Pees and Queues

URINETOWN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Pros and Cons

OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 24th May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

An engaging, entertaining evening and a relevant revival.

Nottingham Playhouse

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

 


Canvas Opinions

ART

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 21st May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

Superb.

ART 2

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


Whisky Business

WHISKY GALORE

New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sex and Violins

THE STRING QUARTET’S GUIDE TO SEX AND ANXIETY

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

thumbnail_The company_The String Quartets Guide_copyright Robert Day

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


Last of the Summer Vin

HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

heroes

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

 


Steps to Heaven

THE 39 STEPS

Bear Pit Theatre, Friday 11th May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

tony as hannay

Jolly good show! Tony Homer as Richard Hannay

 


Repeat Offender

FLEABAG

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

 

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

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

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

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

My original review from 2015 can be found here.

fleabag

Funny girl: Maddie Rice

 


Some You Gershwin…

CRAZY FOR YOU

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crazy For You UK TourPhoto Credit : The Other Richard

Happy hoofers: Tom Chambers and Charlotte Wakefield


Hired and Fired-Up

THE HIRED MAN

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great stuff!

hired man


Take This

THE BAND

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st May, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The boys in the Band (Photo: Matt Crockett)

 


Girls Just Wanna Kill Pigs

LORD OF THE FLIES

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm…

boa lord

 


Just My Cup of Chai

THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHAI

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th April, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Merry Widow

THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

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


Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pinkie Blinder

BRIGHTON ROCK

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th April, 2018

 

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

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

Brighton Rock 2018 Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie..

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brighton Rock 2018 Gloria Onitiri as Ida

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

 


Nailed It

TURN OF THE SCREW

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th April , 2018

 

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

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

Michael Hanratty (Photo: Robert Workman)

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

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

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

Carli Norris (Photo: Robert Workman)

 


Copping It Sweet

POLICE COPS IN SPACE

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

 

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

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

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

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

police cops in space

 

 

 

 


Twisted but not Bitter

THE TWISTED TALE OF HANSEL AND GRETEL

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th April, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Extra Special

STONES IN HIS POCKETS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st April, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Crooning Glory

CROONERS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pip pip! Phil Barley, Roman Marek and Jim Whitley

 

 


The Bees’ Knees

HONEY

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

 

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

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

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

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

honey


The King is not Dead

THIS IS ELVIS

New Alexandra Theatre, Monday 19th March, 2018

 

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

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

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

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This is Steve Michaels (Photo: Pamela Raith)

 


Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bloody bloody

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Playing Doctors and Nurses

MINDGAME

Belgrade Theatre, Wednesday 14th March, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

mindgame

Michael Sherwin and Andrew Ryan enjoy a cosy chat

 


Bloodless

SWEENEY TODD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 13th March, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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On his Todd: Richard Poynton

 


Nice Try

UP ‘N’ UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 12th March, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

T Vital with UnU cast

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


Hugo Faster

LES MISERABLES – School Edition

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

 

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

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

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

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

cosette-colour

 


Juan to Watch

DON GIOVANNI

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th March, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Thrilling

THRILLER Live

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th March, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Not Bad: Eddy Lima and the zombies


LOL-alot

SPAMALOT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 27th February, 2018

 

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

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

King Arthur

All alone, Bob Harms

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

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

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

Dancing

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

 


Drama Therapy

HAMLET

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Play to Win

THE WINSLOW BOY

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd January, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nice Hooters

HOOT OWL – Master of Disguise

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st February, 2018

 

It is not uncommon for successful children’s picture books to make the transition to the stage.  The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt are just two examples.  Now, Proon Productions bring us Sean Taylor’s owl-arious story, to wit Hoot Owl; adapter-performers Ellis Creez and Rebecca Hallworth flesh out the plot (they have to, or the show would be over in ten minutes!) to create an hour of entertainment, framing Taylor’s original account of the protagonist’s quest for food with an over-arcing plot: Hoot Owl must prove his predatory prowess if he is to join the ranks of the Parliament of Owls.

There are several charming songs, penned by Creez and Hallworth and arranged by Mark Rowson, so there are plenty of opportunities for us to sing, clap, and wave our arms along with the cast.  In fact, my only quibble with this thoroughly enjoyable production is that sometimes the backing tracks are a little too high in the mix, drowning out the witty and sophisticated (and funny) lyrics.  The cast are both miked up but they could do with belting a bit more to get the songs across to the greatest effect.

As the eponymous owl, Creez reveals his comedic biases with shameless tributes to the likes of Frankie Howerd, in his audience address – the put-downs of some of the grown-ups are funny without being mean-spirited; there is a Benny Hill-type chase around the auditorium, although with only two in the cast, it is more the spirit of the idea that amuses (There is much for the grown-ups and for the parents of the grown-ups to enjoy here, as Creez’s old-school comic stylings work like a dream).  Creez is also a nifty magician; as mentioned earlier, he just needs a bit more power in his singing voice to attain perfection.

Playing all the other roles, including operating an impressive pair of hooters – I’m referring to the owl puppets, made by Craig Denston – Rebecca Hallworth proves her versatility.  Her Rabbit gets every on their feet and her pigeon-headed Elvis Presley invocation is a showstopper.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Elvis.  With a pigeon’s head.

