The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 27th May 2023
French playwright Florian Zeller’s play comes to the Crescent via this translation by Christopher Hampton. Even though the characters are French in name, and the setting is still Paris, it is played as though English – no Allo Allo accents here! It’s the story of an elderly man, the father of the title, who is succumbing to that cruel disease dementia. We see the strain it places on his relatives, particularly his long-suffering daughter, and on her relationship with Pierre. Crucially though, Zeller shows us the action through the father’s eyes. Andre hardly ever leaves the stage and we share his confusion as characters are portrayed by different actors and gradually the on-set furniture is reduced piece by piece. Later, scene transitions are carried out by faceless beings who claw at Andre behind his back, while harsh lights flare and discordant music blares. It’s all unsettling. As Andre’s condition worsens, the stage becomes increasingly bare. Until (spoiler!) there’s nothing left but his hospital-style bed, and we realise he’s been in a care home all along, his day-to-day experience coloured by his fractured memories, mixing up care home staff with his relatives. It’s a devastating finale, the father regressing to childhood.
Crescent veteran Brian Wilson stars as Andre. He’s been in almost ninety productions and I’ve seen him many times, but he’s never been better than he is in this, bringing out Andre’s bewilderment, vulnerability, volatility and fixations with skill and sensitivity. He is supported by Jenny Thurston as his frustrated daughter, and Eduardo White as the increasingly exasperated Pierre. Katie Siggs makes an impression as the well-meaning but patronising carer Laura, while Charles Michael and Jess Shannon add to Andre’s confusion by cropping up as people he’s supposed to know but doesn’t recognise.
Mark Thompson’s direction delivers the puzzles of the play. Unlike Andre, we have the faculties to work out what’s going on, and the deceptively simple staging is hugely effective. There is humour too, so it’s not all doom and gloom. The depiction of the degenerative disease comes across as authentic, even though some lines of dialogue, perhaps losing something in translation, don’t quite ring true.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Who’s the daddy? Brian Wilson and Charles Michael (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 24th May 2023
Noel Coward’s classic comedy gets a spirited revival in this new production at Stratford’s cosy Attic Theatre. Adam Clarke and Sue Kent’s set design uses the intimacy of the space to put us right in the living room with the characters. Up close and personal with the cast, we feel part of the action.
Novelist Charles and his second wife Ruth are hosting a séance, as research for his next book. Inadvertently, the ritual conjures the spirit of his late first wife, which would put a strain on any relationship!
Director Jonas Cemm has his fine ensemble rattle through Coward’s epigrammatic dialogue at a rate of knots, which heightens the comic atmosphere. John-Robert Partridge is note perfect as the novelist-cum-pompous-arse Charles, while Rosie Coles is elegance personified as the long-suffering Ruth. There is excellent support from Robert Moore as the sceptical Doctor Bradman and Matilda Bott as his excitable wife. Den Woods’s medium Madam Arcarti keeps to the right side of caricature, bringing a touch of plausibility to the part, and Florence Sherratt makes the most of her largely silent role as Edith the accelerated maid. Katherine De Halpert is delectable as the pale and playful, ethereal Elvira.
It’s enormous fun, played with exquisite timing from all concerned. The supernatural facets of the story are bolstered by atmospheric sound and lighting design, by Elliott Wallis and Kat Murray respectively. Production values are high (which is no less than what we’ve come to expect from Tread The Boards Theatre Company), with the period and the other-worldly being evoked so effectively.
The subject matter and the dialogue may seem flippant or frivolous, but Coward has plenty to intimate about human relationships. For some, ‘til death do us part’ doesn’t apply. Perhaps there are some relationships we never get over.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Making a comeback: Katherine De Halpert as Elvira (Pic: Andrew Maguire Photography)
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd May 2023
Neil Gaiman’s gothic fantasy novel is brought to the stage in this hugely impressive adaptation by Joel Horwood. When a man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, he visits the local pond, which he used to call an ocean; here, he encounters a former neighbour and memories of a wonderful if traumatic period in his life are evoked – and re-enacted for our benefit!
Keir Ogilvy makes an appealing lead as the twelve-year-old Boy, matched in child-like energy by Millie Hikasa’s Lettie. Lettie is a peculiar child with arcane abilities, but this is no surprise given the other members of her household, mother Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and grandmother Old Mrs Hempstock – Finty Williams in casually powerful form. Thus we get the virgin-mother-crone trinity common to stories about witches…
Laurie Ogden is a well-observed annoying little sister, while Trevor Fox is a shouty Dad, taken in by new lodger, the ubiquitous Ursula, played by EastEnders’ supreme villain Charlie Brooks, here bringing Janine Butcher to the next level. Brooks is delicious, deranged in her plausibility, popping up all over the set in a sleight of theatrical hand. Director Katy Rudd keeps the artifice of the production to the fore and the special effects are all the more special and effective because of this approach. A giant puppet stalks the stage. Billowing swathes of fabric transform people. An ensemble clad in black perform scene transitions as well as depicting some of the more exotic creatures, using physical theatre elevated by Samuel Wyer’s costumes. It all flows slickly and smoothly, and binds us in its spell. You can’t tear your eyes away.
There are moments of mystery, fantastic events, and more than a hint of horror in this thrilling, captivating story, underscored by Jherek Bischoff’s atmospheric score. It’s a bit gruesome and a bit disturbing (e.g. the bathroom scenes!) but it’s also funny and touching. This is storytelling on a grand scale, reminding us of the unreliability of memory. Are the Boy’s recollections accurate or are they masking something more mundane but just as horrifying? Are powerful forces at work or are repressed memories colouring his experiences?
A mind-blowing production of a story that resonates like ripples on the surface of the pond. Magical!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Janine pushes Barry off a cliff — oops, wrong caption. Charlie Brooks looks down on Keir Ogilvy
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th May 2023
Based on the cult 1989 film starring Christian Slater and Wynona Rider, this high school musical is named after the mean girls who rule the school. Three girls named Heather, far from the nicest kids in town, form an unholy trio into which loner Veronica is inducted after she does them a favour. Veronica’s life is never the same again, but it’s not entirely due to the Heathers. Enter new kid on the block, J.D. with his long black coat and air of mystery, and Veronica’s head is turned. Suddenly, one of the Heathers is dead and everyone believes it’s a suicide… As the body count grows and Veronica learns more about the charismatic J.D. she also finds that life isn’t a popularity contest where the losers are eliminated…
Jenna Innes commands the stage as Veronica, impressing with the vocal talent and bringing a wry humour to the role, while still allowing Verity Thompson’s delightfully monstrous Heather Chandler to shine. Jacob Fowler brings the darkness as the too-cool-for-school J.D. and you can see why Veronica falls for him. Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson are hilarious as the knuckleheaded ‘jocks’ Kurt and Ram, and there is a showstopping number from their fathers, played by Conor McFarlane and Jay Bryce. At this performance Heather Duke and Heather McNamara are played by Summer Priest and Eliza Bowden respectively but such is the tightness of the direction (by Andy Fickman) and the choreography (by Gary Lloyd) there is never the sense of them not playing the roles all the time! Katie Paine’s hippie teacher, Ms Fleming could be a bit more ‘out there’, I think, and the risqué, panto-style interaction with a man on the front row seems out of place in a scene when she’s supposedly addressing an audience of high-school kids.
The book, music and lyrics are by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, remaining true to the plot and spirit of Daniel Waters’s film. All the best lines from the screenplay are here along with witty lyrics and a highly serviceable score. There may not be any breakout songs that have become standards, but the tunes are strong and most importantly, add to character, plot and emotion.
Yes, it’s based on a film, like so many new musicals these days, but at least it’s not cobbled together from the back catalogue of hasbeen singers.
David Shields’s design economically conjures an American high school and it’s beautifully and atmospherically lit by Ben Cracknell. The rousing music is played live by a tight band led by Will Joy, and there are plenty of opportunities for cast members to belt with their moment in the spotlight. Kingsley Morton, as Veronica’s much-bullied friend Martha, brings the house down – it feels odd applauding her suicide attempt but that’s the kind of show this is. It makes us revel in the dark side of life. A wicked black comedy that turns out to be life-affirming, Heathers brings the laughter and the darkness, making for an excellent night at the theatre, serving as a reminder that even those who seem to have things together ‘have static’ in their lives. Which seems apposite, considering this is Mental Health Awareness Week.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Jenna Innes and Jacob Fowler (Photo: Pamela Raith)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 12th May 2023
This series of eight monologues, presented in two batches of four, is an excellent showcase of the talented actors and directors of the Crescent. Simply staged (a bar and a couple of pub tables with stools) the monologues come across as one-sided conversations, the sort you might have with a stranger in a pub. Part history, part confessional, the pieces are perhaps revelations for straight members of the audience; for the gays, it is a reminder of lived experience and the struggles of those who came before us.
First up in this batch, we meet Jack (I Miss The War by Matthew Baldwin), an old-school homosexual, a former soldier, now a tailor, at the time of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Played by Graeme Braidwood, Jack is dapper, well-preserved, and thoroughly acerbic in his observations and recollections, employing polari and innuendo in a manner that would make Kenneth Williams proud. If you don’t know, polari is the arcane slang used by gays as a means to recognise each other. For example, ‘the palone with the butch riah’ is a reference to Julie Andrews. Braidwood coats vulnerability with brassiness, and there’s a darkness behind the bonhomie.
Next, in More Anger by Brian Fillis, we meet Phil (Mark Shaun Walsh) a jobbing actor who is typecast as young men dying of AIDS. It’s the 1980s and the ‘gay plague’ is rampant, thanks in part to the poor response of the government of the time. Phil lands a potentially ground-breaking role as a soap opera’s first gay character, who is non-camp and absolutely not ill, but the character turns out to be beiger than a buffet at a heterosexual wedding. Meanwhile, his lover announces he is HIV positive, a death knell in those frightening times. The piece concludes with a ferocious tirade. Mark Shaun Walsh is utterly convincing, drawing us in with his amiability, so when he lets rip, we empathise with his rage (and then it’s revealed that it’s another acting job, with a clever punchline.)
Walsh directs the third piece: A Grand Day Out by Michael Dennis, in which 17-year old Andrew tells us of a trip to London at the time of the sexual equality bill that oh-so-generously lowered the homosexual age of consent from 21 to 18. This gives rise to scenes of mild protest outside the House of Commons and Andrew is thrilled to take part. Andrew is an innocent, finding his way in the world and exploring his sexuality. It’s a winning performance by Francis Quinn, endearing, funny, and touching. Society may have made some giant strides (and fairy steps) in the right direction, but that doesn’t prevent Andrew from feeling the universal gay fear that his parents will reject him when they find out.
Next comes Something Borrowed by Gareth McLean, with Peter Neenan as Steve, preparing a speech for his wedding to (gasp) another man, thanks to a change in the law in 1994. As he rehearses, Steve reflects on the way people like him were absent from the stories he heard or read growing up. As well as fretting about wedding preparations, he has to deal with his own doubts. Does he really want what the straights have always had? Isn’t that surrendering part of what it is to be gay? He is reluctant to hold his beloved’s hand in a supermarket, until he is told that a gay child, happening to see such a public demonstration between two men, might be given hope and comfort. It’s the most understated of these four pieces, but just as thoughtful.
I’m too young to remember the decriminalisation, but I have vivid memories of the terrifying ad campaigns of Thatcher’s reign and how they affected my own…emergence. The evening gets me trolling down Memory Lane and looking ahead to how far we still have to go.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Coming of age, Francis Quinn as Andrew in A Grand Day Out (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
QUEERS (Set A)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 13th May 2023
The other set of four monologues kicks off with The Man on the Platform, by Mark Gatiss (who actually compiled this anthology for the BBC). We meet Perce, a soldier home from the so-called Great War. He reflects on his relationship with a captain he met in a military hospital tent, and how, when discovered, they were both transferred to other regiments. More striking is his boyhood memory of seeing Oscar Wilde under arrest at Reading station, being taken away. A brief moment of eye contact with the disgraced writer stays with young Perce forever, mutual recognition of ‘a certain liquidity in the eyes’. It’s a sad piece, played to perfection by Tom Lowde, making you want to give Perce a hug or at least buy him a pint.
Next comes The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune. Bobby is a Burlington Bertie figure, all top hat and tails, swanning around, picking up women in pubs and taking them out the back and fingering them! Dressed as a man, Bobby feels a freedom to behave in a way that a woman could never countenance. Sadly, living this lie has its…shortcomings, shall we say? An exploratory female hand reveals Bobby isn’t pleased to see her, it’s a candle! Katie Goldhawk is utterly charming in her dapper costume, balancing exquisite manners with ribald revelations, conjuring other characters with skilful ease, using her voice alone. Again, the sadness of the piece is inescapable.
Safest Spot in Town by Keith Jarrett brings us up to the 1940s. Among the dropping bombs, Fredrick from Jamaica seeks out like-minded men in the public toilets of the West End. Denied access to an underground venue because of his skin colour, he escapes destruction, a case of being excluded working in his favour! Khari Moore is instantly delightful as the twinkly-eyed Fredrick. Our laughter comes thick and fast, perhaps as a release from the melancholy of the previous pieces, but mainly from Moore’s elegantly timed anecdotes and reactions. Easily the most overtly funny piece of this set, it points up Fredrick’s double whammy of exclusion, as a black man who is gay. Society has moved on in leaps and bounds since then, hasn’t it? Has it?
Finally comes Missing Alice by Jon Bradfield. Fi Cotton plays Alice, a middle-aged married woman who didn’t realise until long past the wedding night that the man she has married is, you know. At first, she blames herself and starts to cut down on meals in a bid to make herself more attractive. All her efforts are doomed but over time, she and her husband come to an accommodation. It turns out there can be love and affection in a sexless marriage. Fi Cotton is splendid; you can easily see her tackling an Alan Bennett.
Of course, I saw the two sets of monologues in the ‘wrong’ order, in terms of chronology, but I don’t think this has diluted my enjoyment of these well-written pieces, superbly performed and presented in the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio. What comes across is the misery and heartache spread by the criminalisation of homosexuality throughout the ages. We live in more enlightened times. I hope.
A different Q word springs to mind: Quality.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Khari Moore as the debonair Fredrick (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th May 2023
Greg Doran bows out of his tenure as Artistic Director of the RSC with this production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Set vaguely during the era of the Romans invading Britain, this play sees Shakespeare rounding up all his favourite tropes and packaging them in a dark and funny fairy tale. These days we call them ‘Easter eggs’ and there is a lot of fun to spot what comes from which previous work: the girl dressed as a boy, the death potion, the faithful servant in exile, the wicked queen… But the play is more than a hodgepodge of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.
Leading the excellent cast is Peter De Jersey as the titular king. Cymbeline is hotheaded, railing against circumstances – De Jersey makes a strong impression even though the title role is not the lead role; I can easily picture him playing Lear. The lead is his daughter Imogen, supposedly his last surviving child. Theirs is a fiery relationship. Imogen combines the temper of Hermia with the big heart and wit of Viola. Amber James is pitch perfect in the part. Ed Sayer, as her banished husband Posthumus, is valiant and heroic, but prone to the machinations of Jamie Wilkes’s scheming braggart, Iachimo. Wilkes is a cocksure delight and later, when it all goes belly-up, his crisis of conscience and remorse come across as heartfelt.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s evil Queen is hilarious, melodramatically stalking around, manipulating everyone while letting us see her true face. Equally funny is Conor Glean as her petulant, vainglorious son Cloten, in a superbly cartoonish portrayal.
