Bleak House

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7thFebruary 2023

Imagine Bob Dylan wrote Les Misérables but set it in 1930s dustbowl America à la Steinbeck.  If you can do that, you’re some way to understanding what this show is like.  Technically, a jukebox musical, raiding Dylan’s back catalogue and stringing songs together to tell a story, except it’s not, not really.  The story, with script by the excellent Conor McPherson (of The Weir fame) could work as a straight  play (Well, I’ll come to that later).  The songs could stand alone without the story.  And so instead of a conventional piece of musical theatre where the songs reveal character or develop the plot, what we have here is a straight play interrupted by concert-like performances of the musical numbers.

The setting is a guesthouse under threat of foreclosure by the bank.  The proprietor Nick (Colin Connor) struggles with his estranged wife, Elizabeth, who has developed some kind of dementia, while cajoling his wannabe-writer and alcoholic son to get a job.  Nick is waiting for his mistress’s ship to come in; she’s a widow waiting for probate and they have plans to set up a new guesthouse elsewhere… That American dream, you see.  Meanwhile, Nick’s adopted black daughter is mysteriously pregnant, so he’s trying to marry her off to an elderly shoe repairer, for her own good.  To top it off, there’s a storm brewing and two strangers arrive in the middle of the night, a former boxer and a bible salesman…

There’s more humour than you might expect in this tale of economic hardship, unemployment,  racial prejudice, alcoholism, failed marriage, senility, learning difficulties, and just about every other miserable thing you can think of.  In the first half, at least.  But there are so many characters, there’s not really enough time for things to develop.  It takes a narrator, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) to provide exposition and to wrap things up at the end.  There are some fine dramatic moments, well played, but apart from the general misery of it all, I’m not particularly moved.  McPherson writes great scenes but, judging by this show, is not so hot when it comes to dramatic structure beyond these vignettes of misery.

And then there are the songs.  Not Dylan’s greatest hits shoehorned in, but a careful curation of some of the more obscure tracks, rearranged to fit the period.  The actors play instruments to augment the onstage band creating a rich sound, but it’s the singing that stands out.  For example, songs like ‘Has Anyone Seen My Love?’, ‘Slow Train’ (wonderfully sung by Joshua C Jackson) and ‘I Want You’ (Gregor Milne) all knock your socks off.  But it’s the ladies who really deliver the goods.  Maria Omakinwa as the elegant widow Mrs Neilson is just about perfect, and so is Justina Kehinde’s pregnant Marianne.  Surprisingly, perhaps, demented Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) almost steals the show with her vigorous dancing and superb vocals. I invariably prefer Dylan’s songs when performed by anyone other than the songwriter, so this score serves to remind me of Old Bob’s songsmithery.

It’s a show of two halves, then, beautifully presented, albeit on a dingy stage, and while I enjoy the drama and love the songs, the two halves don’t quite fit together.  An excellent production, to be sure, but it’s a bit of a downer.  You won’t be dancing in the aisles, but you might be uplifted a little by the gospel-style finale before the crushing bleakness of existence closes in.

Oh well.  I’m off to write a show about the Cod War, using the music of The Smiths.  Why not?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Marianne (Justina Kehinde) – Photo: Johan Persson


Storm in a Recycled Cup

THE TEMPEST

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6thFebruary 2023

There is a welcome drive in contemporary theatre for sustainability and being green.  The RSC is at the forefront: they’ve been recycling the same 37 plays for decades!  Seriously, anything that reduces or offsets an organisation’s carbon footprint can only be for the good, can’t it?  Can this example of sustainable theatre sustain my interest?

People who are shipwrecked on desert islands know all about repurposing and upcycling in order to provide shelter for themselves, and so it is no surprise to see that Tom Piper’s set follows suit.  What does surprise me is that after many years of being marooned, Prospero’s place isn’t a little bit tidier?  Perhaps she just likes a junkyard aesthetic.  I say ‘she’ because this production boasts a female Prospero, in the form of Alex Kingston; the parental qualities of the character as good a fit for a mother as the more-traditional father.  What jars at first is the use of ‘male’ forms of address.  This Prospero is still a Prince and a Duke and a master – which shows how firmly rooted gender is in our use of language.

In the central role, Kingston storms it, as her plots involve everyone else on her island.  There is power and tenderness in her portrayal, her powers of sorcery (which would have got any woman burned at the stake back in the day) as convincing as her maternal affections.  She is supported by  Jessica Rhodes’s lively Miranda and Heledd Gwynn’s enthusiastic Ariel.

Director Elizabeth Freestone highlights the comedic elements of the script and utilises the physicality of the cast to create the effects of the magic.  This also adds comedy (Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, rolling around, for example) and also an atmosphere where potentially anything could happen.  A particularly effective moment is the arrival of Ariel and the Harpies in front of a giant gilt-framed mirror.  At other points, the impact is not as well focussed, making for a patchy overall impression.

Ishia Bennison brings warmth and humour as the garrulous, cross-gendered Gonzalo, while Peter De Jersey adds heartfelt grief as the King of Naples sorrows for his lost son.  Both, separately and as part of the ensemble, are adept at the physical aspects of the performance: the opening shipwreck is stylishly and effectively depicted.

Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban is all human and no creature, which, I suppose, highlights the racism and colonialism that have reduced him to a slave on his native island.  I just prefer more of a touch of the ‘other’ to the character.  Simon Startin’s Stephano and Cath Whitefield’s Trinculo make an enjoyably drunken double act, but it is Kingston’s Prospero that dominates the action and our engagement.  Her delivery of ‘Our revels now are ended…’ is powerfully emotive and her heartbreak at releasing Ariel is quietly devastating. There is never any sense that Prospero and Miranda might be in jeopardy; Kingston is in control of everything.

Much value is added to the production by the original music and sound design, courtesy of Adrienne Quartly, and there is a lot to enjoy in this busy production.  On reflection though, I would ditch the mirror, and keep the stage almost if not entirely bare.  The physicality of the cast is more than enough to convey what needs to be conveyed.  Recycled sets don’t have to be rubbish.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!

Staff meeting: Alex Kingston as Prospero (Photo: Ikin Yum)


Shooting for the Moon

STARCHITECTS: A Mission to the Moon!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 3rd February 2023

Motionhouse’s new production is aimed squarely at a family audience, in particular the youngest members of the family.  Five children, portrayed by grown-up performers, are having a sleepover, although sleep is the farthest thing from their fertile little minds.  With tireless energy, these effervescent children bounce around, using cardboard boxes in their play-acting, creating a ceaselessly imaginative sequence in which the boxes are hiding places, an aeroplane, a castle, a train… It’s a dazzling way to start the show before the story proper begins.

The boxes form a huge telescope through which they espy the moon and two girls (Moon fairies, no less).  The kids decide to go to the moon to visit the fairies.  The boxes become a ziggurat on which is projected their rocket – the backdrop is a vast screen onto which stunning visuals are displayed.  The screen is made of strips so the performers can disappear into holes, through windows and so on, and magically reappear.  Visually, the show cannot be faulted.  The digital imagery, by Logela Multimedia, adds colour and excitement as well as denoting setting.

So the kids get to the moon, encounter an alien life form with slinkies for limbs and eyes where its hands should be, but they’re never really in danger.  They meet the fairies and then get back in their rocket and come home.  All of this is underscored by original music by Tim Dickinson and Sophy Smith, which definitely adds atmosphere and drama but at times it’s a bit too loud.  The performers often vocalise to each other and sometimes invite the audience to call out, but we can’t often hear what they’re saying and only glean an impression of their dialogue – which is fine, this is a visual show after all where movement is the main focus, but a bit of contrast in volume levels would have helped.

The performers are uniformly excellent, agile and acrobatic.  Their timing when interacting with the animation is impeccable.  The characters are also uniform in their exuberance and behaviour so it’s hard to pick out anyone in particular.  The direction by Kevin Finnan and the choreography, also by Finnan and the cast, keep the simple story clear and easy to follow.  I would have liked a bit more jeopardy other than a couple of ‘It’s behind you’ moments to help me engage with the characters and their adventure.

Visually stunning and technically perfect, the show has plenty of wow moments but it doesn’t engage on an emotional level, which is the only missing ingredient for me.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!


When life gives you…

LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS

Harold Pinter Theatre, London, Thursday 2nd February 2023

This revival of Sam Steiner’s hit play is a likeable and vibrant production.  It tells of a society where a law is passed restricting individuals’ word counts to just 140 per day.  It’s to reduce stimulus overload or something like that, but really it’s about control.  We follow the relationship of Bernadette and Oliver as the law is proposed, protested against, voted for, and implemented, through a series of non-chronological scenes.  Gradually, we piece together their love story and their communication problems.

As Bernadette, former Doctor’s companion Jenna Coleman is bright-eyed and assertive.  A fledgling lawyer, Bernadette relies on words to do her job and so invariably she uses up most of her daily quota at work, to the frustration of Aidan Turner’s bohemian/socialist Oliver.  Sparks fly between the two actors, the chemistry between them is almost palpable, but the nature of the piece requires the characters to be shut off from each other, unable to express themselves freely and fluently, and so we are ultimately shut out, and only know them in glimpses. 

Played against a stylish backdrop of shelving laden with discarded objects, divided by strips of bright light, there is often only the briefest lighting change between scenes, a split second for the actors to change position and demeanour.  Director Josie Rourke keeps the stage bare, allowing the dialogue to denote location – are they at home, in a restaurant, at a pet cemetery? – and Coleman and Turner approach each scene with the vim of members of a cocky improv troupe, and they’re both so appealing they take us along with them.

What we don’t get are answers to questions such as, How would such a law be policed?  What would be the penalties for infringement, for going over your daily limit?  How would it work in other spheres: hospitals, schools and so on.  Pretty soon, the law courts are given exemptions, and so is the House of Commons, because, of course, the kind of politicians who would make such legislation, would look after themselves… The play skirts around Brexit like the elephant on the dancefloor.  What kind of people would want something that impoverishes and restricts the lives of everyone in the country? Talk about being sold a lemon! Oliver is a driving force in protests against the word limit, while we in the real UK, are faced with having our right to protest criminalised by an increasingly authoritarian regime… The play is so close to touching on this.

As a love story, then, it’s a bit shallow.  As a thought experiment, it engages but doesn’t really develop.  “Bit cerebral,” mutters the woman next to me as she puts her coat on, and then proceeds to discuss with her companion where they will go for a meal.  I spend longer thinking about the play and conclude it’s a fine idea that only scratches the surface, but it’s effortlessly enjoyable thanks to the actors who both approach their roles with, I’m going to say it, zest.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman at loggerheads (Photo: Johan Persson)


Radio Ga Gatsby

THE GREAT GATSBY

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd January, 2023

Joe Landry’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel takes place in a New York radio theatre in the 1920s.  We meet a troupe of half a dozen actors who will perform the play, taking on all the roles and the sound effects between them.  This kind of setting allows the staging of material that would otherwise be too expensive, relying on the audience’s imagination to picture Gatsby’s vast mansion, for example.  It also makes the staging of action scenes (the car accident) within reach.

Our host is Freddie Filmore, played by Louis McCoy who, as well as taking on the roles of Gatsby and Wilson is an excellent pianist; Jake Laurents (Thom Stafford, no relation) plays the story’s narrator Nick; Jason Adam brings humour to the role of Tony Hunter, the kind of actor who reads the stage directions as well as the dialogue, playing Tom Buchanan.  Gatsby’s love interest is portrayed by Jessica Melia as Sally Applewhite; Terri-Leigh Nevin’s Lana Sherwood gives us an excellent Myrtle Wilson, complete with squeaky Noo Yoik accent; and Charlotte East’s Nellie North adds a touch of class as Jordan Baker.  (I hope I’ve got everyone’s names right!)

All six prove their versatility in characterisation and demonstrate exceptional vocal skills.  Director Alexandra Whiteley gives us plenty of visuals too in what was in danger of being a rather static affair.  To see the cast create highly effective sound effects is a marvel to behold, especially the horse noises of Jessica Melia and the car noises of Charlotte East and Jason Adam.

There is some comedy with Jason Adam’s Tony getting things wrong, and I would have liked more of this tension, the pressure to get things right and not to miss cues.  The action is interrupted for commercial breaks, where the cast sing the jingles.  Illuminated signs encourage us to applaud when appropriate – not that I need much encouragement.

The second half allows the Fitzgerald to come to the fore for the dramatic and tragic denouement, using the techniques the cast have demonstrated so amusingly in the first, but the whole thing ends on a cheerful note with a joyful Charleston to see us off.

Great!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Disaster Area

THE MERCY SEAT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 21st January, 2023

It’s the day after 9/11 – or, the 10th of September, 2001, and in an apartment in New York, a couple are going through their own calamity.  Ben (Joe Palmer) is tightly wound, ignoring the incessant phone calls from his wife, while his boss/employer-cum-mistress Abby (Angela Hewitt) tries to coax him to do the Right Thing (i.e. fess up to his wife).  Considering the biggest terrorist outrage in American history just happened a few blocks away, these two (Ben especially) are incredibly self-obsessed, paying only lip service to the tragedy and colossal loss of life.  Ben hasn’t reported in at home and is presumed missing and/or dead.  It’s a glorious opportunity to start afresh…if only he had the guts.  If these two were anything like the rest of us, they would have spent that day glued to the news!  I know I did.

Twenty years on, Neil LaBute’s play is beginning to creak.  The immediacy has gone and we’re left with this two-hander about an unhappy couple.  As Ben, Joe Palmer nails the emotional immaturity, whininess and egotism of the younger man, while Angela Hewett’s more mature Abby is able to keep it together for the most part.  There is a lack of chemistry between them and it’s hard to see what they saw in each other in the first place, what about Ben would entice Abby to risk her professional career by dating a co-worker and underling.  Everything from their personal concerns to who the hell is Audie Murphy is delivered with the same intensity, which deadens the humorous lines.  At times it sounds like Ben is sounding off to his therapist.  Lighter moments need to be lighter.  There needs to be some level of playfulness between the two before the tension between them boils over.  As a result, I found myself not caring about either of them.

It doesn’t help that the writing uses the soap opera technique of having the characters address each other by name every other line.  In soap, this works as exposition for the casual viewer, but here, with only two characters, it’s not that difficult for us to remember who is whom.  Once I caught on to this, it irritated the hell out of me. 

The traverse staging allows a greater sense of intimacy in the already intimate Ron Barber studio, and the sparse furnishings suggest a classy New York apartment – stronger New York accents from the cast would also add to the sense of place and proximity to the tragedy.

Being the Crescent, production values are high, but the result is a solid production of a weak play.  And if I never hear that bloody Nokia ringtone again it will be too soon.

 ☆ ☆ and a half

Angela Hewitt and Joe Palmer as the unhappy couple Abby and Ben (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Peter Panto

THE PANTOMIME ADVENTURES OF PETER PAN

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 29th December, 2022

The title clearly states that this is not going to be the J.M. Barrie classic.  In fact, this is more of a sequel to the well-known story.  It begins with Tinkerbell, in the panto role of Good Fairy, welcoming Wendy Darling back to Neverland.  There is trouble afoot.  Something about supplies of pixie dust in short supply, blah blah.  Of course, the plot is not the main focus of pantomime.  The main focus of pantomime is fun, and this one has it in spades.

Appearing as Smee is local superstar and Regent favourite, Jonathan Wilkes who, let’s face it, is the one everyone comes to see.  Wilkes is the embodiment of pantomime: he sings, he dances, he can handle an audience and a comic monologue, and as director, he knows how every aspect of the show should work.  He has a cocky but not arrogant persona, a cheeky boyish charm that enables him to get away with the most bawdy lines.  Never mind Pan, he is the one who has never grown up and we all love him for it.