The script is packed with one-liners and cleverly, the writers sneak in facts about the animal characters Hoot Owl encounters.  There is a bit of a message about self-belief, without getting all moralistic or gooey about it, but above all, the show is a bonkers bit of fun.  Wisely, the original book forms the spine of the story and shapes the action, culminating in Hoot Owl’s final disguise as an Italian waiter, stalking a pizza, the only prey he can manage to catch.  Here, an audience member is called upon to appear as a customer and read lines from a menu, in true Generation Game fashion.

The set by Kevin Hallworth and the animations by Kian Adams are informed by Jean Jullien’s illustrations in the book, although the show has plenty of pantomime elements to it (a couple of child volunteers are enlisted to wave pompoms as Hoot Owl’s hootleaders) and one scene, in which Hoot Owl, disguised as a ewe, attracts the attentions of a randy ram, hearkens back to the earliest days of Comedy.    Hoot Owl – Master of Disguise is not only a celebration of the book but a fresh take on the traditional theatrics that have had us laughing for millennia.

There is something for everyone here.  You’d be a to-wit to miss it.

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Hoot Owl (Ellis Creez) petitions Parliament


See The Elephant

ELEPHANT

The Door, the REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 20th February, 2018

 

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s brand-new play is a gripping domestic drama, concerning a British-Asian family and a dark secret.  Daughter Amy (Raagni Sharma) is looking forward to a going-away party to give her a good send off for a new job in New York.  Arriving in the family home for the party is Amy’s estranged Auntie, Vira (Sukh Ojla).  Blunt, outspoken and unconventional, Vira sets the cat among the proverbials and what has been buried or glossed over for years comes rushing to the surface.  It seems that dad Barry (Ezra Faroque Khan) is not the hard-working, reliable pilau of the community everyone believes him to be.  Vira knows different.  Her sister, Deesh (Yasmin Wilde) won’t face the truth and risk losing her standing in the community along with the cushy life she has been able to give Amy and Amy’s oddball brother Bill (Farshad Rokey).

The volatile family dynamics are at first humorous, as they chuck barbed remarks around like confetti, but as their attention turns to darker topics, the barbs wound, and old scars are torn open, in the kind of way families tear chunks out of the ones they love.  It’s compelling stuff.  Bhatti’s script is richly written, with plenty of funny one-liners (“It doesn’t matter if he’s gay – there’s one on EastEnders”) with Wilde delivering the bitterest throwaway gags with perfect comic timing.  Each member of the family gets at least one outburst: Rokey’s Bill comes to startling life when he loses his cool; Sharma’s Amy shows she is more than the self-absorbed teenager she at first appears; and Khan’s Barry, who has gone through the motions of atonement, fleshes out the character so we at least see where he is coming from – even though nothing he can say can justify his actions.  As Vira, Ojla is also the title character – ‘Elephant’ is her nickname.  She also embodies That Which Must Not Be Spoken Of, but she is determined that everyone acknowledges and deals with the elephant she brings to the room.  This elephant cannot and will not forget.  It is a brash but dignified portrayal of anguish and long-suffering.

Director Lucy Morrison has the action play out on a bare stage with very little in the way of props.  This means it falls to the actors to create a credible atmosphere of family life.  Above their heads hangs a stylised roof, symbolising the home and also what has been hanging over them all these years.

Entertaining, compelling and powerful, this is an Elephant I’ll never forget.

Yasmin Wilde as Deesh_credit Ellie Kurttz

Yasmin Wilde as Deesh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Louder Than Words

#JESUIS

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th February, 2018

 

Everything has a hashtag these days, doesn’t it?  We all remember the #JeSuisCharlie one used as a show of solidarity after the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris.  But other atrocities don’t receive the coverage on social, or any other media.  The idea behind this new dance production is that other atrocities are being perpetrated and the people caught up in them also exist, they can also proclaim “Je suis” (I am.  I exist)

Director-choreographer Aakash Odedra has put together a troupe of dancers whose initial brief was to portray what life is like in present-day Turkey, but the show developed into something less specific yet more universal.  Rather than particulars, we get types.  A man in a long, military coat, moves jerkily, making weird angles.  He is the oppressor, it transpires, preying on the rest of the ensemble, often singling one member out, male or female, and putting his hand over their mouth and dragging them away, like a lion picking off individuals from the herd.  To a soundtrack of sound effects: sirens, feedback, electric humming, the action plays out, becoming more frenetic, more distorted when loud music is added to the mix.

The ensemble, faced with a microphone, fall over each other for their chance to speak out – until the Man comes. Between blackouts, we glimpse striking tableaux, some of them Caravaggio would be proud of.  Imprisoned in narrow strips of light, they shake wildly.  They are wrapped in lengths of cling film, robbing them of individuality, dehumanising them.  To sound effects of the sea, they crawl, washed up on the beach, dead – we have all seen images of refugees who have met this fate, especially their children.

The show is a kaleidoscope of imagery and sound.  Some of it is abstract and you get a general feel for what’s going on.  Much of it is more directly recognisable.  All of it is powerful.