The mighty Christian Patterson exudes honour and decency as the big-hearted Belarius, while Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas are also excellent as his adopted sons. There is a lovely moment when they mourn the supposedly dead Fidele (Imogen cross-dressed) and they sing a haunting lament, Fear No More The Heat of the Sun. That the moment comes hot on the heels of a laughter-inducing shock with the introduction of a severed head to proceedings, shows how well Doran handles the mood swings of this split personality of a show.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s simple set, a circle suspended over a horizon, serves as night, day, England, Rome, Wales, without gimmickery, allowing the actors room to play. Beautifully lit by Matt Daw and just as beautifully underscored by Paul Englishby’s folk-informed score, this is a production that has fun and therefore is fun, with a cast unencumbered by enforced stylisation that doesn’t serve the text. It could be seen as Greg Doran revisiting all his best bits and making them fresh and new. Because the play is not overly familiar, like some of the works, audiences don’t bring expectations; we’re not waiting for famous speeches (there are none!) so we can just take it in and enjoy it at face value. The final scene of protracted revelations and resolutions is hilarious and yet moving. Magical.
It’s great to see the RSC returning to form, and we shall miss Greg Doran for his mastery in bringing the bard to entertaining life.
Welsh National Opera is back in town with a brand new production of one of Mozart’s greatest works. The text, translated into English by Daisy Evans (who also directs) gives the Emanuel Schikaneder libretto a complete overhaul, removing the more direct Masonic aspects and the more problematic elements of the story to give us a fresh interpretation that works – for the most part. Gone are the prayers to Isis and Osiris, replacing them with Sun and Sky. This is a world where two realms exist, Night and Day, and never the twain shall meet. Trouble is, the ruler of the Day realm, Sarastro, has abducted his daughter from the realm of the Night. Naturally, the Queen of the Night is peeved. She recruits valiant Prince Tamino to go and rescue the princess. Evans establishes a new twist: Tamino and Pamina were childhood friends, rather than having him fall in love at first sight when he sees her portrait, which undermines his wonderful aria a bit, I find. Other changes include redeploying the lecherous Monostatos as a teacher and diminishing his villainy: his worst crime is being boring!
The staging involves illuminated orbs and glowsticks to suggest a video game environment, along with multi-level pieces of set to place us in a platform game. The eponymous flute is wielded like a sword or lightsabre. Even the giant snake at the beginning is reduced to a nightmare (Tamino wrestling with a snake in bed is a bit Freudian!) Once I cotton on to this theme, I see that the ideas don’t go far enough. More could be made of the video game idea: ‘life’ monitors could show us Tamino and Pamina’s ups and downs. Graphics could be projected as Tamino completes each trial and levels up… It could have been a lot more fun.
Thando Mjandana makes a bold and passionate Tamino, with an urgency to his singing. Julia Sitkovetsky hits all the high notes as a stand-out Queen of the Night, although she could do with a tall crown or headdress to denote her status – on her first entrance she blends in with the Three Ladies (Nazan Fikret, Kezia Bienek, and Claire Barnett-Jones, who are all excellent and funny). Neal Davies does his best with the sometimes laboured comedy of birdcatcher Papageno – his duet with Jenny Stafford’s Papagena is a charming delight, as it should be. Jonathan Lemalu brings gravitas to Sarastro (even in that wig!) although I find of all the main singers, he is the quietest. April Koyejo-Audiger is perfect as warrior princess Pamina, delivering a heart-breaking aria when she believes Tamino is blanking her.
The day/night theme emphasises a binary world. It takes the younger generation to demonstrate that there are other ways to live: dawn and twilight for example, where the binary elements blend…a message I endorse.
As always, the WNO Chorus is sublime, doing justice to Mozart’s beautiful hymns at the Day palace, and the orchestra under the more-than-capable baton of Frederick Brown serve up the sumptuous score, reminding us why this work endures over the centuries.
A patchy production then, but ultimately enjoyable and a feast for the ears. The same attention needs to be given to the cast’s delivery of dialogue and recitative to match the energy given to the splendid singing.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Serving queen: Julia Sitkovetsky ruling the night. Photo: Craig Fuller
Tackling this masterwork by the late, great Stephen Sondheim is no easy task. It requires a large cast of excellent actor-singers to pull off its dissonant melodies and to breathe life into the often complex and witty lyrics. I’m happy to report that the Crescent rises to the challenge and succeeds. Impressively.
The story blends elements from familiar fairy and folk tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, primarily. A baker and his wife who are childless are sent on a scavenger hunt by the witch who lives next door… But as ever, with Sondheim, it’s not the setting that’s the main thing. It’s the insights into human relationships, the reflections on life, things to which we can all relate.
Phil Rea’s Narrator sets the scene, a largely non-singing role, and a voice of avuncular authority. As Cinderella, Helena Stanway is one of the strongest singers of the lot, treating us to her beautiful soprano. Similarly, Hannah Devereux’s Rapunzel is an absolute pleasure to hear, with her bewitching wordless refrain. Mark Payne is excellent as the nervous Baker, matched by Tiffany Cawthorne as his more assertive Wife. Luke Plimmer is in fine form as a rather dopey Jack, to the consternation of Steph Urquhart as his longsuffering mother. Hannah Lyons is an enjoyably impish Red Riding Hood, while Alisdair Hurst’s Wolf is deliciously seductive. Hurst also appears as Cinderella’s Prince, duetting with Mark Horne as Rapunzel’s Prince in another of the show’s highlights.
A strong ensemble then, fleshed out by the likes of Jaz Davison, Joanne Brookes and Becky Johnson as Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, but an undoubted standout is Kimberley Maynard’s superb Witch, who is funny and scary and yet also evokes our sympathy. Maynard commands our attention and we willingly fall under her spell.
As we’ve come to expect from the Crescent, the production values are sky high. Storybook trees fill the stage, fading into misty perspective on the backdrop and beautifully lit by James Booth’s lighting. Pat Brown and her team (Vera Dean and Erik Olsen) have gone all out on the fairy-tale costumes. Set designers Keith Harris and Colin Judges have created an otherworldly space of mystery, enticement and potential danger, while Zena Forrest and Pat Dales cut-out props remind us we’re in a fictional world.
A splendid thirteen-piece band, under the baton of musical director Gary Spruce, brings Sondheim’s sumptuous score to life – I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard music played so beautifully at the Crescent.
By the interval, the characters have achieved their goals and attained their Happy Ever Afters – or have they? The second act deals with what comes afterwards, when the best one can hope for is happiness devolving into contentment. Threat comes in the form of the giant’s wife (voiced by Ruby Turner, no less!) and the characters find they have to work together to defeat her. Perhaps I’m alone in reading in a metaphor for climate change at this point… Sondheim calls upon us to act as a community rather than being absorbed by our own desires. The characters have to learn to live without a narrator, like the rest of us, our endings unknown until they happen. Once you’ve obtained everything you want, what are you going to do next? Just like the stories on which it is based, the show has life lessons to teach.
A thoroughly captivating and superbly presented production. Enchanting!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Kimberley Maynard and Hannah Devereux as the Witch and Rapunzel (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 25th April 2023
Married couple Johnny and Judy live their lives as though it’s the 1950s. They’ve done the house up in period style, all the furniture is authentic, and of course, so are their clothes. A bit like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in reverse, Judy has given up her career in finance to become a housewife, while Johnny goes off to work with a hat on and a spring in his step. It all seems to be going well until financial pressures come to bear on this idyll.
Laura Wade’s script is sharp, full of funny retorts, but there is also social commentary: how far we’ve come since those days, and more tellingly, how far we still have to go. Friend and neighbour Marcus is on gardening leave, while allegations of sexual misconduct at work are being investigated. Touching a secretary’s bum is ‘a joke’ he claims. You know, banter.
Jessica Ransom rules the roost and the stage as domestic goddess Judy, putting on a bright smile when the going gets tough, and treating us to some superbly timed pained expressions. Judy’s world has shrunk to the house but what, her mother cries, about her potential?
Neil McDermott gives an energised performance as husband Johnny. He and Ransom have a heightened style when they’re together, living their Fifties fantasy. In contrast, his boss, Alex, who in true sitcom tradition comes around for cocktails, is very much a woman of today – Shanez Pattni wearing trousers and low-key glamour.
Filling out the cast are Cassie Bradley as Fran and, at this performance, Steve Blacker-Barrowman as Marcus, fellow Fifties fans but nowhere near as obsessive. The pair also serve as scene-changers, jiving and bopping through transitions, in a way that’s fun at first, but wears a bit thin as the show goes on.
Diane Keen is marvellous as Sylvia, Judy’s plain-speaking mother. In a blistering monologue, she punctures her daughter’s fantasy lifestyle with a scathing reminder of what the Fifties were really like, a far cry from the Ideal Home scenario Judy and Johnny have created. “You’re living in a cartoon!” she says savagely, unable to understand why anyone would want to go back to a time of scarcity (post-war rationing was still on the go) and rampant discrimination.
The play is very much about exposing nostalgia for a past that never was as a seductive lie, as well as throwing up questions about gender roles and societal expectations. Director Tamara Harvey balances the heightened nature of the comic moments with the more painful moments when reality creeps in. Anna Fleischle’s sumptuous set and costumes (Judy’s dresses in particular) are bright and stylish, capturing both the nostalgic and the aspirational.
It’s a funny and provocative piece, played by a sharp and charming ensemble, and while the resolution is as pat as anything you’d find in a 50s sitcom, it reminds us that what keeps a relationship on track is communication and compromise.
Now, where are my slippers? Hello?
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Jessica Ransom and Diane Keen (Photo: Jack Merriman)
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd April 2023
Peter Rogers (no D) was the legendary producer of the legendary Carry On films, that staple of late 20th century British popular culture. We meet him in his office a year after the release of the woeful Carry On Emmanuelle in 1979. Undaunted by the film’s reception, Rogers is already planning the next in the series. He can see no difficulty in taking the series through the change of the century, despite oppositional claims that they’re already outdated and no longer have a place in a society that has moved beyond innuendo.
He can’t get his act together. The action moves on a few years. AIDS is rampant, and the rise of alternative comedy seems to be another nail in the Carry On coffin. But Rogers is not alone. He is visited – often rudely interrupted by – his famous cast. The gang’s all here: Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Sid James, Barbara Windsor…I think I need to point out this is a one-man show. The remarkable Darren Haywood portrays Rogers and a host of Carry On stars, dropping into their voices and mannerisms with split-second timing. Is he haunted? Possessed? Suffering some kind of multiple personality disorder?
The stars argue, tell stories, and show us glimpses of their real lives off camera. It’s a sheer delight to see them brought to life, so economically evoked, so instantly recognisable. There’s a wealth of nostalgia here but we are also invited to consider the films with a critical eye. The more dubious aspects of the series are not glossed over (blackface, sexism, and so on) but also the joys are not overlooked. There’s a magnificent sequence in which Rogers reads a fan letter asking what’s his favourite Carry On joke. This launches a dazzling display from Haywood, flipping from ‘Infamy, Infamy!’ to ‘Frying tonight!’ via a plethora of famous moments – the flying bra, Ooh Matron – it’s a virtuoso moment and a truly breath-taking feat.
Rogers manages to resurrect the series with Carry On Columbus in 1992, aiming to include the new wave of comedians. The film flops: they’re comedians rather than comic actors. Other plans (Carry On Dallas, Carry On London) fail to bear fruit. But Rogers is undaunted. He carries on going to his office at Pinewood Studios. He never gives up trying.
James Nicholas’s wonderful and well-researched script delivers laughs and poignancy: the fates of Hawtrey and Williams in particular are movingly depicted. Simon Ravenhill’s direction makes it seem as though Haywood is not alone on stage, but it’s Haywood’s masterly performance that pulls it off – ooer!
You don’t get many of these to the pound.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Carry on, genius! Darren Haywood as Peter Rogers and the Carry On gang
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd April 2023
The simple set-up for this one-act comedy is the theatre we’re sitting in. We are to witness the final rehearsal of a one-man show. Trouble is, the actor and the director disagree about whether this is the dress rehearsal or the tech run. And that’s not the only bone of contention between them. The actor is underprepared, more preoccupied with a missing bar of chocolate and a banana gone AWOL than learning his lines. The director is abrupt and pompous, unable to get the best from his performer. Completing the trio is tech guy Ben, highly strung and under stress to meet the director’s demands.
The play within this play is about going up gay in Huddersfield during the terrifying reign of the Yorkshire Ripper. It all seems a bit familiar, and then I realise it’s a rehash of a piece from five years ago (He’d Murder Me), and I’m not experiencing déjà vu. Here, it’s presented for laughs, providing a rich vein of dark humour.
Playing the actor is Richard Buck, who is always worth watching. Writer James Nicholas portrays Izzy Hands, the petulant director, waspish and not above picking pockets for bars of chocolate. Ben Mills-Wood is the put-upon techie, stressed and sarcastic. The energy between the three keeps the fur flying, but if I have one note to give it’s that it’s all a bit, well, one note. There needs to be more variety in tone. For example, Ben doesn’t need to rush all of his lines to show how stressed he is.
There are plenty of laughs, and the absurdity of their endeavour is evident. Why are they getting so worked up about a piece they all think is a load of rubbish? Much fun is had with inappropriate sound cues and the business of creating theatre, but for me the show lacks an overall sense of spontaneity. The mishaps, the arguments and outbursts all feel a little too staged and practised. Perhaps things will loosen up as the run continues.
If someone spends the best part of an hour telling you what they’re doing is crap, you begin to see their point. Far better if Izzy is deluded in his pretensions, believing he’s creating great art, when we can clearly see it isn’t. Then the joke would be on him.
☆ ☆ ☆ and a half
James Nicholas, Richard Buck, and Ben Mills-Wood prepare to do battle
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April 2023
A R Gurney’s comedy from 1995 gets a spirited revival at the Crescent. Telling the story of New York empty nesters, Greg and Kate who find their lives overturned by the arrival of Sylvia, a dog Greg brings home from the park. An instant bond forms between Greg and the dog, fast becoming an obsession, but Kate is less than welcoming and plots to oust Sylvia from their lives.
What lifts the play from the humdrum is the fact that Sylvia is portrayed by an actor, enabling the dog to crack jokes, swear like a navvy and be generally charming. Here, Beth Gilbert rises to and surpasses the challenge, managing to be cute and disgusting, as dogs invariably are. Yes, Sylvia is anthropomorphised but there are also well-observed instances of canine behaviour to remind us that Sylvia is not some lesser class of human – although her obvious humanity provokes thoughts about how some castes/classes/races treat other human beings. Gilbert sustains incredible energy throughout the performance, commanding the stage just as Sylvia dominates the couple’s lives.
Vincent Fox’s Greg is a middle-aged man whose life is given purpose by Sylvia, at the expense of his working life and his marriage. His obsession borders on the unhealthy and so of course Liz Plumpton’s Kate has no choice but to intervene. Kate is the less likeable of the pair – she’s returning to her career now the kids have gone, and so is also perhaps neglectful of her marriage, providing a hole for Sylvia to fill. The roles don’t seem like a stretch for either Fox or Plumpton – the accents sound natural and effortless – but they both imbue the roles with enough nuance to muddy the polarised waters that separate the couple.