This year, Wilkes is hooked up with returning favourite Kai Owen as the nefarious pirate Captain, supposedly reformed having been poohed out by the crocodile.  The highlights of the show are their routines – some of them time-honoured and traditional, others fresh and new.  A scene where they drag up as mermaids is particularly hilarious, and as the run reaches its end, it’s obvious they are still very much enjoying themselves.

In the title role is a youthful and energetic Rory Sutherland, with all the right poses and heroic stances.  This Peter is an action hero as well as an adorable twink.  The plot means he is grounded until the pixie dust shortage is resolved, so when Sutherland finally takes to the air, we’re with him.

Amanda Coutts’s Tinkerbell is a gorblimey kind of fairy, bearing no ill-will or jealousy towards Hannah Everest’s confident and earnest Wendy Darling.  Both girls have powerful singing voices, and it’s great to see Wendy play an active role in the climactic defeat of Captain Hook.

The plot is new yet encompasses what we expect from both panto and Peter Pan.  The script by Alan McHugh and Jonathan Wilkes is riddled with jokes, some of them old, some of them new, and only a few of which never land.  There’s the almost obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas, which rapidly descends into chaos, the ancient ‘Who’s in the first house?” routine… Wilkes and Owen carry it all off with aplomb.  All right, so we don’t get out-and-out slapstick, but the element I miss the most is one of the most pivotal characters in the pantomime pantheon.  There is nothing like a dame.  For me, this is all that’s lacking from this ribald and rowdy, rollocking and riotous piece of theatre.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!

Hannah Everest, Jonathan Wilkes, Amanda Coutts, and Rory Sutherland (Photo: Claralou Photography)


Turn Again

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 20th December, 2022

After all these years, Hippodrome pantomime favourite Matt Slack finally lands a title role.  At last he is able to make a Dick of himself.  If you’ve seen him before you know exactly what you’re going to get, and Slack delivers exactly what they pay him for.  No one does what Matt Slack does better than Matt Slack, but there is a strong whiff of we’ve seen it all before.  To paraphrase a line from the pantomime, Turn again, turn again, Matt Slack’s doing his turn again. 

You can’t help but admire his energy, his skill set (his impressions are off the scale!) and his wit – he is co-credited as scriptwriter along with veteran panto scribe, Alan McHugh.  The script is aimed well above the heads of the youngest members of the audience; it’s quite the rudest panto I’ve seen this year, which is fun for the grown-ups who have forked out for the tickets. 

As ever at the Hippodrome, it’s a massive spectacle.  An early appearance of the Rat King is breath-taking.   Unfortunately, its dialogue is largely drowned out by the atmospheric music that underscores the scene.  Playing the Rat King’s human emissary, the Rat Man is housewives’ favourite, Marti Pellow, who certainly looks the part.  Elegantly costumed, he struts around, performing tuneful songs of his own composition, but he is largely separate from the action.  It’s like he’s in a different show.  The rest are in a panto while he’s doing his musical theatre thing.

There’s a song about panto and how great it is.  We don’t need to know we’re watching a panto.  They don’t need to tell us they’re in a panto.  Again, the show veers toward musical theatre, which ain’t panto.  There’s no slosh scene, no ‘It’s behind you’ moment, and audience participation is kept to a bare minimum.

Conventionally a dancer is cast as the Cat.  Interestingly, we get local character Doreen Tipton instead.  Doreen has a marvellous deadpan woe-is-me delivery, and it’s great to see her branching away from her usual mockery of people on benefits.  As the Spirit of the Bells, TV’s Dr Ranj prances and sparkles around, very much being himself and proving himself a good sport.  Ironically, he serves as ‘straight man’ to Matt Slack’s extended pun-filled stories.

Andrew Ryan is Felicity Fitzwarren, a garishly glamorous dame, who definitely needs her own moment in the show out from under the shadow of Slack’s spotlight, while former pop star Suzanne Shaw provides love interest as Alice Fitzwarren. Shaw is strangely underused, with no solo number nor even a duet with Slack.

The cast is supported by a hardworking ensemble of ten, and a seven-piece band, led by Robert Willis. It’s a great looking, great-sounding production, beautifully lit by Ben Cracknell, and there are laughs aplenty throughout. What the show gains in scale and splendour, it loses in heart. Slick and spectacular, it’s enjoyable to be sure, but I feel it lacks some of the elements of the very art form it extols in song.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

What a Dick! Matt Slack reigning supreme (Photo: Paul Coltas)


Merry (Christmas) Men

ROBIN HOOD

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th December, 2022

You might think the intimate performance space at Stratford’s Attic Theatre would be too restrictive to stage a pantomime.  Well, you’d be reckoning without the genius of Tread The Boards’ resident writer-director John Robert Partridge.  He puts the focus on his cast of six to deliver all the conventions of the art form, supported by the tech crew, and quite frankly, we are too busy laughing to miss grand-scale spectacular scenes which other, larger venues can accommodate.  Partridge frames the story how we would expect: a fairy in a pink spot, the villain in a green… but because it’s Robin Hood, we don’t know precisely what the plot will entail, unlike the more well-worn pantomimes, and this adds freshness to the production.

Opening the show and winning us over instantly is Florence Sherratt as fabulous Fairy Fabulous, friendly and funny, contrasting sharply with Joshua Chandos’s marvellously wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.   Chandos is darkly camp and never short of hilarious – and he has the best hair.

Emily Tietz’s Maid Marian is no shrinking violet, with her movie-star looks and a valiant spirit; while Dan Grooms’s Robin may be a long time coming but is definitely worth the wait.  For all his posing, posturing, and knee-slapping, it is Robin who must be rescued from the Sheriff’s clutches by Marian and the others.

Those others: Silly Willy – Dominic Selvey is a lovable buffoon with an indefatigable supply of quick-fire one-liners.  When he gets three volunteer children from the audience for a rendition of Music Man, he’s on a steep learning curve!   Playing Willy’s mother, Dame Tuck, is Pete Meredith, a consummate panto dame, cheeky bordering on bawdy, and sporting a range of eye-wateringly garish outfits as the show goes on.

The songs are mainly lifted from Disney, with a touch of ABBA; there’s a wonderful send-up of the Bryan Adams mega-hit, Everything I Do I Do For You, and an exciting climactic swordfight between Robin and the Sheriff while Dame Tuck belts out her best Bonnie Tyler.

Adam Clarke’s set design comprises a stylised forest backdrop complete with a real tree trunk, the branches of which stretch across the ceiling.  The set is rendered multi-purpose by Kat Murray’s lighting and the dialogue, proving you don’t need elaborate scenery to evoke location and atmosphere.

There’s plenty of audience participation.  This reviewer was picked on to be Dame Tuck’s ‘boyfriend’ and it could have been worse!  I think I got off lightly…

A riotous, fun-filled evening and an affordable seasonal treat.  As a measure of every panto, I glance around at the nearby children in the audience to see if they’re enthralled.  And tonight they’re lapping it up.

Magical.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Full of beans: Dominic Selvey gives us his Silly Willy, with Pete Meredith’s Dame Tuck behind

(Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)


Wishing and Washing

ALADDIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 14th December, 2022

Aladdin has always been a curious mix as a pantomime, based on a tale from the 1001 Arabian Nights, with a lot of Chinese reference points chucked in.  Writer-director Will Brenton overcomes the outdated stereotypes by translating the action from Old Peking to ‘Shangri-Fa’, located somewhere in The Mystical East.  Therefore, in terms of costumes and scenery, anything vaguely Asian goes!

And it’s a good-looking show, blending old-school scenic elements with a video cyclorama. 

The action kicks off with villainous Abanazar (Michael Greco off of EastEnders) revealing his dastardly plot.  He unleashes the Spirit of the Ring (Zoe Birkett) who, Magic Mirror-like, tells him the only person pure of heart in the vicinity happens to be the title character, who also happens to be something of a thief.  Or, as he would put it, a redistributor of wealth.  Greco is great, melodramatic and pompous, lacing the bombast with a wry sense of humour.  Birkett is fantastic, with a chirpy Northern charm and a singing voice to die for.  I’d be happy if the entire show morphed into a concert of hers, to be honest. Her ‘Defying Gravity’ while Aladdin soars on a magic carpet, is just wonderful.

In the title role, Ben Cajee is appealing but the characterisation is, ironically, wishy-washy.  Returning to the Grand for another go, this time to appear as Aladdin’s brother Wishee-Washee is the excellent Tam Ryan.  In fact, we have to wait for his first entrance to get the first joke of the night.  Also making a welcome return is Ian Adams as a long-suffering Widow Twankey.  Ryan and Adams, separately and together, are the comedic pulse of a production which is uneven in tone.

Instead of an emperor or sultan, Shangri-Fa is ruled by a twit of a bureaucrat, a bumbling Notary (Ian Billings) who is out to line his own pockets, believing billionaires to be better than the rest of us.  This change means his daughter, Jasmine (Sofie Anne) is denied her princess status, freeing her to share Aladdin’s social conscience.  It seems that pantomime is drawing lines in the sand this year.  Wealth should be for everyone and not just those at the top, Aladdin and Jasmine agree.  I welcome this refreshing change: panto has always been a popular art-form and has always satirised those in charge.  There seems to be a distinct move to speak up for the people this year.  Unfortunately, the Notary who has the power to say who may or may not get married, just fizzles out of the storyline and the thread is left unresolved.  Here is a character who needs to learn the error of his ways.  Also left hanging is Wishee-Washee’s attraction to Zoe Birkett.  It’s usual in panto for everyone to get a happy ending, but even Twankey doesn’t get a man.

There is much to enjoy, of course.  Duane Gooden’s big hearted (and big bellied) Genie, the hard-working ensemble of dancers, a slosh scene in the laundry… But for me, it doesn’t hang together as a coherent whole.

And there’s the rub.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half

Bopping Beppe: Michael Greco making his di Marco as Abanazar (Photo: Alex Styles)


Disco Ball

CINDERELLA

Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford, Tuesday 13th December, 2022

As soon as Fairy Fleur (Harriet Thorpe from Ab Fab) opens the show with a flash and a puff of smoke, we know we are in safe hands.  Camp and cheerful, Thorpe takes charge and sets the tone for a hugely enjoyable evening.  And the producers get their money’s worth out of her, having her reappear in several guises throughout the story.

Aya Elmansouri’s Cinderella is feisty and exuberant, not the downtrodden figure we might expect.  Her singing voice is powerful and we take to her immediately.  In fact, it’s an instantly lovable cast; Ricky K’s Buttons is a cheeky clown, adept at physical comedy; Tom Vaughan’s Prince Louis is handsome and clean cut and clearly having fun; Allan Jay’s Dandini is camply Scottish, and a serious challenge to Vaughan for the best singing voice in the show.

The scene-stealing Ugly Sisters, wonderfully named Tess & Trace, are unstintingly hilarious.  Jason Sutton’s Trace is the more traditional panto dame while Will Peaco’s Tess is more of a modern drag queen.  The pair work wonderfully together.  Even their moments of cruelty bring laughter.

The traditional pantomime elements are here, executed perfectly.  A slosh scene involving Button and the Sisters and a tub of face cream is all the funnier for its simplicity.  And a Staffordshire Sasquatch provides the ‘It’s Behind You’ scene, including a chase around the auditorium. 

The stage at the Gatehouse may not be very deep but the production company makes the most of it.  Production values are high, and the horse-drawn carriage at the close of Act One is breath-taking —  I would advise a puff of dry ice to better conceal the apparatus.

The well-worn story is served well by an excellent script by Julie Coombe, crackling with jokes, many of them aimed at the adults in the audience. There are many topical references promoting a greener lifestyle without holding these ideas up to ridicule e.g. Cinders and the Prince first meet during a protest to save some trees, the palace only serves Vegan food… It’s good to be included without being the butt of a joke!

Connor Fogel single-handedly handles the music.  Most of the songs are disco classics, serving to give the show a certain unity of tone, with Rebecca Jeffrey’s energetic choreography being both retro and contemporary.

This is certainly a pantomime that gets everything right.  It’s perfect entertainment, enthralling for the children and hilarious for the grown-ups.

I had a ball.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Raining Supremes

DREAMGIRLS

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th December, 2022

There are many shows that chart the highs and lows of the business we call show, detailing the rise and fall of musical artistes, often involving real-life dead singers.  This one focusses on a fictional Motown-style girl group and adheres pretty much to the same storytelling formula, touching upon white exploitation of black music, and male exploitation of female performers.

Three young women meet a manager/con artist who gets them a gig as backing singers to an established star.  Eventually, the group get to headline their own shows, make records, appear on television.  Conflict arises when the manager changes the line-up so the ‘best-looking’ girl gets to front the group, while the one with the strongest voice is relegated to backing vocals.  These machinations culminate in a blistering Act One closing number, delivered by Nicole Raquel Dennis as the side-lined Effie, whose rendition of And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going brings the house to its feet and is quite possibly the most impassioned performance you could ever hope to hear.

Dennis is a powerful presence throughout, exhibiting Effie’s diva behaviour and that searing, soaring voice.  Playing the other two girls are Natalie Kassanga as Deena (the pretty one) and Paige Peddie as Lorrell (the funny one).  They each get their moments to shine both musically and dramatically.

As the manipulative manager Curtis Taylor Jr, Matt Mills embodies the male attitudes of the time: the women are merely a product for him to package and sell.  With his rich singing voice, he is a pleasure to hate.  Brandon Lee Sears is a pleasure to like as womanising soul singer Jimmy Early; with all the moves and the vocal dynamics, Sears delivers a star turn.

Tim Hatley’s set evokes nightclubs, TV studios, Las Vegas, all through geometric patterns, while his costumes are glitzy and glamorous – especially the gowns worn by the girls.

The songs are credible pastiches, played live by a fantastic band under the baton of Simona Budd, but of course it’s the singers who command our attention.  You can’t fault the production values or the performances, but for me the material is a little too formulaic, containing no surprises to lift it beyond the run-of-the-mill showbiz story.

All in all though, it’s a hugely impressive, entertaining evening in the company of Supremely talented performers who work hard to deserve their ovations.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Diverting divas: Paige Peddie, Natalie Kassanga, and Nicole Raquel Dennis


Beans Talk

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 25th November, 2022

The first pantomime of the season and it’s a favourite fixture of mine, the Belgrade’s annual extravaganza featuring the perennial pairing of Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth.  Returning for the umpteenth year, writer/director and dame extraordinaire, Lauchlan delivers the goods once again with a blend of traditional and innovative elements.  He is also generous enough not to hog all the best/worst jokes to himself.

Appearing as Dame Trott in a range of garish and hilarious outfits, Lauchlan embodies the panto spirit, with good-natured fun and broad comedy.  Forming a perfect foil is Craig Hollingsworth’s Simple Simon, a somewhat manic man-child.  Hollingsworth delivers a masterclass in how to handle and involve the audience, and it’s an absolute joy to see these two working together again.

Morna Macpherson is a thigh-slappingly heroic Jack.  It strikes me that pantomime, with its dames and principal boys, has been years ahead in terms of using pronouns according to how people present themselves to the world.  The kids in the audience take the characters at face value, which is how it should be.  Macpherson’s macho posturing is in keeping with the genre, rather than being a parody.  Rochelle Hollis plays the object of Jack’s affection, the Princess Poppy, doing a good job with a thankless part.