I don’t think ‘exhilarating’ is the word I want here, but I am certainly invigorated in a way by the energy of the performers.  Involving disturbing material translated into movement, this piece is not only a demonstration of what Dance can do but also a reminder of what is going on, what people are doing to each other in the world today.  Gripping, inventive and pertinent, #JeSuis engages us intellectually and emotionally.  Admirable.

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Stuff and Nonsense

THE BALD PRIMA DONNA

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 13th February, 2018

 

Eugene Ionesco’s work is a staple of any self-respecting Drama course, but the Romanian-French playwright is hardly a household name.  Which is a pity, considering the influence his absurdist style had on the works of Monty Python and the like.  In fact, much of what we find in Ionesco is now deemed ‘Pythonesque’.   Ionesco holds up social convention as something bizarre.  His dialogue is full of nonsense and non sequiturs, repetitions and random outpourings – and this play is a prime example.

Mrs Smith (Emma Beasley) enthuses about lunch while her husband (Thomas Hodge) tuts and grunts behind a newspaper.  She declares her affinity for all things English – including mayonnaise.  Hearing such remarks in today’s England, I can’t help finding resonance with the nonsense of the Brexit vote.  Almost everything we consume is imported from elsewhere.  The play is vibrant with significance, it turns out.

Mr and Mrs Martin (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes) arrives late for dinner and are admonished.  This couple struggle to recollect the circumstances of their acquaintance – even though it transpires they travel on the same train, live in the same street, the same flat, it turns out they are not who they think they are… This is a puzzling little sketch, beautifully performed by the pair, and expertly built to a crescendo by director Steve Farr.

The Maid (Claire Bradwell) is the only character to address us directly, breaking the frame, and is the most artificial of the bunch, flipping from hysterical laughter to wracking sobs in a flash.  Bradwell radiates impudence and fun, to the exasperation of the waspish Emma Beasley and the boorish Tom Purchase-Rathbone.  The company is completed by Barry Purchase-Rathbone’s Fire Chief, who is touting for business.  He regales the group with rambling, pointless anecdotes and impenetrable fables, and his deadpan delivery is hilarious.

The whole group play things dead straight and speak what can be meaningless strings of words with conviction, and so the dialogue sounds as though we ought to understand it.  Scenes are broken up and interrupted by a lighting change and the chimes of a clock, during which the characters tip back their heads, close their eyes and open their mouths, before getting on with their lives.  These interludes symbolise how our lives are governed by time, by natural processes, by convention.  Above all, these surreal episodes remind us what we are watching is stylised and artificial – just as the manners and etiquette of society are stylised and artificial.

Repetition of phrases, that become slogans, does not imbue them with meaning.  And so, “She’s a true blue Englishwoman” spoken in a loop reminds me of “Brexit means Brexit”.  Vague remarks about British decency and fair play are bandied around as if there is consensus on what these things are, or that they exist.  The play ends as it began, with the opening lines of dialogue, except the Smiths have been usurped by the Martins, who now refer to themselves as the Smiths, and on the nonsense goes…

On the surface, this is a very funny production of a difficult script, with an excellent cast breathing life and emotion into nonsense.  Beneath the surface, the play couldn’t be timelier as a snapshot of the nonsense of living in Britain today.

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Something out of Nothing

NOTHING

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 11th February, 2018

 

Lulu Raczka’s play from 2014 is all talk and no action.  The ‘nothing’ of the title is exactly what happens.  And that is the point.  The cast of eight sit among the audience; each has a story to tell, a monologue to get off his or her chest, and the actors pipe up, not in turn exactly, but when the moment feels right, and so there can be several stories being told concurrently.  It’s a bit like flipping channels and amusing collisions arise, as if the speakers are responding to each other, at times.  I understand the ebb and flow of the monologues changes at every performance and so each performance is truly unique.

Today, Oscar Street kicks off with his story of how his obsession with tattoos led him to follow a young man onto a bus on which he later became a public hero.  He is ‘interrupted’ by Sam Wilson, a troubled chap who traces his sexual confusion to an assault he suffered at the age of eleven.  Next, Emma Friend pipes up, in a scandalously delightful account of shitting on the doorsteps of those who cross her.  We hear from Shaun Hartman’s film enthusiast, struggling to help a friend with depression; from Alexis Meshida, craving graphic vengeance for the rape of her best friend; from Rose Pardo Roques who claims to have achieved nothing, and has dreams and fantasies rather than ambitions; from Varinder Singh Dhinsa whose experience at a humdrum house party leads to an horrific encounter; and from Abigail Westwood, an avid porn watcher who is not at ease with her proclivities…  The characters speak frankly (do they ever!!) in ways that people rarely do in reality.  There is a confessional air to the piece and it reminds me very much of the writing of Steven Berkoff in the depictions of sex and violence and sexual violence.

There is humour and tension in the air – we don’t know who might speak up next: it could be our neighbour or anyone across the rows.  We listen, we laugh, we wince, and it feels as though anyone of us could have a story to tell.

Director Andrew Cowie elicits assured and effective performances from every member of his young cast, each one as credible as the last (or the next).  In a way, the cast direct themselves, deciding when to chip in and when to keep shtum during the performance, but they are clearly well-trained in getting across the truth of their characters’ tales.

