the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.  Adapted from Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel by the original cast, this is a faithful and spirited retelling with a heightened sense of theatricality – without breaking the fourth wall.

On a sparse set of steps, ladders and walkways, the story plays out with director Sally Cookson conjuring up locations, weather, time of day and setting, mainly through her actors, and enhancing effects through judicious use of sound and lighting effects.  What we get is a wealth of invention and creativity that allows the power of the tale to come through.

The eponymous Jane (an indefatigable Nadia Clifford, who doesn’t seem to leave the stage) is orphaned, abused and neglected as a child but never loses her sense of right and wrong or her tendency to speak out.  Her employment as governess to the ward of Mr Rochester at last exposes her to love and life – and the pains that they can bring.  Clifford is a formidable presence, although tiny, she gives voice to Jane’s outbursts; we have no choice but to be on her side through all her tribulations.  Tim Delap is an eccentric Rochester, grumpy and mercurial, yet somehow dashing and irresistible.  The other cast members come and go as supporting characters: Lynda Rooke’s cruel Aunt Reed contrasts with her kindly Mrs Fairfax;  Evelyn Miller provides Jane with rare warmth and friendship as Bessie and then swanks around as the worldly Blanche Ingram.  Special mention must go to Melanie Marshall’s haunting vocals as the unfortunate Bertha Mason, but it is Paul Mundell who almost steals the show as Rochester’s dog, Pilot!

Theatricality is maximised for greatest effect: Jane’s travels are energetically depicted – even the act of opening a window is stylishly presented.  The melodramatic elements of Charlotte Bronte’s narrative are all there, with contemporary music highlighting the modernity of the story.  The inclusion of standards like Mad About The Boy is both clever and apt, but no less effective is Benji Bower’s original score.

A real feat of theatre that breathes new life into an old story, the perfect marriage of form and content, Jane Eyre charms, amuses and touches in all the right places.  Even if the three-hour running time (extended by a delayed second act on this occasion!) numbs the bum a little bit, your head and your heart will think the time is flying by.

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Theatregoer, I married him. Tim Delap as Rochester and Nadia Clifford as Jane. (Photo: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg)

 


Working the Crowd

WEST SIDE STORY

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 25th August, 2017

 

It is a firm fixture of the summer programme: the annual production by Stage Experience involving dozens (and dozens) of kids from the region – and every year I marvel at the process of staging a show of such high quality given a short rehearsal time any hardened professional would baulk at.  This year it’s Bernstein and Sondheim’s classic reworking of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic tale of Tony and Maria who find love on opposite sides of some silly feud, here represented as gangland violence (translated into dance moves).

Elliot Gooch shines as Tony.  Already distancing himself from his gang, The Jets, he finds his adolescent emotions sparked to both love and war as events unfold.  Gooch is stunningly good.  His rendition of ‘Maria’ is enough to raise goosebumps and would work anywhere as an audition piece.  One tip I do have for him, speaking as a former teacher of theatre, is to watch his perfect enunciation of every letter in every word does not get in the way of characterisation.

He is matched by Grace Whyte’s rather operatic Maria.  Her soprano is striking and expressive and furthermore, her Latino accent remains consistent and her passions are utterly credible.

Also excellent is Leah Vassell as Anita, who is more worldly-wise than Maria.  Her musical numbers are highlights, whether she’s satirising life in America or pleading with Maria to stick to her own kind.  She brings humour, and darker emotions after the murder of Bernardo (Javier Aguilera, who moves with easy grace).

Among the Jets, Jordan Ricketts’s Riff makes an impression (before his untimely end!) and also strong is Caven Rimmer as the hot-headed Action.

Once again director Pollyann Tanner has worked miracles.  Her choreography fulfils our expectations of Hal Prince’s original moves and there is balletic beauty by the ton – a difficulty with having a company so large is giving each kid their time in the spotlight; at times, dance sequences look like an amorphous mass of heads and limbs, but when the dancers have space, you can see the skills at play.  Every kid in every crowded corner is thoroughly disciplined and committed.  The levels of focus are astonishing.  Personally, I would have foregone the softening of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ by swamping the stage with what looks like a Persil advert and let the number have its bitter edge.   The assault of Anita is all the more shocking from its stylised presentation, and the show loses none of its ultimate emotional impact when the tragedy reaches its conclusion.

