Sweet Nothing

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

New Vic Theatre, Thursday 14th February, 2019

 

This co-production between the New Vic and Northern Broadsides sets Shakespeare’s quintessential rom-com in post-war Britain, in the North Country.  The war is just over and the country’s in a partying mood.  And so Don Pedro and his entourage arrive at Leonato’s house, dressed in the uniforms of the period, while the womenfolk are dressed as land girls.  The actor-musicians get us ‘in the mood’ with some Andrews Sisters harmonies and jazzy arrangements, courtesy of Rebekah Hughes.

Matt Rixon cuts an imposing yet avuncular figure as the fun-loving Pedro.  In contrast is his brother, disgruntled and creepy Don John (Richard J Fletcher).  Boyish Claudio (Linford Johnson) has set his sights on Leonato’s daughter Hero (Sarah Kameela Impey) but it is another couple, here played a little bit older, who steal our attention.  Robin Simpson’s fast-talking Benedick is perfectly matched by Isobel Middleton’s classy, sassy Beatrice.

The plot comes to a head in a powerful church scene and what has been a delightful comedy up to now becomes searing drama.  Director Conrad Nelson manages the change of tone expertly – so even if you know what’s coming, we share the shock of the characters.  Claudio’s rejection of the supposedly unfaithful Hero, Leonato’s bitter shame at the public scandal, Hero’s stunned silence and heartfelt pleas of innocence… It’s cracking, eye-watering stuff and having proved themselves deft with witty comedy, the cast come into there own with the more emotional stuff.  Special mention here to Simeon Truby for his devastated Leonato.  And there’s more to comeL  Beatrice and Benedick, alone together for the first time since they have been tricked into believing they are in love with each other, swap declarations and promises.  Suddenly, it’s life and death stuff.  It’s dizzying writing from old Shakespeare, and it’s played to the hilt.

The problems of the witty elite are solved by the hapless intervention of an underclass, the local Watch, whose bumbling makes Dad’s Army look like a crack unit.  Their leader Dogberry (David Nellist) mangles the language with malapropisms, while Anthony Hunt’s spiv of a Borachio makes a convincing transition from bragging to repenting.

Choreography by Beverly Norris-Edmunds keeps the party atmosphere going, with energetic period moves, and there is some lovely a capella singing at key points.  Sigh No More, Ladies works excellently as a bit of barbershop quartet.

This is a wonderful feelgood production that also puts us through an emotional wringer.  Performed by a superlative company, directed in a manner that maximises the comic and the dramatic elements, and serving as a testament to Shakespeare’s genius, this is a Much Ado to savour.

I loved it.

©NOBBY CLARK+44(0)7941-515770
+44(0)20-7274-2105
nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

Isobel Middleton as Beatrice (Photo: Nobby Clark)

 

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Street Life

AVENUE Q

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th February, 2019

 

The brainchild of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (who wrote the book) Avenue Q is one of those shows I never tire of going back to.  It always feels like a treat, and this new tour is no exception.  For those that don’t know, it is modelled on Sesame Street, but here the lessons are most definitely for grown-ups, lessons that contain a few uncomfortable truths we need reminding of every now and then.

Unlike the TV classic, and The Muppet Show, here the puppeteers are clearly visible.  On the one hand, you sort of turn a blind eye to them and focus on the characters they operate; on the other, you pay direct attention to them and you are blown away by the skills on display.  You want multi-tasking, this is the musical theatre equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy while emoting and belting out songs.

The excellent Lawrence Smith is newly graduated Princeton, seeking his purpose in life.  Through Princeton we are introduced to the other inhabitants of this thoroughfare.  He falls for Kate Monster (the astonishing Cecily Redman) and they go out – leading to some harsh life lessons for both of them.  He meets Nicky ( the brilliant Tom Steedon) who is thrown out by room-mate Rod (also Lawrence Smith) who can’t bring himself to come out of the closet, leading to a life lesson for us all about helping others, the homeless in particular.  Steedon also performs as the hilarious Trekkie Monster who has an addiction to the internet – Cookies don’t come into it!  Redman also operates sleazy nightclub singer Lucy The Slut (subtle, isn’t it?) and when Lucy and Kate have to appear together, she has to converse with herself, slipping from one voice to the other with apparent ease.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Among the puppets live human characters.  Oliver Stanley makes a likeable Brian, Nicholas McLean is a mass of energy as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman) but it is Saori Oda’s fierce and feisty Christmas Eve whose larger-than-life characterisation almost steals the show.