An unusual piece of theatre, superbly and simply presented, Nothing is a snapshot of modern society, our fears, our hang-ups, our solipsistic world-views… and this production further cements the reputation of the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio as a venue for challenging, rewarding work.

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Who’s The Daddy?

MAMMA MIA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 7th February, 2018

 

The mother (the Mamma) of all jukebox musicals arrives in Wolverhampton as part of its bid for world domination.  Regular readers will know my views on jukebox musicals but where this one has an advantage is the back catalogue it raids for its score is one of the richest seams of pop music ever written.  Songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are one of the greatest partnerships of all time and their work is part of the fabric of popular culture.

It’s a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it’s great to hear the songs again; on the other, the songs are so familiar it is difficult to appreciate the context into which they have been thrust.  And so, some songs are shown in a new light (The Name of the Game) while others are rendered meaningless.  Some songs are simply too ‘big’ – most are stories in themselves and feel diminished, shoehorned into the storyline.

Ah, the storyline.  It reminds me of Shirley Conran’s blockbuster, Lace, (Which one of you four bitches is my mother?) but here a young girl seeks a father from three candidates.  She invites them to her wedding in the hope of recognising her dad right away.  It’s this little mystery that motivates the return of the three men, now middle-aged, and their reunion with their former flame, the girl’s mother Donna, who used to sing in some kind of glam rock vocal group.  Spoiler: the identity of the dad isn’t revealed, in a wishy-washy copout.  Now, if one of the guys had been a complete and utter shit, then we would have had some tension.  There would have been some stakes in the unfolding drama.

But everyone’s nice.  Everyone’s an extrovert.  Everyone’s funny.  Everyone is basically the same character.  And it all takes place on a Greek island, flooded with sunshine, and so the Scandinavian introspection and melancholy of the lyrics is mostly swamped.

Lucy May Barker is an appealing Sophie, Donna’s bastard daughter, while Helen Hobson’s Donna (who looks better when she gets out of her Rod, Jane & Freddie dungarees) has the big sings.  She can’t quite pull off the full Agnetha, opting to sing-speak some lines.  As her old chums and backing singers, Rebecca Seale is a lot of fun as Rosie and the elegant, leggy Emma Clifford makes a striking impression as Tanya – a kind of Patsy Stone figure, without the nihilism.

Catherine Johnson’s book keeps things frothy.  We are amused by the antics of these people rather than touched by their plight (such as it is).  Other than as a spectacle, and a chance to sing and clap along, the whole thing is emotionally uninvolving.  Only Slipping Through My Fingers tugs at the heartstrings.

Perhaps I’m missing the point.  It is more fun than I’m perhaps suggesting, and I especially enjoy the staging of the earlier numbers, where choreographer Anthony Van Laast adds a touch of humour (their heads appearing in doorways, for example).  Curiously, the chorus disappear to be replaced by disembodied back-up vocals.

If you want undemanding, feel-good fun, and a chance to revisit some fantastic songs, this is for you.  After all, “Without a song or a dance, what are we?”

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Helen Hobson and Lucy May Barker (Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)


Close Encounters of the Brief Kind

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th February, 2018

 

Emma Rice’s adaptation of the Noel Coward script makes a triumphant return to the REPa decade since its first incarnation.  Trimmed down to a jam-packed 90 minutes, this new production is a roller-coaster of theatrical invention and charm.  The illicit, irresistible romance of central couple Alec and Laura plays out in a crazy, stylised world in which the other (working class) characters act as a kind of chorus, their own uncomplicated love lives contrasting with the restraint and guilt of the protagonists.  It strikes me, this time around, how much the elements play a part in the telling of this story: air, fire and water are particularly prevalent, in the wind that blows through the station, and water in the waves of emotion that wash over the scenes… A fire is present and the earth, is represented I suppose, by the stacks of coal to one side.  The most elemental force in play though is Love.

Jim Sturgeon is every inch the English gent as Dr Alec Harvey, going against type to express his feelings.  He is matched by guilt-ridden Isabel Pollen’s Laura.  It’s all ‘teddibly, teddibly’ in its stuffiness but the emotions come up fresh and relatable.  They are surrounded by supporting players (sometimes, physically supporting!) with old-fashioned accents – the show strongly presents a bygone age: the romance of steam locomotion, when brandy was thruppence a glass, when middle class morals defined action… Propriety has given way to political correctness in society – and this is not a bad thing, but this quaintly English piece (English in its humour, its tea-drinking) is deliberately skewed away from the naturalistic.  The world was never like this, so don’t get too nostalgic for what didn’t exist.

Beverly Rudd absolutely shines as café girl Beryl, among other roles, and Lucy Thackeray’s Mrs Baggott is a remarkable characterisation and no mistake.  Dean Nolan, who also doubles as Laura’s becardiganed husband, is a lot of fun as railway worker Albert, while Jos Slovick’s Stanley leads the singing, his voice at odds with his silly hat.