Jan Davison’s direction keeps things tearing along, like Sylvia straining on her leash. The scene where Sylvia spots a cat under a car is superbly handled, wringing every bit of humour from the encounter. The play could easily come across as a prolonged comedy sketch and outstay its welcome, but Davison keeps us hooked in and, push coming to shove, we are invested enough to care about who will prevail: dog or wife?
There is good support from Charlotte Gillet, playing three roles: Tom, a dog owner Greg befriends in the park, Phyllis, Kate’s stuck-up friend, and Leslie, a gender-ambivalent counsellor the couple consult for help.
Apart from a tendency to have his characters referring to each other by name every other line, Gurney’s writing is sharp, orchestrating some very funny situations, and of course manipulating us to feel for Sylvia as the inevitable denouement looms, keeping on the right side of mawkishness. This is the kind of thing Ayckbourn does so well over on this side of the pond, although I suspect his Nick and Kate would be more ridiculous. I wonder if the play would be more interesting if Greg and Kate couldn’t understand Sylvia, and only the audience is privy to her thoughts and wisecracks….
An amusing evening at the Crescent, another simple yet sophisticated production. Sylvia will go after your funny bone and touch your heart.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Bad dog! Beth Gilbert as Sylvia and Liz Plumpton as Kate (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 4th April 2023
I come to bury Julius Caesar not to praise it. Atri Banerjee’s production, currently at the RST and due to embark on a nationwide tour, is not suited to all tastes, with its minimalist staging and atonal music score. Which is all fine by me – it’s just that the gigantic revolving cube and so on could all be used for almost any play. They don’t seem to belong to this play in particular.
I’m all for women playing men’s roles. It’s only fair. But, please, if you’re going to cast women as male characters, be consistent in your approach to pronouns and alterations to the text. This will avoid jarring linguistic oddities as “She was an honourable man”, which only serve as an alienation effect. Unless alienation is what you’re going for. If you change the pronouns, please change the nouns as well. Here, Brutus and Cassius are played by Thalissa Teixeira and (at this particular performance) Annabel Baldwin. I have no issue with that. But let them be men. Leave the pronouns as written. Call them he and we will accept it, in a principal boy kind of way, and then we can get on and enjoy the show. Or, if you’re going to gender swap them (and they’re historical figures in this instance!) go the whole hog, so the changes are thorough and make sense within the world of the play. Here, it comes across as a half-baked idea.
That said, Teixeira is in excellent form as the troubled conspirator and so-called friend of Caesar. Baldwin, standing in, delivers emotional truth but there’s a tendency, not just for them, to punctuate each line with hand gestures. They point at whom they are talking to, or in the direction of whom they’re talking about, like John Travolta at a disco. I find it too irritating and then I notice almost everyone else is doing it. What was it Hamlet said to the players? Something about not sawing the air too much with their hands? He would have walked out.
In the title role, Nigel Barrett is a large, avuncular presence, with no hint of the dangerous man the conspirators perceive him to be. Their misgivings seem wholly unfounded. William Robinson’s Mark Antony knocks his big moment (Friends, Romans, Countrymen…) out of the park but then seems to fade away.
The assassination scene is stylised, with the conspirators slapping black ink onto Caesar, like orcs’ blood. It fits the rather colourless colour scheme of the production but dilutes the horror of the act. Incidentally, once you’re dead in this production, you get to wear bright clothing and hang around in the rotating cube. When Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus, he’s in a bright red shirt and he dances with him/her to his/her boombox, before Brutus changes their mind and becomes afraid of the apparition. Again, a half-baked idea and a mishandled moment.
A chorus drawn from members of the local community, all looking fab in long black garments, file dutifully on and off from time to time, breathing deeply in and out, but they seem underused in a production that reduces the mob to a single person, the Soothsayer (tonight played by Niamh Finlay). The Soothsayer throws away her warnings about the Ides of March and, speaking all the mob’s lines, seems schizophrenic and otherworldly – her red tracksuit bottoms link her to the colourful world of the dead, I suppose – but like with most of the cast, great, famous lines are tossed away, robbing them of dramatic impact.
The musicians add much-needed atmosphere. The vocals by Alexandra Ferrari are beautifully chilling and there is some sinister trombone-playing by Yusuf Narcin. You won’t come out whistling the score, but then that’s not composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s intention or function.
The timelessness of it all, the absence of a sense of place, keep me at a distance. Oh for a production with togas and shiny helmets! How radical that would seem! Even Shakespeare used contemporary rather than period costume! Set it in ancient Rome and let us make any parallels to our world today for ourselves.
As it is, this is a case of the director getting in the way of the play and it got me fidgeting, which is never a good thing at a show that’s billed as a political thriller.
Danger, William Robinson! Mark Antony striking oil
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Sunday 2nd April 2023
When Viola washes up from a shipwreck, she believes her twin brother to have perished and so she dons male clothing and finds work running errands for the local duke. Director John Robert Partridge gives his Illyria and Oirish setting, bejabbers, a world of greenery and pub furniture. For the most part, it works very well, with the vocal cadences suiting the text. Some cast members handle the accent and the verse better than others but on the whole this is a clear and accessible version of Shakespeare’s most bittersweet rom-com.
Partridge casts himself in the role of Sir Toby Belch, resplendent in an emerald green suit and ruddy face. Belch’s drunken excesses never seem forced or false; it must have been great fun researching for the role. Partridge also surrounds himself with a fine ensemble of character actors, among them Freya Cooper’s feisty and heartfelt Viola, Sarah Feltham’s brassy Maria, and Ciara Lane’s wildly passionate Olivia (or should that be O’Livia?). While Olivia indulges in prolonged mourning for her late brother, her would-be suitor Orsino indulges in soppiness – Joshua Chandos is in good form as the lovestruck duke, and shares a lovely scene and a portion of chips with the disguised Viola when their bonding goes beyond mateship. Dominic Selvey is opportunistically bisexual as Viola’s brother Sebastian. Selvey makes the character likable and not merely selfish, and you get the idea that he would stay with Antonio (Wilson McDowell) if Olivia doesn’t hand herself to him on a plate. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of repressed bisexuality going on in this play. Perhaps old Will was going through a phase.
Lucas Albion’s Feste, presented here as a busker, is charming and funny with a twinkle in his eye, his guitar-playing adding emotional depth to comic scenes. Edward Manning’s Malvolio is wonderfully pompous and beautifully well-spoken. We enjoy seeing his comeuppance but we also feel for him, such is the power of Manning’s portrayal and the genius of Shakespeare’s writing.
Yes, it’s a fine cast indeed but for me, man of the match is Daniel Grooms, who treats us to a superbly comic characterisation of upper class twit Sir Andrew Aguecheek. No detail escapes him, and there is splendid physical comedy to accompany the portrayal. An absolute delight. Special mention, too, of the versatile Sean MacGregor as Fabian the bartender and other roles, an object lesson in how to have great stage presence no matter the size of the part.
The comedy is well-handled: the raucous late-night drinking, the cowardly confrontation, and the sheer silliness of the box-tree scene where Toby et al spy on Malvolio in the garden is marvellously realised. And the climactic reunion of the twins delivers the emotional kick in the feels I expect. There are a few details I’d quibble with but on the whole this is a marvellous production, hilarious and touching in all the right places.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cheers! Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (John-Robert Partridge and Daniel Grooms) Phoro: Andrew Maguire Photography
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 29th March 2023
Deborah Moggach adapts her own novel for the stage, a story of British retirees retiring to a ‘retirement hotel’ in Bangalore. They’re a motley bunch, each with their own reason for leaving Blighty behind. We see them arrive, have teething problems, settle in, and ultimately fight for the hotel’s survival. Along the way, they touch upon the caste system, colonialism, arranged marriages… but nothing is dealt with in any depth. This is a comedy above all, and its socio-historic setting is kept below the surface.
Running the hotel are Sonny (Nishad More) and his widowed mother (Rekha John-Cheriyan) Together and separately, they are funny without resorting to stereotype, while the Brits on the other hand are prone to archetypes: the gold-digging cougar (Belinda Lang), the Tory with problematic views (Graham Seed)… There are a lot of characters to get to know, so the shorthand works until we get a handle on them as individuals. Lang is very good, by the way, with some of the funniest lines delivered with superb timing and intonation. Seed convinces too. They all do, but you get the idea that the roles aren’t exactly a stretch for any of them.
The mighty Paola Dionisotti flits around as Dorothy, bringing a faint touch of mystery: is her behaviour due to the onset of Alzheimer’s or is there another reason? Tessa Peake-Jones is thoroughly pleasant as widow Evelyn, who takes the workers at a nearby call centre under her wing, a kind of benevolent colonialism. Paul Nicholas lends his sonorous tones to the well-travelled Douglas, finally coming to the end of his tether with overbearing wife Jane (Eileen Battye); Marlene Sidaway’s retired cleaner Muriel overrides the caste system by establishing a friendship with floor-sweeper Tikal (Anant Varman). There’s a spot of star-cross’d lovers with Sonny and call-centre girl Sahani (Shila Iqbal) but on the whole, what tension there is is pretty light. Their problems are easily resolved, it seems.
We spend a lot of the evening wondering who is going to pop their clogs, and when it eventually happens, it’s nicely handled, but there’s no real emotional punch.
It’s a pleasant evening at the theatre, spent in the safe hands of an effective ensemble. The second act is a bit too long and could do with trimming. It’s amusing rather than hilarious, touching rather than moving. A korma of a play rather than a madras.
Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring received an uproarious reception when it opened in Paris in 1913. The score went on to become one of the most influential pieces of modernist music, and the ballet has been re-choreographed and represented many times. Now, choreographer-dancer-genius Dada Masilo takes her inspiration from the piece to create this new work, with a specially commissioned score, in which the aim is to retell the story through a fusion of contemporary and South African (specifically Tswana) dance.
A young woman, bare-chested moves across the stage, before an abstract backdrop that suggests landscape and sky. She is agitated, repeating a sort of hand-washing gesture over and over. She reaches for the sky, she bends to the ground – we don’t know it yet but this foreshadows what is to become of her. The young woman is Dada Masilo herself, a striking stage presence with her bald head and regal posture. Next, we meet her community, dancing with joy before a background of bare branches. Their movements suggest animals, particularly birds. There are moments of humour: the dancers stop to castigate the musicians. They want something slower so they can catch their breath! The mood changes – a solitary figure, a leader, implores the skies while the others are bowed in prayer. There is something about the stamping feet and the jerky movements that has echoes of the original choreography by Nijinsky 110 years ago…
The young woman is selected. She is the Chosen One. It’s an honour she accepts with mixed feelings. While the majority of the storytelling is accessible and invigorating, the latter half of the piece loses me a little until the moment of sacrifice comes. The climactic lament, sung heartbreakingly live by Ann Masina, is absolutely stunning. Indeed, the entire score is a garden of delights, performed by a downstage trio of musicians, who blow whistles, vocalise, wave things around their heads, to create the perfect soundtrack for this time-honoured tale. They are: Leroy Mapholo (the sounds he coaxes from his violin are incredible!); percussionist Mpho Mothiba; and Nathi Shongwe on keyboard. Together with Masina, these three are responsible for the excellently evocative score, which I could happily listen to on repeat. Some of the irregular rhythms and percussive beats remind me a little of the Stravinsky…
It’s an absorbing, emotional entertainment performed by a stupendous company. The show has an uproarious reception too, but of a wholly positive nature! While some of the more esoteric elements escape me (and that’s on me), the rest is truly universal and totally human.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Dada Masilo (front and centre) and the company of The Sacrifice (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st March 2023
Best known for the stellar film version starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field et al, Robert Harling’s story started out as this stage play thirty years ago. Set in a Louisiana hair salon between 1983 and 1985, it’s a golden opportunity for half a dozen actors of the female persuasion to strut their stuff, as the characters prepare for big moments in their lives. The salon acts as a meeting place, somewhere to confide, to share, to have a right old laugh, with all the important action occurring off-stage.
As hairstylist Truvy, a big-haired Lucy Speed channels Dolly Parton and gets to deliver most of the script’s best zingers. She draws us in immediately with her irresistible down-home charm. New recruit Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) sweetly evades questions about her home-life, engendering a little mystery (which is overshadowed by her later conversion to Christian Evangelism).
Among the customers are Diana Vickers as bride-to-be with health issues, Shelby; Laura Main as mother-of-the-bride M’Lynn; Caroline Harker as rich woman Clairee; and, in this performance, Claire Carpenter as the forthright Ouiser. It’s a fine ensemble. Harker seems to warm into her role as the evening goes on and can really deliver a punchline, but it’s Main who delivers the show’s most powerfully emotional moment in an outpouring of the frustration that comes along with grief. Across the board, the accents are pretty good, pretty authentic. Occasionally, lines are indistinct, slurred a little too quickly, but the one-liners and acerbic observations mostly come across with expert timing.
Our role as audience is to eavesdrop on the comings and goings, picking up exposition to fill the gaps in between the scenes, as we are drawn into these women’s world. Laura Hopkin’s set boxes the characters in the salon, framing the scene with light. This lends an air of intimacy to proceedings but unfortunately also serves as a distancing effect, keeping us out.
It’s an old-fashioned piece, showing its age, and I wonder if the universality of its message (women supporting each other in a man’s world) would translate away from the Deep South setting. Give them all Dudley accents, for example, and the drama would have the same impact. Bring it up-to-date to reinforce the need for sisterhood in today’s society, and the piece might turn its girl power into feminism.
It’s a cosy night at the theatre, a solid production that amuses and has moments of emotional truth, but it’s not really my cup of bourbon.
☆ ☆ ☆
Elizabeth Ayodele, Laura Main, Lucy Speed and Diana Vickers (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)
The Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish production of this absolute classic is a great fit for the Hippodrome stage. A huge company of performers and a whopper of a set all have room to cohabit. There is certainly no stinting on production values here.
Phonetics professor Henry Higgins encounters Cockerney flower seller Eliza Doolittle and their lives are changed forever. He diagnoses her with Irritable Vowel Syndrome and embarks on a project to get her speaking like a lady and accepted into high society within six months. And so we get a series of comic scenes where vowels are strangled until Eliza is finally able to impersonate her oppressors in the ruling class.
Higgins is a tough man to like. His views are problematic, even misogynistic, but Michael D Xavier imbues him with a kind of charm and enthusiasm that make us warm to him despite his Chauvinistic remarks. Charlotte Kennedy positively shines as Eliza, although I prefer her gorblimey stage to her more ‘refined’ moments. What snobs like Higgins fail to realise is that the beauty of the English language lies in its rich diversity of regional accents and dialects. There is no one way to ‘talk proper’. Be that as it may, Kennedy’s songs are to be relished. She looks and sounds the part, whatever the requirements of the scene.
Emmerdale’s John Middleton makes a sprightly Colonel Pickering, while EastEnders’s Adam Woodyatt brings the house down as Eliza’s gorblimey father, Alfred. Get Me To The ChurchOn Time is a real showstopper, staged here with all-out gusto. Lesley Garrett provides a nice spot of character acting as housekeeper Mrs Pearce, and you can hear her famous soprano ringing out in the chorus numbers. Tom Liggins, playing Eliza’s suitor Freddy, gets the best song of the show, the gloriously romantic On The Street Where You Live, and he sings it superbly.