The songs are great, the book is funny, and in the hands of director Cressida Carre, this production shows that the material has lost none of its edge, none of its relevance, and none of its power to educate and amuse.

I enjoy my trip down Memory Lane but if it’s your first time in this neighbourhood, I envy you the surprises you’re going to have.  You might also learn something about life you don’t know you need to know.

Avenue Q (Dress)-098

Christmas Eve (Saori Oda) offers advice to uptight Rod (Lawrence Smith) Photo: Matt Martin

 

 

 


Chilling at Home

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL

Belgrade Theatre,  Coventry

 

When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past.  Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…

And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller.  Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect.  But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use.  FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.

Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability.  Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction.  Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication.   She also has some great reactive moments.

There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras.  Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.

Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.

Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.

 

cold hill

Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…

 


Bosom Buddies

DI AND VIV AND ROSE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th February, 2019

 

Three very different young women meet at university in the 1980s, share a student house for a couple of years, and then strive to keep in touch as their lives take them in different directions.  That’s the plot of Amelia Bullmore’s play, written and first produced in 2013.   With the action spanning thirty years, there are plenty of costume changes and music cues to convey the passage of time.  Video projections, by Kristan Webb, identify locations, with sketches supposedly taken from art history student Rose’s sketchbook.

As middle-class, promiscuous Rose Katie Merriman is hilarious, adding physical comedy to her characterisation.  Rose having trouble walking and sitting after an evening with the well-endowed Casper is a scream.  Rose might be a bit of a sheltered, spoiled Southerner, but Merriman brings her great warmth.

Tiffany Cawthorne portrays sporty lesbian Di with youthful vigour and bright-eyed enthusiasm – until events bring out darker emotions.  Bullmore’s writing gives us broad humour and delicate, sensitive scenes.  Cawthorne handles everything the script requires of her with skill and conviction.

Completing the trio is Liz Plumpton as oddball Viv, who spends her student days dressed ‘like it’s the War’ and is not shy of deconstructing events with sociological analysis.  Her militant intellectualism is in direct contrast with good-time girl Rose’s outlook; sparks fly between the two of them, which serve to deepen the bond between them.  Plumpton is superb as the slightly dour, dry-witted Viv. It takes a tragic event to bring Viv to the boil in powerful scenes, and it’s all the more moving because of her previous behaviour.

It’s a warm-hearted, very funny piece.  Director Kevin Middleton handles the sea changes of the women’s lives, navigating the differences in tone with subtlety and the broader comedic moments with splendid timing.  There are some pacing issues with some of the transitions: scenes divided into snappy sub-scenes need quicker changes; there are too many slow fades to black, when these should be reserved for the changing of the years.  But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent production.  The depth and range of emotion depicted here raises the story beyond the realms of chick-lit.  It’s an examination of the bonds of friendship: the fun to be had, the closeness, the sense of belonging, as well as the bitterness and sense of disappointment when life gets in the way.

Laugh-out-loud funny and ultimately very moving, this is a fine production of a powerful play, and it makes me wish Amelia Bullmore was more prolific!

di and viv

Katie Merriman, Tiffany Cawthorne and Liz Plumpton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Intoxicating

THE TOXIC AVENGER

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 8th February, 2019

 

Based on a schlocky horror film, this satirical musical by Joe Dipietro is given a stripped- down presentation in the Old Joint Stock’s intimate space.  I say ‘intimate’ and I mean ‘in your face’.  We are right there, inches away from the performers, within their grasp, within their eye-line, in their path…

It’s the story of hapless nerd Melvin Ferd the Third who, having been dumped in a barrel of toxic waste, develops superhuman strength along with other, less desirable attributes, like green skin and leaking pustules.  In love with blind librarian Sarah, ‘Toxie’ becomes a force for good, fighting against pollution and corporate negligence, largely in the glamorous if tacky figure of the Mayor of New Jersey, Babs Belgoody.

In the title role, Richard Haines is remarkable, giving a flawlessly sung performance as good as any I’ve heard in the West End.  His rendition of You Tore My Heart Out is stunning.  His acting is top notch too, and he is supported by half a dozen strong co-stars, not least Sarah Haines as his love interest, a blind librarian.  The show gets a lot of mileage out of Sarah’s disability; we know we shouldn’t laugh, but we do, but this is cartoon stuff.  Everything is heightened for comedic melodrama – even the scene changes are hilarious.

Lizzie Robins doubles as the wicked Mayor Babs and Melvin’s Noo Yoik mother, Ma Ferd.  At one point the story calls for both of her characters to sing a duet.  Robins pulls it off with aplomb, keeping each character in a different register.  She almost doesn’t need the half-and-half costume she dons to close the number.