This being a Kneehigh show, there is live music almost throughout, played by the cast and a complement of musicians.  A few Noel Coward numbers are included, because it’s not just about the brilliance of Emma Rice, you know.  The production reminds us of Rice’s skills and insights as a director.  There is much playful sophistication behind her ideas: Alec and Laura swooning in love, rising on chandeliers, the splash of water as they each tumble into a river, the puppet children being beastly to each other… The show bursts with ideas we appreciate on an emotional as well as analytical level.  The form delivers the content in a symbolic, stylised manner enabling us to engage emotionally, rather than keep us distant through theatrical alienation.

Exhilarating entertainment that reminds us why we fell in love with theatre in the first place, this is an all-too brief encounter with brilliance and a ride you don’t want to miss.

 

Isabel Pollen (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec)

Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon getting a bit carried away


Moving Moves

TRANSLUNAR PARADISE

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 31st January, 2018

 

Theatre Ad Infinitum are reviving their hit show from seven years ago and it’s a good fit for the Hippodrome’s studio space.  The cast of two, accompanied by an accordionist-vocalist, perform a dumb show about loss and moving on, using masks and movement and a bit of heavy breathing.  It is the story of a widower, an old man at a loss because of loss.  He makes two cups of tea, forgetting his wife is gone.  Flashback scenes replay his memories: taking her to the hospital, her flatlining… We go back to earlier, happier times: how they first met, for example, their first dance.  There are also unhappier times: her miscarriage – sensitively and poignantly portrayed.  In the memory scenes, the masks are removed and the movements are more stylised, more staccato.

Masks usually dehumanise the wearer – ask any psychopathic killer in a horror film – and all expression comes from the actions and gestures of the wearer.  Even though the actors use one hand to hold the masks, this doesn’t reduce their ability to express what their characters are going through, their thoughts and reactions, while enabling swift donning and doffing of their old faces as we go in and out of flashbacks.  We recognise the humanity of the elderly couple, and it helps that their life together follows a familiar pattern, moments we can recognise and to which we can relate.  It’s basically the first ten minutes of Up! performed with grace, dance and gentle humour.

George Mann and Deborah Pugh are remarkable in their range and precision.  Inventive use is made of sound effects: the man’s wartime experiences, for example, and his PTSD.  On the accordion and singing or whistling all the way through, the versatile Sophie Crawford provides the soundtrack – there is humour here too, like the sudden shift into Girl From Ipanema when the couple get into a lift.

It’s an absorbing piece, amusing, touching and uplifting, deceptively simple and impressively presented.  Mime worthy of your time.

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Facing up to loss: George Mann and Deborah Pugh (Photo: Idil Sukan)

 

 


Something’s Got To Give

THE LATE MARILYN MONROE

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2018

 

We’ll never know what happened during the last moments of the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Conspiracy theories abound, each one wackier than the last (the CIA, the Mafia, she was about to tell the world about the existence of aliens…); here, writer-director Darren Haywood, following extensive research, pieces together an impression of what might have been, but his play is more than a dramatic reconstruction.

We spend Marilyn’s final hours with her in her bedroom.  The constantly ringing telephone is a source of annoyance and also comfort as she takes and makes calls, looking forward to plans for the next day, the next week… For a time, we don’t believe this is a woman on the verge of suicide.  But then, as Tania Staite’s impressive portrayal reveals, Monroe is not exactly stable.  Capricious and volatile, she rounds on those closest to her, hurls colourful invective down the phone at Bobby Kennedy, and then switches back to a child-like persona, desperately insecure about her looks, caving under the pressure of having to be Marilyn Monroe.

Tania Staite gets the cadences of Monroe’s voice – it’s an evocation rather than an impersonation, and Staite settles into the role; it’s the first night and I can’t tell whether first-night stumbles are actually part of Monroe’s distracted state!

There is sympathetic support from Ellie Darvill as housekeeper Mrs Murray, a maternal, nurturing presence who is on the receiving end of Monroe’s paranoid flights of fury.  Dru Stephenson is also good as Monroe’s long-suffering friend and publicist, while Martin Rossen’s visiting psychiatrist adopts more of a friendly and paternal bedside manner than a professional detachment.

Haywood’s writing is excellent – his Monroe really comes alive when she’s recounting anecdotes of Hollywood gossip – and, thanks to Staite’s performance, we do care about this vulnerable victim of the celebrity machine.  The whole thing is flooded with doom and dramatic irony.  We know she’s not long for this world and so lines like “I may just go to sleep and never get up” and “You’ve got time ahead of you” have resonance the characters don’t realise.

Marilyn’s early death speaks to our age directly.  Not just because of its fairy-tale-gone-wrong aspects but because her story reveals times have not changed.  The celebrity machine churns on, chewing up and spitting out stars, and our culture is still obsessed with every detail of their private lives.  Also, Monroe discloses (although it’s not secret) that she had to sleep her way through a slew of directors and producers to get her break, and this brings the production bang up-to-date with the spectre of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.  Show business has not changed and, by extension, the world has not changed.  Monroe’s demise remains a powerful indictment of the sleazy patriarchy that both made and broke her.

Absorbing and well-played, the production could benefit from a few cuts – especially in the second act – so that it makes its points more efficiently.