Emma Mulkern’s Fairy Fennel is good value, while Andy Hockley’s Fleshcreep is delightfully wicked, in a Dickensian manner.  Hockley is clearly having a lot of fun, donning a range of disguises that we see through right away.  David Gilbrook’s attention-deficient King adds to the fairy tale setting.

There is much of what we expect: a slapstick scene involving lemon meringues and oversized syringes, a bit of music hall patter, and plenty of audience participation.  Always one to include new ideas with the old, Lauchlan’s beanstalk is the most innovatively staged I’ve ever seen.  The giant also impresses and is worth waiting for, but it’s Daisy the Cow who upstages everyone (played by dancers Lewis James and Hudson Tong).  I also love the troupe of cockroaches that infests the giant’s castle; they have some nifty choreography courtesy of Jenny Phillips.

The laughs keep coming and the plot chugs on despite all the shenanigans.  The first half does run rather long, proving a strain on young bladders, and having to sing a verse about a chip shop every time Simple Simon walks on gets a bit wearing very soon. But these shortcomings don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Bright and colourful with almost everything covered in glitter, this is a hugely enjoyable, highly silly production with enough to keep everyone entertained.

Colour me cheered up, good and proper.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Don’t have a cow! Craig Hollingsworth, Daisy, and Iain Lauchlan (Photo: Nicola Young)


Ghost on the Coast

DARKER SHORES

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 23rd November, 2022

This slice of Victorian gothic begins with grief-stricken natural historian Professor Stokes (Maxwell Caulfield) narrating a spooky experience he has had to spiritualist Tom Beauregard (Michael Praed). And so we are transported to the site of this happening, a creepy old house by the sea, where we encounter housekeeper Mrs Hinchcliffe (Juliet Mills) and housemaid Florence (Chipo Kureya). And it’s not long before objects start moving seemingly of their own accord, to the accompaniment of plenty of bumps in the night.

Writer Michael Punter weaves an intriguing mystery; his dialogue is beautifully evocative of period and sensation. There is wry humour running through the piece, offsetting the moments of tension and surprise, which are superbly handled by director Charlotte Peters.

Maxwell Caulfield is in good form as the opinionated professor, and there is some superb character work from Juliet Mills, as a chummy version of Mrs Danvers.  Chipo Kureya is their equal as the ‘sensitive’ housemaid, upping the supernatural ante.  But it is Michael Praed who storms the piece as the American spiritualist, on the wrong side of the Civil War, looking and sounding every inch the debonair Southern gentleman.  Young Kureya excluded, the other three must have hideous, decaying portraits stashed in their attics: how they resist the ravages of old age is perhaps the most mysterious supernatural element to the show!

Without giving too much away, there is also a splendidly eerie appearance by Will Beynon…

Dominic Bilkey’s sound design goes a long way to engendering atmosphere, while Nick Richings’s lighting plays on Philip Witcomb’s beautifully detailed set to create moments of terror and otherworldly occurrences.

It’s a well-made, good-looking production, with an interesting story and well-executed special effects.  If I were in charge, however, I would tidy up some of the plot points so that all the information is revealed before the climactic action.  This would mean there’d be no need for the coda scene, happening twelve months later, where two of the characters tie up the loose ends for the audience’s benefit.

Marvellously atmospheric and beautifully played, this is a spookily entertaining night out.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Stop! Nobody ordered a table dance! Juliet Mills, Michael Praed, Maxwell Caulfield and Chipo Kureya sharing a moment (Photo: Jack Merriman)


Vloggy Horror Show

THE ORPHANAGE

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 17th November, 2022

Young couple Liz and JP are engaged to be married.  To raise funds for their nuptials, they decide to create something exciting for their YouTube channel, something that will go viral and bring in the big bucks.  Unlike most ‘influencers’ I’ve come across, this pair are an appealing couple of characters and we’re happy to go along with them when they opt for spending the night at an abandoned children’s home…

So begins a superb night of theatre, with the intimate black-box space of the Blue Orange pulling out all the stops to generate suspense and tension, using practical effects to shock and surprise and to get us jumping out of our seats.  The action is enhanced by video footage, for scenic reasons and to develop the plot, as JP stumbles across VT of a creepy doctor conducting interviews with his juvenile charges. Alex Johnson’s set grounds us in reality, while his lighting design highlights the weird happenings. Dan Clarkson’s sound design punches up the scarier moments. Sights and sounds come at us from all quarters, keeping us on edge throughout.

Saul Bache makes JP an amiable extrovert, providing a rich vein of humour between the scares.  Stephanie Simpson’s Liv is more level-headed (until things start to unravel, that is!) and the two spark off each other nicely.  Thom Stafford (no relation) is wonderfully menacing as twisted Doctor Harding, whether he’s on screen or making a more personal appearance.

The script by James Williams and Alexandra Whiteley (who both also direct) is bang up-to-date, proving that ghost stories don’t have to be Victorian, using present-day vernacular and technology to create a thrill-ride of a play that puts the audience in the thick of the action.  Ashley Walsh’s original compositions add to the horror movie atmosphere, and there’s a haunting version of You Are My Sunshine in a minor key that is wonderfully unsettling.  Horror fans will recognise tropes from cinema, but they’re just as (if not more) effective done live before our very eyes.

The story covers a lot of ground: mystery, supernatural occurrences, psychological terror, buried memories coming to the surface… and does so effectively in a comparatively short running time.  It’s an antidote to all the premature Christmas cheer out there, a perfect chiller for a wintry evening.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


What’s it all about, Malfi?

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 12th November, 2022

John Webster’s revenge tragedy, first produced in 1614, comes to the Ron Barber studio in this elegant, abbreviated version, directed by Andrew Cowie.  A cast of nine hurtle through the action and, for the most part, handle the text well – especially when the characters are being angry or insane or both.

In the title role, Grace Cheatle is an appealing duchess, marrying her alluring femininity with a kind of playful innocence.  She also marries her steward, in secret and against the wishes of her control freak brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Andrew Elkington) and the Cardinal (Tom Lowde).  These are the villains of the piece but their dirty work is carried out by the formidable Robert Laird as ex-con and henchman for hire, Daniel de Bosola, who spies on the duchess and gets most of Webster’s best lines.  “We are merely the star’s tennis balls, struck and banded Which way please them.”– A nice philosophy but it’s the duchess’s brothers who strike and band him around!

Elkington and Lowde each shine, especially in scenes of distress, and yet again the costume team at the Crescent come up trumps, realising the designs of Stewart and Rose Snape.  Duke Ferdinand’s madness is more alarming than anything feigned by Hamlet.

Jason Adam makes an impression as Antonio the steward, and there is superb support from Fi Cotton as the loyal waiting woman, Cariola – grieving and getting strangled in heart-wrenching moments.  Charlotte Thompson is assured and somewhat coquettish as the Cardinal’s fiery mistress, while Jess Shannon works wonders with the non-descript ‘nice’ role of Delia, Antonio’s friend – and survivor of the climactic massacre.

Andrew Cowie’s direction keeps the action moving at quite a lick and there are some splendid scenes in lantern light. The scene where the duchess is visited by a group of lunatics seems underdone, though.  As the action reaches its denouement, he brings out the dark humour of the piece but, curiously, for a revenge tragedy, the stage is surprisingly blood free.  Apart from a nosebleed on a handkerchief and a wax dummy painted with it, this is a remarkably sterile bloodbath.  One of the delights of revenge tragedy is the copious bloodletting at the end.  We have enjoyed seeing the mighty and powerful behaving extremely badly; similarly, their comeuppance must be extreme, washing their sins away with their own blood.

As ever, production values are high – but perhaps the budget doesn’t run to the laundry bill or contain enough for buckets of stage blood to be added to the props list!  The chequerboard floor of Keith Harris and Michael Barry’s set suggests chess, symbolising the plots and stratagems of just about all the characters, the black and white squares the evil or good of their natures.

Stylish, elegant and gripping if a bit anaemic.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Fi Cotton and Grace Cheatle (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Words Not Deeds

SHE’S ROYAL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 1st November, 2022

This new play by Tonia Daley Campbell reveals the story of two women of colour, both princesses in their own right, who became goddaughters to Queen Victoria.  As girls, they were spared the fate of their enslaved compatriots because of their royal heritage.  In doing this, Victoria considered herself progressive.

The story is framed around a group of girls stumbling into a dusty room and discovering portraits of the two women.  The women then come forward to introduce themselves.  The time has come for their stories to be heard, having been excised from Victoria’s private journals.

Karina Holness shines as Sara Forbes Bonetta, proving herself a captivating storyteller.  She is matched by Amrika Rani as Maharajah’s daughter turned suffragette, Sophia Duleep Singh.  Appearing as an imperious and regal Queen Victoria, Skye Witney is perfectly authoritative while showing a human side to the woman who was the figurehead of the empire.

The lively bunch of girls are joined by a chorus of community performers.  With the exception of Queen Victoria, no one leaves the stage.  Modern commentary on historical events and attitudes provides a rich source of humour, and often what we hear is emotive and provocative.  Director Lorna Laidlaw keeps everyone busy, so that scenes don’t become too static, but herein lies the problem of the piece.

There is a tendency to tell rather than to show.  Events and incidents are delivered in reportage, as the leading players narrate their own lives rather than acting them out.  The result is a wordy and informative evening that raises many important points, where didacticism replaces dramatic action.

There is a lot of ground covered.  It’s not just the two women featured who have been erased from history.  Rather than having Black History Month once a year, the entire education system needs a reboot.  Above all, the play celebrates the contributions of black women, and it’s only right that these inspirational figures are acknowledged. 

To repeat a quotation used in the play from Emmeline Pankhurst, “Deeds not words will change history.”  Deeds, combined with words, make for a more effective drama!

☆ ☆ ☆


Dancing in the Dark

STRICTLY BALLROOM

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 31st October 2022

Back in 1992, Baz Luhrmann’s directorial debut took cinemas across the world by storm.  So popular was the film that the BBC nicked half of its title for their reboot of popular ballroom show, Come Dancing (rendering the adverb meaningless, in the process!).   Now, the musical stage adaptation is doing the rounds, directed by Strictly’s chief grouse, Craig Revel Horwood.  As you might expect, the choreography (by Horwood and Jason Gilkison) is impeccable.  The problem I have, unfortunately, is that too often the downstage area is in darkness, and characters who should be the focus of particular moments, disappear into shadow.  I can’t work out if this is down to strange choices by lighting designer Richard G Jones, or whether it’s because the follow-spot operators fell asleep on the job.

The two leads are played by Strictly royalty, Kevin Clifton as Scott Hastings and Maisie Smith as Fran.  Clifton is a wonderful mover and, as a singer, well, he’s a wonderful mover.  Belting out non-descript ballads is not his forte, I’m afraid.  Smith is a revelation, with a fine singing voice with an impressive range.  Fran is the ugly duckling, Cinderella and Eliza Doolittle rolled into one, as she learns to dance to a standard fit for a tournament in just three weeks.

The score is a mix of original songs (which aren’t up to much) and jukebox classics of the era, and so standards like Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time are shoehorned in, with the hope that at least some of the lyrics will be pertinent to the situation.

The Australian accents add to the campness of the whole, contrasting with the elegance of the formal dance clothes and coiffured hair. Nikki Belsher is a prime example, as Clifford’s selfish mother, Shirley. Gary Davis cuts an overbearing, almost Trumpian figure, as the corrupt president of the dance federation, Barry Fife.

When Scott goes to meet Fran’s folks, he encounters Rico, who puts him in his place, choreographically speaking.  Jose Agudo steals the show with a flaming flamenco that brings the house down, which brings the first act to a rousing finale.  The show never recovers, never retains these dizzying heights again.  Not even in the climactic dance tournament.  Agudo is magnetic, drawing the eye, embodying elegance and masculinity in the stamp of a foot, the sweep of an arm.  Tens across the board!

On the whole, I think the show would work better as a play, with the songs reserved for the dance sequences.  The quirky comedy of the original film is swamped here by the soul-searching ballads.

Kudos to the talented performers, who give their all, and to the excellent six-piece band under the baton of Dustin Conrad, but the material needs to be handled differently if the story is to delight and to move me as the film did thirty years ago.

☆ ☆ ☆

Kevin Clifton and Maisie Smith (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Squirrel Away!

IVY TILLER: VICAR’S DAUGHTER, SQUIRREL KILLER

The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th October, 2022

Long ago, white Europeans went to the Americas and wiped out the natives with diseases.  Centuries later, the grey squirrels returned the favour by coming to the UK and doing the same to our native reds.  There is a movement now to ‘control’ the grey population, a kind of ethnic cleansing for squirrels.

This new comedy by Bea Roberts, currently playing in the RSC’s underused Other Place studio theatre, seems as though it was tailor-made for comedian Daisy May Cooper, with a very strong feel of the BBC sitcom This Country about it. Cooper does not appear, but her spirit is evoked by the superb Jenny Rainsford in the title role.

Ivy is something of an eco-warrior, hunting and killing the invasive grey squirrels in order that the native reds may flourish.  This activity gives Ivy a sense of purpose and self-importance, because in no other arena is she afforded these feelings: her teacher training is down the drain, her father is cold and distant, treating her like a skivvy… And so squirrel-hunting has replaced caring for her late mother, and here is something she can control, a ‘disease’ she can eradicate.  Fresh out of jail, cousin Gary (Nathan McMullan) comes to visit.  Ivy picks up where they left off, wallowing in childhood nostalgia.

This is not really a play about conservation.  It’s more to do with grief – or to be precise, not grieving.  Ivy is unable to move on from the loss of her mother, so when even the squirrel-killing dries up and her team is disbanded, she has nowhere to turn.  She tries to cling to her eco-warrior role and keep it going, but it is slipping from her grasp.

This very funny piece turns out to have been a tragedy, after all.

Rainsford and McMullan make a fine double act, and they are supported by a fine quartet.  I really enjoy Alex Bhat as Reece, Ivy’s comrade-in-arms who is in love with her; Tim Treloar as local landowner Tig and other roles; Anna Andresen as a beleaguered headteacher; and Jade Ogugua as a primary school teacher – her clashes with Rainsford are excellently played.

Caitlin McLeod’s direction hones the comedic playing to the hilt, wisely allowing dumbshow sequences to cover transitions, to give us physical comedy to complement Roberts’s dazzling script.

One of the aspects I most admire about this production is it credits the audience with the intelligence to piece together characters’ histories, to divine why they are the way they are.  We meet Ivy and her milieu as observers – the distance helps us to laugh – but it is our recognition of the characters’ humanity that fills in the blanks.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

On manoeuvres: Adam Bhat and Jenny Rainsford. Photo by The Other Richard (c) RSC

Mental Dental

DEMON DENTIST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 26th October, 2022

Hot on the heels of Gangsta Granny, Awful Auntie, and Billionaire Boy, comes this latest stage adaptation of a David Walliams novel.  Demon Dentist is in similar vein, with all the Roald Dahl-esque features we have come to expect, but with this story there is an extra frisson of horror.  Of course, bung ‘dentist’ into the title, and you’ve got a head start when it comes to frightening people!

The story begins with the Tooth Fairy leaving horrible things under kids’ pillows.  Instead of shiny coins, they find dogs’ tails, dead mice, squashed toads.  Then a new dentist comes to town, offering ‘special’ toothpaste and sugar-free sweets… and the mystery deepens.  It falls to 12 year-old, dentist-phobic Alfie and his friend-who-is-a-girl Gabz to investigate.