Sadly, the show’s themes of anti-immigration feeling and knife crime still resonate today.  The emotions are timeless but one would have liked society to have moved on from the racism displayed here.  Perhaps, some day… somewhere…

A remarkable achievement by everyone concerned.  My mind boggles to think of the logistics of it all but what matters most to an audience member is the effectiveness of the final product.  Yet again, Stage Experience delivers the goods: an enthralling, entertaining and moving piece of theatre.  Bravo!

west side


Muck and Brass

BRASSED OFF

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th August, 2017

 

It’s been forty years since Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre produced a show of its own but now comes this new production of a time-honoured crowd-pleaser, Mark Herman’s stage adaptation of the much-loved British film.  Set in 1994, ten years after the miners’ strike and the pits are still under threat.  With closure in the air, the men are offered ‘bribes’ in the form of what might seem like generous redundancy pay-outs.  While the women of the community continue to protest and fight, the men fill their non-working hours with drinking and band practice.

Ash Matthews is Shane, our young, part-time narrator, guiding us back to those times.  Matthews, playing much younger than he is, is a likeable presence, capturing Shane’s ebullience and childish preoccupations.  Shane is an innocent trying to make sense of what the grown-ups are up to.

Ash Matthews (Shane) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Ash Matthews as Shane (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Christopher Connel is Shane’s dad, Phil, who is really struggling to make ends meet.  It’s difficult to put bread on the table when the bailiffs have taken the table.  Connel and Miriam Grace Edwards as wife Sandra, provide most of the emotional content of the show, as their marriage comes under strain, and Phil’s mental health declines.  In a moving and desperate speech, he spits out bitter jokes as he tightens a noose around his neck.  Connel is absolutely compelling.  It’s a dark moment in what is for the most part a story leavened with a lot of down-to-earth Northern humour – most of which comes from Jim and Harry (Greg Yates and Tim Jones) and their wives Rita and Vera (Donna Heaslip and Susie Wilcox).  It’s the womenfolk who talk sense in this piece.

Shane’s grandfather and Phil’s dad, Danny, is also the leader of the colliery band, striving to keep things going and get the band through heats of various competitions.  Jeffrey Holland (from Hi-de-Hi on the telly, and countless pantomime appearances as an exemplary Dame) is a revelation in this dramatic role, balancing the dry humour with passion.  Danny may have coal dust in his lungs but he also has fire in his belly.  A dying man, he is a metaphor for the coal industry, with capitalism as the disease that will kill him.

Eddy Massarella makes a strong impression as the directionless Andy, whose interest is aroused by the return of old flame Gloria (an excellent Clara Darcy) who blows a mean flugelhorn but has a hidden agenda.  Their thwarted love story falls second, however, to scenes that show the blight on the communities by Tory ideology – and it is here that the play retains its relevance.  It is people that matter, Danny declares in an impassioned speech, not making a bob or two – despite the way the Tories carry on to this day.

Director Gareth Tudor Price handles the tonal changes as assuredly as conductor Danny steers the music.  And what music it is!  From the bouncy Floral Dance to the searing Concerto d’Aranjuez and a stirring William Tell Overture, the brass band sound is gorgeous.  The cast is augmented by the City of Wolverhampton Brass Band and it’s a real treat for the ears.

I hope this show heralds a new era of in-house productions for the Grand.  This foul-mouthed but heart-warming story is a superb way to start.

Jeffrey Holland (Danny) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Jeffrey Holland as Danny (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Private Moments

YANK!

Charing Cross Theatre, London, Wednesday 16th August, 2017

 

With music by Joseph Zellnik and book and lyrics by David Zellnik, this World War II love story has a timely relevance its creators perhaps did not foresee.  A young man finds a journal in a San Francisco junk shop.  In it he reads the story of journalist Stu (Scott Hunter) who reported for Yank, the army’s in-house magazine during the War – after having met handsome Mitch (Andy Coxon) while undergoing basic training.  The pair strike up a friendship that develops – thanks to long periods without female company – into something more.  Mitch is far from at ease, confused by his love for Stu, and the pair split until events conspire to reunite them and also threaten to finish them off for good.

The pair are so appealing, the playing so tender in contrast with the barrack room banter of the rest of the squad, you can’t help rooting for them.  What these privates do with their privates has to be kept private.  There is also an underlying dread that things will not end happily for these stars-and-stripes-crossed lovers.

Scott Hunter is marvellous as our sensitive and vulnerable narrator, gaining strength in his sense of identity and confidence in his sexuality, while Andy Coxon both looks and sounds bloody gorgeous as hunky heartthrob Mitch (I want one!).