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Going off the Rails

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 29th January, 2018

 

Based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, this adaptation by Craig Warner plunges us into an amoral world, where man’s actions are not punished by the rule of law – the judicial and law enforcement systems exist but only to the extent that they are bogeymen, incited to shape the course of the action.  One man introduces himself to another as they travel on the same train across 1950s Texas.  A few drinks and a bit of chit-chat give rise to a deadly pact between them.  The extrovert Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) proposes to murder the troublesome wife of Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) in exchange for Ashton’s murder of Bruno’s stingy father… It seems like a joke, a bit of drink-induced fun.  Except Bruno goes through with his part of the bargain and soon expects Haines to do his…

As the loudmouth Bruno, Harper dominates the action, coldly amusing – the life and soul of any party, were he not such a chilling killer.  Harper recites Bruno’s account of the first murder with icy relish.  On the other hand, Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines is a complete contrast.  Initially more reserved than Bruno, we see him shut further in on himself as the consequences of the pact begin to pinch.  Both of these central roles are compellingly portrayed.  Haines struggles to keep his life on the rails while Bruno keeps crashing into it like a runaway train.

There is excellent support from Hannah Tointon as Anne, Guy’s second wife, showing more backbone than we might expect by the play’s denouement.  Also impressive are Helen Anderson as Bruno’s doting mother and brief appearances from Sandy Batchelor as Frank and Owen Findlay as Robert.

The star name for this tour must be John Middleton.  Formerly the mild-mannered vicar Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale, Middleton gives a more assertive performance as Arthur Gerrard, the trusty retainer of Bruno’s late father, who smells a rat and winkles out the truth.  Just as the murders occur off-stage, so does the bulk of Gerrard’s investigation, and so it does seem as if he stumbles across the facts with ease – but this is not a whodunit, rather a will-they-get-away-with-it, and the focus is on the aftermath’s effects on the protagonists.

David Woodhead’s set places the scenes in compartments with sliding panels that reveal and conceal parts of the stage accordingly.  This means the actors don’t have much room to manoeuvre, adding to the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense that events are closing in on the killers.  Woodhead dresses the cast in sharp suits of the period, complementing the strains of cool jazz that serve as incidental music for scenic transitions.  The production is suffused with an Edward Hopper feel: murky yet dispassionate.  In the confined settings, director Anthony Banks keeps things from becoming too static (although the lengthy opening scene on the train is in peril of becoming just that) by drawing out the intensity of the performances.  Each character is heightened in some way.

Consistently intriguing rather than gripping, the production offers, via Highsmith, a different take on morality.  Whether we want either Bruno or Haines or both of them to get off scot-free is a reflection on us.

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Chris Harper and Jack Ashton getting acquainted on the train


Love Bites

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th January, 2018

 

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is the most Stephen King-like book I’ve read that isn’t by Stephen King.  The film version that followed is a masterpiece in understatement and now this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne streamlines the story even further.  Several characters and scenes are completely excised, allowing the central relationship to come to the fore.

Director Liz Plumpton gets the tone exactly right, from the stilted naturalism of the dialogue to the shocking moments of violence.  In fact, horror aside, this is a very subtle production.  A snow-laden setting is suggested as walk-ons toss handfuls of snowflakes over their heads in an establishing montage; costumes (by Pat Brown and Vera Dean) hint at Scandinavia with its sweaters and bobble hats; and the lighting by James Booth adds a wintry chill to the multi-purpose set (also by Booth) that combines starkly striped tree trunks with interiors: a locker room, a bedroom… with a window… Kevin Middleton’s sound design gives us the impression of the world beyond the set: a swimming lesson, hospital noises, and so on.

There are lots of scenes, some of them quite short, but Plumpton engages us from the off and, as the story unfolds, thrills and touches us in equal measure.

Niall Higgins’s Oskar has ‘victim’ all over him.  The kids in the story are played a bit older than they appear in the original and so Oskar comes across as perhaps being on ‘the spectrum’.  Bullied and alone, prone to shoplifting sweets and unable to communicate with his separated parents, Oskar is a sympathetic fellow.  Simon King is terrifyingly efficient as the murderous Hakan.  Deronie Pettifer makes an impression as his mother, who drinks; and there are strong appearances by Mike Baughan as the police chief investigating a series of murders in the locality, and by Oliver King and Elliot Mitchell as the bullies.

But the piece works as well as it does chiefly due to a captivating performance by Molly Packer as the beguiling Eli, an ancient being in a young girl’s body.  Packer is truly excellent, balancing moments of unhuman-ness with childlike fun.  Her violence is as credible as it is merciless.  Eli’s relationship with Oskar humanises her while it gives him backbone and independence.  It’s not just a vampire love story, it’s about real-life monsters and loneliness and resilience.  It’s also the sweetest horror story going.

A fantastic start to 2018 at the Crescent, this production gets everything right.