Leading this excellent ensemble is Sam Varley, who is instantly appealing as big-hearted, bad-toothed Alfie; I’m convinced he is genuinely a schoolboy claiming to be a much older actor rather than the other way around! And when he sings, it’s spine-tinglingly good.  Alfie is a carer for his dad (James Mitchell) who is debilitated by a case of black lung from his time as a coal miner.  Their relationship is the emotional heart of the play, and the two of them tug at your heartstrings.

Georgia Grant-Anderson is great fun as Gabz, while Misha Malcolm’s social worker Winnie navigates the fine line between broad comedy and touching drama.  Extra comedy is added by Zain Abrahams as newsagent Raj (a recurring character in these stories) and Ben Eagle as PC Plank.  There is also strong support from Aaron Patel and Mia Overfield in a range of smaller roles.

Emily Harrigan really gets her teeth into the role of Miss Root the evil dentist , like Cruella de Vil taking on NHS patients.  A proper, scary villain, Harrigan belts out songs one minute, makes malicious threats the next, all the while looking fabulous.  Here the humour is at its darkest and most delicious.

Neal Foster’s direction keeps things moving.  There’s a lot of fast-moving action, plenty of fart jokes, and some effective moments of suspense and surprise, but it’s the emotional beats that kick you in the teeth.  This play really does have something for everyone.  Listening to the children in the audience alternate between screams of laughter and screams of, well, screams, adds to the gruesome, silly fun.  It’s a perfect family treat for Halloween and the Birmingham Stage Company have yet another hit on their hands.

You won’t be needing nitrous oxide for this show to make you laugh.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Sam Varney (under the cat), Emily Harrigan, Georgia Grant-Anderson, and Misha Malcolm


Man-made Man

FRANKENSTEIN

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2022

Back in 1818, young Mary Shelley invented the science fiction genre with her gothic novel that deals with those little things like creation, life and death.  By creating life and thereby usurping God, Victor Frankenstein then shirks his responsibilities as a creator.  His creation, unguided, has to find his own way in the world.  Thus, the Creature represents the human condition, floundering while God insists on being an absentee father.

This new adaptation by Catherine Prout hits all the right plot points, even with a scaled-down cast of characters.  The rather verbose dialogue is true to the style of the Shelley original and does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to conveying a sense of the period.

Dan Grooms is an impassioned if youthful Victor, adept at showing signs of high distress both physically and emotionally.  I wonder if his pre-recorded narration would be better done live as he potters around in his laboratory.

He is more than matched by his Creature, in a towering performance from Alastair Oakley, who is imposing and innocent, ferocious and frightening, while also being pitiful.  It’s a remarkable portrayal.

This central pair is supported by a versatile ensemble.  The mighty Robert Moore is charming as Victor’s BFF Henry, and brings a touch of humour as farmer Felix; Matilda Bott is devastating as the wrongly-accused Justine; Phil Leach brings gravitas as Victor’s dad, and warmth as blind De Lacey; Joshua Chandos impresses as Captain Waldman to whom Victor unfolds his tale; while Lily Bennett does a bang-up job of making too-good-to-be-true Elizabeth sympathetic rather than soppy.

Adrian Daniel’s set has something of a steampunk aesthetic, all ropes and chains, dials and switches.  Lit by Kat Murray, it becomes a versatile and atmospheric setting for the play’s many locations.

As ever, director John-Robert Partridge makes the most of the Attic’s intimate space.  Characters roam around in blackout, menacing the front row.  Sudden screams and loud noises keep us on edge, as the gruesome tale weaves its fascinating spell.  Even the scene changes are eerily done.  It all flows smoothly and creepily – apart from some teething troubles with a recalcitrant table top that threaten to hold up the action!  With today’s matinee being only the second performance of the run, I’m sure these minor problems will soon be ironed out.

Production values are high – special shout out to Sue Kent’s make-up work on the Creature – proving that with the right treatment, the familiar fable still has the power to intrigue, provoke and shock.

Like Victor’s Creature, this spellbinding show is extremely well put together.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Dan Grooms as Victor Frankenstein (Photo: Charlie Budd)

Leketid for barneskuespillere

MATILDA

Folketeateret, Oslo, søndag 9 oktober

Jeg så produksjonen på norsk så prøver jeg å skrive anmeldelsen min på norsk også! Her går vi!

Roald Dahls roman først dukket opp på scenen i den RSC produksjonen i 2010. Det bevegde fort fra Stratford Upon Avon til Londons West End hvor det fortsetter å spille.

Nå har showet kommet til Oslo og jeg er gled å få muligheten til å se det igjen.

Historien handler om den kjempesmart jenta, det svarte fåret til hennes uvitende familie.  Hun leser på en bok, gisper faren som kommer ikke å forstå hvorfor Matilda ikke vil se på TV hele dagen.  Matilda kjemper tilbake med praktikaliske vitser.  På skolen står hun opp mot urettferdighetene begått av den manndige rektor Miss Trunchbull. 

I denne forestillingen spilles rollen som Matilda av Agnes Sulejewski Bjerck, og hun er veldig imponerende. Alle barna opptrer som skuespillere med mange års erfaring.  De er betagende energiske, synger og danser med klarhet, presisjon og komisk timing.

Robert Stoltenberg er deilig grusom som Trunchbull i sterk kontrast til Maria Ovidias Miss Honey.  Gode ​​er også Haddy Njie som den entusiastiske bibliotekaren Mrs Phelps, Fridtjov Såheim som Matildas krasse far, Siren Jørgensen som Matildas glorete mor, og jeg liker spesielt godt Carl Martin Prebensen i den lille, men morsomme rollen som Rodolpho, den slangehippede ballroomdanseren.

Tim Minchins låter er like underholdende som alltid.  When I Grow Up er rørende og lengselsfull, og jeg finner noe spennende i måten barna svever på huskene.

Det er en historie om å finne familien din, hvor du passer inn, når familien du er født inn i ikke vet hva de skal gjøre med deg.

Helt tilfredsstillende og underholdende med en balanse mellom det morsomme og det emosjonelle, er denne produksjonen en stor og fargerik suksess!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Fantastiske barn i et skuespill om et fantastisk barn
Photo: Fredrik Arff

Ocean of Emotion

SOUTH PACIFIC

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 28th August, 2022

The Chichester Festival Theatre production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic comes to town and it’s an absolute must-see.  The score reads like a Greatest Hits playlist.  So many great numbers, many of which have become standards.  Hearing them within the context of the drama renews their impact.

Set in World War II on an island outpost where the US Navy is itching for conflict with the Japanese, this is at heart a double love story, where both relationships are blighted by ingrained prejudice.  We have firecracker hick Nellie Forbush falling for the urbane and educated plantation owner Emile de Becque, and handsome young lieutenant Joe Cable having his head turned by Liat, the beautiful daughter of camp follower Bloody Mary.  Joe feels unable to marry the girl because of the way things are ‘back home’; Nellie is horrified to discover the late mother of Emile’s kids was, gulp, coloured.  The revelation of Nellie’s racism comes as a real kicker at the end of Act One.  This lively, perky girl, the life and soul of any gathering, who has entertained us and earned our affection is tainted by one of the most stupid attitudes going.  It’s a real blow, like finding out someone you otherwise admire votes Tory.

Sad to say, the show’s message is just as relevant today.  Cable’s song, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught gets to the root of a problem that still plagues society today.

As the suave Emile, Julian Ovenden oozes romance.  Some Enchanted Evening has never sounded lovelier or more seductive.  Gina Beck’s Nellie is irresistible, funny and perky, with her heart on her sleeve, her vocals both belting and nuanced.  Rob Houchen’s Cable is spot on: the handsome young officer, dutiful and yet in love.  Houchen’s voice is surely the finest working in musical theatre today.  Sublime.

Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary brings plenty of comic relief, as does Douggie McMeekin’s Luther Billis.  Ampil’s impassioned pleas to Cable to give her daughter a better life are heart-breaking, and her rendition of Bali Ha’i is bewitching.

The big chorus numbers are stirring: There is Nothing Like a Dame, by the men, and I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, by the women.  This production goes all out to deliver the goods.  Ann Yee’s choreography, especially for the marines, is energetic, hoe-down like without being camp, and there are plenty of exotic touches to evoke the island setting.

Romantic, thrilling and humorous, with a strong social comment, South Pacific reasserts itself as a pinnacle of musical theatre in this magnificent production that hits all the right notes, musically and emotionally.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Cable guy Rob Houchen and hair-washer Gina Beck (Photo: Johan Persson)


Caught in a Bard Romance

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 24th August, 2022

Famously, little is known of Shakespeare the man, although we actually know more about him than other playwrights of the time.  The gaps in our knowledge are taken as an open invitation to screenwriters, novelists, and everyone else to invent whatever they like to make their own version of him.  Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman chose to straightwash the bard in their screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1998 film – Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day is widely recognised as having been written for a man.  The screenplay takes plot points from Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night, with the idea that these life events inspired the plays, when in truth Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of pre-existing stories.   Not that this matters if we take this version at face value.  Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the screenplay holds true to the spirit of the film, and there’s a lot of fun to be had recognising versions of famous quotes.  Even if you’re not well-versed (ha) in the Works, there is much to enjoy in this historical rom-com.

What strikes you first off in this sumptuous production is the set, which evokes the Globe Theatre and serves well for other locations.  Milling around pre-show the cast give us previews of their costumes.  As ever the costume department at the Crescent goes all out.  This is a fabulous-looking show; Rosemary Snape and her team should be commended.

Oliver Jones is a handsome and endearing Will Shakespeare, managing to be both cerebral and bumbling.  Alisdair Hunt makes an impression as his rival-mentor-friend Kit Marlowe.  The notion that Marlowe fed Will some of his best lines under a balcony is more akin to Cyrano de Bergerac!

Bethany Gilbert absolutely shines as Viola de Lesseps who disguises herself as a boy in order to secure a role on the stage.  Her delivery of the verse is second-to-none, although the play misses the opportunity to make the most of Will’s apparent attraction to someone of the same sex, as in Twelfth Night, say.

The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis is, have a guess, excellent as ever in his portrayal of harried theatre manager Henslowe, with superb timing and a performance that is just the right side of Carry On.  The mighty James David Knapp absolutely storms it as the larger-than-life actor Ned Alleyn, while Joe Palmer is suitably entitled and horrible as villain of the piece, Wessex.

Also great are Mark Thompson as the bullish financier Fennyman who taps into his artistic side when he lands the role of the apothecary; Phil Rea as a deliciously bombastic Burbage; and Pat Dixon-Dale as Viola’s long-suffering Nurse.  Jaz Davison’s imperious Queen Elizabeth is not without nuance.

There are many pleasing moments from supporting players: Charles Hubbard as boy-actor Sam; Dylan Guiney-Bailey as a bloodthirsty Webster; Niall Higgins as the Nurse within the play; Simon King as a riverboat cabbie…

A taut consort of musicians and vocalists provide period music to underscore the action and to cover transitions, and it all sounds perfectly lovely under Gary Spruce’s musical direction.  There are a few moments when the music almost drowns the dialogue – luckily Mark Thompson is often around to tell them to shut up!

Director Michael Barry keeps the action well-focussed on an often busy stage – the period choreography is charming and doesn’t get in the way of the action.  Keith Harris’s gorgeous set is backed by beautiful scenic projections, with Kaz Luckins’s fight direction adding authenticity as well as excitement.

A fine and funny fabrication that demonstrates the high quality production values on which the Crescent prides itself.  All in all, an evening of excellent entertainment.

Oh, and there’s a good bit with a dog!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Oh boy! Bethany Gilbert as Viola and Oliver Jones as Will (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Straight Acting

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 17th August, 2022

Less of a musical and more of a revue, this show which has enjoyed one of the longest runs in American theatre history, charts, through unconnected scenes, songs and vignettes, the course of love (true, or otherwise) of heterosexual people.  When theatre holds up a mirror to life, it either validates what it shows or poses questions.  Many people (straight ones) will recognise something of themselves in the character types and cliched moments on view, but from a queer perspective, the show takes on a completely different meaning.  This is what your lives are like, the show tells straight people, and you are living a narrow nightmare of convention, societal expectations and guilt trips.  The laughter of recognition should be followed through by a cringe or two at the very least. 

The cast of six (customarily the piece is performed by four) work hard to pull it off, and it requires a certain set of skills to swiftly establish characters and emotions at the drop of a hat.  Every member of this sextet has the talent, the skill – and the considerable energy it takes! – to deliver this demanding cavalcade of songs and sketches.

Jimmy Roberts’s score is serviceable rather than memorable, containing a variety of styles.  Some standout numbers include I Will Be Loved Tonight performed by Hannah Lyons, and Hey There, Single Gal/Guy in which a pair of disappointed parents lay a guilt trip on their son and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.

Recognising the undiluted heteronormativity of the piece, directors Mark Shaun Walsh and Neve Lawler give one of the songs an LGBTQ+ twist, showing that the gays can have long-term relationships too, and have the same fears and doubts as everyone else.  The number Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You, is beautifully sung by Walsh, and this feels like one of those moments of validation I talked about.  This tweak broadens the scope of the material.

There is also some relief where single life is not depicted as a terrible condition that must be cured as soon as possible: the second act opener Always A Bridesmaid has the wonderful Kimberley Maynard revelling in her independence in a rousing countryfied number.

Some of the material is old hat (men not stopping to ask for directions) but some of it is acutely observant.  The monologue of a divorced woman making a dating video is painfully funny and superbly delivered by Hannah Lyons.  It also goes to show how the world has moved on from the world of the show, now that apps like Tinder dominate the dating experience.  The libretto could do with an update to make it more directly relevant.

The cast take full advantage of this opportunity to showcase their skills: Jack Kirby as a husband and father who has transferred his affections to his car; Luke Plimmer and Anya McCutcheon Wells as a pair of elderly people meeting at a funeral, in the show’s most sentimental sequence.  All in all, it’s flawlessly presented, with musical duo Chris Arnold (piano) and Lizi Toney (violin) giving virtuoso performances of the score’s diverse demands.

Given the almost relentless parodying of heterosexuality, I write in the notebook I keep on my knee, “Is the writer gay?”.  At home I look up Joe DiPietro.  He is.  Ten points to me!

An enjoyable evening of laughter, with the occasional poignant moment.  To sum up: I liked it, it’s imperfect, needs change.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Dynamic Duo

THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th September 2022

Following last year’s rip-roaring Hound of the Baskervilles, Tread the Boards theatre company is back with this anthology of Holmes’s adventures.  Back as the detective duo is the excellent pairing of Robert Moore as Sherlock and John-Robert Partridge as Dr Watson.  Moore is in peril of becoming my favourite Holmes: he has the attitude, the humour, the intensity, and the heroism all down to perfection, with Partridge’s Watson and intelligent padawan and emotional barometer for the action.

The four stories in this exquisite adaptation are A Scandal in Bohemia, The Speckled Band, The Dancing Men, and The Final Problem, but the script avoids an episode structure by providing a throughline courtesy of arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty – Stephen Hardcastle in a suitably sinister portrayal.

Matilda Bott delights as a chirpy Mrs Hudson.  Leo Garrick impresses as an aggressive Doctor Roylett, while Stephanie Miles makes a spirited Irene Adler.  The supporting players get to demonstrate their versatility by doubling roles; the leading men get to demonstrate theirs by adopting disguises.

Partridge also directs, getting the tone of the piece spot on.  The intimate space of the Attic puts us right in the Baker Street flat where all the action unfolds.  Judicious use of lighting and sound effects suggests the other locations – Elliott Wallis’s superb music-and-sound design goes a long way to creating the atmosphere and a sense of time and place.

The script, by Robert Moore himself, wisely adheres to Conan Doyle, delivering everything we expect from and love about the most famous consulting detective.