A versatile quartet makes up the rest of the cast, listed simply as Black Dude, White Dude, Black Chick, and White Chick.  They provide all the supporting roles and they each get plenty of opportunity to shine.  Alanna Boden’s Professor, for example, in a duet with the Mayor is a delight; Elle Knowles’s bully, Gavin Whichello’s shirtless cowboy singer – the quartet are the beating heart of the show, the population of the troubled town of Tromaville.  They’re all great but I feel I ought to make special mention of Joash Musundi for his doughnut-eating cop, his doctor, and his wonderful Shoniqua.

This is a production that revels in its limitations.  Director Adam Carver works wonders to keep things hilarious, aided by Sarah Haines’s frenetic choreography.  Every moment I’m torn between laughing out loud and marvelling at the talent on display.  Hugely enjoyable, exhilaratingly delivered, this rude and raunchy show is more tonic than toxic.

What is toxic is the world we live in.  If corporations and politicians aren’t going to address issues of climate change, perhaps we ought to adopt the Toxic Avenger’s approach and start ripping off a few heads!

toxic


A Question of Colour

BLUE/ORANGE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th February, 2019

 

Joe Penhall’s three-hander from 2000 gets a timely revival in this taut new production, directed by Daniel Bailey.  Twenty-eight days after being sectioned by the police, Christopher (Ivan Oyik) is looking forward to going home – if the psychiatrists treating him can agree to it.  Bruce (young, idealistic) is reluctant to give Chris the go-ahead, while Bruce’s mentor, ambitious consultant Robert is all for it.  As Chris is interviewed and assessed, the play brings up the sad fact of greater propensity for mental illness among the black population – well, you try being in a minority, any minority, in an oppressive culture!

Thomas Coombes is largely sympathetic as a twitchy if well-meaning Bruce, trying to do and say the right things, only to find his career jeopardised by ill-advised vocabulary (the ‘n’ word) rather than any misdiagnosis or malpractice.  Penhall is very sharp on language, the words used as labels, as descriptors; it’s not just a minefield for professionals.   Almost twenty years since its first outing, we are perhaps more sensitive about semantics, more aware of the impact of language.  Let’s hope so, anyway.

Richard Lintern is excellent as the suave, glib Doctor Robert Smith, looking for the cure.  (I don’t mean to make him sound like the front man of a goth band).   His casual manner conceals the professionally self-serving hard-man he really is.  But it is Ivan Oyik in his professional debut who proves the most compelling of this talented trio.  Oyik’s Christopher is sometimes manic, sometimes lucid, sometimes paranoid, sometimes affronted (rightly so, on occasion!) and is never anything less than magnetic.

Much of the play’s humour derives from Christopher’s responses and reactions, and also much of the tension.  As the action unfolds, there is shift after shift in the power structure, with accusations and questions flying around.

Amelia Hankin’s design takes its cue from the title, for its colour scheme, with institutional armchairs and a water cooler set on a diamond dais beneath a suspended framework.  It’s a simple, stylish setting, the impact of which is heightened by Azusa Ono’s lighting design.  Daniel Bailey’s direction keeps the sometimes-wordy scenes dynamic and captivating, so we are able to follow the argument and the discussions with ease.

I’m not sure that Penhall offers answers, but surely the point of this piece is to raise the question.  Thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable fare, this is a riveting performance of what has become a modern classic, and is still utterly relevant today.  We’re all supposed to be talking about mental health, but as well as talk, the resources need to be there to support and alleviate mental illness.

Blue-orange-Birmingham-REP-Photo-Myah-Jeffers

Richard Lintern, Ivan Oyik and Thomas Coombes chair a meeting (Photo: Myah Jeffers)

 


Squid Pro Quo

OCTOPUS SOUP!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 5th February, 2019

 

This production is the world premiere of a brand-new farce, written by Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson.  Certainly, many of the key ingredients are here: heightened situations, people talking at cross-purposes – the protagonist even gets his trousers off in the first couple of minutes!  And yes, it is very funny but, as it turns out, this farce is more than frothy entertainment.  Like the titular dish, there are meaty bits to chew on…

Nick Hancock is tightly wound insurance consultant Seymour Norse, preparing for a video call with Gillian Bevan’s formidable CEO, Virginia Whale.  Having a character on-screen brings this conventional format up-to-date, and there is a lot of mileage in what Virginia is permitted to see and hear, thanks to the ministrations of hapless, arthritic burglar, Marvin Haynes (Paul Bradley on excellent form).  Add to the mix, Carolyn Backhouse as Gloria, Seymour’s histrionic actress wife, and The Bill’s Eric Richard as menacing underworld boss, Alan, and the stage is set for a fraught dinner party, full of misunderstandings and cracking one-liners – all while trying not to stress out Terry, the burglar’s pet octopus.  Hancock and Bradley make a fine duo, and Backhouse is a scream as the egotistical Gloria.  Eric Richard has a strong presence, on the other side of the law for once, and Gillian Bevan is both glamorous and haughty.  As the plot extends its tentacles, pulling everyone into a scam that could be worth billions, it’s every person for themselves.