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Oskar worthy: Niall Higgins and Molly Packer (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Taking a Hedda

HEDDA GABLER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

 

The National Theatre’s celebrated production is doing the rounds, and it’s a real treat to have such prestigious work on one’s doorstep.  It’s a new version of the Henrik Ibsen masterpiece translating the action into a contemporary setting or, I should say, a kind of timeless setting: the play still has people writing letters to convey important plot points, even though there’s an electronic visitor cam and door buzzer…

Jan Versweyveid’s set is an empty box, ostensibly the yet-to-be-decorated apartment of the newlywed Tesmans.  Sparsely furnished, often its only light source is the huge side window.  It makes for a stark landscape, suitable for any urbane Nordic noir drama… Hedda’s piano feels out of place – just as she does – and her late father’s brace of pistols, already in their own little display cabinet, lend foreboding.  Hedda shoots both them and her mouth off to express her boredom and frustrations.  We realise that the apartment is not so much Hedda’s space as her headspace, and the action takes a more symbolic turn.  By the final act when the other characters are actively boarding up the only window to the world she has, we are beyond the realms of the literal.  Director Ivo van Hove makes bold choices, most of which I approve of, in his presentation of a classic text in a new light.  Ibsen’s (via a Patrick Marber reworking) naturalistic chitchat is underscored by a slowly pulsating, throbbing sound that is disconcerting and ominous, coming to a sudden halt at the moments of high drama – it’s its absence we notice, as Hedda is starkly confronted with turns of events.

Lizzy Watts heads a strong ensemble in the title role.  Her Hedda is headstrong, coldly sarcastic and manipulative.  Having surrendered her own power, her own identity by becoming Mrs Tesman, she seeks to have power over someone else.  We enjoy her barbed outbursts and see her cruelty for what it is.  What I don’t really get is the source of her dissatisfaction: Abhin Galeya’s Tesman is an affable chap, enthusiastic and lively – yes, Tesman’s area of expertise (medieval trug makers) is esoteric and, frankly, dull as ditch water, but that doesn’t make him a basket case.  If, through Hedda’s eyes, we were shown a Tesman more annoying, more gauche, more bookish, we might appreciate more her frustration at having settled for this nerd.  Similarly, Richard Pyros’s Lovborg, doesn’t have, for me, the irresistibly sleazy charisma, the sense of brooding, romantic danger, that gets the ladies’ heads turning.   Annabel Bates is an appealing Mrs Elvsted – even though she’s already left her unsuitable husband (a course of action Hedda doesn’t even consider) – she’s very much the victim role, an innocent caught in Hedda’s web.  Adam Best swaggers and strides as Judge Brack, the male authority role and the villain of the piece.  Seen through the prism of Hedda’s mind, the physical liberties he takes with her become symbolic – he wouldn’t get away with such excesses in their literal sense, one would hope.  Best is enjoyably hateful, tightening his hold on Hedda – no woman can escape the patriarchy, after all…  Christine Kavanagh makes an impression as Tesman’s stylish, interfering Aunt, and Madlena Nedeva’s Berte the maid is a constant presence – a bit like a museum attendant on her seat at the intercom, but also as a kind of familiar to Hedda, silently conjuring props and messages, often unbidden.

It’s a thought-provoking staging that illuminates the Ibsen in such a way we appreciate the richness of the original.  For me, the sense of being trapped doesn’t quite come off at the end.  Perhaps I would have had the walls closing in, almost imperceptibly; Hedda’s vast empty box of an apartment is simply too vast.

A bold production that engages our intelligence rather than packing an emotional punch, it’s certainly worth seeing and, get this: if you’re one of those young people (26 or even younger) you can see the show on tour for merely a fiver!  Definitely worth it.  All you have to do is quote IBSEN5 when you book.

HEDDA GABLERUK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

Keeping a cool Hedda: Lizzy Watts (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)


Looking Back in Anger

BONES

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th January, 2018

 

Mark is a 19-year-old with a temper – to put it mildly – in this production by Gritty Theatre of Jane Upton’s one-hander.  As the story unfolds, we learn of his situation and his past.  He’s unemployed, blowing his money on blow-outs from McDonalds and blow jobs from spotty prostitutes, his only respite from a living hell with his drug-abusing mother and the unfortunate baby sister at whom he directs his anger and frustration.  He plans to kill the child, just to get some peace but, the more we learn about him, the more we realise he won’t go through with it.  Will he?

He relives memories of happier times: a seaside holiday with Mum and Grandad – until the spectre of drug abuse ruins everything.

All in all, it’s a grim tale, ameliorated only by glimpses of humour, but a raw, fearless and intense performance by Dominic Thompson, who not only narrates the story but inhabits it, keeps us entranced.  Director Ian Robert Moule has Thompson utilise pub props and pub furniture to represent what’s going on in the account: and so, a spillage of lager becomes the young Mark’s pissed trousers; his hoodie becomes the prostitute; a toppled stool becomes the incapacitated mother the little boy desperately tries to dress… It’s inventive stuff and highly evocative but, of course, the power of the production comes through Thompson’s volatile presence.  Mark is quick to boil over into fury.  It’s not so much a short fuse as no fuse at all, and while there are quieter moments and even calmer moments, perhaps Mark could do with more time to simmer.  He seems to go instantly to 11, as though a switch is being flicked.  Thompson maintains the energy and intensity of his portrayal and is never short of compelling and credible in what is a bravura performance.

The material is gritty – as we might expect! – and we do feel for Mark, who has had to deal with matters no child should ever encounter.  The play finishes on a life-changing shock, a culmination of horribleness, that leaves us with a nasty aftertaste.  Upton shows us a dark side of society without offering a way-out, or a suggestion of how things could improve, and so Bones is ultimately bleak.  But the powerful presentation gives us something to admire in this gruelling, gruesome tale.