Michael Yeargan’s impressive set never overshadows the action and director Bartlett Shaw has the characters moving through and around it fluidly. The sheer scale of the production knocks your socks off. And then there’s the sumptuous score by Frederick Loewe – such melodies! – and the evocative lyrics by Alan J Lerner. And you’re reminded why this is a prime example from the golden age of Musical Theatre.
Shaw (Bartlett) acknowledges Shaw’s (George Bernard) social commentary by restoring the starker final moment of original play Pygmalion – so don’t expect a cut-and-dried musical theatre happy ending.
A splendid old-school evening at the theatre combining Shavian class critiques with soaring romance.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Michael D Xavier and Charlotte Kennedy (Photo: Marc Brenner)
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th March 2023
Following on from last year’s hilarious outing, this sequel moves the action to a creepy convent. Drag queens and nun jokes are a marriage made in Heaven. The plot involves a priest being sent from Rome to investigate the disappearance of another priest who was last heard of at the Convent of St Babs. There is talk of the convent housing the holiest of holies, a relic of great power and value…
As the investigating priest Father Alfie Romeo, the mighty Louis Cypher more than passes in manly garb. Cypher’s Romeo is a fully rounded character, venal and prone to foibles. The priest is an excellent foil for Victoria Scone’s pitch perfect Mother Superior. Scone rules the roost and commands the stage in a flawless performance of exquisite comic timing.
Birmingham’s own tower of talent, Kitty Scott Claws appears as Sis Titis, the crudest in the convent, with some killer filthy lines. Cheryl Hole is great fun as Sister Mary Berry, especially when proceedings take a spooky turn, but my heart belongs solely to global mega-superstar Jujubee, playing the role of Sister Maria Julie Andrews, complete with tits on her fingers. It’s such a thrill to see Jujubee from a distance of only a few feet, with a fine English accent and all the glamour and comic genius we have come to expect from her many Drag Race triumphs.
Completing the cast is drag king Corrina Buchan as a cardinal, and a few other surprise roles. The script, by Robert Evans, overflows with innuendo and crass remarks. Director Jesse Jones doesn’t ease up on the comedy for a second, with well-choreographed and creative physical business keeping the action rattling along like a runaway train. There are cheesy special effects and plenty of silliness, and yet, somehow, the show manages to pull off moment of suspense and shock, with a few jump scares in the mix, as the plot descends deeper into horror film territory, played out in front of Peter McKintosh’s gloriously gothic set.
Nothing is sacred. The satire takes broad swipes at the Catholic church, and everyone else too, with scathing topical references bejewelling the filth. And funny! The laughs never stop coming. There is plenty here for Drag Race aficionados but you don’t have to be in on all the in-jokes to derive a lot of amusement from this knockabout show. This is an all-out assault on the funny bone, a show that delights with its outrageous humour, its cartoonish characters and revels in its campness and theatricality.
Drop dead funny.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Giving it some stick: Jujubee, Cheryl Hole, Louis Cypher, Victoria Scone, and Kitty Scott-Claws (Photos:Matt Crockett)
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st March 2023
There is no king on the poster, only the I, selling the show on its female lead, Call The Midwife’s Helen George. Unfortunately, for this press night performance, Ms George is indisposed (perhaps a midwife crisis) and so there are more than a few disgruntled childbirth fans in the auditorium tonight. To my mind, the show is the star. A Rodgers & Hammerstein classic? It hardly matters who is in it.
Taking the role of Anna Leonowens tonight is Maria Coyne, and she is fabulous. We are not being short-changed in any way. She may not portray a midwife but she certainly delivers.
The plot centres around the widowed Anna arriving in Bangkok with her young son. She has found employment at the palace, as a Julie Andrews figure to the King’s many, many children. There follows a clash of cultures and a growing respect and indeed friendship between the schoolmistress and the monarch. As I’ve said, Maria Coyne is splendid in the part, forthright in her opinions and wryly amused by the King’s mangling of the English language. Her voice suits this old-school kind of musical extremely well.
Old-school? I mean, classic. Director Bartlett Sher doesn’t tamper with the material, emphasising what makes the show an all-time great, while playing down stereotypical representations. There’s enough to give us a taste of Siam in the gorgeous set by Michael Yeargan and the graceful choreography by Christopher Gattelli, combining traditional Siamese and balletic movements.
Darren Lee rules as the King of Siam, bombastic at first and overbearing, but with insecurities and vulnerabilities, and especially, a playfulness in his dealings with the unruly teacher. He and Coyne are a dream pairing. The mutual affection and frustration between the characters sparkles. Lee definitely deserves to be on the poster.
At this performance, the role of Tuptim is played by Amelia Kinu Muus, who is a strong and emotive soprano. Her duets with Dean John Wilson are definite highlights, as they power through some of Richard Rodgers’s most romantic melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s most searing lyrics. Another belter of a moment comes from Cezarah Bonner’s Lady Thiang, whose solo gives me shivers. Truly, ‘something wonderful’.
Caleb Lagayan impresses as the young Crown Prince, with a powerful singing voice that belies the character’s self-doubts. His first entrance is a stark, dramatic contrast to the cutesy kowtowing of the King’s other children. Also strong is Charlie McGuire as Anna’s son Louis in an assured and mature performance.
There is drama, there is humour, there is something about gender roles and challenging the entrenched attitudes of the patriarch. There is something about European interference. There is the marvellous play-within-a-play: a staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin through the prism of Siamese dance and theatrical conventions – an absolutely delightful piece of storytelling. Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costume designs allow for plenty of melodramatic swishing of fabric and add to the sense of another place in another time.
This no-nonsense production reminds us why the show is one of the greatest musicals and why Rodgers & Hammerstein are geniuses. Captivating, involving and powerful, this show will entertain and move you, and get you humming all those great tunes all the way home.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
We are Siamese if you please: The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Photo: Johan Persson)
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 25th February 2023
Paula Hawkins’s best-selling novel is so effective because of its first person narrative, from the girl on the train herself. She’s an unreliable narrator, so we’re never sure if what she says happened happened or whether it’s her booze-tinted imagination. The stage adaptation by Duncan Abel & Rachel Wagstaff has to take a different approach as the Girl is revealed to be a fantasist, her story contradicting itself… A tough call for any actor taking on the role and here, Grace Cheadle rises to the challenge and nails it. Her Rachel Watson is off-kilter, brittle and bitter, but also vulnerable and appealing. We are with her all the way, happy to go along for the ride.
Briefly, the plot has Rachel commuting to work by train. Her emotional life is a bit of a train wreck and so she self-medicates with day-drinking. Through the windows she sees people’s houses and fantasises about who they are and what they’re called. One day, one of her regular characters is not there… A woman has gone missing and the police are involved. Can Rachel’s unreliable evidence be of use or will she implicate herself? To add to the mix, a couple of doors down from the missing woman’s home live Rachel’s ex-husband and his new wife and baby…and so a series of explosive scenes are set in train.
The multi-purpose set allows the action to zip along like an express train – we never have to wait for furniture to be shifted – and scenes are linked with video clips, extending the action beyond the set pieces: we see characters being taken in for questioning, for example, and there are clips of Rachel boozing on the train, to the distaste of other passengers.
The excellent central performance from Cheadle is supported by a strong ensemble. Particularly effective is David Baldwin’s Detective Inspector Gaskill; Baldwin has a casual, natural style but still means business. It’s a superb contrast with Cheadle’s more manic moments and self-doubt. Tom Lowde, as Rachel’s ex, and Victoria Youster as new wife Anna are perfectly smug and annoying (from Rachel’s pov) while Oliver Jones captures the volatility of Scott, the missing woman’s husband. Papa Yentumi’s therapist balances professional intonations with personal impulses, and Charlotte Thompson crops up repeatedly in flashbacks as the missing Megan, imbued with an almost saintly air (from Rachel’s pov) despite her bad behaviour. Completing the cast is Susan Keats’s police officer, a small but crucial part well conveyed.
Director Rod Natkiel keeps the action fluid and clear. The fast pace winds up the tension and the use of video flashbacks to display Rachel’s fractured memories works well. It’s just when we reach the climactic, violent denouement that things go off the rails and get a bit muddy and unfocussed. Perhaps the video screens could be used to augment the moment, seeing how they’ve been so integral to the rest of the production…
All in all, the production delivers the mystery, the tension, and the surprises of the story, and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the unpleasantness. An involving thriller that doesn’t outstay its welcome. All aboard!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Grace Cheadle and David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
It’s 2015. When a Grindr hook-up between two middle-aged men turns out to be a surprise reunion between former schoolfriends, a chain of events is triggered that leads to the formation of a gender-swapped ABBA tribute act. Like it does. Ian Hallard’s wonderful script, full of barbed wit and brittle emotions beneath the surface, is an absolute belter.
Hallard appears as Peter, greying and good-natured, and an abbasolute ABBA afficionado. When the time comes, he makes an alluringly winsome Agnetha. James Bradshaw’s Edward is a neat contrast, waspish and snarky, and unhappy with his long-term partner. He is an excellent fit for Frida, the flame-haired siren of the Swedish supergroup. They audition for female artistes to portray the male members of the group. Nervous Josie (Rose Shalloo) gains confidence before our very eyes as Bjorn Ulvaeus, but the biggest surprise comes from the casting of Mrs Campbell, a woman in her sixties, as Benny Andersson. The part is written as a Scot but in this matinee performance, the role is taken by Tariye Peterside, who gives the character a hilarious Caribbean lilt, rather than the intended Caledonian. Peterside underplays her funniest lines to killer effect; you can’t help but love her. In fact, we root for the quartet from the get-go as they prepare for the first and only gig.
Enter the gorgeous Christian (played by the gorgeous Andrew Horton) a young Aussie who wants the group to perform at his 25th birthday do. He also offers to take publicity shots. Edward finds him irresistible (and who can blame him?) but does Christian’s professed penchant for older men mask an ulterior motive? The action is kept strictly backstage and there is a whiff of All About Eve to what transpires before the end. Completing this superb ensemble is the marvellous Donna Berlin as Sally, stage manager and best mate to Peter. Berlin imbues her role with heart and an arsenal of facial expressions that add to the comedy and reveal her genuine concerns for her friend. In addition to the onstage performers we get a pre-recorded Paul O’Grady as a radio host and, more wonderfully, a Brummie Miriam Margolyes as Peter’s unseen gran.
Janet Bird’s set makes use of the most famous palindrome in popular music with entrances in the As and scenic features in the doubled-back Bs. A revolve enables the action to move from place to place, and Bird’s costume designs trigger nostalgia for those 70s outfits. Mark Gatiss’s direction keeps things flowing, timing the punchlines to perfection and giving the characters room to breathe.
ABBA songs punctuate the scene transitions and lyrics pepper the dialogue, some of which will only be spotted by the die-hard fanatics. It culminates in a massively touching moment when, years later, the tribute act reunite for the first radio broadcast of ABBA’s first new song in decades.
It’s a play about friendships, the experience of older gay men, and being a fan. I’m not saying that ‘rainbow spectrum’ people have a monopoly on fandom, but we are rather good at it. Perhaps we’re filling a gap in our lives that no amount of dredging through Grindr can fulfil.
A hilarious, heart-warmer of a show with some saucy rejoinders and a whole lot of humanity. Just as society has learned that there is no shame in being gay, there is also no shame in being a fan.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Ian Hallard (Peter) and James Bradshaw (Edward) Photo: Darren Bell
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 22nd February 2023
National treasure, acting phenomenon and well-established octogenarian, Sir Ian McKellen treats us to his pantomime dame skills in this touring production. Never mind that Christmas is almost a year away, this is the panto to see.
The script is by Jonathan Harvey (Gimme Gimme Gimme, Beautiful Thing) and is full to bursting with gags. The plot, unlike most pantos, is not overly familiar: Mother Goose harbours animals in a sanctuary (here, a squat in a disused Debenhams). This haven of animal welfare is under threat because of a money-grasping energy company (if you can imagine such a thing) but then, thanks to a wager between a good and a bad fairy, a goose that lays golden eggs arrives and Mother’s money worries are over. The bad fairy tempts Mother to give up the goose in exchange for her heart’s desire: fame and fortune. But can money and celebrity bring happiness?
Well, yes. From the audience’s point of view, that is. The show is a non-stop joy fest, with rapid fire jokes, some of them old, some of them new, most of them bawdy, and, crucially, the elements one expects from the art form. Panto is more than a variety show or the opportunity for soap opera starlets to show whether or not they can sing or take a joke. Harvey is clearly a writer who knows and loves the art form and while some of the topical and satirical references are beginning to turn, like old milk, the show very much speaks about the state of the nation and its leaders, which is something panto has always done. There’s also a nice touch of LGBTQ+ representation, which is a welcome innovation. We get a genuinely hilarious slapstick scene in a kitchen. There’s the It’s Behind You sequence, a love plot… All of it is familiar but none of it is old hat. Because this plot isn’t churned out as often as others, and because the approach to the production breathes new life into the format. Take the chorus, for example, playing Mother Goose’s rescued animals. They are integrated into the action as individual characters, altogether as a unit, and severally as scene-shifters. They’re not just wheeled on to prance about in the background, they are truly supporting artistes.
Then there are the songs. A mix of pop, disco, and show tunes, performed by superb vocalists. Panto producers take note: if you fork out for the rights to well-known hits, it pays dividends. Good fairy Encanta (Sharon Ballard) and bad fairy Malignia (Karen Mavunukure) delight with their verbal sparring and an electrifying duet of No More Tears/Enough is Enough. Anna-Jane Casey brings the house down as Cilla the Goose, serving full-on Funny Girl fantasy with Don’t Rain On My Parade. Adam Brown’s King of Gooseland is wonderfully camp and silly, while Oscar Conlon-Morrey is tons of fun as everybody’s friend, Jack.
McKellen is divine, of course, delivering droll Northern deadpan with generous helpings of camp. He also brings depth to the role, in the way he leans into certain phrases, so we believe the character’s remorse is genuine. John Bishop is the perfect foil as McKellen’s husband, Vic. Bishop is a natural performer, instantly appealing and effortlessly funny. You can’t help liking him. Of course, there are plenty of Lord of the Rings references, and Shakespeare crops up once or twice, leading to the show’s most touching moment. There are also odd glimpses of darkness: the way animals are treated, which is something society needs to address. Panto can still deliver a moral message, you see.
It goes to show you don’t need a cast list of wannabes and has-beens, all with not enough to do, to draw in the crowds. You just need one global mega superstar, a well-known comedian, and an ensemble of hugely talented performers working with a top-notch script to keep a much-loved art form alive and effective. Can we have Babes in the Wood next year?
The funniest pantomime I can remember in all my years of panto worship, this is the one to rule them all and in the darkness bind us.
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7thFebruary 2023
Imagine Bob Dylan wrote Les Misérables but set it in 1930s dustbowl America à la Steinbeck. If you can do that, you’re some way to understanding what this show is like. Technically, a jukebox musical, raiding Dylan’s back catalogue and stringing songs together to tell a story, except it’s not, not really. The story, with script by the excellent Conor McPherson (of The Weir fame) could work as a straight play (Well, I’ll come to that later). The songs could stand alone without the story. And so instead of a conventional piece of musical theatre where the songs reveal character or develop the plot, what we have here is a straight play interrupted by concert-like performances of the musical numbers.