There are plenty more stories that could be staged in this manner and I really hope a Tread The Boards Sherlock Holmes show becomes an annual treat.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Moore, please! Robert Moore as Sherlock Holmes (Pic: Andrew Maguire Photography)

Dick Moves

RICHARD III

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 15th August, 2022

Perhaps more than most plays, Shakespeare’s Richard III depends on the charisma of its leading man, who in this case happens to be the villain of the piece.  Through soliloquies and asides, the scheming Duke of Gloucester lets us in on his nefarious plots.  Richard needs to be more than a pantomime villain, enjoyable though it is to boo and hiss at those figures.  This production boasts a remarkable Richard; we take to him from the off.  From the sarcasm of the famous opening speech and along every step of the way as his Machiavellian machinations play out, Arthur Hughes gives us a somewhat Puckish Richard, playfully turning on the histrionics whenever someone needs gaslighting.  It’s a joy to watch him at work, especially since most of the other characters are ‘worthy’ beyond stomaching.  The quickfire asides and glances through the fourth wall, the lines that drip with dramatic irony, are all deliciously delivered.  The wooing of a woman he has widowed is a masterclass in manipulation.

Hughes is supported by a superlative company.  In a play where the women have little else to do but grieve and wail, Minnie Gale’s Margaret stands out in a powerfully emotive scene.  Kirsty Bushell’s keening cry as the grieving Elizabeth is truly heartrending and has to be heard to be believed.  Jamie Wilkes impressed as Richard’s sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, while Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are great fun as a pair of darkly comedic murderers who have been sent to despatch Ben Hall’s sympathetic Duke of Clarence.

Director Gregory Doran keeps the action fast-moving with swift transitions, and the sense of period in augmented by some beautiful treble vocals.  The climactic battle scenes are presented in a highly stylised manner using physical theatre and a symbolic staining with blood of the massive cenotaph that has cast its shadow over proceedings.  These scenes come hot on the heels of an effective dream sequence where Richard is tormented by those he has killed.  The sudden stylistic shift at the tail end of the play is at odds with the rest of the show, making this a production of strong moments but patchy in its overall presentation.  The first half is bum-numbingly longer than the second.

Of course, the play has plenty to say to us about the times we live in — especially given recent events:  the suitability (or otherwise) of those who rule over us; the gaslighting of the masses by those who abuse their power… Unlike the liars and crooks in power today, Richard does not get off scot-free.  Perhaps that’s why we indulge him in his excesses, and perhaps that’s why our sense of morality and our need for a proper story make us hope the wretches in government get their comeuppance.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

He came to slay: Arthur Hughes as Richard III
(Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC)

Well?

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 7th August, 2022

Everyone knows the title of Shakespeare’s late comedy (characters even say it as part of their dialogue) but fewer people are familiar with the story it tells.  The play isn’t performed as often as Much Ado, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, so every new production has a head start in delivering something fresh.

Basically, young Helena takes a fancy to Bertram, who rejects her.  She does a favour for the King of France (as you do) and he grants her a wish.  Her wish is to marry Bertram.  Bertram runs away to war because that is preferable to an unwanted marriage, apparently.  Helena goes after him, finds the girl he’s got his eye on and colludes with her to swap places so that Bertram will have sex with Helena after all, unwittingly and without consent.

In some respects, Helena can be regarded as something of a feminist figure, a woman who knows what she wants and goes all out to get it.  Trouble is, she behaves like a man to do this.  Since comedy was invented, male characters have done what Helena does, the exception being that the female object of pursuit enjoys the chase, making only token protestations.  Imagine Sid James going after Barbara Windsor and you get my point.  But when the tables are turned, and it’s a woman taking the lead, it’s uncomfortable somehow.

At this performance, the role of Helena is played by Jessica Layde, and she does a good job, although in later scenes, when Helena is pretending to be a pilgrim, more could be made of the character’s duplicity.  Deception is a big theme of the piece, after all.  Benjamin Westerby is pitch perfect as the cocky but emotionally immature Bertram, while Jamie Wilkes steals the show as the cowardly braggart Parolles.  We like him instantly, as a stock character, an archetype that predates Shakespeare by centuries, but when he is mock-kidnapped and mock-tortured by his soldier buddies, and spills his guts, being even more careless with military secrets than Donald Trump, things change.  The moment when Parolles strips himself to his underpants, rolling around the stage, divested of all pretence is, along with the very final few seconds, the most striking point of the production.

Funlola Olufunwa brings a confident and easy nobility to the elegant Countess, and I could watch Micah Balfour all night.  Bruce Alexander as the King of France and Simon Coates as LaFew show how it should be done, demonstrating vocal strength and mastery of the text that is not quite there with some of the less experienced members of the cast.

Director Blanche McIntyre is keen to point out that her production is set in the here and now.  Projections flash up the date, along with news reports, social media posts (mostly illegible) and selfies; I’m not sure they add much to proceedings other than crying out ‘Look!  How relevant we are!’, when really what is interesting and contemporary about the piece is the reversal of gender behaviour, with Helena as a predatory figure.  In the light of the #MeToo movement, there is much to explore here.

All’s Well is a play of moments rather than a cohesive whole.  This production delivers the highlights superbly but doesn’t really get to grips with the lesser parts.

☆ ☆ ☆

Call that a knife? Jamie Wilkes as Parolles
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

The Peasants are Revolting

LES MISERABLES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 12th August 2022

Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of post-revolutionary France (honestly, you could derail a train with that thing) has become more widely known due to this musical adaptation, which receives something of an upgrade after all these years.  The staging is enhanced by video projections, mainly of gloomy watercolours (inspired by the daubs of Hugo himself), but these effects never overshadow the action.   The lighting, by Paule Constable, is absolutely beautiful, giving scenes the richness of the Old Masters.  The visuals match the quality of the music and the singing.  The show feels both familiar and fresh.

Dean Chisnall is powerful as the upright Jean Valjean, a man seeking to rehabilitate himself after a 19-year stretch for stealing a loaf of bread.  Valjean should try his luck in the supermarkets of today, where even the tubs of butter have security tags.   Branded a criminal for the rest of his days, Valjean is the moral heart of the story, and Chisnall’s singing has a purity to it.  His nemesis, the dogged Inspector Javert, is played by an imposing Nic Greenshields, towering over everyone else.  Greenshields brings nuance to the putative villain of the piece, even displaying tenderness over the (Spoiler) corpse of plucky little Gavroche.

At this performance, the role of young lover Marius is played by Caleb Lagayan, who really shines in the heart-breaking Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.  His voice blends marvellously with Paige Blankson’s soprano, and the trio, when the lovers are joined by go-between Eponine (Nathania Ong) is sublime.  Also strong are Rachelle Ann Go as the doomed Fantine, Rick Zwart as the kindly bishop, Samuel Wyn-Morris as the rousing Enjolras, and of course Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh, who rapidly establish themselves as audience favourites, the ghastly Thernadiers.

The chorus scenes are stunning, whether squabbling in a dingy factory, beckoning outside a brothel, or manning the barricades – these latter scenes are almost immersive, thanks to Mick Potter’s sound design; you can almost feel the bullets whizz past your head.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen or listened to the show.  I’d forgotten how repetitive the score can be, with tunes and phrases repeated and repeated.  The big numbers are bangers, of course, but I find the recitatives a little wearing.  (Incidentally, audience member seated directly behind me, it’s not really appropriate to whoop and holler to demonstrate your appreciation for someone’s tender death scene, no matter how well it’s performed.  Glad you’re enjoying it, but not down my earhole, please!)

For me, the star of the show is the translation of the book and lyrics into English by Herbert Kretzmer, giving dignity to the undignified, wit to the wretched, and compassion to the tortured.  It’s thrilling to see the show performed live with all the bells and whistles (no thank you, concert performance) and thank goodness you don’t need a degree in French history to derive an immense amount of pleasure from all this suffering.

The French have always been better at taking to the streets than we Brits.  The show emphasises romance over social injustice, hitting us emotionally rather than politically, so don’t expect to leave the theatre in revolutionary mood.

Stirring stuff, in one respect, but the message seems to be, The poor are always with us, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

One reprise more!

Cher and Cher Alike

THE CHER SHOW

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 2nd August 2022

Charting the life story of one Cherilyn Sarkisian, this show gives us not one, not two, but three Cher-alikes, depicting the diva at three stages of her career.  There is Millie O’Connell as Babe, taking us from bullied schoolgirl to budding hippie popstar.  There is Danielle Steers as Lady, showing us Cher in the Sonny Bono years.  And there is Debbie Kurup as Star, giving us Cher post-Sonny and beyond.  Each performer is phenomenal but I find when they’re all on stage together, I can’t help but compare them: this one looks most like the real thing… that one sounds most like the real thing… The other one can do the hair toss…  When they’re all chatting in that characteristic and highly mannered way of speaking, it’s a bit weird.  What starts as a narrative device becomes an alienation effect, and I can’t warm to any incarnation.

Rick Elice’s book contains some zingers but on the whole I get the impression that Cher has had a miserable life.  The script focusses on the low points, the relationship break-ups, the unemployment, while successes (winning an Oscar) are glossed over.  Some songs fit their moments better than others, but we get all the hits – and more.

With Arlene Phillips directing and Oti Mabuse choreographing, as you might expect, the staging of the musical numbers is top drawer, energetically executed by an excellent ensemble.  Production values are high, although the set, which mainly consists of row upon row of costumes in bags suspended on rails, gives the impression that the main events of Cher’s life took place in a dry cleaner’s.

As well as the three Chers, we get Lucas Rush bringing moments of tension as Sonny Bono, Jake Mitchell camping it up as Bob Mackie, and the versatile Sam Ferriday playing a range of parts including 70s rock yeti Greg Allman.  There is strong support from Tori Scott as Cher’s mum, although she does repeat the key line, “The song makes you strong” a little too often.  One moment is splendidly touching: the recently deceased Sonny duetting with Cher one last time, before she realises she’s no longer got you, babe.

Danny Belton conducts a splendid band.  The story might come across as a bit of a downer but the music is relentlessly uplifting, culminating in the inevitable megamix that gets everyone on their feet and enjoying the party atmosphere.  And there is much to enjoy, in the performances, in the music, but I feel unengaged and distanced from the material, and I love Cher as much as any gay man.

☆ ☆ ☆

Three Chers! Hip hip hooray! Danielle Steers, flanked by Millie O’Connell and Debbie Kurup (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Gangsters’ Paradise

BUGSY MALONE

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 29th July 2022

Alan Parker’s much-loved film comes to the stage in this exuberant touring production that originated at London’s Lyric Theatre.  As in the movie, the roles (the principal ones, at least) are played by child actors.  It’s New York in the 1930s, a city dominated by the gangland rivalry between Fat Sam and Dapper Dan.  The latter has the upper hand, thanks to the advent of a new weapon, the splurge gun.  Sam’s men are getting splattered, or ‘splurged’ at an alarming rate.  This is organised paintballing.  While the deaths are quite graphically executed, so to speak, the actors get up again and walk off, just like a child’s game.  Sam strives to regain dominance by tracking down the source of the new guns.  Meanwhile, the eponymous Bugsy is trying to raise the dough to get his new love interest, Blousey, to Hollywood…

As crime boss Fat Sam, Albie Snelson throws his weight around convincingly, portraying the long-suffering, the short fuse, to perfection.  He is supported by a host of characters played by the slightly-older chorus, ensuring his scenes are a lot of fun.  Jasmine Sakyiama’s statuesque gangster’s moll, Tallulah has a dignity and knowingness to her, but lacks the jadedness of Jodie Foster, but this production keeps almost everything upbeat.  As Sam’s rival, Dandy Dan, Desmond Cole has an unquestionable authority.

Mia Lakha’s Blousey, the wannabe star, proves she can deliver the goods, belting out a couple of torch songs that suggest this Blousey will go far. Special mentions go to Aidan Oti for his sweet but downtrodden Fizzy, and Mohamed Bangura as burly boxer Leroy.

In the title role, the diminutive Gabriel Payne gives a phenomenal performance, with singing and dancing that takes my breath away but not, apparently, his.  It’s as though Billy Elliott has turned to crime.  His acting his top drawer.   In fact, across the board, the stylised Noo Yoik accents are done well, suiting the snappy dialogue of Parker’s script. While the screenplay revels in its own cinematic artifice, the stage adaptation acknowledges its theatricality, in an almost Brechtian way. Fat Sam having to change his own scene, kvetching about it as he does so, is just one example.

The score is marvellous, with all music and lyrics by Paul Williams, and it’s a treat to be reminded of his brilliance.  Drew McOnie’s lively choreography brings us all the period tropes of the dancing of the era but strings them together in a manner that seems fresh and new.

Children acting as adults shows us the childishness of the adults’ behaviour, leading to nothing but death and destruction.  I would have liked more splurge in the climactic bloodbath, for the stage to be awash with foam and custard pies, but the point is made.  Society needs to put down its guns and ditch the territorial attitude if any of us is to have a chance to survive.

Exhilarating!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Little big man: Gabriel Payne as Bugsy and Jasmine Sakyiama as Tallulah (Photo: Johan Persson)


Thick as Thieves

THE CAPER TRAIL

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 28th July 2022

This brand-new one act play, a neat little three-hander from Thirsty Theatre is showing as part of this year’s Birmingham Fest.  (It’s not all Commonwealth Games, you know).

It’s long past closing time in the museum and Carlton, the security guard, is doing his rounds.  Unbeknown to him, a notorious jewel thief has already infiltrated the building, with his sights set on the infamous Dark Ruby which bears a curse (“It sends people fucking mad” – according to Carlton).  Add to the mix an escaped convict in his underpants and the stage is set for a knockabout farce with some very funny moments.

As the hapless security man, Jason Adam quickly establishes himself as an audience favourite, while Oliver Jones’s Mason has an assured enough air to make his story of being a new starter testing the security arrangements sound plausible… Apparently, this is Ian Cooper’s acting debut, appearing as the convict in his underpants.  He displays superb comic acting and timing – as well as quite a lot of skin!  The three cast members play off each other well, lending support when a couple of lines aren’t quite there.

Writer-director Ben Mills-Wood has delivered a taut script, full of laughs, reversals, plot twists, and surprises.  Some of the reversals won’t bear close scrutiny, but while the action is flowing, we go along with it, because we’re having fun.  There are also some moments where the fourth wall gets cheekily demolished, heightening the artifice of this farcical frolic.  As a director, Mills-Wood makes judicious use of freeze-frames and blackouts to depict the cartoonish violence, along with comical sound effects. Stupid characters in clever situations make this show quite a gem.

All-in-all, a fine funny farce, although the comic business could do with tightening up here and there to give the production more polish, and to wring even more laughs out of the action.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Form of Address

CLYBOURNE PARK

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th July 2022

Bruce Norris’s award-winning piece is a play of two halves.  Set in the same house, acts one and two are fifty years apart, with two sets of characters.  We begin in 1959, and Russ and Bev are packing up to move out.  There is a kind of cosy sit-com banter between them, but soon a thread of darkness is revealed.  Their lives have been blighted by tragedy: their son, home from the Korean war, and unable to live with the atrocities he committed, has killed himself.  Concerned parties gather: the local clergyman, the local busybody… they’ve got wind that the buyers are ‘coloured’… Whoops, there go the property values.