They are supported by a talented and versatile squad, among whom are Kris Marc-Joseph, who adds a touch of humour as Czechowski, Bradley Judge as handsome Italian Rotelli, and Waylon Jacobs impresses as a tough-talking Sarge and as the effeminate, drawling ‘Scarlett’.  Ostensibly the villain of the piece, Lee Dillon-Stuart’s redneck Tennessee is the ugly face (no offence) of homophobia – although, of course, the real baddie is the institutionalised discrimination against gays in the military (and society as a whole).  Sarah-Louise Young appears in all the female roles (there were lesbians in the US army!  Who knew?!) and she gets to knock out some of the show’s finest torch songs.  Chris Kiely is also in great form as photographer Artie, who opens Stu’s eyes (among other things…)

The melodic score is heavily influenced by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with some 1940s touches for added authenticity –  at times the harmonies are very Andrews Sisters.  The lyrics are witty and sophisticated, and the plot engages us emotionally at first and then intellectually.  We must remember those who fought and/or died to preserve our freedom as well as those who paved the way for civil rights.  How depressing then to live in an age when the Bigot-in-Chief at the White House bans trans people from the armed forces!  Homophobic attacks are on the rise.  The fight for equality and against oppressive shitheads continues.

This beautiful, poignant, funny and rousing show touched my heart, drained my tear ducts and made my hands sore from clapping.  A real pleasure to see (thanks to Chris Cuming’s lively choreography) and to hear (take a bow, MD James Cleeve and his unseen band).  Director James Baker balances tension with humour, tenderness with menace, to engage us with this powerful story.  Small in scale yet immense in scope, Yank! is a strong contender for my favourite show of the year.

Andy-Coxon-Mitch-and-Scott-Hunter-Stu-in-YANK-credit-Claire-Bilyard700-min

Lip service: Andy Coxon and Scott Hunter (Photo: Claire Bilyard)


Absolutely Batty

DRACULA: THE BLOODY TRUTH

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 15th August, 2017

 

Exeter-based troupe, Le Navet Bête (The Stupid Turnip) bring their zany antics to the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre for a couple of sell-out performances of this new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal novel.  In this one, Professor Abraham Van Helsing is our host, declaiming Stoker for misappropriating the truth.  Dracula, Van Helsing asserts, is in fact, fact.  So begins a very silly evening, as Van Helsing and his three associates reconstruct events for our information.

It’s a madcap couple of hours where the theatricality is as heightened as the silliness.  Draining the same comic vein as The Play That Goes Wrong the group’s apparently shambolic efforts at drama are relentlessly funny, as door handles come off, props are destroyed and even the proscenium arch comes tumbling down.  There is physical comedy too as the energetic quartet dart around, sometimes portraying different characters in the same scene, and the script has a witty spirit that gives the actors plenty of scope to be hilarious.  The cast is comprised of Matt Freeman, Nick Blunt, Dan Bianchi and Al Dunn – but with all the dashing around it’s hard to keep track of who is whom.

John Nicholson’s direction maintains a frenetic pace, making judicious use of tech to enhance the relentless parade of gags.  “I hate theatre,” is Van Helsing’s constant refrain as his show collapses around him.  His production is cursed, it would appear, but we are blessed to witness this virtuoso display of slapstick and high camp.

Phil Eddolls’s design evokes the Victorian period, and is gloriously ‘inept’ – in one scene, characters are required to enter and exit via a door in the ‘fireplace’.  We have no hope of suspending our disbelief for a second.

It takes great skill to be as ‘bad’ as this and the vigour and charm of the cast keeps the joke from wearing thin.  The surprises keep coming in this breathless romp through the story.  It’s an unadulterated pleasure to wallow in silliness for a couple of hours in these troubling times.  If the show has a message, perhaps it’s that theatre should be entertaining and life should be enjoyed – because there are bad things out there and always will be.  This is fun you can sink your teeth into.

Dracula-1-C-Matt-Austin

Photo: Matt Austin

 


Blooming Great

THE SECRET GARDEN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 5th August, 2017

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s celebrated children’s novel first appeared in 1911.  It wasn’t quite that long ago when I read it but various film and stage adaptations of it have kept the story and characters in my mind over the years.  Now comes this new version by Simon Ravenhill and it’s a corker.  With only a cast of four, Ravenhill delivers the whole book and while the action moves swiftly, it never feels rushed.  The pacing is spot on, allowing key moments to develop and play out while keeping the plot ticking along.