The setting is a guesthouse under threat of foreclosure by the bank. The proprietor Nick (Colin Connor) struggles with his estranged wife, Elizabeth, who has developed some kind of dementia, while cajoling his wannabe-writer and alcoholic son to get a job. Nick is waiting for his mistress’s ship to come in; she’s a widow waiting for probate and they have plans to set up a new guesthouse elsewhere… That American dream, you see. Meanwhile, Nick’s adopted black daughter is mysteriously pregnant, so he’s trying to marry her off to an elderly shoe repairer, for her own good. To top it off, there’s a storm brewing and two strangers arrive in the middle of the night, a former boxer and a bible salesman…
There’s more humour than you might expect in this tale of economic hardship, unemployment, racial prejudice, alcoholism, failed marriage, senility, learning difficulties, and just about every other miserable thing you can think of. In the first half, at least. But there are so many characters, there’s not really enough time for things to develop. It takes a narrator, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) to provide exposition and to wrap things up at the end. There are some fine dramatic moments, well played, but apart from the general misery of it all, I’m not particularly moved. McPherson writes great scenes but, judging by this show, is not so hot when it comes to dramatic structure beyond these vignettes of misery.
And then there are the songs. Not Dylan’s greatest hits shoehorned in, but a careful curation of some of the more obscure tracks, rearranged to fit the period. The actors play instruments to augment the onstage band creating a rich sound, but it’s the singing that stands out. For example, songs like ‘Has Anyone Seen My Love?’, ‘Slow Train’ (wonderfully sung by Joshua C Jackson) and ‘I Want You’ (Gregor Milne) all knock your socks off. But it’s the ladies who really deliver the goods. Maria Omakinwa as the elegant widow Mrs Neilson is just about perfect, and so is Justina Kehinde’s pregnant Marianne. Surprisingly, perhaps, demented Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) almost steals the show with her vigorous dancing and superb vocals. I invariably prefer Dylan’s songs when performed by anyone other than the songwriter, so this score serves to remind me of Old Bob’s songsmithery.
It’s a show of two halves, then, beautifully presented, albeit on a dingy stage, and while I enjoy the drama and love the songs, the two halves don’t quite fit together. An excellent production, to be sure, but it’s a bit of a downer. You won’t be dancing in the aisles, but you might be uplifted a little by the gospel-style finale before the crushing bleakness of existence closes in.
Oh well. I’m off to write a show about the Cod War, using the music of The Smiths. Why not?
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6thFebruary 2023
There is a welcome drive in contemporary theatre for sustainability and being green. The RSC is at the forefront: they’ve been recycling the same 37 plays for decades! Seriously, anything that reduces or offsets an organisation’s carbon footprint can only be for the good, can’t it? Can this example of sustainable theatre sustain my interest?
People who are shipwrecked on desert islands know all about repurposing and upcycling in order to provide shelter for themselves, and so it is no surprise to see that Tom Piper’s set follows suit. What does surprise me is that after many years of being marooned, Prospero’s place isn’t a little bit tidier? Perhaps she just likes a junkyard aesthetic. I say ‘she’ because this production boasts a female Prospero, in the form of Alex Kingston; the parental qualities of the character as good a fit for a mother as the more-traditional father. What jars at first is the use of ‘male’ forms of address. This Prospero is still a Prince and a Duke and a master – which shows how firmly rooted gender is in our use of language.
In the central role, Kingston storms it, as her plots involve everyone else on her island. There is power and tenderness in her portrayal, her powers of sorcery (which would have got any woman burned at the stake back in the day) as convincing as her maternal affections. She is supported by Jessica Rhodes’s lively Miranda and Heledd Gwynn’s enthusiastic Ariel.
Director Elizabeth Freestone highlights the comedic elements of the script and utilises the physicality of the cast to create the effects of the magic. This also adds comedy (Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, rolling around, for example) and also an atmosphere where potentially anything could happen. A particularly effective moment is the arrival of Ariel and the Harpies in front of a giant gilt-framed mirror. At other points, the impact is not as well focussed, making for a patchy overall impression.
Ishia Bennison brings warmth and humour as the garrulous, cross-gendered Gonzalo, while Peter De Jersey adds heartfelt grief as the King of Naples sorrows for his lost son. Both, separately and as part of the ensemble, are adept at the physical aspects of the performance: the opening shipwreck is stylishly and effectively depicted.
Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban is all human and no creature, which, I suppose, highlights the racism and colonialism that have reduced him to a slave on his native island. I just prefer more of a touch of the ‘other’ to the character. Simon Startin’s Stephano and Cath Whitefield’s Trinculo make an enjoyably drunken double act, but it is Kingston’s Prospero that dominates the action and our engagement. Her delivery of ‘Our revels now are ended…’ is powerfully emotive and her heartbreak at releasing Ariel is quietly devastating. There is never any sense that Prospero and Miranda might be in jeopardy; Kingston is in control of everything.
Much value is added to the production by the original music and sound design, courtesy of Adrienne Quartly, and there is a lot to enjoy in this busy production. On reflection though, I would ditch the mirror, and keep the stage almost if not entirely bare. The physicality of the cast is more than enough to convey what needs to be conveyed. Recycled sets don’t have to be rubbish.
☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!
Staff meeting: Alex Kingston as Prospero (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Motionhouse’s new production is aimed squarely at a family audience, in particular the youngest members of the family. Five children, portrayed by grown-up performers, are having a sleepover, although sleep is the farthest thing from their fertile little minds. With tireless energy, these effervescent children bounce around, using cardboard boxes in their play-acting, creating a ceaselessly imaginative sequence in which the boxes are hiding places, an aeroplane, a castle, a train… It’s a dazzling way to start the show before the story proper begins.
The boxes form a huge telescope through which they espy the moon and two girls (Moon fairies, no less). The kids decide to go to the moon to visit the fairies. The boxes become a ziggurat on which is projected their rocket – the backdrop is a vast screen onto which stunning visuals are displayed. The screen is made of strips so the performers can disappear into holes, through windows and so on, and magically reappear. Visually, the show cannot be faulted. The digital imagery, by Logela Multimedia, adds colour and excitement as well as denoting setting.
So the kids get to the moon, encounter an alien life form with slinkies for limbs and eyes where its hands should be, but they’re never really in danger. They meet the fairies and then get back in their rocket and come home. All of this is underscored by original music by Tim Dickinson and Sophy Smith, which definitely adds atmosphere and drama but at times it’s a bit too loud. The performers often vocalise to each other and sometimes invite the audience to call out, but we can’t often hear what they’re saying and only glean an impression of their dialogue – which is fine, this is a visual show after all where movement is the main focus, but a bit of contrast in volume levels would have helped.
The performers are uniformly excellent, agile and acrobatic. Their timing when interacting with the animation is impeccable. The characters are also uniform in their exuberance and behaviour so it’s hard to pick out anyone in particular. The direction by Kevin Finnan and the choreography, also by Finnan and the cast, keep the simple story clear and easy to follow. I would have liked a bit more jeopardy other than a couple of ‘It’s behind you’ moments to help me engage with the characters and their adventure.
Visually stunning and technically perfect, the show has plenty of wow moments but it doesn’t engage on an emotional level, which is the only missing ingredient for me.
Harold Pinter Theatre, London, Thursday 2nd February 2023
This revival of Sam Steiner’s hit play is a likeable and vibrant production. It tells of a society where a law is passed restricting individuals’ word counts to just 140 per day. It’s to reduce stimulus overload or something like that, but really it’s about control. We follow the relationship of Bernadette and Oliver as the law is proposed, protested against, voted for, and implemented, through a series of non-chronological scenes. Gradually, we piece together their love story and their communication problems.
As Bernadette, former Doctor’s companion Jenna Coleman is bright-eyed and assertive. A fledgling lawyer, Bernadette relies on words to do her job and so invariably she uses up most of her daily quota at work, to the frustration of Aidan Turner’s bohemian/socialist Oliver. Sparks fly between the two actors, the chemistry between them is almost palpable, but the nature of the piece requires the characters to be shut off from each other, unable to express themselves freely and fluently, and so we are ultimately shut out, and only know them in glimpses.
Played against a stylish backdrop of shelving laden with discarded objects, divided by strips of bright light, there is often only the briefest lighting change between scenes, a split second for the actors to change position and demeanour. Director Josie Rourke keeps the stage bare, allowing the dialogue to denote location – are they at home, in a restaurant, at a pet cemetery? – and Coleman and Turner approach each scene with the vim of members of a cocky improv troupe, and they’re both so appealing they take us along with them.
What we don’t get are answers to questions such as, How would such a law be policed? What would be the penalties for infringement, for going over your daily limit? How would it work in other spheres: hospitals, schools and so on. Pretty soon, the law courts are given exemptions, and so is the House of Commons, because, of course, the kind of politicians who would make such legislation, would look after themselves… The play skirts around Brexit like the elephant on the dancefloor. What kind of people would want something that impoverishes and restricts the lives of everyone in the country? Talk about being sold a lemon! Oliver is a driving force in protests against the word limit, while we in the real UK, are faced with having our right to protest criminalised by an increasingly authoritarian regime… The play is so close to touching on this.
As a love story, then, it’s a bit shallow. As a thought experiment, it engages but doesn’t really develop. “Bit cerebral,” mutters the woman next to me as she puts her coat on, and then proceeds to discuss with her companion where they will go for a meal. I spend longer thinking about the play and conclude it’s a fine idea that only scratches the surface, but it’s effortlessly enjoyable thanks to the actors who both approach their roles with, I’m going to say it, zest.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman at loggerheads (Photo: Johan Persson)
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd January, 2023
Joe Landry’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel takes place in a New York radio theatre in the 1920s. We meet a troupe of half a dozen actors who will perform the play, taking on all the roles and the sound effects between them. This kind of setting allows the staging of material that would otherwise be too expensive, relying on the audience’s imagination to picture Gatsby’s vast mansion, for example. It also makes the staging of action scenes (the car accident) within reach.
Our host is Freddie Filmore, played by Louis McCoy who, as well as taking on the roles of Gatsby and Wilson is an excellent pianist; Jake Laurents (Thom Stafford, no relation) plays the story’s narrator Nick; Jason Adam brings humour to the role of Tony Hunter, the kind of actor who reads the stage directions as well as the dialogue, playing Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s love interest is portrayed by Jessica Melia as Sally Applewhite; Terri-Leigh Nevin’s Lana Sherwood gives us an excellent Myrtle Wilson, complete with squeaky Noo Yoik accent; and Charlotte East’s Nellie North adds a touch of class as Jordan Baker. (I hope I’ve got everyone’s names right!)
All six prove their versatility in characterisation and demonstrate exceptional vocal skills. Director Alexandra Whiteley gives us plenty of visuals too in what was in danger of being a rather static affair. To see the cast create highly effective sound effects is a marvel to behold, especially the horse noises of Jessica Melia and the car noises of Charlotte East and Jason Adam.
There is some comedy with Jason Adam’s Tony getting things wrong, and I would have liked more of this tension, the pressure to get things right and not to miss cues. The action is interrupted for commercial breaks, where the cast sing the jingles. Illuminated signs encourage us to applaud when appropriate – not that I need much encouragement.
The second half allows the Fitzgerald to come to the fore for the dramatic and tragic denouement, using the techniques the cast have demonstrated so amusingly in the first, but the whole thing ends on a cheerful note with a joyful Charleston to see us off.
It’s the day after 9/11 – or, the 10th of September, 2001, and in an apartment in New York, a couple are going through their own calamity. Ben (Joe Palmer) is tightly wound, ignoring the incessant phone calls from his wife, while his boss/employer-cum-mistress Abby (Angela Hewitt) tries to coax him to do the Right Thing (i.e. fess up to his wife). Considering the biggest terrorist outrage in American history just happened a few blocks away, these two (Ben especially) are incredibly self-obsessed, paying only lip service to the tragedy and colossal loss of life. Ben hasn’t reported in at home and is presumed missing and/or dead. It’s a glorious opportunity to start afresh…if only he had the guts. If these two were anything like the rest of us, they would have spent that day glued to the news! I know I did.
Twenty years on, Neil LaBute’s play is beginning to creak. The immediacy has gone and we’re left with this two-hander about an unhappy couple. As Ben, Joe Palmer nails the emotional immaturity, whininess and egotism of the younger man, while Angela Hewett’s more mature Abby is able to keep it together for the most part. There is a lack of chemistry between them and it’s hard to see what they saw in each other in the first place, what about Ben would entice Abby to risk her professional career by dating a co-worker and underling. Everything from their personal concerns to who the hell is Audie Murphy is delivered with the same intensity, which deadens the humorous lines. At times it sounds like Ben is sounding off to his therapist. Lighter moments need to be lighter. There needs to be some level of playfulness between the two before the tension between them boils over. As a result, I found myself not caring about either of them.
It doesn’t help that the writing uses the soap opera technique of having the characters address each other by name every other line. In soap, this works as exposition for the casual viewer, but here, with only two characters, it’s not that difficult for us to remember who is whom. Once I caught on to this, it irritated the hell out of me.
The traverse staging allows a greater sense of intimacy in the already intimate Ron Barber studio, and the sparse furnishings suggest a classy New York apartment – stronger New York accents from the cast would also add to the sense of place and proximity to the tragedy.
Being the Crescent, production values are high, but the result is a solid production of a weak play. And if I never hear that bloody Nokia ringtone again it will be too soon.
☆ ☆ and a half
Angela Hewitt and Joe Palmer as the unhappy couple Abby and Ben (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 29th December, 2022
The title clearly states that this is not going to be the J.M. Barrie classic. In fact, this is more of a sequel to the well-known story. It begins with Tinkerbell, in the panto role of Good Fairy, welcoming Wendy Darling back to Neverland. There is trouble afoot. Something about supplies of pixie dust in short supply, blah blah. Of course, the plot is not the main focus of pantomime. The main focus of pantomime is fun, and this one has it in spades.
Appearing as Smee is local superstar and Regent favourite, Jonathan Wilkes who, let’s face it, is the one everyone comes to see. Wilkes is the embodiment of pantomime: he sings, he dances, he can handle an audience and a comic monologue, and as director, he knows how every aspect of the show should work. He has a cocky but not arrogant persona, a cheeky boyish charm that enables him to get away with the most bawdy lines. Never mind Pan, he is the one who has never grown up and we all love him for it.
This year, Wilkes is hooked up with returning favourite Kai Owen as the nefarious pirate Captain, supposedly reformed having been poohed out by the crocodile. The highlights of the show are their routines – some of them time-honoured and traditional, others fresh and new. A scene where they drag up as mermaids is particularly hilarious, and as the run reaches its end, it’s obvious they are still very much enjoying themselves.
In the title role is a youthful and energetic Rory Sutherland, with all the right poses and heroic stances. This Peter is an action hero as well as an adorable twink. The plot means he is grounded until the pixie dust shortage is resolved, so when Sutherland finally takes to the air, we’re with him.
Amanda Coutts’s Tinkerbell is a gorblimey kind of fairy, bearing no ill-will or jealousy towards Hannah Everest’s confident and earnest Wendy Darling. Both girls have powerful singing voices, and it’s great to see Wendy play an active role in the climactic defeat of Captain Hook.