What starts as amusing becomes savagely funny.  Director Stewart Snape gets the rises and falls, the crescendos and clashes pitch perfect, enabling his excellent cast to shine.  The mighty Colin Simmonds makes the naturalism seem effortless as mild-mannered Russ, who is provoked to explosive invective, in a well-judged portrayal.  He is strongly supported by Liz Plumpton’s excitable Bev, while James David Knapp is exquisitely monstrous as the racist busybody trying to put a stop to the sale, and Paul Forrest is delightfully irritating as the dog-collared Jim.  Conducting herself with supreme dignity is Shemeica Rawlins as the housemaid, Francine, with Papa Anoh Yentumi making a strong impression as her husband Albert. 

Fifty years later (what a long interval that was!) and the tables have turned.  A young white couple wish to demolish the house, now dilapidated and covered in graffiti, in a bid to gentrify the area, despite objections voiced by people who have grown up there during the intervening decades.  There are parallels to be made with white people taking over the land and property of others, I suppose, but the discourse in this second half is not as clear cut as the first.  The characters are preoccupied with language, particularly when someone (James David Knapp again, as a different, equally monstrous character!) cracks an inappropriate joke.  Thus, the topic shifts more to what is considered offensive and who is ‘allowed’ to be offended, before a final coda takes us back to the 50s, and the doomed son writing his suicide note, a reminder that people do much worse things to each other than make jokes, but also that such jokes are also a form of violence and oppression.

It’s an electrifying evening of theatre.  The play provokes more than it answers, which is how it should be, in my view, and there is a lot of fun to be had seeing the cast play roles diametrically opposed to their first-act personas.  Grace Cheadle’s ‘woke’ Lindsey couldn’t be further from the insipid Betsy from act one!  There are echoes in the script, turns of phrase, lines of argument, that reoccur, suggesting that people haven’t, society hasn’t, changed.  Which is a depressing thought, but it’s delivered in a hugely entertaining way by a company of actors of the highest quality.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Liz Plumpton and Colin Simmonds (Photo: Marcin Sz)

Serves Us Right

WAITRESS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 28th June 2022

The last musical I saw that was based around pie-making was Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.  This show has a completely different flavour.  Based on a film from 2005, this hit musical is on the road at last.  It’s the story of Jenna (Chelsea Halfpenny) who is not only the titular waitress but also something of a master baker.  Her pie is the talk of the town and, this being small town America, when they talk of pie, they usually mean sweet dishes and desserts.

The scene is Joe’s Pie Diner and it’s populated with a host of eccentric characters.  Everyone we meet is clearly defined by their personal quirks.  Jenna’s co-workers are Becky, the sassy black one, and Dawn, the goofy, nerdish one.  Their boss is manager-cook Cal, who is irascible, and they are visited daily by the diner’s grumpy owner, Joe.  An ensemble makes up extras but also, with some nice touches of physical theatre, represent what’s going on in Jenna’s mind.

Jenna is at a turning point.  Her redneck husband Earl has put a bun in her oven, thwarting her dreams of leaving him, but then Joe tells her of a pie-baking contest where the prize money would be enough to set her up in a new life…  But then Jenna goes and falls for her gynaecologist.  Things are looking up, you might say.

Jenna’s the most grounded of the characters, and Chelsea Halfpenny plays her with heart and warmth, proving she can belt when required by the score.  You can’t help liking her.  David Hunter is hilarious as handsome Doctor Pomatter, socially awkward and gauche, making an unusual leading man.  Wendy Mae Brown lifts her Becky above the stereotype – her rich, chocolate voice a real treat when she finally gets a solo.  Evelyn Hoskins’s Dawn could quite easily be Hairspray’s Penny Pingleton, playing the comedy very broadly.  Again, we can’t help liking her.  Even sour-tempered Cal (Christopher D Hunt) has his moments.

Dawn’s dating-site suitor comes along and out-quirks everyone: George Crawford in a scene-stealing role as Ogie.  And there is more to Tamlyn Henderson’s Earl, Jenna’s controlling, redneck husband, the villain of the piece; we get to glimpse his vulnerability and why Jenna fell for him in the first place.  There is also some delicious sarcasm from Scarlet Gabriel’s Nurse Norma.  Michael Starke (yes, Sinbad off of Brookside!) channels Colonel Sanders for his turn as Joe, something of a father figure for Jenna.  His song, Take It From An Old Man touches even my jaded heart.

Music and lyrics are by Sara Bareilles, and it’s a jaunty, likeable score. beautifully played by the on-stage band, led by Ellen Campbell. Almost everything is sweet and upbeat – even a number about doing a pregnancy test.  Jessie Nelson’s book is peppered with good humour that the cast plays to the hilt.  Sometimes, the comedy feels a little forced and the resolution is a little too pat – but this is musical theatre, so we allow it.

All in all, Waitress serves a lot of feel-good fun, keeping on the right side of saccharine sickliness.

Flantastic.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Wendy Mae Brown, Chelsea Halfpenny and Evelyn Hoskins (Photo: Johan Persson)

Yes! And…

MIDLANDS IMPROV NIGHT

1000 Trades, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th June 2022

In a room above a bar in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, an audience assembles for a evening of improvised comedy.  There are three acts, each of them taking a different approach to the art form.  Some may see it as a licence to show off.  Others may see it as an opportunity to tap into a collective creativity and create ephemeral wonders.

First up is a group of youngsters from the University, styling themselves as Improvabunga.  In a preview of their Edinburgh Fringe show, ‘Watch This Improv!’, they solicit the usual things from the audience: a genre, a subgenre, a location… with the added interventions of buzzers distributed among audience members: one triggers a song, another a kiss or a slap… and so on.  The piece that emerges, ostensibly a ‘psychological thriller’ is dubbed ‘The Recurring Night at the Museum’, and it turns out to be rather good.  The cast collaborate like well-oiled cogs.  The support and the invention are equally important.  The action is underscored by improvised mood music provided by a guy called Reuben on a keyboard, which is highly effective at creating atmosphere.  An improvised song is a highlight, with spontaneous backing vocals.  Most impressively the story has an effective structure, and the spotlight is shared equally, as cast members slickly glide from scene to scene.  There is something intrinsically democratic about improv, collectively created and collectively experienced.  An impressive start.  They should do well at the festival.

Second is ‘Behind the Headlines’, which takes the form of a kind of panel show.  Our compere and adjudicator, JP Houghton, reads out news headlines from the past seven days and then casts two of the three participants, who are competing for a place in the final round, in a scene that discusses the story.  And so a story about a shortage of Cadbury’s Flakes gives rise to a scene about the two employees responsible for the shortage waiting to explain themselves to the big boss.  A story about the perfect recipe for gin, leads to a scene about two connoisseurs in a gin bar.  And so, while they’re not acting out the news events themselves, the comedy that ensues stems from side lines, using invented characters.  The scoring is perfectly arbitrary but the fun comes from seeing the three interact and create in different pairs.  Luckily, JP is nearby to blow a whistle to bring scenes to an end, but so skilled are all three, they come up with natural punchlines.  This is a preview of their longer show, which is about to take a short residency at the nearby Blue Orange Theatre.

Third and lastly is a group called ‘Breakfast of Champions’.   Again, their format is different.  Nick Hollingsworth (winner of tonight’s headlines show, by the way) is invited to speak at length about whatever occurs to him, triggered by a word yelled from the audience.  What follows is the group creating scenes riffing off his unstructured speech.  This gives rise to the most surreal and absurd scenes of the night, with some belly laughs.  They’re a quick-witted bunch and are clearly well accustomed to working together.

An evening of fun, and I marvel at the collaborative nature of proceedings and how well it all turns out, with barely a dead line between the whole lot of them.  There is something dazzling about improv done as well as this.  Trouble is, you can’t see the same show twice.  Different genres will be picked.  Other events will occur in next week’s news.  Nick will spout different drivel… So is improv the purest theatrical form, as ephemeral as you can get, with creation and performance happening simultaneously before disappearing forever?  I’m inclined to say yes.  And?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Tee Hee or Not Tee Hee

HAMLET: The Comedy

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 14th June 2022

Oddsocks Productions’ summer tour this year contains all the hallmarks that make their shows so funny: Shakespeare, music, puppets, daft wigs… but this time, there’s a twist.  The original text adapted by in-house genius Andy Barrow is the most famous tragedy ever penned, that of the Great Dane (and I don’t mean Scooby Doo.)   So, does it work? 

Barrow himself appears as Claudius, a Viking chieftain, looking like Henry VIII but with all the vocal intonations of our current unprincipled and criminal Prime Minister – instantly establishing himself as the villain of the piece.  Barrow’s political satire has never been more prevalent, more acerbic, or more necessary, in a play that deals with someone who is unsuitable to rule.  He’s also very funny, brimming with vapid Bo-Jo waffle, his motives thinly veiled.  Topical asides zing through the script, making us enjoy the villain’s demise all the more when it finally happens.

Barrow’s partner in greatness, the formidable Elli Mackenzie appears as Gertrude, with something of our Queen’s plummy tones but none of her emotional reserve.  Mackenzie also plays Hamlet’s BFF, Horatio as a sort of likeable oaf.

In the title role is Theo Toksvig-Stewart, an excellent addition to the team, expressing teenage moodiness through physicality and handling the text with clarity and ease.  His ‘To Be’ has him toying with the idea of casting himself from the battlements, and it’s enlightening: his death could come at any precarious second, rather than the Prince contemplating suicide as an abstract concept, as per usual.  Thus, Andy Barrow’s direction sheds new light on the well-known speech.  This Hamlet is instantly likeable and he’s more than capable of holding the stage on his own.

Amber Lickerish’s Ophelia is played straight, a foil for Hamlet’s capers.  When it comes to her mad scene, the jokes fall away.  There are moments when Shakespeare’s tragedy bubbles up through the surface silliness.  Clearly this troupe could pull off a straight version if they were that way inclined.  The result is a patchiness in tone and approach.  Luckily, we are not kept waiting long for the daftness to reassert itself over proceedings.

The marvellous Jack Herauville (Laertes, Polonius, etc) is consistently delightful.  The climactic fight between Laertes and Hamlet – here done with spears rather than swords – is thrilling and funny.  The show is at its best during its madcap moments: a hunting scene with glove puppets, the skirmish in Ophelia’s grave…

Barrow doesn’t send up the material but rather plays with it.  It’s a very playful play.  There are just a couple of pacing issues keeping it from comedic perfection.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Back and the Future

JINKX MONSOON & MAJOR SCALES – Together Again, Again!

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 8th June 2022

Winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race (Season 5) Jinkx Monsoon has carved out a career as a cabaret artiste, a self-styled ‘internationally tolerated chanteuse’.  This current tour sees her reunited with sidekick and accompanist, Major Scales.

But this time, there’s a twist…

We are rocketed forward to the year 2065.  Monsoon and Scales, bearing the ravages of old age, come together after decades apart.  They fill us in with global events since our day – well, as they point out, they’re reminding us of these events, because we’re with them, in the future, which is now…

It’s a gloriously silly conceit.  Our sun has exploded.  The Earth has been taken over by Reptilian alien overlords (so, nothing new there, then) and, more pertinently, we learn the fate of some of the other drag queens who have graced the runway.

An eclectic set gives us show tunes and torch songs.  There’s even a jazzy Gorillaz cover.  Monsoon is in superb voice, combining shades of Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and Lucille Ball.  She dodders around, forgetting where she is, reprising refrains, repeating jokes, but she still has a savage tongue for any audience member who gets out of line.

Scales is an excellent foil.  The bickering between the two is merciless, the timing immaculate.  They can drop in ad libs without breaking their stride.

No encore though, despite rapturous applause, as the age-withered pair shuffle off to be ‘redistributed’ (recycled, to you and me).

An extremely funny evening.  Monsoon is a major talent.  Off the scales, in fact.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Right as Rain

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 7th June 2022

I maintain that the 1952 Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds film is a pinnacle of cinematic endeavour, so any stage production seeking to emulate this piece of perfection has an impossible task ahead.  This large-scale touring production  originating from Chichester Festival Theatre comes pretty close!

A spoof of the advent of ‘talking pictures’, this story of Hollywood glamour is funny, romantic and spectacular.  This show doesn’t stint on the large production numbers.  Andrew Wright’s exuberant choreography delivers period, verve and character.

Sam Lips makes quite a splash as leading man Don Lockwood, cocksure and on the right side of cheesy.  A lovely crooner, Lips can also hoof it – the iconic title song which closes the somewhat lengthy first act is everything you want it to be.  As Don’s love interest, the sunny, funny Kathy Selden, Charlotte Gooch is practically perfect, while Jenny Gayner is hugely entertaining as villainous diva Lina Lamont – you can’t bring yourself to hate her.

Stealing the show, though, is the indefatigable Ross McLaren as Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown.  McLaren lights up the stage, combining terpsichorean talent with comedic flair.  His Make Em Laugh brings the house down, and his double act with Lips delivers some of the funniest moments of the show.  You can’t take your eyes off him.

Director Jonathan Church doesn’t miss a detail.  The filmed excerpts are a delight, and there’s a light touch to the comedy across the board.  The musical numbers are wonderful.  Some standouts include All I Do Is Dream Of You, Good Morning, and the extended, luxuriant Broadway Melody sequence, where the production values go through the roof. Simon Higlett’s costumes bring a rainbow after the downpour.

The infectious score is played by a tight-knit orchestra with Grant Walsh at the helm, the music so evocative of that bygone age.

An absolute joy, a celebration of showbiz, and  pure, unadulterated fun, the show’s message is to enjoy yourself whatever life chucks at you.  Sing in that rain!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Storming it: Sam Lips, Charlotte Gooch, and Ross McLaren (Photo: Johan Persson)

Bad at Spelling

MAGIC GOES WRONG

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 25th May 2022

The team behind The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and all the rest of them, join forces with master-magicians Penn & Teller to bring us this cavalcade of calamity.  The title says it all.  A hapless bunch of performers strive to raise funds for charity with a series of acts that each go awry in their own special way.

Our host is the increasingly desperate Sophisticato (Sam Hill) trying to preserve his late father’s memory.  Sam Hill’s eyes get wider as the situation around him unravels.  His act with doves is hilarious, and I’m assured no birds were harmed during making of this spectacle, although perhaps several humans were.

Rory Fairbairn as the Mind Mangler is hopeless, making wild stabs in the dark to guess our names and occupations.  The joy of it comes from seeing through his cod mysticism, of being smarter than he is.

Kiefer Moriarty is delightful as The Blade, a daredevil act, ripping off shirt after shirt, and attempting dangerous feats involving spikes, a water tank, mousetraps… and never giving up no matter how much pain he inflicts on himself.  It takes a lot of skill to do things ‘wrong’ – Think Les Dawson at the piano – and the timing across the board is flawless.  It has to be.

Jocelyn Prah and Chloe Tannenbaum are a hoot as Teutonic glamour girls Bar and Spitzmaus, serving as assistants to the others and also as an act in their own right, involving gymnastics, contortionism, and a ‘live’ bear…

Valerie Cutko brings elegance and charm as the ill-fated donor Eugenia.  Much use is made of a live video feed, and there’s the running joke of the woeful total of funds raised.  The ‘In Memoriam’ section brings tears to my eyes for all the wrong reasons.

Organised chaos is the order of the day, with surprises and slapstick galore.  Every now and then, the magic goes right, and this is just as surprising as the mishaps.

Relentlessly funny entertainment from a hugely talented team.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Disillusioned: Sam Hill as Sophisticato (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Privates’ Lives

PRIVATE PEACEFUL

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 17th May 2022

Michael ‘War Horse’ Morpurgo’s novel is brought to life in this effective adaptation by Simon Reade and Nottingham Playhouse.  It’s the story of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, and their nigh-on idyllic childhood in pre-war Devon.  Throughout the course of one night of sentry duty in the trenches, Private Tommo Peaceful narrates his life story up to this moment, the action slickly transitioning into flashbacks with the wave of an army blanket and a lighting change.  The story flows seamlessly and moves on a quite a lick, but there’s still plenty of time for us to engage with the characters and their tribulations.