Nicolette Morgan is our heroine, the orphan Mary Lennox, returning from India to an England she has never known.  Accustomed to being dressed by her Ayah, Mary is a fish out of kedgeree and, pretty much left to her own devices, continues to feel unloved and unwanted by all and sundry.  Until she begins to make friends, that is.  Morgan is excellent, giving us young Mary’s wilfulness and vulnerability without playing down to the character’s age.

She is supported by three versatile character actors who populate the rest of the story with quick changes and varied characterisations – it’s easy to forget there’s only four of them in it, and such is the transformative nature of the costumes and the actors’ skills, it’s hard to believe that the fearsome housekeeper Mrs Medlock is played by the same actor (Dru Stephenson) as the likeable, green-fingered, Doctor Doolittle-ish young boy, Dickon.  Lorenna White bobs and chatters as chambermaid Martha, and really comes into her own as the tantrum-throwing invalid Colin.  James Nicholas brings stature to the piece in a range of authoritarian roles: the Doctor,  the hunchbacked Mr Craven, a colonel.   This is a top-drawer quartet in a high-quality piece.

Simon Ravenhill also directs, getting his cast to work hard to keep things going, and there are plenty of pleasing touches, simple but so effective: a four-poster bed dominates the set, and a free-standing but movable door helps give the sense of the rambling country manor house to which Mary is consigned.   Puppets are used sparingly for that extra touch of animal magic.  The detailed costumes and the odd piece of furniture convey the period setting but it’s the actors that drive the piece.  Ravenhill’s script uses Burnett’s words but allows the characters to interact rather than resorting to narration.  I will admit to having something of a Pavlovian response to the Indian music used to underscore the scene changes.  By the interval, I was craving a vegetable madras.

A faithful and classy production of a classic story with a child-friendly running time, this is a captivating and well-tended Secret Garden that touches the heart and is yet another example of the excellent work produced at the Blue Orange.  The book’s message remains: what is left neglected will wither and spoil.  And that works for people as much as plants.

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Here Comes A Chopper

MISS SAIGON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st August, 2017

 

Schonberg & Boubil’s ‘other’ musical comes to Brum for a lengthy stay – I can’t see its popularity diminishing over the summer.  Not having seen it for 13 years or so, I am reminded of the show’s emotionally charged excellence; it’s almost like coming to it fresh.  Of course, if you know Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (and who doesn’t?), you’ll know where the plot is heading but tragedy expected is no less affecting than tragedy unforeseen.  Perhaps it is more so.

Sooha Kim is our ill-fated heroine, a massive voice in a tiny frame, singing with such range and power.  Kim (the character) retains her loyalty, innocence and naivety to the last, while Kim (the performer) repeatedly knocks our socks off as fast as we can put them back on.  A truly stunning appearance of undeniable star quality.

Leading man Chris (Ashley Gilmour) is buff in all the right places and while his voice blends perfectly in duet with Kim, it could do with a bit more muscle for his solos.  Gerald Santos’s Thuy is a striking villain but of the men, it is Red Concepcion as the opportunistic pimp, The Engineer, who truly stands out.  Morally repugnant, we take to him because of his overt humanity – plus he adds a touch of humour to the heart-rending drama.

There are also strong appearances from Marsha Songcome as Gigi, and Zoe Doano as Chris’s wife Ellen.  Ryan O’Gorman’s John, along with a male chorus, sings beautifully about Bui Doi – the kids left behind in Viet Nam by the American soldiers who fathered them – even if it does come across like a charity appeal.

This is musical theatre on the grandest scale.  A company of 69 performers flood the stage while a 15-piece orchestra delivers Schonberg’s sumptuous score under the capable baton of James McKeon.  Scene transitions are almost imperceptible as scenery floats away into darkness, while Bruno Poet’s lighting adds to the sultry atmosphere – it’s a warm night in the Hippodrome auditorium, which enhances the Far East feel.  Technically, the production is excellent: the long-awaited appearance of the helicopter is a thrilling reminder of the power of practical effects.

A powerfully dramatic story set among global events, Kim’s tale is perhaps a metaphor for the treatment of developing countries by Western foreign policy.  We take what we want and leave them to struggle, often worse off than before our intervention.  Otherwise, it’s a stirring personal tale that stirs the emotions to an operatic extent in which men are users and abusers and women are objects to be possessed or discarded.  Kim’s inability to realise this, her stubborn clinging to her idealised vision of Chris, is her fatal flaw.