Bones


The Wizard of Oddsocks

THE WIZARD OF OZ

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 14th January, 2018

 

In the summer, they do Shakespeare; in the winter, the funniest theatre company in the land turn their attention to classic stories.  This year, the inimitable Oddsocks Productions take us to the land of Oz in this new adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel by writer/director/genius Andy Barrow.  His cast of five actors, supplemented by puppets, do the lot.  An original twist has Dorothy’s Toto narrating the action but on the whole, the show sticks to the familiar plot, albeit streamlined and seen through the prism of Oddsocks’s trademark style.  It is not a spoof – the source material is never mocked but the pantomime styling of the presentation makes for a fresh interpretation of the time-honoured tale.

Making her Oddsocks debut as our heroine is Freya Sharp; her Dorothy is perky and fun without being saccharine or overly earnest (looking at you, Judy G!).  The rest of the cast are familiar faces:  Andrew McGillan, among other roles, appears as the tallest munchkin and an impressively physical scarecrow, for which he must have had several major bones removed.  If not, I want the number of his chiropractor.  Joseph Maudsley returns, mainly as the Tin Woodman – he gets to utter the most blatant innuendos with a look of utter innocence (The show has plenty of laughs for the grown-ups but is never smutty).  Also back is the hilarious Gavin Harrison, with ten roles to play, including a pantomime villain of a Wicked Witch of the West and the Great and Terrible Wizard himself.  Finally, the funniest woman in Britain (and probably Europe) Elli Mackenzie excels as a ‘gender fluid’ Cowardly Lion.

The cast perform with seemingly indefatigable gusto and charm, while Andy Barrow’s script keeps them busy and keeps us laughing.  Practical effects are brought into play to depict such moments as things blown away by the cyclone, the Lion swimming, the Scarecrow dropped from the sky… These throwaway moments are delightful in their invention and execution, while big moments: the melting of the Wicked Witch (spoiler, sorry) and the big reveal of the Wizard (a magnificent giant puppet head) to be none other than the great and terrible humbug currently in residence in the White House, reveal the genius of Andy Barrow, the Wizard of Oddsocks.  Yes, we’ve had a lot of laughs; yes, the story and meaning of Baum’s original remain intact, but also we get topical references and political satire added into the mix.

Along with some familiar numbers, there are original songs by Felix M-B, all of them pretty good.  The closing number in particular has me humming all the way home.

Above all, the show is fun, fun, fun.  Silly, irreverent and clever, Oddsocks are in magnificent form and this is a wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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Friends of Dorothy: Freya Sharp, Joseph Maudsley, Elli Mackenzie and Andrew McGillan


Sold!

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Playhouse Theatre, London, Saturday 13th January, 2018

 

David Mamet’s classic play gets an invigorating new lease of life in this snappy revival at the Playhouse.  It’s a top-drawer production that allows the quality of the writing to shine.  Mamet’s naturalistic dialogue, with its interruptions and stichomythia, is peppered with the argot of the characters’ occupation: they are real-estate salesmen, and the script relies on our intelligence and ability to put two and two together to garner what the terms mean.

Stanley Townsend almost steals the show as down-on-his-luck Shelly Levine, getting a new injection of enthusiasm when he makes a big sale.  Townsend’s reliving of the scene in which his clients sign the contract is a scream.  Townsend is a superlative performer and utterly, utterly credible.  In fact, credibility is the watchword of Sam Yates’s production; his direction paces the scenes perfectly, with outbursts, crescendos and moments of stillness.

Kris Marshall is suitably wound-up as office manager John Williamson and there are big laughs from Robert Glenister’s outbursts of profanity as the volatile Dave Moss.  Don Warrington is superb as the inarticulate, unassertive George, while Daniel Ryan elicits our sympathy as a customer trying to revoke a deal.

But the show belongs to Hollywood star Christian Slater in the powerhouse role of hard-selling Ricky Roma.  Slater’s fast-talking but at ease, inhabiting the role exquisitely; Roma is the big fish in this particular pond.  Both the humour and intensity of his performance are accentuated by his trademark circumflex eyebrows and smart-alec smirk.  Expertly supported by a flawless ensemble, Slater’s charismatic presence is magnetic.  Mamet allows us to see the character for what he is, exposing the tricks of the trade, or else Slater would have signing our lives away to all sorts of things.

Chiara Stephenson’s detailed set (a Chinese restaurant, then the guys’ office) grounds the action in its reality.  The play gives us a window into a high-pressure world and, by extension, shows us the dark underbelly of capitalistic pursuits, which tend to lead to corruption and crime.  Also, the play reveals how men are, what they talk about, how they express themselves.  Yes, the play is dated, a period piece, with its references to typewriters and so on, but the racism, the sexism and the way men feel they have to lock horns with each other and compete, are still very much with us.

The brief running time keeps things punchy, condensing the brilliance of the script and the brilliance of the performances into a perfect, highly entertaining piece that still has a lot to say and that remains very funny indeed.  Definitely not past its sell-by.

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Top dog: Christian Slater as Ricky Ross (Photo: Tristram Kenton)