War takes the brothers to France, where they encounter all the usual tropes of WWI drama: the trenches, the rats, the lice, the unreasonable officers, the futility, the waste of life… Everything except a war poet, in fact.  The scenes here contrast sharply with the comparative rosiness of life at home, delivered with a sense of urgency: Tommo must get his story told before morning comes.  We find out why in a devastating denouement.

As Tommo,  Daniel Rainford is splendid, never leaving the stage.  We see him grow up before our eyes, as he and Charlie fall for the same girl, disrespect the pompous lord of the manor, and generally form the fraternal bond that will see them through to the end.  Tom Kanji makes a strong impression as the older brother, while Liyah Summers is sweet and appealing as their shared love object.  Emma Manton is both tough and sympathetic as the mother, bringing up the boys on her own and striving to keep the roof over their heads.  Robert Evans as the older brother with learning difficulties shows us the prejudices of the age, but surely the hardest working and most versatile member of the cast is John Dougall, appearing in the widest range of roles from the ill-fated father, to the vicar, the great aunt, and various military men.

It’s an engaging story, if a little cliched.  Director Elle While keeps things flowing, with sudden changes of mood and location jarring us out of the present and into the past and back again.  It’s a children’s story so we are spared the worst excesses of conditions, with the horrors of war only hinted at rather than depicted.  What comes through very strongly is the injustice of the treatment of so-called ‘cowards’ and conscientious objectors.

Matt Haskins’s lighting and Dan Balfour’s sound design enhance the storytelling, which is played out on Lucy Sierra’s remarkable set that conveys both homeland and war zone at the same time – thin branches curling in the air are also the barbed wire of the battlefield; mounds of sandbags suggest the rolling landscape…

This is a high-quality production reminding us of the huge waste of the First World War, and sadly, there are parallels with the world today, as Ukrainian men are recruited to defend their country against invaders, and once again thousands of lives are being lost on European soil.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Daniel Rainford in a Peaceful moment (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Hooray! Henry!

HENRY VI: REBELLION

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 7th May 2022

Shakespeare’s history plays – dramatized and fictionalised versions of real events involving real monarchs – inevitably these days draw comparisons with Game of Thrones.  Here there be no dragons, but there’s pretty much everything you’d expect in terms of loyalty and betrayal, honour and dishonour, treachery and rivalry, and power grabs galore.  There’s violence and gore, and even a mystical scene in which a severed head on a pole is consulted about the future.

Mark Quartley is the young king Henry VI, something of a weakling and therefore ripe for plucking from the throne.  There is no shortage of wannabe kings.  Chief among them is a deliciously wicked York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and the dashing Suffolk (Ben Hall).  Quartley is effective as the meek monarch; you will him to stand up for himself and when it finally happens, Quartley shows us the toll it takes out of the frail king.  Alvin-Wilson is hugely enjoyable – all he needs is a moustache to twirl, while Hall’s Suffolk has more range as a character.  When he meets his violent end, it’s hard to watch.  Director Owen Horsley uses suggestion as much as blatant gore, making for some very unpleasant but irresistible moments.

Minnie Gale is tons of fun as Margaret, Henry’s unfaithful queen, a vivacious, unconventional young woman who brings a whole new meaning to getting head from one’s lover…

Lucy Benjamin is powerful as Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester.  Though she be but little, she is fierce.  Oops, sorry, wrong play.  Her fellow EastEnders alumnus, Aaron Sidwell, is a treat as rebel and rabble rouser Jack Cade, with a cocky/Cockney swagger and a twinkle in his eye.  You expect him to call someone ‘Treacle’ at any moment.  Something the play demonstrates all too clearly is how the public can be manipulated by empty promises and stirring rhetoric.  It’s a nice touch to have the mob speak lines in perfect unison, showing how they are of one mind/brain cell.

Richard Cant is in excellent form as Uncle Gloucester, matched by RSC stalwart Paola Dionisotti as Cardinal Winchester, whose death scene is the best of the lot.

The huge cast comes and goes but the action is never less than perfectly focussed.  The simple staging (rostra and a medieval throne) are all that’s needed; the action is augmented by judicious use of projections on the chainmail backdrop: huge faces looming, and there’s a sequence when Cade and his rabble are roaming the streets, represented here by the corridors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Add to this, splendid historical costumes (such a relief they didn’t set the play at the time of the Cod War or on Mars or somewhere) and Paul Englishby’s superlative music, all mournful horns and stirring strings played live, and we’ve got a marvellous three-hours traffic on the stage.

I can’t wait to see the companion play next week!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mark Quartley as Henry VI (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

WARS OF THE ROSES

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th May 2022

The excellent ensemble is back with the companion play, continuing the story of England’s feeblest king.  This time there is even more running around, with the severed heads of various characters tossed around like so many basketballs.  Director Owen Horsley brings out the black humour of the piece at every opportunity to offset the grisly deaths and the heartfelt grief.  Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s York is even more enjoyable, the character being more rounded this time around.  His speech of grief for his murdered son and fury for the bloodthirsty Margaret (Minnie Gale being phenomenal again) is the most powerful moment of the first half.

New characters come to the fore.  Arthur Hughes as York’s son Richard, who becomes the Duke of Gloucester, gives a show-stealing performance and I cannot bloody wait to see him continue the role in Richard III in just a few weeks’ time.  Conor Glean’s Young Clifford, full of righteous vengeance and a Merseyside accent, and Ashley D Gayle as York’s eldest son, Edward, both make strong impressions.  Ben Hall, playing middle son George (later Clarence) also does a heart-wrenching grief-stricken moment.

The live video footage not only allows for two locations to share the stage, but also artfully frames the action: clever use of a child’s crown in the foreground while the child that wore it is being butchered makes the violence cinematic and symbolic.  Indeed, the only piece of furniture in the entire show is the gothic throne, the thing everyone is fighting over, while the ground it stands on is increasing ruined.

Richard Cant appears in an amusing turn as King Lewis (sic) of France, not quite going the full Allo, Allo! but in the vicinity.  Sophia Papadopoulos’s portrayal of the young and valiant Prince Edward is assured, so we’re shocked by his inevitable murder.  Lots of killings in this play, and plenty of exciting swordplay, thanks to fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.

It’s a time when first names were in short supply.  Everyone is either a Henry, a Richard, or an Edward, it seems, so it’s something of a relief when they start referring to each other by place names instead.  Who would have guessed that a Duke of York could turn out to be so troublesome?

A thrilling, visceral, funny, and moving production, with Mark Quartley’s conflicted king at its heart.  The three-hour run time flies by.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Ooh, you are lawful…

LEGALLY BLONDE – The Musical

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May 2022

Stratford Musical Theatre Company turn their talented hands to the musical adaptation of the well-known Reese Witherspoon comedy film, in a vibrant production at the Play House, a venue that is more suited to bands and stand-up comedians.  And so the staging tonight is minimal, leaving the floor free for the large chorus to occupy – director Georgie Wood has drilled her cast to maximum efficiency for getting things on and getting things off again, so the piece runs like clockwork.

It’s the story of Elle Woods who, dumped by her egotistic boyfriend, follows him to Harvard Law School in hot pink and hot pursuit, as though getting a law degree will win the chump back… Elle is faced with prejudice because of her looks and demeanour but she overcomes obstacles to prove she is top of the class, and hey, you don’t need a man to make you happy… The show’s message seems to be about not judging books by their covers and breaking down stereotypes, which is a pertinent point to make: to be one’s authentic self.  Why then, does writer Heather Hach tarnish the piece with homophobic representations of LGBTQ+ people, who don’t get a chance to demonstrate they are more than the effeminate, posing, skipping fairies we are subjected to here?  Signs, I think, of the material exceeding its show-by date.  I cringe throughout the song Gay Or European which goes against the positive stereotype-busting message of the rest of it.

Leading the cast as the titular blonde Elle Woods, Vanessa Gravestock delivers an engaging, impressive performance, balancing the dumb-blonde looks with Elle’s innate intelligence.  She’s an appealing presence with the star quality required by the role.

Other highlights (because she’s blonde!) include Christopher Dobson as the tough-talking Professor, effortlessly exuding his dominance and high status;  Casey McKernan amuses as Elle’s cocksure ex Warner; Ian Meikle endears himself as mild-mannered love interest Emmett; Katie Merrygold is stonkingly good as Elle’s new BFF, Paulette Buonufonte; and Oliver Payne makes a scene-stealing appearance as delivery man Kyle.

It doesn’t matter what the cast does though, because any time a dog is brought on, it immediately upstages everyone else!  And I can’t help wondering if the situation is stressful for the animals.

The chorus is great, filling the space with energy and performing Julie Bedlow-Howard’s lively choreography.  In particular, a cheerleading number is splendid.

The singing too is all the more impressive when you realise the singers can’t see musical director James Suckling and the band, who are walled up behind the backdrop!

Unfortunately, there are missed lighting and sound cues, and this is not opening night where you can excuse a few hitches.  Microphone coverage is patchy.  It feels like the show could have done with at least one more technical rehearsal to make these elements of the production as sharp as the rest of it.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In the pink! Vanessa Gravestock front and centre as Elle Woods (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)

The Case of the Missing Mrs

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th April 2022

First Atlantis, then Dallas, and now Birmingham!  Patrick “Bobby Ewing” Duffy stars in this (to me) obscure comedy-thriller from 1965, which has been dug up by Bill Kenwright Productions.  Duffy plays Daniel Corban, a honeymooner whose wife has been missing for three days from the remote chalet they have borrowed from Daniel’s boss.  The local police are on the case but then a woman turns up.  Is she really the missing Mrs or, as Daniel insists, is she an imposter out to get him and, consequently, his life insurance?

On the surface, it’s standard genre fare, but its elevated by a dry and witty script by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert.  With more twists and turns than a corkscrew, the plot keeps you guessing in this hugely enjoyable, somewhat cosy murder-mystery.

Duffy is in fine form as the neurotic Corban, tightly wound and sarcastic, and of course, it’s a treat to see him live, for reals, and not just in Pam Ewing’s dream.  No shower scene tonight, alas, but Duffy has a laidback confidence, which makes Corban’s increasingly desperate state all the more of a contrast.

As the is-she-or-isn’t-she wife Elizabeth, the alluring Linda Purl is great fun, and she is aided and abetted by Ben Nealon’s not-to-be-trusted clergyman.  Gray O’Brien is excellent as the wise-cracking, jaded police inspector, and there is strong character support from the wonderfully named Hugh Futcher as Sidney from the sandwich shop.  Paul Lavers makes his mark as Corban’s brash boss, with Chloe Zeitounian makes a fleeting impression in her brief appearance as the bit-on-the-side, ‘Mrs Parker’.

The mystery is intriguing enough to keep us hooked, while the rich vein of humour keeps us amused as the story unfolds and surprises.  Bob Tomson’s direction paces the action well to create such an entertaining evening, we’re willing to overlook the occasional stretches of credibility.  A well-made production, nicely played by all concerned.  (There was an issue of patchy microphone coverage at the performance I saw.  I prescribe a thorough soundcheck before the curtain goes up again.)

All in all, it’s good fun.  Catch it while you can.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Gray O’Brien, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Purl (Photo: Jack Merriman)

Star Man

JARMAN

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Saturday 9th April 2022

Mark Farrelly is the write and star of this one-man piece about the life of filmmaker and gay rights activist, Derek Jarman.  From the off, we are immersed in the lyrical script as Derek describes the plants and flowers in his now-famous garden.  The descriptions are interrupted by short, sharp flashbacks from his childhood (You’ll go blind… etc) startling us out of the flowery idyll of his cottage.

Farrelly takes us through his subject’s life story sure enough but it quickly emerges that this show is about more than one man’s life.  It’s about all our lives, or rather our attitude to it.  Farrelly confronts us, albeit playfully, to confront what it is we’re doing with our allotted time.

It’s a small matinee audience.  Farrelly is sure to address us all as individuals, darting around, making eye contact here, asking a rhetorical question there.  Throughout the show, there’s a frisson of excitement and/or terror about being called upon to participate.  Farrelly is gentle with his volunteers and/or victims so there is no need to feel uneasy.  In fact, the message of the piece is to be unafraid to participate.  In our own lives!

We hear about sexual encounters, both real and fantasy.  We hear about Jarman’s repressive upbringing, his first jobs out of art college, before he launches into the film career that will make his name.

It’s all done in spartan fashion.  A single chair, a sheet, a roll of paper, and a multi-coloured flashlight are all Farrelly uses – as well as his considerable talent and presence as a performer.  He rides, not just a roller-coaster, but an entire theme park of emotions, sometimes snapping in and out of extremes at the flick of a lighting change.  What emerges is a portrait of the artist as a force to be reckoned with.  To see this vibrant, exuberant, rebellious figure reduced to a stooped and trembling shadow of himself, thanks to AIDS, is heart-breaking, and painfully portrayed.

Director Sarah-Louise Young keeps the contrasting moods and moments sharp, and Farrelly is friendly and fun, intense and, yes, a little intimidating. Confronted by his own mortality, Jarman confronts us with ours.

We come away with admiration for both Jarman and the actor who has channelled him so vividly.  At the end, Jarman admonishes us to ‘be astonishing’.

And that’s exactly what Mark Farrelly has been.

Fabulous, thought-provoking stuff.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆☆

Blue; Mark Farrelly IS Derek Jarman

Jacob’s Cracker

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th April 2022

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s first (and best) musical is on the road again in this refurbished production by director Laurence Connor.  There are a few interesting changes, most of which work brilliantly.  Firstly, the use of children.  Liberated from the usual choir corral, the kids come and go, singing and dancing along with the other performers.  Connor also uses kids in character roles: the younger brothers, for example, complete with comedy beards.  This serves as a reminder that the piece was originally conceived as a school play.

Another big change is the expansion of the role of the Narrator.  The mighty Alexandra Burke leads us through the story, with charm, good humour, and above all, that marvellous voice.   Connor also has her don a comedy beard to portray the patriarch Jacob.  Burke does a good job but I miss the old man.  At the show’s climactic point, the father-and-son reunion is therefore diluted, robbing the show of its emotional kicker.  Oh, well.  Burke also takes on the role of seductress Mrs Potiphar – surely there are guidelines about making a pregnant actor work so hard! – She is clearly having a lot of fun in this show, and she handles the crowd like a boss.

As Joseph, rising star Jac Yarrow is instantly appealing, with his boy-next-door good looks, powerful vocals, and broad shoulders.  His Close Every Door  stirs the blood.

Beardless, singleton Joseph is coded as different from his hirsute and married brothers, who soon tire of their father’s favouritism, Jacob’s encouragement of Joseph’s flamboyance —  he may as well wrap the kid in a Pride flag – so they plot to get rid.  This gives us the marvellous country-and-western number, One More Angel In Heaven, complete with a culture-clashing Hebrew hoedown.  The joy of this musical, for me, is Lloyd Webber’s shameless use of pastiche, cobbling different styles of popular music together in his richest, most fun score.

It’s a short show still, having been extended over the years from its school hall origins.  To give it a decent runtime, we get reprises and prolonged dance sequences.  I prefer a leaner version, where we don’t hear the same song twice.

Featuring as the Pharaoh is national treasure, former pop-and-soap star Jason Donovan.  Incredibly, it’s been thirty years since he donned a mullet and a loincloth to give us his pop-oriented Joseph (while Yarrow’s is more musical theatre) and it’s a treat to see him as the King, incorporating Elvisisms into his performance.  Donovan is golden, and there is much love for him in the room, a considerable amount of it coming from me.