This is a chance to be blown away by spectacle as much as to be touched by the drama.  Lacking the sweep of Les Mis, Miss Saigon concentrates its emotions into a smaller cast of main players but is equally as moving.  A theatrical event that should not be missed.

MISS SAIGON. Ashley Gilmour 'Chris' and Sooha Kim 'Kim'. Photo by Johan Persson (1)

East meets West: Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 

 


Ecce Homo

ABOUT A GOTH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 27th July, 2017

 

Gritty Theatre bring their production of Tom Wells’s 2009 piece to Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre en route to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  A one-hander performed by newcomer Clement Charles, this is the story of Nick, a 17-year-old Goth, who is gay and who volunteers at a local old people’s home.  Dressed like a kind of vampire undertaker, a cross between Marilyn Manson and Noel Fielding, Nick is instantly appealing – it’s his camp bitchiness (or bitchy campness) that gets us laughing along with him from the off.  His performance is a one-hander in a different sense when he confides that he has to abandon a masturbation session because of his fear of staining his black duvet cover.  Nick narrates key scenes from his life, including his visits to old man Rod at the home.  He (Nick) is bright and witty, scathing and sensitive – exactly the kind of character I would have found alluring when I was that age, all those centuries ago.

Director Ian Moule doesn’t let Nick keep still for a minute, eliciting an energetic and engaging performance from the likeable and talented Charles.  During his anecdotes, Nick gradually strips away his gothic accoutrements, sloughing them off one at a time – and it’s all in keeping with the action: his socks become galloping hooves in one of his mum and dad’s historical reenactments, for example – the piecemeal degothification adds to Charles’s electrifying portrayal, as Nick eventually goes the full monty – in the best possible taste!   No detail is overlooked, from the black toenail polish to the seemingly throwaway characterisations of the others who populate Nick’s life.  Wells’s witty script is given insightful treatment – a balloon is put to symbolic use and the baring of Nick’s body, along with his story and his soul, elevates this coming-out story to something more universal: it’s about becoming aware of one’s own identity, of discovering who you are beneath the labels we and others place on ourselves.  At the end, Nick stands before us, without a stitch or a smear of makeup.  He doesn’t need to say, “Here I am”.

Clement Charles is thoroughly captivating, his delivery immaculate and exceedingly funny.  He’s also a great little mover if his cavorting to the Sugababes and Britney is anything to go by.  It’s an assured performance that rings true.

This is a satisfying and entertaining hour or so, that stirs memories of one’s own troubled teenage years (is there another kind?) reminding us that Goths, teenagers and even the elderly are humans too.

Fabulous.

about a goth


The Brice is Right

FUNNY GIRL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 24th July, 2017

 

Barbra Streisand indelibly stamped herself on this role fifty years ago so it’s a tough job for anyone to follow in her Oscar-winning footsteps.  Natasha J Barnes steps up to the plate to give us her version of Jewish entertainer, Fanny Brice – and she knocks it out of the park.  Barnes’s Fanny is magnificent, sucking us into her world, with an energised, extrovert performance – Brice as a performer was larger-than-life and hardly ever ‘off’.  Her humour is a defence mechanism and a shield for situations when she feels uncertain or nervous, cracking jokes and pulling faces to mask her fears or her heartbreak.  Barnes can also sing, with subtlety and with full belt.  Her ‘People’ is almost understated in its tenderness and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ brings the house down.  Rising through the ranks of showbiz, Brice’s instincts are to undermine the sexist tosh that is ‘His Love Makes You Beautiful’ – mainly because of her looks, which she is told repeatedly, ain’t pretty.  I take issue with this and this alone: Barnes is rather pretty indeed, lacking the distinctive features of La Streisand or La Brice.

Darius Campbell is a towering romantic lead as inveterate gambler Nick Arnstein, with his basso profundo delivery and inexhaustible supply of smarm and charm.  Nigel Barber is the long-suffering impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and Nova Skipp makes an endearing impression as Fanny’s mum.  Joshua Lay is excellent as Fanny’s friend and fellow hoofer, Eddie, while Martin Callaghan is good fun as Mr Keeney, the man who (reluctantly) gives Fanny her first break.  The entire company is on great form as an amusing bunch of characters supporting the powerful and, yes, funny central performance from Barnes. Lynne Page’s quirky period choreography also brings the Ziegfeld glamour to the production.  Michael Pavelka’s elegantly sparse set: a proscenium arch askew, mirrored wings, serves as every location for this stripped-down staging.  Harvey Fierstein may have reworked Isobel Lennart’s original book for the show but the show remains an undeniably old-school, old fashioned musical. It’s A Star is Born with a lot of heart and a lot of fun.