The plot is new yet encompasses what we expect from both panto and Peter Pan. The script by Alan McHugh and Jonathan Wilkes is riddled with jokes, some of them old, some of them new, and only a few of which never land. There’s the almost obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas, which rapidly descends into chaos, the ancient ‘Who’s in the first house?” routine… Wilkes and Owen carry it all off with aplomb. All right, so we don’t get out-and-out slapstick, but the element I miss the most is one of the most pivotal characters in the pantomime pantheon. There is nothing like a dame. For me, this is all that’s lacking from this ribald and rowdy, rollocking and riotous piece of theatre.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!
Hannah Everest, Jonathan Wilkes, Amanda Coutts, and Rory Sutherland (Photo: Claralou Photography)
After all these years, Hippodrome pantomime favourite Matt Slack finally lands a title role. At last he is able to make a Dick of himself. If you’ve seen him before you know exactly what you’re going to get, and Slack delivers exactly what they pay him for. No one does what Matt Slack does better than Matt Slack, but there is a strong whiff of we’ve seen it all before. To paraphrase a line from the pantomime, Turn again, turn again, Matt Slack’s doing his turn again.
You can’t help but admire his energy, his skill set (his impressions are off the scale!) and his wit – he is co-credited as scriptwriter along with veteran panto scribe, Alan McHugh. The script is aimed well above the heads of the youngest members of the audience; it’s quite the rudest panto I’ve seen this year, which is fun for the grown-ups who have forked out for the tickets.
As ever at the Hippodrome, it’s a massive spectacle. An early appearance of the Rat King is breath-taking. Unfortunately, its dialogue is largely drowned out by the atmospheric music that underscores the scene. Playing the Rat King’s human emissary, the Rat Man is housewives’ favourite, Marti Pellow, who certainly looks the part. Elegantly costumed, he struts around, performing tuneful songs of his own composition, but he is largely separate from the action. It’s like he’s in a different show. The rest are in a panto while he’s doing his musical theatre thing.
There’s a song about panto and how great it is. We don’t need to know we’re watching a panto. They don’t need to tell us they’re in a panto. Again, the show veers toward musical theatre, which ain’t panto. There’s no slosh scene, no ‘It’s behind you’ moment, and audience participation is kept to a bare minimum.
Conventionally a dancer is cast as the Cat. Interestingly, we get local character Doreen Tipton instead. Doreen has a marvellous deadpan woe-is-me delivery, and it’s great to see her branching away from her usual mockery of people on benefits. As the Spirit of the Bells, TV’s Dr Ranj prances and sparkles around, very much being himself and proving himself a good sport. Ironically, he serves as ‘straight man’ to Matt Slack’s extended pun-filled stories.
Andrew Ryan is Felicity Fitzwarren, a garishly glamorous dame, who definitely needs her own moment in the show out from under the shadow of Slack’s spotlight, while former pop star Suzanne Shaw provides love interest as Alice Fitzwarren. Shaw is strangely underused, with no solo number nor even a duet with Slack.
The cast is supported by a hardworking ensemble of ten, and a seven-piece band, led by Robert Willis. It’s a great looking, great-sounding production, beautifully lit by Ben Cracknell, and there are laughs aplenty throughout. What the show gains in scale and splendour, it loses in heart. Slick and spectacular, it’s enjoyable to be sure, but I feel it lacks some of the elements of the very art form it extols in song.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
What a Dick! Matt Slack reigning supreme (Photo: Paul Coltas)
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th December, 2022
You might think the intimate performance space at Stratford’s Attic Theatre would be too restrictive to stage a pantomime. Well, you’d be reckoning without the genius of Tread The Boards’ resident writer-director John Robert Partridge. He puts the focus on his cast of six to deliver all the conventions of the art form, supported by the tech crew, and quite frankly, we are too busy laughing to miss grand-scale spectacular scenes which other, larger venues can accommodate. Partridge frames the story how we would expect: a fairy in a pink spot, the villain in a green… but because it’s Robin Hood, we don’t know precisely what the plot will entail, unlike the more well-worn pantomimes, and this adds freshness to the production.
Opening the show and winning us over instantly is Florence Sherratt as fabulous Fairy Fabulous, friendly and funny, contrasting sharply with Joshua Chandos’s marvellously wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. Chandos is darkly camp and never short of hilarious – and he has the best hair.
Emily Tietz’s Maid Marian is no shrinking violet, with her movie-star looks and a valiant spirit; while Dan Grooms’s Robin may be a long time coming but is definitely worth the wait. For all his posing, posturing, and knee-slapping, it is Robin who must be rescued from the Sheriff’s clutches by Marian and the others.
Those others: Silly Willy – Dominic Selvey is a lovable buffoon with an indefatigable supply of quick-fire one-liners. When he gets three volunteer children from the audience for a rendition of Music Man, he’s on a steep learning curve! Playing Willy’s mother, Dame Tuck, is Pete Meredith, a consummate panto dame, cheeky bordering on bawdy, and sporting a range of eye-wateringly garish outfits as the show goes on.
The songs are mainly lifted from Disney, with a touch of ABBA; there’s a wonderful send-up of the Bryan Adams mega-hit, Everything I Do I Do For You, and an exciting climactic swordfight between Robin and the Sheriff while Dame Tuck belts out her best Bonnie Tyler.
Adam Clarke’s set design comprises a stylised forest backdrop complete with a real tree trunk, the branches of which stretch across the ceiling. The set is rendered multi-purpose by Kat Murray’s lighting and the dialogue, proving you don’t need elaborate scenery to evoke location and atmosphere.
There’s plenty of audience participation. This reviewer was picked on to be Dame Tuck’s ‘boyfriend’ and it could have been worse! I think I got off lightly…
A riotous, fun-filled evening and an affordable seasonal treat. As a measure of every panto, I glance around at the nearby children in the audience to see if they’re enthralled. And tonight they’re lapping it up.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Full of beans: Dominic Selvey gives us his Silly Willy, with Pete Meredith’s Dame Tuck behind
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 14th December, 2022
Aladdin has always been a curious mix as a pantomime, based on a tale from the 1001 Arabian Nights, with a lot of Chinese reference points chucked in. Writer-director Will Brenton overcomes the outdated stereotypes by translating the action from Old Peking to ‘Shangri-Fa’, located somewhere in The Mystical East. Therefore, in terms of costumes and scenery, anything vaguely Asian goes!
And it’s a good-looking show, blending old-school scenic elements with a video cyclorama.
The action kicks off with villainous Abanazar (Michael Greco off of EastEnders) revealing his dastardly plot. He unleashes the Spirit of the Ring (Zoe Birkett) who, Magic Mirror-like, tells him the only person pure of heart in the vicinity happens to be the title character, who also happens to be something of a thief. Or, as he would put it, a redistributor of wealth. Greco is great, melodramatic and pompous, lacing the bombast with a wry sense of humour. Birkett is fantastic, with a chirpy Northern charm and a singing voice to die for. I’d be happy if the entire show morphed into a concert of hers, to be honest. Her ‘Defying Gravity’ while Aladdin soars on a magic carpet, is just wonderful.
In the title role, Ben Cajee is appealing but the characterisation is, ironically, wishy-washy. Returning to the Grand for another go, this time to appear as Aladdin’s brother Wishee-Washee is the excellent Tam Ryan. In fact, we have to wait for his first entrance to get the first joke of the night. Also making a welcome return is Ian Adams as a long-suffering Widow Twankey. Ryan and Adams, separately and together, are the comedic pulse of a production which is uneven in tone.
Instead of an emperor or sultan, Shangri-Fa is ruled by a twit of a bureaucrat, a bumbling Notary (Ian Billings) who is out to line his own pockets, believing billionaires to be better than the rest of us. This change means his daughter, Jasmine (Sofie Anne) is denied her princess status, freeing her to share Aladdin’s social conscience. It seems that pantomime is drawing lines in the sand this year. Wealth should be for everyone and not just those at the top, Aladdin and Jasmine agree. I welcome this refreshing change: panto has always been a popular art-form and has always satirised those in charge. There seems to be a distinct move to speak up for the people this year. Unfortunately, the Notary who has the power to say who may or may not get married, just fizzles out of the storyline and the thread is left unresolved. Here is a character who needs to learn the error of his ways. Also left hanging is Wishee-Washee’s attraction to Zoe Birkett. It’s usual in panto for everyone to get a happy ending, but even Twankey doesn’t get a man.
There is much to enjoy, of course. Duane Gooden’s big hearted (and big bellied) Genie, the hard-working ensemble of dancers, a slosh scene in the laundry… But for me, it doesn’t hang together as a coherent whole.
And there’s the rub.
☆ ☆ ☆ and a half
Bopping Beppe: Michael Greco making his di Marco as Abanazar (Photo: Alex Styles)
As soon as Fairy Fleur (Harriet Thorpe from Ab Fab) opens the show with a flash and a puff of smoke, we know we are in safe hands. Camp and cheerful, Thorpe takes charge and sets the tone for a hugely enjoyable evening. And the producers get their money’s worth out of her, having her reappear in several guises throughout the story.
Aya Elmansouri’s Cinderella is feisty and exuberant, not the downtrodden figure we might expect. Her singing voice is powerful and we take to her immediately. In fact, it’s an instantly lovable cast; Ricky K’s Buttons is a cheeky clown, adept at physical comedy; Tom Vaughan’s Prince Louis is handsome and clean cut and clearly having fun; Allan Jay’s Dandini is camply Scottish, and a serious challenge to Vaughan for the best singing voice in the show.
The scene-stealing Ugly Sisters, wonderfully named Tess & Trace, are unstintingly hilarious. Jason Sutton’s Trace is the more traditional panto dame while Will Peaco’s Tess is more of a modern drag queen. The pair work wonderfully together. Even their moments of cruelty bring laughter.
The traditional pantomime elements are here, executed perfectly. A slosh scene involving Button and the Sisters and a tub of face cream is all the funnier for its simplicity. And a Staffordshire Sasquatch provides the ‘It’s Behind You’ scene, including a chase around the auditorium.
The stage at the Gatehouse may not be very deep but the production company makes the most of it. Production values are high, and the horse-drawn carriage at the close of Act One is breath-taking — I would advise a puff of dry ice to better conceal the apparatus.
The well-worn story is served well by an excellent script by Julie Coombe, crackling with jokes, many of them aimed at the adults in the audience. There are many topical references promoting a greener lifestyle without holding these ideas up to ridicule e.g. Cinders and the Prince first meet during a protest to save some trees, the palace only serves Vegan food… It’s good to be included without being the butt of a joke!
Connor Fogel single-handedly handles the music. Most of the songs are disco classics, serving to give the show a certain unity of tone, with Rebecca Jeffrey’s energetic choreography being both retro and contemporary.
This is certainly a pantomime that gets everything right. It’s perfect entertainment, enthralling for the children and hilarious for the grown-ups.
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th December, 2022
There are many shows that chart the highs and lows of the business we call show, detailing the rise and fall of musical artistes, often involving real-life dead singers. This one focusses on a fictional Motown-style girl group and adheres pretty much to the same storytelling formula, touching upon white exploitation of black music, and male exploitation of female performers.
Three young women meet a manager/con artist who gets them a gig as backing singers to an established star. Eventually, the group get to headline their own shows, make records, appear on television. Conflict arises when the manager changes the line-up so the ‘best-looking’ girl gets to front the group, while the one with the strongest voice is relegated to backing vocals. These machinations culminate in a blistering Act One closing number, delivered by Nicole Raquel Dennis as the side-lined Effie, whose rendition of And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going brings the house to its feet and is quite possibly the most impassioned performance you could ever hope to hear.
Dennis is a powerful presence throughout, exhibiting Effie’s diva behaviour and that searing, soaring voice. Playing the other two girls are Natalie Kassanga as Deena (the pretty one) and Paige Peddie as Lorrell (the funny one). They each get their moments to shine both musically and dramatically.
As the manipulative manager Curtis Taylor Jr, Matt Mills embodies the male attitudes of the time: the women are merely a product for him to package and sell. With his rich singing voice, he is a pleasure to hate. Brandon Lee Sears is a pleasure to like as womanising soul singer Jimmy Early; with all the moves and the vocal dynamics, Sears delivers a star turn.
Tim Hatley’s set evokes nightclubs, TV studios, Las Vegas, all through geometric patterns, while his costumes are glitzy and glamorous – especially the gowns worn by the girls.
The songs are credible pastiches, played live by a fantastic band under the baton of Simona Budd, but of course it’s the singers who command our attention. You can’t fault the production values or the performances, but for me the material is a little too formulaic, containing no surprises to lift it beyond the run-of-the-mill showbiz story.
All in all though, it’s a hugely impressive, entertaining evening in the company of Supremely talented performers who work hard to deserve their ovations.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Diverting divas: Paige Peddie, Natalie Kassanga, and Nicole Raquel Dennis
The first pantomime of the season and it’s a favourite fixture of mine, the Belgrade’s annual extravaganza featuring the perennial pairing of Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth. Returning for the umpteenth year, writer/director and dame extraordinaire, Lauchlan delivers the goods once again with a blend of traditional and innovative elements. He is also generous enough not to hog all the best/worst jokes to himself.
Appearing as Dame Trott in a range of garish and hilarious outfits, Lauchlan embodies the panto spirit, with good-natured fun and broad comedy. Forming a perfect foil is Craig Hollingsworth’s Simple Simon, a somewhat manic man-child. Hollingsworth delivers a masterclass in how to handle and involve the audience, and it’s an absolute joy to see these two working together again.
Morna Macpherson is a thigh-slappingly heroic Jack. It strikes me that pantomime, with its dames and principal boys, has been years ahead in terms of using pronouns according to how people present themselves to the world. The kids in the audience take the characters at face value, which is how it should be. Macpherson’s macho posturing is in keeping with the genre, rather than being a parody. Rochelle Hollis plays the object of Jack’s affection, the Princess Poppy, doing a good job with a thankless part.
Emma Mulkern’s Fairy Fennel is good value, while Andy Hockley’s Fleshcreep is delightfully wicked, in a Dickensian manner. Hockley is clearly having a lot of fun, donning a range of disguises that we see through right away. David Gilbrook’s attention-deficient King adds to the fairy tale setting.
There is much of what we expect: a slapstick scene involving lemon meringues and oversized syringes, a bit of music hall patter, and plenty of audience participation. Always one to include new ideas with the old, Lauchlan’s beanstalk is the most innovatively staged I’ve ever seen. The giant also impresses and is worth waiting for, but it’s Daisy the Cow who upstages everyone (played by dancers Lewis James and Hudson Tong). I also love the troupe of cockroaches that infests the giant’s castle; they have some nifty choreography courtesy of Jenny Phillips.
The laughs keep coming and the plot chugs on despite all the shenanigans. The first half does run rather long, proving a strain on young bladders, and having to sing a verse about a chip shop every time Simple Simon walks on gets a bit wearing very soon. But these shortcomings don’t amount to a hill of beans.
Bright and colourful with almost everything covered in glitter, this is a hugely enjoyable, highly silly production with enough to keep everyone entertained.