The highlight of the second act is the brothers’ French song, Those Canaan Days, a wonderfully camp staging complete with a can-can.  All the dance routines bring a smile.  Joann M Hunter’s exuberant choreography and the cast’s tireless efforts give us much to enjoy, even if it’s chiefly to extend the running time.  The show has more padding than a drag queen’s bra, sacrificing dramatic impact in favour of fun.  But, hey, it IS fun, and fun seems to be this production’s watchword, and there’s nothing wrong with fun.

Yarrow is great, Donovan is marvellous, but if I’m being honest as coconuts, the show belongs to the indefatigable Alexandra Burke in a winning performance that demonstrates her comedic skills as much as her rich, tingle-inducing voice.

A bright and colourful, tuneful treat.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆☆

Musical Theatre gold: Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Fete Accompli

CONFUSIONS

The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 5th May 2022

This collection of five short pieces by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn was first produced in 1974 – a fact which informs Jacquie Campbell’s costume choices for tonight’s show, subtly suggesting the period, when the piece is suited to anywhen. 

We begin with four park benches on which random individuals are taking their ease — or trying to.  What develops is a string of monologues as each individual seeks to escape the stranger who insists on talking to them.  It’s funny, with each stranger having their own individual voice, but it underlines the main theme of the piece (indeed of all five pieces): desperation born of loneliness.  Ayckbourn can write a funny line sure enough, but he is also an acute observer of the human condition.

Of the strangers, a couple of standouts are Kevin Hand’s Arthur and Margot McCleary’s Doreen.  Director David Mears avoids things becoming static by keeping people moving from bench to bench (this also helps with the in-the-round staging).  It’s like musical chairs without the music.  The cast perform with a sort of heightened naturalism.  Every character however bizarre or mundane their situation – rings true.

Next up is Lucy, a woman left too much alone with her children.  She has lost the ability to converse with adults, so when the couple next door pop round to check up on her, hilarity ensues.  Zoe Mortimer is great as the steely-eyed, assertive mother, and she is matched by Charlotte Froud’s timid Rosemary, with Barry Purchase-Rathbone providing contrast as Rosemary’s bluff husband Terry – until he is put in his place!  It’s very funny to see the adults revert to childhood, but the piece touches on darkness based on psychological truth.

The director himself appears in the next one, as Harry, Lucy’s absentee husband, a boorish, sleazy sales rep who thinks he’s God’s gift, trying to cop off with Jemima Davis’s longsuffering Paula.  Mears gives a cringeworthy performance as the desperate lothario — one of Ayckbourn’s finest middle-class monsters — and we can only sympathise with Paula as she fails to get away.  Rescue arrives in the form of her best friend Bernice, in a coolly forthright portrayal by Kristiyana Petkova.

Next we’re in a restaurant where two separate couples have issues to discuss.  We eavesdrop on their conversations as the waiter goes from table to table, valiantly trying to do his job.  As the waiter, Elliot Gear is a delight, reacting, interjecting, and keeping busy, all with a strained professional demeanour.  A star turn.

Finally, we move to the tea tent at a dreadful village fete.  Trouble with the p.a. system leads to an inadvertent broadcast that destroys a relationship.  With hilarious consequences.  David Mears appears again as Gosforth, the busybody organising the event, showing his versatility with another of Ayckbourn’s monsters.  Lily Skinner’s Milly is tightly wound, becoming increasingly frantic as the situation deteriorates.  Jane Grafton brings a strong whiff of Christine Hamilton to her portrayal of Councillor Emily Pearce, making her eventual humiliation all the more delicious.  Justin Osborne is a hoot as the emotionally immature boy scout leader whose life comes crashing down, and David Gresham adds value as a stock character comedy vicar.  Events descend into organised chaos, with the cast working superbly to convey the urgent desperation and the slapstick of the moment.  I would prefer a bigger bang with the electrics go awry, but that’s just me.

All in all, a splendid evening of entertainment and almost non-stop laughter.  Mears gets the tone just right and his talented cast (wish I had room to mention them all) deliver the goods in this showcase of their abilities.  If the Bear Pit is to stage any more Ayckbourn, I would like to see them tackle one of his later, more experimental shows.  Shows like Confusions are bread-and-butter to them.  I want cake!

☆☆☆☆☆

More tea, Vicar? David Gresham. David Mears, Lily Skinner, Justin Osborne. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Go with the Flo

COMING TO ENGLAND

The Rep, Birmingham, Monday 4th April 2022

Much-loved TV presenter and now baroness Floella Benjamin wrote a book about her early life, telling how she and her family came to this country and what happened when they got here.  That book has now been dramatized by prolific children’s playwright David Wood in this musical retelling, taking us back to Trinidad where it all began.  There’s an idyllic tone to these early scenes, in a poor-but-happy kind of way, as Floella and her siblings learn British history at school and sing songs of the empire.  They consider themselves British.  They have a rude awakening coming…

Leading the ensemble cast is Paula Kay as Floella, our narrator, in a captivating performance.  Kay carries the show with an irrepressible portrayal of the presenter as a young girl, and she is ably supported by Yazmin Belo as big sister Sandra, Tarik Frimpong, Jay Marsh, and Dale Mathurin as brothers Roy, Ellington, and Lester.   Kojo Kamara’s Dardie, Floella’s father, plays a lovely saxophone (Mr Benjamin harboured ambitions to be a musician); and Bree Smith exudes warm-heartedness and wisdom as Marmie, the mother – the show is very much a tribute to Floella’s mum, and all those brave women like her.

Upon arrival, the family finds the streets of London are paved with bigots, but despite the harsh reception, they put down roots and begin to make something of themselves.  There is a strong message running throughout: keep smiling, winners smile.

The show touches on Benjamin’s experiences but strangely absent is a scene tackling how she got into television.  The second act opens with an a capella rendition of the theme to Play School and Paula Kay cajoles us into participating in If You’re Happy and You Know It.  And we do, because it’s fun.  But the show keeps something of this patronising tone to the end, exhorting us to shout out and clap, as if we are still young viewers.

Many of the songs you will have heard before.  Island in the Sun, Brown Girl in the Ring… the reggae/calypso flavours of the music provide an irresistible carnival atmosphere, matched by the colourful costumes and giant butterfly props.  Kay treats us to a beautiful rendition of Smile.  Throughout, the ensemble singing is lovely, and there is energetic choreography by director Omar F Okai.

It all breezes along pleasantly, with only passing clouds to mar the experience: the ugly face of racial hatred and prejudice rears up now and then, but Floella learns to smile through it and is indeed an excellent role model.

This colourful, exuberant production is more than the biography of a remarkable public figure.  It is also a lesson in social history, with a message of hope and empowerment for the future.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Paula Kay IS Floella Benjamin. Photo: Geraint Lewis

A Bridgerton Too Far?

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd April 2022

Michael Barry sets his Much Ado in the Regency period, like the popular series on Netflix.  For the most part, it’s an excellent fit, with the exterior manners and elegance a suitable setting for Shakespeare’s wittiest rom-com. This is Bridgerton in looks and feel, but with an infinitely better script! Barry’s set design has two plastered columns framing the upstage area, the bases of which have cracked to reveal the brickwork beneath, representing the truth beneath the surface.  It’s a clever detail.

The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis gives us his Benedick, complete with mutton-chops and poufy hair.  He is Mr Darcy, an upright romantic hero with a quick wit and a big heart.  Hobbis does an admirable job and you can’t help falling for him.  Naomi Jacobs’s Beatrice has the acid tongue and merry wit down pat, but she’s a little too loud for the studio setting, delivering all her lines at full volume – sometimes going up to 11.  A bit more variance and she’d be perfect.

Andrew Elkington makes for a posing, preening Claudio, all righteous indignation in the pivotal church scene, and thoroughly detestable afterwards, until his redemption, of course; a pretty face masking his petulance and objectionable self-righteousness.  Spot on!  Also great is Papa Yentumi as Don Pedro, the fun-loving prince, at ease with his high status and game for a laugh.  As his bastard brother, Tom Lowde gives us a volatile Don John, but he needs not to race through some of his lines so we can enjoy his evil nature all the more. 

Man of the match for my money is Mark Payne as Leonato, effortlessly convincing throughout, and electrifyingly emotional in that church scene.

Suzie King’s Hero contrasts sweetly with the acerbic Beatrice, and there is solid support from Skye Witney as Antonia, Jessica Terry as Margaret, Colette Nooney as Ursula, and James Browning as the villainous Borachio.

I’m afraid though the Dogberry scenes don’t quite come off.  Ben Pugh could make more of the constable’s bombast, building him up more so he can deflate further.   There are more laughs to be gained here. The Watch scenes seem clumsily staged.  Perhaps there were council tax cutbacks in Messina at the time, but surely they could stretch to at least a third Watchman.

There is lovely music, all piano and strings, by Salwan Cartwright-Shamoon, but there at times when it is intrusive, detracting from the action rather than supporting it.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the phenomenal Costume Department at the Crescent goes all out to create beautiful and accurate clothes to suit the world of the production.  Designer Jennet Marshall has excelled herself here, and credit is due to her team: Carolyn Bourne, Anne Hignell, Stewart Snape, Rose Snape, and Pat Brown, for the stunning array of uniforms, posh frocks and tailored coats on display.

A great-looking production that hits most of its marks, featuring some excellent performances by its leads.

☆ ☆ ☆ ½

Andrew Elkington and Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Bloody Great

MACBETH

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th March 2022

This production by Tread The Boards takes a traditional approach, with splendid medieval costumes conveying the historical period, although with the Northern English accents, it’s less Glamis Castle and more Winterfell.  But at least there’s consistency, creating the world-of-the-play most effectively.  The action plays out against a huge map of Scotland, which has been torn —  symbolising the political climate of the story.

Judicious use of sound design (courtesy of the brilliant Elliott Wallis) makes the intimate Attic Theatre space feel larger.  The sounds of hurly-burly surround us.  Cast members running around and fighting put us right in the action.  Enter Three Witches… This ragtag trio engender an otherworldliness, even though they could pass for mortal women – their eye-of-newt scene later on is horrible, as they place the disgusting ingredients in their cauldron.  The Witches also double as other characters: servants, messengers, giving them a direct hand in the unfolding doom of their victim.  Witch 2 (Sally Hyde Lomax) doubles as the Porter, bringing much-needed comic relief to the tense scenes surrounding the murder of Duncan.  Witch 3 (Clara Lane) makes a sympathetic Lady Macduff, while Sarah Feltham’s Witch 1, the twitchy one, offers support in a string of minor roles.  The impression is given that the Witches are more directly involved in Macbeth’s downfall than we might have thought.

Speak of the devil.  Daniel Wilby’s Macbeth is a credible warrior (some Macbeths I’ve seen aren’t!) and his conversion to the dark side, while a little speedy, is also believable.  Wilby is at his strongest in the scenes where Macbeth unravels – the banqueting scene is especially powerful – and his portrayal of a man under immense stress, with violent outbursts, is captivating.

He is more than matched by Alexandra Whitworth, who is quite simply the best Lady Macbeth I have seen.  The steely-eyed wickedness, the growing sense of isolation, the mental breakdown… all played to perfection.  Whitworth brings out the character’s humanity.  She is so much more than a wicked woman who can’t cope with the consequences of her actions.

Honestly, this is a truly excellent cast.  Phil Leach’s King Duncan exudes kindness without losing any of his regal status; Ben Armitage’s Malcolm is superb – like Macduff, we take him at his word.  Armitage gives the boy king assuredness; he is definitely this Duncan’s son.  Pete Meredith’s Banquo goes from brave and noble best mate to terrifying apparition.  A versatile actor, Meredith later appears as the doctor – the contrast couldn’t be greater.  John-Robert Partridge’s forthright Macduff is thoroughly righteous and decent.  Partridge’s rich speaking voice is a pleasure to hear, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

There is strong support from the likes of Tom Lane’s Lennox, Edward Manning’s Ross, and Patrick Large as Seyton.  Everyone handles the language with clarity and understanding.  John-Robert Partridge’s direction gets everything right, the supernatural bits are unnerving, the action scenes are exciting – the climactic swordfight between Macs Duff and Beth is thrilling – making the confines of the performance space seem large enough to contain this story of a nation in upheaval, while yet intimate enough to chart the decline of our tragic hero.  Partridge doesn’t clutter the stage (there’s no room) but lets Shakespeare’s text do the donkey work, ensuring that this superlative cast deliver the time-worn words with truth, ease and freshness.

Bloody marvellous.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mr and Mrs: Daniel Wilby and Alexandra Whitworth as the Macbeths (Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)

Cherry On Top

CHERRY JEZEBEL

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, Saturday 26th March 2022

Jonathan Larkin’s new play snaps, crackles and pops with Scouse humour, in the best show set in the toilets of a Liverpool nightclub since Willy Russell’s Stags & Hens.  We meet drag queen Cherry Brandy (Mickey Jones) as she receives an award for being an icon on Merseyside.  This matinee audience takes a bit of warming up but Jones soon wins us over.  Cherry is joined by her bezzie mate, Helen Handjob (Mariah Louca), and their acerbic sniping is overheard by curly-haired twink Pearl Reckless (Stefan Race) and so queers across the generations meet and bicker, and it’s glorious, the one-liners zinging and stinging, and the vocabulary enough to make the editor of Viz magazine blush.

But the darkness of reality soon impinges, as young Pearl returns bearing injuries from a homophobic attack.  As Heidi observes, “it’s their world, we’re just unwelcome guests in it”.   Humour is both a weapon and a shield but there can’t be a queer person in existence who hasn’t suffered to some extent abuse at the hands of straight people, and we carry with us everywhere the fear that we could be set upon at any given moment.  Will the rowdy group of lads on the train turn their attention to us?  Will we get yelled at by a passing motorist?  And even if the attack doesn’t come on this occasion, the fear remains.  We got lucky. This time.  And all the rainbow flags in the world and corporate sponsorship of Pride won’t take the fear away.

The second act takes place in Cherry’s home and we enter farcical sitcom territory.  Cherry has brought home some trade, in the lovely shape of Mo, played by George Jones (nice arse!).  While Mo sleeps it off face down on the sofa, Pearl arrives, direct from a second homophobic assault.  At first, Cherry is as scathing as ever but gradually the pair come to an understanding, while Cherry’s lifelong friendship with Helen runs aground.  Mo meanwhile wakes up and panics that his straight friends, his girlfriend and his family will find out about his secret proclivities.  Cherry, of course, puts him in his place.

Mickey Jones does a bang-up job as the bitter drag queen with an acidic tongue.  Mariah Louca makes an excellent fist of Helen Handjob, coming across as more grounded than Cherry.  Stefan Race is an absolute gem as Pearl, brazen yet vulnerable, and there is excellent support from George Jones’s Mo and other roles.

Stefan Race and George Jones (Photo: Marc Brenner)

James Baker’s direction navigates the mood swings and sharp about-faces of the script with aplomb, getting the laughs in all the right places while allowing the dramatic tension to emerge and to breathe.

The play covers a lot of ground in its long, dark night of the arsehole, and while it is indelibly Liverpool-based, threaded with local references and the natural wit of the natives, the issues easily translate to anywhere and everywhere.  Ultimately it’s uplifting and a bracing reminder that we need to ditch the in-fighting and stick together in the face of rising opposition from dickheads within the straight community.

Fabulous!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Cherry meets banana. Mickey Jones (Photo: Marc Brenner)