It’s in the second act that the show’s message comes to the fore.  Milner and Stevenson use a dated, conventional format to speak to us of the present.  “What the world needs now is brains not bullets” is just the start of it.  Parallels are drawn between insurance CEO Virginia and organised crime boss Alan: capitalism is criminal activity, or certainly immoral and unethical, legal though it may be.  Seymour finally gets to deliver his presentation, a plea for the rehabilitation of the financial sector the world so desperately needs.

Played with energy and conviction by all concerned, this is a hugely enjoyable piece of work, and you get the feeling that things are tightening up as the run gets into its stride.  Pacing is everything in farcical situations and director Joe Harmston clearly has an eye for comic business and another for building tension.

Like Terry the octopus, this show has legs…

Nick Hancock and Paul Bradley in Octopus Soup! - credit Robert Day

NIck Hancock and Paul Bradley in one of the show’s calmer moments! (Photo: Robert Day)


A Tern for the Better

THE SEAGULL

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 2nd February, 2019

 

Chekhov done right is hugely demanding of any company attempting to stage one of his plays.  But if the company does get it right, the play becomes less demanding on the audience and, in fact, becomes a pleasure.  Here, director Andrew Brooks gets it right, eliciting nuanced and rounded performances from his cast, in this enjoyable adaptation by Christopher Hampton.

Jacob Williams shines as neurotic young writer Konstantin Gavrilovich Triplev – (the main problem I have with Chekhov is the names.  Sometimes characters use the full name, a diminutive version, or a different name altogether, so it can take a while to sort out in your mind who they’re talking about!)  Williams seems effortlessly naturalistic, balancing Kostia’s jaded outlook and insecurities with passion for the theatre.  Konstantin’s descent into mental illness is expertly portrayed.

As his mother, Irina So-and-so and Such-and-such, Karen Leadbetter gives us the ego of the famous actress, her insensitivity and selfishness – all at Konstantin’s expense – in a measured performance that never goes over the top.  John O’Neill is more down-to-earth as her lover, celebrated writer Trigorin; he really comes into his own when Trigorin describes the writer’s lot.

The object of Konstantin’s affections, the tragic Nina is played by Hannah Birkin, who is marvellous in the part.  She even performs the pretentious twaddle of Konstantin’s play with conviction.  This is a story of unrequited love – most of the characters are afflicted by it, setting off a chain reaction of events.

Dave Hill is endearing as ailing Uncle Pyotr, while the mighty Colin Simmonds perfectly inhabits his role as the family doctor.  Amy Thompson is the picture of misery as the lovelorn Masha, and Papa Anoh Yentumi gives an assured performance as pipe-smoking Shamrayev.

The costumes by Pat Brown clearly depict the class structure of 1895 Russia, and the beautiful set by Keith Harris and Megan Kirwin, with its tree trunks and elegant furnishings, basks in the atmospheric lighting of Kristan Webb’s design.  This is a classy production of a classic play, which brings out most of the humour inherent in the text with credible characterisations that keep on the right side of melodrama.

Eminently watchable and entertaining, this is one Chekhov you really ought to check out.

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Dave Hill and Jacob Williams (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


If I Had a Hammer

MISTRESS TO THE MIDNIGHT

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 1st February, 2019

 

Do you remember the classic British horror film made by Anvil Studios, Mistress of the Midnight?  No, of course you don’t because the film never existed and neither did the studios.  This hilarious production begins with the premise that the fictitious film has been found and, for the first time in sixty years, is going to be shown to a discerning public, namely the members of the ‘Sinema Society’.

This funny introduction sets the tone – this is the clever, silly kind of humour that reminds me of the heydays of Radio 4 comedy shows – and with only three performers, fast-moving action and even faster quick changes are the order of the day.