Colour me cheered up, good and proper.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Don’t have a cow! Craig Hollingsworth, Daisy, and Iain Lauchlan (Photo: Nicola Young)
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 23rd November, 2022
This slice of Victorian gothic begins with grief-stricken natural historian Professor Stokes (Maxwell Caulfield) narrating a spooky experience he has had to spiritualist Tom Beauregard (Michael Praed). And so we are transported to the site of this happening, a creepy old house by the sea, where we encounter housekeeper Mrs Hinchcliffe (Juliet Mills) and housemaid Florence (Chipo Kureya). And it’s not long before objects start moving seemingly of their own accord, to the accompaniment of plenty of bumps in the night.
Writer Michael Punter weaves an intriguing mystery; his dialogue is beautifully evocative of period and sensation. There is wry humour running through the piece, offsetting the moments of tension and surprise, which are superbly handled by director Charlotte Peters.
Maxwell Caulfield is in good form as the opinionated professor, and there is some superb character work from Juliet Mills, as a chummy version of Mrs Danvers. Chipo Kureya is their equal as the ‘sensitive’ housemaid, upping the supernatural ante. But it is Michael Praed who storms the piece as the American spiritualist, on the wrong side of the Civil War, looking and sounding every inch the debonair Southern gentleman. Young Kureya excluded, the other three must have hideous, decaying portraits stashed in their attics: how they resist the ravages of old age is perhaps the most mysterious supernatural element to the show!
Without giving too much away, there is also a splendidly eerie appearance by Will Beynon…
Dominic Bilkey’s sound design goes a long way to engendering atmosphere, while Nick Richings’s lighting plays on Philip Witcomb’s beautifully detailed set to create moments of terror and otherworldly occurrences.
It’s a well-made, good-looking production, with an interesting story and well-executed special effects. If I were in charge, however, I would tidy up some of the plot points so that all the information is revealed before the climactic action. This would mean there’d be no need for the coda scene, happening twelve months later, where two of the characters tie up the loose ends for the audience’s benefit.
Marvellously atmospheric and beautifully played, this is a spookily entertaining night out.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Stop! Nobody ordered a table dance! Juliet Mills, Michael Praed, Maxwell Caulfield and Chipo Kureya sharing a moment (Photo: Jack Merriman)
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 17th November, 2022
Young couple Liz and JP are engaged to be married. To raise funds for their nuptials, they decide to create something exciting for their YouTube channel, something that will go viral and bring in the big bucks. Unlike most ‘influencers’ I’ve come across, this pair are an appealing couple of characters and we’re happy to go along with them when they opt for spending the night at an abandoned children’s home…
So begins a superb night of theatre, with the intimate black-box space of the Blue Orange pulling out all the stops to generate suspense and tension, using practical effects to shock and surprise and to get us jumping out of our seats. The action is enhanced by video footage, for scenic reasons and to develop the plot, as JP stumbles across VT of a creepy doctor conducting interviews with his juvenile charges. Alex Johnson’s set grounds us in reality, while his lighting design highlights the weird happenings. Dan Clarkson’s sound design punches up the scarier moments. Sights and sounds come at us from all quarters, keeping us on edge throughout.
Saul Bache makes JP an amiable extrovert, providing a rich vein of humour between the scares. Stephanie Simpson’s Liv is more level-headed (until things start to unravel, that is!) and the two spark off each other nicely. Thom Stafford (no relation) is wonderfully menacing as twisted Doctor Harding, whether he’s on screen or making a more personal appearance.
The script by James Williams and Alexandra Whiteley (who both also direct) is bang up-to-date, proving that ghost stories don’t have to be Victorian, using present-day vernacular and technology to create a thrill-ride of a play that puts the audience in the thick of the action. Ashley Walsh’s original compositions add to the horror movie atmosphere, and there’s a haunting version of You Are My Sunshine in a minor key that is wonderfully unsettling. Horror fans will recognise tropes from cinema, but they’re just as (if not more) effective done live before our very eyes.
The story covers a lot of ground: mystery, supernatural occurrences, psychological terror, buried memories coming to the surface… and does so effectively in a comparatively short running time. It’s an antidote to all the premature Christmas cheer out there, a perfect chiller for a wintry evening.
John Webster’s revenge tragedy, first produced in 1614, comes to the Ron Barber studio in this elegant, abbreviated version, directed by Andrew Cowie. A cast of nine hurtle through the action and, for the most part, handle the text well – especially when the characters are being angry or insane or both.
In the title role, Grace Cheatle is an appealing duchess, marrying her alluring femininity with a kind of playful innocence. She also marries her steward, in secret and against the wishes of her control freak brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Andrew Elkington) and the Cardinal (Tom Lowde). These are the villains of the piece but their dirty work is carried out by the formidable Robert Laird as ex-con and henchman for hire, Daniel de Bosola, who spies on the duchess and gets most of Webster’s best lines. “We are merely the star’s tennis balls, struck and banded Which way please them.”– A nice philosophy but it’s the duchess’s brothers who strike and band him around!
Elkington and Lowde each shine, especially in scenes of distress, and yet again the costume team at the Crescent come up trumps, realising the designs of Stewart and Rose Snape. Duke Ferdinand’s madness is more alarming than anything feigned by Hamlet.
Jason Adam makes an impression as Antonio the steward, and there is superb support from Fi Cotton as the loyal waiting woman, Cariola – grieving and getting strangled in heart-wrenching moments. Charlotte Thompson is assured and somewhat coquettish as the Cardinal’s fiery mistress, while Jess Shannon works wonders with the non-descript ‘nice’ role of Delia, Antonio’s friend – and survivor of the climactic massacre.
Andrew Cowie’s direction keeps the action moving at quite a lick and there are some splendid scenes in lantern light. The scene where the duchess is visited by a group of lunatics seems underdone, though. As the action reaches its denouement, he brings out the dark humour of the piece but, curiously, for a revenge tragedy, the stage is surprisingly blood free. Apart from a nosebleed on a handkerchief and a wax dummy painted with it, this is a remarkably sterile bloodbath. One of the delights of revenge tragedy is the copious bloodletting at the end. We have enjoyed seeing the mighty and powerful behaving extremely badly; similarly, their comeuppance must be extreme, washing their sins away with their own blood.
As ever, production values are high – but perhaps the budget doesn’t run to the laundry bill or contain enough for buckets of stage blood to be added to the props list! The chequerboard floor of Keith Harris and Michael Barry’s set suggests chess, symbolising the plots and stratagems of just about all the characters, the black and white squares the evil or good of their natures.
Stylish, elegant and gripping if a bit anaemic.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Fi Cotton and Grace Cheatle (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 1st November, 2022
This new play by Tonia Daley Campbell reveals the story of two women of colour, both princesses in their own right, who became goddaughters to Queen Victoria. As girls, they were spared the fate of their enslaved compatriots because of their royal heritage. In doing this, Victoria considered herself progressive.
The story is framed around a group of girls stumbling into a dusty room and discovering portraits of the two women. The women then come forward to introduce themselves. The time has come for their stories to be heard, having been excised from Victoria’s private journals.
Karina Holness shines as Sara Forbes Bonetta, proving herself a captivating storyteller. She is matched by Amrika Rani as Maharajah’s daughter turned suffragette, Sophia Duleep Singh. Appearing as an imperious and regal Queen Victoria, Skye Witney is perfectly authoritative while showing a human side to the woman who was the figurehead of the empire.
The lively bunch of girls are joined by a chorus of community performers. With the exception of Queen Victoria, no one leaves the stage. Modern commentary on historical events and attitudes provides a rich source of humour, and often what we hear is emotive and provocative. Director Lorna Laidlaw keeps everyone busy, so that scenes don’t become too static, but herein lies the problem of the piece.
There is a tendency to tell rather than to show. Events and incidents are delivered in reportage, as the leading players narrate their own lives rather than acting them out. The result is a wordy and informative evening that raises many important points, where didacticism replaces dramatic action.
There is a lot of ground covered. It’s not just the two women featured who have been erased from history. Rather than having Black History Month once a year, the entire education system needs a reboot. Above all, the play celebrates the contributions of black women, and it’s only right that these inspirational figures are acknowledged.
To repeat a quotation used in the play from Emmeline Pankhurst, “Deeds not words will change history.” Deeds, combined with words, make for a more effective drama!
Back in 1992, Baz Luhrmann’s directorial debut took cinemas across the world by storm. So popular was the film that the BBC nicked half of its title for their reboot of popular ballroom show, Come Dancing (rendering the adverb meaningless, in the process!). Now, the musical stage adaptation is doing the rounds, directed by Strictly’s chief grouse, Craig Revel Horwood. As you might expect, the choreography (by Horwood and Jason Gilkison) is impeccable. The problem I have, unfortunately, is that too often the downstage area is in darkness, and characters who should be the focus of particular moments, disappear into shadow. I can’t work out if this is down to strange choices by lighting designer Richard G Jones, or whether it’s because the follow-spot operators fell asleep on the job.
The two leads are played by Strictly royalty, Kevin Clifton as Scott Hastings and Maisie Smith as Fran. Clifton is a wonderful mover and, as a singer, well, he’s a wonderful mover. Belting out non-descript ballads is not his forte, I’m afraid. Smith is a revelation, with a fine singing voice with an impressive range. Fran is the ugly duckling, Cinderella and Eliza Doolittle rolled into one, as she learns to dance to a standard fit for a tournament in just three weeks.
The score is a mix of original songs (which aren’t up to much) and jukebox classics of the era, and so standards like Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time are shoehorned in, with the hope that at least some of the lyrics will be pertinent to the situation.
The Australian accents add to the campness of the whole, contrasting with the elegance of the formal dance clothes and coiffured hair. Nikki Belsher is a prime example, as Clifford’s selfish mother, Shirley. Gary Davis cuts an overbearing, almost Trumpian figure, as the corrupt president of the dance federation, Barry Fife.
When Scott goes to meet Fran’s folks, he encounters Rico, who puts him in his place, choreographically speaking. Jose Agudo steals the show with a flaming flamenco that brings the house down, which brings the first act to a rousing finale. The show never recovers, never retains these dizzying heights again. Not even in the climactic dance tournament. Agudo is magnetic, drawing the eye, embodying elegance and masculinity in the stamp of a foot, the sweep of an arm. Tens across the board!
On the whole, I think the show would work better as a play, with the songs reserved for the dance sequences. The quirky comedy of the original film is swamped here by the soul-searching ballads.
Kudos to the talented performers, who give their all, and to the excellent six-piece band under the baton of Dustin Conrad, but the material needs to be handled differently if the story is to delight and to move me as the film did thirty years ago.
☆ ☆ ☆
Kevin Clifton and Maisie Smith (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)
The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th October, 2022
Long ago, white Europeans went to the Americas and wiped out the natives with diseases. Centuries later, the grey squirrels returned the favour by coming to the UK and doing the same to our native reds. There is a movement now to ‘control’ the grey population, a kind of ethnic cleansing for squirrels.
This new comedy by Bea Roberts, currently playing in the RSC’s underused Other Place studio theatre, seems as though it was tailor-made for comedian Daisy May Cooper, with a very strong feel of the BBC sitcom This Country about it. Cooper does not appear, but her spirit is evoked by the superb Jenny Rainsford in the title role.
Ivy is something of an eco-warrior, hunting and killing the invasive grey squirrels in order that the native reds may flourish. This activity gives Ivy a sense of purpose and self-importance, because in no other arena is she afforded these feelings: her teacher training is down the drain, her father is cold and distant, treating her like a skivvy… And so squirrel-hunting has replaced caring for her late mother, and here is something she can control, a ‘disease’ she can eradicate. Fresh out of jail, cousin Gary (Nathan McMullan) comes to visit. Ivy picks up where they left off, wallowing in childhood nostalgia.
This is not really a play about conservation. It’s more to do with grief – or to be precise, not grieving. Ivy is unable to move on from the loss of her mother, so when even the squirrel-killing dries up and her team is disbanded, she has nowhere to turn. She tries to cling to her eco-warrior role and keep it going, but it is slipping from her grasp.
This very funny piece turns out to have been a tragedy, after all.
Rainsford and McMullan make a fine double act, and they are supported by a fine quartet. I really enjoy Alex Bhat as Reece, Ivy’s comrade-in-arms who is in love with her; Tim Treloar as local landowner Tig and other roles; Anna Andresen as a beleaguered headteacher; and Jade Ogugua as a primary school teacher – her clashes with Rainsford are excellently played.
Caitlin McLeod’s direction hones the comedic playing to the hilt, wisely allowing dumbshow sequences to cover transitions, to give us physical comedy to complement Roberts’s dazzling script.
One of the aspects I most admire about this production is it credits the audience with the intelligence to piece together characters’ histories, to divine why they are the way they are. We meet Ivy and her milieu as observers – the distance helps us to laugh – but it is our recognition of the characters’ humanity that fills in the blanks.
Hot on the heels of Gangsta Granny, Awful Auntie, and Billionaire Boy, comes this latest stage adaptation of a David Walliams novel. Demon Dentist is in similar vein, with all the Roald Dahl-esque features we have come to expect, but with this story there is an extra frisson of horror. Of course, bung ‘dentist’ into the title, and you’ve got a head start when it comes to frightening people!
The story begins with the Tooth Fairy leaving horrible things under kids’ pillows. Instead of shiny coins, they find dogs’ tails, dead mice, squashed toads. Then a new dentist comes to town, offering ‘special’ toothpaste and sugar-free sweets… and the mystery deepens. It falls to 12 year-old, dentist-phobic Alfie and his friend-who-is-a-girl Gabz to investigate.
Leading this excellent ensemble is Sam Varley, who is instantly appealing as big-hearted, bad-toothed Alfie; I’m convinced he is genuinely a schoolboy claiming to be a much older actor rather than the other way around! And when he sings, it’s spine-tinglingly good. Alfie is a carer for his dad (James Mitchell) who is debilitated by a case of black lung from his time as a coal miner. Their relationship is the emotional heart of the play, and the two of them tug at your heartstrings.
Georgia Grant-Anderson is great fun as Gabz, while Misha Malcolm’s social worker Winnie navigates the fine line between broad comedy and touching drama. Extra comedy is added by Zain Abrahams as newsagent Raj (a recurring character in these stories) and Ben Eagle as PC Plank. There is also strong support from Aaron Patel and Mia Overfield in a range of smaller roles.
Emily Harrigan really gets her teeth into the role of Miss Root the evil dentist , like Cruella de Vil taking on NHS patients. A proper, scary villain, Harrigan belts out songs one minute, makes malicious threats the next, all the while looking fabulous. Here the humour is at its darkest and most delicious.
Neal Foster’s direction keeps things moving. There’s a lot of fast-moving action, plenty of fart jokes, and some effective moments of suspense and surprise, but it’s the emotional beats that kick you in the teeth. This play really does have something for everyone. Listening to the children in the audience alternate between screams of laughter and screams of, well, screams, adds to the gruesome, silly fun. It’s a perfect family treat for Halloween and the Birmingham Stage Company have yet another hit on their hands.
You won’t be needing nitrous oxide for this show to make you laugh.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Sam Varney (under the cat), Emily Harrigan, Georgia Grant-Anderson, and Misha Malcolm
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2022
Back in 1818, young Mary Shelley invented the science fiction genre with her gothic novel that deals with those little things like creation, life and death. By creating life and thereby usurping God, Victor Frankenstein then shirks his responsibilities as a creator. His creation, unguided, has to find his own way in the world. Thus, the Creature represents the human condition, floundering while God insists on being an absentee father.