There are many, many peaks; the only troughs are shallow ones, whenever Fanny isn’t on stage and a couple of the numbers feel like fillers, however superbly presented.   Barnes is irresistible, almost an attention vortex, giving us the vulnerability and pain of Fanny behind the gurning and the glitz.  If you’re only going to give one standing ovation this year, this is the one who deserves it.

fuuny girl

The greatest star… Natasha J Barnes gives us her breathtaking Fanny

 


Two Can Play

ROLE PLAY

Blue Orange Theatre, Sunday 23rd July, 2017

 

Written and directed by Darren Haywood, this play provides an hour or so of non-stop laughs.  Matt (Alex Arksen) and Ellie (Lorren Winwood) address us directly, as though we are relationship counsellors or something.  Together they narrate a period during which they tried using role play to spice up their heterosexual lives.  They re-enact half a dozen of their scenarios, ranging from waiter and customer in a coffee shop, to nurse and patient, and schoolboy meeting his fantasy: Britney Spears.  No matter what Matt and Ellie try, the scenarios always unravel before they come to the crunch: Matt is turned off by French student Ellie’s necklace of onions; a Diet Coke moment almost blinds him when the drink erupts in his eyes… The plot may be little more than a succession of scenes, strung together like a French stereotype’s onions, but this barely matters.  The couple learn about each other along the way and give us a good laugh while doing it.

Alex Arksen is an affably blokish Matt, intent on video-gaming rather than investing time in his relationship.  Lorren Winwood proves herself to be an extremely funny woman, hurling herself into a variety of rough-hewn characterisations.  The pair complement each other perfectly and you can’t help liking them as characters and admiring them as performers.  The comic timing is impeccable, the physicality, the reactions – and the dialogue is rich with one-liners and pop culture references.

The writing is sharp and the direction snappy, making for a hilarious contemporary comedy that takes satirical swipes at modern living.  Catch it if you can!

role-play-1498382457


Beanz Meanz Lolz

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th December, 2017

 

Apart from a couple of changes, the main cast from last year’s rollicking Aladdin returns to Wolverhampton for this generous bean feast of fun, and they seem to work more as a team this time.  Lisa Riley is in the good fairy role, as Mother Nature, glamorous yet down-to-earth – in fact, despite the lofty heights of the beanstalk, this is a very down-to-earth show!  Ian Adams is Dame Trot in an array of gorgeously over-the-top outfits.  Adams is an excellent dame, whose mannerisms never descend into caricature or lampoon.  He is supported by Adam C Booth as Simple Simon, an energised funny man who can work the audience seemingly effortlessly.  Local star Doreen Tipton is also back to augment the comic capers, bringing local jokes for local people – the Black Country dialect is instantly funny, and Doreen’s deadpan presence is a hoot.

Graham Cole is enjoying himself as the giant’s henchman, Fleshcreep – he even has a go at singing to open the second act.  Bless.

But leading man and star of the show is Gareth Gates, looking rugged and sounding smooth.  His pop star vocals are as sweet as ever, and he treats us to a rendition of Unchained Melody that gives me shivers.  He looks great in panto costume and handles the action well, leaving the broad comedy to the others.  His voice blends well with Sarah Vaughan’s Jill, and a traditional routine on a wall with interference from Simple Simon offers one of this funny shows funniest moments.  There is a chaotic version of The 12 Days of Christmas, complete with water pistols, and a delightful moment with youngsters brought up from the audience.

Everything you expect to see is here, well presented and pleasingly performed, from the troupe of dancers and the chorus of kids, to the corny jokes and some hilarious bawdy humour.  When the giant finally puts in an appearance, it is an impressive piece of large-scale puppetry, and there is the added bonus of a cameo from Julie Paton, singing gorgeously as his golden harp.  Paton also choreographs and so is responsible for a lot of the show’s pizzazz.

Production values are high and the fun levels higher.  This is a solid and reliable pantomime that delivers on all fronts.  Hugely enjoyable and full of good cheer, this production demonstrates why I think pantomime is the best thing about the festive season.

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack in Jack And The Beanstalk - Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)