This new adaptation by Catherine Prout hits all the right plot points, even with a scaled-down cast of characters. The rather verbose dialogue is true to the style of the Shelley original and does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to conveying a sense of the period.
Dan Grooms is an impassioned if youthful Victor, adept at showing signs of high distress both physically and emotionally. I wonder if his pre-recorded narration would be better done live as he potters around in his laboratory.
He is more than matched by his Creature, in a towering performance from Alastair Oakley, who is imposing and innocent, ferocious and frightening, while also being pitiful. It’s a remarkable portrayal.
This central pair is supported by a versatile ensemble. The mighty Robert Moore is charming as Victor’s BFF Henry, and brings a touch of humour as farmer Felix; Matilda Bott is devastating as the wrongly-accused Justine; Phil Leach brings gravitas as Victor’s dad, and warmth as blind De Lacey; Joshua Chandos impresses as Captain Waldman to whom Victor unfolds his tale; while Lily Bennett does a bang-up job of making too-good-to-be-true Elizabeth sympathetic rather than soppy.
Adrian Daniel’s set has something of a steampunk aesthetic, all ropes and chains, dials and switches. Lit by Kat Murray, it becomes a versatile and atmospheric setting for the play’s many locations.
As ever, director John-Robert Partridge makes the most of the Attic’s intimate space. Characters roam around in blackout, menacing the front row. Sudden screams and loud noises keep us on edge, as the gruesome tale weaves its fascinating spell. Even the scene changes are eerily done. It all flows smoothly and creepily – apart from some teething troubles with a recalcitrant table top that threaten to hold up the action! With today’s matinee being only the second performance of the run, I’m sure these minor problems will soon be ironed out.
Production values are high – special shout out to Sue Kent’s make-up work on the Creature – proving that with the right treatment, the familiar fable still has the power to intrigue, provoke and shock.
Like Victor’s Creature, this spellbinding show is extremely well put together.
Jeg så produksjonen på norsk så prøver jeg å skrive anmeldelsen min på norsk også! Her går vi!
Roald Dahls roman først dukket opp på scenen i den RSC produksjonen i 2010. Det bevegde fort fra Stratford Upon Avon til Londons West End hvor det fortsetter å spille.
Nå har showet kommet til Oslo og jeg er gled å få muligheten til å se det igjen.
Historien handler om den kjempesmart jenta, det svarte fåret til hennes uvitende familie. Hun leser på en bok, gisper faren som kommer ikke å forstå hvorfor Matilda ikke vil se på TV hele dagen. Matilda kjemper tilbake med praktikaliske vitser. På skolen står hun opp mot urettferdighetene begått av den manndige rektor Miss Trunchbull.
I denne forestillingen spilles rollen som Matilda av Agnes Sulejewski Bjerck, og hun er veldig imponerende. Alle barna opptrer som skuespillere med mange års erfaring. De er betagende energiske, synger og danser med klarhet, presisjon og komisk timing.
Robert Stoltenberg er deilig grusom som Trunchbull i sterk kontrast til Maria Ovidias Miss Honey. Gode er også Haddy Njie som den entusiastiske bibliotekaren Mrs Phelps, Fridtjov Såheim som Matildas krasse far, Siren Jørgensen som Matildas glorete mor, og jeg liker spesielt godt Carl Martin Prebensen i den lille, men morsomme rollen som Rodolpho, den slangehippede ballroomdanseren.
Tim Minchins låter er like underholdende som alltid. When I Grow Up er rørende og lengselsfull, og jeg finner noe spennende i måten barna svever på huskene.
Det er en historie om å finne familien din, hvor du passer inn, når familien du er født inn i ikke vet hva de skal gjøre med deg.
Helt tilfredsstillende og underholdende med en balanse mellom det morsomme og det emosjonelle, er denne produksjonen en stor og fargerik suksess!
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 28th August, 2022
The Chichester Festival Theatre production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic comes to town and it’s an absolute must-see. The score reads like a Greatest Hits playlist. So many great numbers, many of which have become standards. Hearing them within the context of the drama renews their impact.
Set in World War II on an island outpost where the US Navy is itching for conflict with the Japanese, this is at heart a double love story, where both relationships are blighted by ingrained prejudice. We have firecracker hick Nellie Forbush falling for the urbane and educated plantation owner Emile de Becque, and handsome young lieutenant Joe Cable having his head turned by Liat, the beautiful daughter of camp follower Bloody Mary. Joe feels unable to marry the girl because of the way things are ‘back home’; Nellie is horrified to discover the late mother of Emile’s kids was, gulp, coloured. The revelation of Nellie’s racism comes as a real kicker at the end of Act One. This lively, perky girl, the life and soul of any gathering, who has entertained us and earned our affection is tainted by one of the most stupid attitudes going. It’s a real blow, like finding out someone you otherwise admire votes Tory.
Sad to say, the show’s message is just as relevant today. Cable’s song, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught gets to the root of a problem that still plagues society today.
As the suave Emile, Julian Ovenden oozes romance. Some Enchanted Evening has never sounded lovelier or more seductive. Gina Beck’s Nellie is irresistible, funny and perky, with her heart on her sleeve, her vocals both belting and nuanced. Rob Houchen’s Cable is spot on: the handsome young officer, dutiful and yet in love. Houchen’s voice is surely the finest working in musical theatre today. Sublime.
Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary brings plenty of comic relief, as does Douggie McMeekin’s Luther Billis. Ampil’s impassioned pleas to Cable to give her daughter a better life are heart-breaking, and her rendition of Bali Ha’i is bewitching.
The big chorus numbers are stirring: There is Nothing Like a Dame, by the men, and I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, by the women. This production goes all out to deliver the goods. Ann Yee’s choreography, especially for the marines, is energetic, hoe-down like without being camp, and there are plenty of exotic touches to evoke the island setting.
Romantic, thrilling and humorous, with a strong social comment, South Pacific reasserts itself as a pinnacle of musical theatre in this magnificent production that hits all the right notes, musically and emotionally.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cable guy Rob Houchen and hair-washer Gina Beck (Photo: Johan Persson)
Famously, little is known of Shakespeare the man, although we actually know more about him than other playwrights of the time. The gaps in our knowledge are taken as an open invitation to screenwriters, novelists, and everyone else to invent whatever they like to make their own version of him. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman chose to straightwash the bard in their screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1998 film – Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day is widely recognised as having been written for a man. The screenplay takes plot points from Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night, with the idea that these life events inspired the plays, when in truth Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of pre-existing stories. Not that this matters if we take this version at face value. Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the screenplay holds true to the spirit of the film, and there’s a lot of fun to be had recognising versions of famous quotes. Even if you’re not well-versed (ha) in the Works, there is much to enjoy in this historical rom-com.
What strikes you first off in this sumptuous production is the set, which evokes the Globe Theatre and serves well for other locations. Milling around pre-show the cast give us previews of their costumes. As ever the costume department at the Crescent goes all out. This is a fabulous-looking show; Rosemary Snape and her team should be commended.
Oliver Jones is a handsome and endearing Will Shakespeare, managing to be both cerebral and bumbling. Alisdair Hunt makes an impression as his rival-mentor-friend Kit Marlowe. The notion that Marlowe fed Will some of his best lines under a balcony is more akin to Cyrano de Bergerac!
Bethany Gilbert absolutely shines as Viola de Lesseps who disguises herself as a boy in order to secure a role on the stage. Her delivery of the verse is second-to-none, although the play misses the opportunity to make the most of Will’s apparent attraction to someone of the same sex, as in Twelfth Night, say.
The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis is, have a guess, excellent as ever in his portrayal of harried theatre manager Henslowe, with superb timing and a performance that is just the right side of Carry On. The mighty James David Knapp absolutely storms it as the larger-than-life actor Ned Alleyn, while Joe Palmer is suitably entitled and horrible as villain of the piece, Wessex.
Also great are Mark Thompson as the bullish financier Fennyman who taps into his artistic side when he lands the role of the apothecary; Phil Rea as a deliciously bombastic Burbage; and Pat Dixon-Dale as Viola’s long-suffering Nurse. Jaz Davison’s imperious Queen Elizabeth is not without nuance.
There are many pleasing moments from supporting players: Charles Hubbard as boy-actor Sam; Dylan Guiney-Bailey as a bloodthirsty Webster; Niall Higgins as the Nurse within the play; Simon King as a riverboat cabbie…
A taut consort of musicians and vocalists provide period music to underscore the action and to cover transitions, and it all sounds perfectly lovely under Gary Spruce’s musical direction. There are a few moments when the music almost drowns the dialogue – luckily Mark Thompson is often around to tell them to shut up!
Director Michael Barry keeps the action well-focussed on an often busy stage – the period choreography is charming and doesn’t get in the way of the action. Keith Harris’s gorgeous set is backed by beautiful scenic projections, with Kaz Luckins’s fight direction adding authenticity as well as excitement.
A fine and funny fabrication that demonstrates the high quality production values on which the Crescent prides itself. All in all, an evening of excellent entertainment.
Less of a musical and more of a revue, this show which has enjoyed one of the longest runs in American theatre history, charts, through unconnected scenes, songs and vignettes, the course of love (true, or otherwise) of heterosexual people. When theatre holds up a mirror to life, it either validates what it shows or poses questions. Many people (straight ones) will recognise something of themselves in the character types and cliched moments on view, but from a queer perspective, the show takes on a completely different meaning. This is what your lives are like, the show tells straight people, and you are living a narrow nightmare of convention, societal expectations and guilt trips. The laughter of recognition should be followed through by a cringe or two at the very least.
The cast of six (customarily the piece is performed by four) work hard to pull it off, and it requires a certain set of skills to swiftly establish characters and emotions at the drop of a hat. Every member of this sextet has the talent, the skill – and the considerable energy it takes! – to deliver this demanding cavalcade of songs and sketches.
Jimmy Roberts’s score is serviceable rather than memorable, containing a variety of styles. Some standout numbers include I Will Be Loved Tonight performed by Hannah Lyons, and Hey There, Single Gal/Guy in which a pair of disappointed parents lay a guilt trip on their son and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.
Recognising the undiluted heteronormativity of the piece, directors Mark Shaun Walsh and Neve Lawler give one of the songs an LGBTQ+ twist, showing that the gays can have long-term relationships too, and have the same fears and doubts as everyone else. The number Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You, is beautifully sung by Walsh, and this feels like one of those moments of validation I talked about. This tweak broadens the scope of the material.
There is also some relief where single life is not depicted as a terrible condition that must be cured as soon as possible: the second act opener Always A Bridesmaid has the wonderful Kimberley Maynard revelling in her independence in a rousing countryfied number.
Some of the material is old hat (men not stopping to ask for directions) but some of it is acutely observant. The monologue of a divorced woman making a dating video is painfully funny and superbly delivered by Hannah Lyons. It also goes to show how the world has moved on from the world of the show, now that apps like Tinder dominate the dating experience. The libretto could do with an update to make it more directly relevant.
The cast take full advantage of this opportunity to showcase their skills: Jack Kirby as a husband and father who has transferred his affections to his car; Luke Plimmer and Anya McCutcheon Wells as a pair of elderly people meeting at a funeral, in the show’s most sentimental sequence. All in all, it’s flawlessly presented, with musical duo Chris Arnold (piano) and Lizi Toney (violin) giving virtuoso performances of the score’s diverse demands.
Given the almost relentless parodying of heterosexuality, I write in the notebook I keep on my knee, “Is the writer gay?”. At home I look up Joe DiPietro. He is. Ten points to me!
An enjoyable evening of laughter, with the occasional poignant moment. To sum up: I liked it, it’s imperfect, needs change.
Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th September 2022
Following last year’s rip-roaring Hound of the Baskervilles, Tread the Boards theatre company is back with this anthology of Holmes’s adventures. Back as the detective duo is the excellent pairing of Robert Moore as Sherlock and John-Robert Partridge as Dr Watson. Moore is in peril of becoming my favourite Holmes: he has the attitude, the humour, the intensity, and the heroism all down to perfection, with Partridge’s Watson and intelligent padawan and emotional barometer for the action.
The four stories in this exquisite adaptation are A Scandal in Bohemia, The Speckled Band, The Dancing Men, and The Final Problem, but the script avoids an episode structure by providing a throughline courtesy of arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty – Stephen Hardcastle in a suitably sinister portrayal.
Matilda Bott delights as a chirpy Mrs Hudson. Leo Garrick impresses as an aggressive Doctor Roylett, while Stephanie Miles makes a spirited Irene Adler. The supporting players get to demonstrate their versatility by doubling roles; the leading men get to demonstrate theirs by adopting disguises.
Partridge also directs, getting the tone of the piece spot on. The intimate space of the Attic puts us right in the Baker Street flat where all the action unfolds. Judicious use of lighting and sound effects suggests the other locations – Elliott Wallis’s superb music-and-sound design goes a long way to creating the atmosphere and a sense of time and place.
The script, by Robert Moore himself, wisely adheres to Conan Doyle, delivering everything we expect from and love about the most famous consulting detective.
There are plenty more stories that could be staged in this manner and I really hope a Tread The Boards Sherlock Holmes show becomes an annual treat.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 15th August, 2022
Perhaps more than most plays, Shakespeare’s Richard III depends on the charisma of its leading man, who in this case happens to be the villain of the piece. Through soliloquies and asides, the scheming Duke of Gloucester lets us in on his nefarious plots. Richard needs to be more than a pantomime villain, enjoyable though it is to boo and hiss at those figures. This production boasts a remarkable Richard; we take to him from the off. From the sarcasm of the famous opening speech and along every step of the way as his Machiavellian machinations play out, Arthur Hughes gives us a somewhat Puckish Richard, playfully turning on the histrionics whenever someone needs gaslighting. It’s a joy to watch him at work, especially since most of the other characters are ‘worthy’ beyond stomaching. The quickfire asides and glances through the fourth wall, the lines that drip with dramatic irony, are all deliciously delivered. The wooing of a woman he has widowed is a masterclass in manipulation.
Hughes is supported by a superlative company. In a play where the women have little else to do but grieve and wail, Minnie Gale’s Margaret stands out in a powerfully emotive scene. Kirsty Bushell’s keening cry as the grieving Elizabeth is truly heartrending and has to be heard to be believed. Jamie Wilkes impressed as Richard’s sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, while Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are great fun as a pair of darkly comedic murderers who have been sent to despatch Ben Hall’s sympathetic Duke of Clarence.
Director Gregory Doran keeps the action fast-moving with swift transitions, and the sense of period in augmented by some beautiful treble vocals. The climactic battle scenes are presented in a highly stylised manner using physical theatre and a symbolic staining with blood of the massive cenotaph that has cast its shadow over proceedings. These scenes come hot on the heels of an effective dream sequence where Richard is tormented by those he has killed. The sudden stylistic shift at the tail end of the play is at odds with the rest of the show, making this a production of strong moments but patchy in its overall presentation. The first half is bum-numbingly longer than the second.
Of course, the play has plenty to say to us about the times we live in — especially given recent events: the suitability (or otherwise) of those who rule over us; the gaslighting of the masses by those who abuse their power… Unlike the liars and crooks in power today, Richard does not get off scot-free. Perhaps that’s why we indulge him in his excesses, and perhaps that’s why our sense of morality and our need for a proper story make us hope the wretches in government get their comeuppance.