The ‘film’ begins with a cod-Victorian English voiceover, as our protagonist Ned Hellion, a kind of Jonathan Harker figure, writes home to his fiancée.  He has been summoned abroad to a weird Germanic country to conduct some legal business on behalf of the mysterious Madame Zozanov.  He encounters a host of colourful characters, and the tropes and atmosphere of the genre are laid on with a trowel – or should that be a Hammer?

It’s an absolute scream!  This kind of thing is right up my dark alley.  A gag-packed script delivered by a talented trio whose heightened performances sell even the lamest of jokes and make meals of the more melodramatic moments.  And, surprisingly, it’s a bit creepy too. Despite the silly wigs, the funny voices, the ridiculous vocabulary of the locals, and the far-fetched nature of the subject matter, there is the odd moment when the pace slows and the eeriness seeps through.

But not for long!  For most of the sixty minutes duration, you will be laughing out loud, relishing the daftness and loving the performers.  Written and performed by Jacob Lovick, Jack Robertson and Chazz Redhead, this glorious piece took me back to my childhood when stopping up late to watch a Hammer double-bill was a delicious treat.

Fabulous!

mistress midnight


Best Case Scenario

THE VERDICT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 30th January, 2019

 

Famously made into a Paul Newman film in 1982, Barry Reed’s book is here adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs.  There is a strong affinity between the law court and the theatre, because of the rituals, the adversarial nature of the lawyers, and the potential for surprise.

The first act is split mainly between Frank Galvin’s shabby office and Meehan’s Irish bar in Boston, with the odd scene in Galvin’s rival’s office and a judge’s chambers, all presented on a sturdy, detailed set designed by Michael Lunney.  The set adds weight to the drama and, along with the convincing accents of the cast, gives the piece an authentic tone.

As plucky attorney, Frank Galvin, Ian Kelsey is eminently watchable, wearing the role like a pair of comfortable old shoes.  Drinking incessantly, it seems, and viewing the world through Jameson’s-tinted glasses, he is the decent man, standing up for the helpless (in this instance, a young mother reduced to a persistent vegetative state by alleged medical neglect).  Assisting him is his mentor, the irascible Moe Katz, played by the ever-excellent Denis Lill.

Christopher Ettridge also impresses as the big bad lawyer, defending the hospital and the church dioceses that runs it.  As does Richard Walsh as Bishop Brophy, who rounds out a potentially villainous role with humanity.

It’s a large and strong cast with pleasing character work from the likes of Anne Kavanagh as the victim’s mother, Michael Lunney as genial bartender Eugene, and Okon Jones in a hugely enjoyable portrayal of expert witness Lionel B Thompson.  Paul Opacic is suitably suave and assured as flashy doctor Rexford Towler, and there is a striking cameo from Karen Drury as Nurse Mary Rooney.

It’s a wordy piece but is so compellingly played you hardly notice the lengthy running time.  It’s a slow-burner, gradually establishing the background of the case, leading up to a trial scene that does not disappoint.  Michael Lunney’s (that name again!) direction paces the action superbly, so that when the shocks and revelations come, he elicits gasps and murmurs from the enrapt audience.

This high-quality production rewards the attentive audience – and, on a side-note, it also serves as a stark reminder that our American cousins have to pay exorbitant sums for their health care, a sorry state of affairs we must not allow to become the case here, as some in our present government would wish.

galvin&moe_ian kelsey & denis lill

Dream team: Ian Kelsey and Denis Lill

 

 


Grounds for Fun

HOPPERS

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Tuesday 29th January, 2019

 

This latest production from Gritty Theatre is the brand-new piece from Michael Southan, and it’s quite a departure from his earlier play, Fred & Ginger but no less enjoyable.  It’s a kind of play-within-a-play, with three cast members walking on, carrying cardboard boxes to add to those already on stage.  They announce they’re going to do a spot of pub theatre and tell us a story called Hoppers and it’s football-related – Hoppers are ‘groundhoppers’, fans who try to attend matches at a number of stadiums throughout the season.  That’s what I gather, anyway; I could be mistaken.

And so, there’s plenty of fourth-wall breaking as the three narrate, often speaking in verse like a scaled-down Greek chorus, using their physicality and versatility to set the scene.  They recruit a plant (well, a woman) from the audience to be the protagonist.  This is Sal (played by Michelle Jennings) a foul-mouthed barmaid whose father has just died, thus triggering a quest.  The retrieval of a missing away kit drives the plot, as Sal goes from pillar to post, and club to club, meeting oddball characters and meeting their demands so she can track down the precious relic and complete her late father’s collection.  Jennings does a good line in exasperation as the beleaguered barmaid; Sally learns there was more to her dad than she ever knew.

Appearing as her father, as well as a host of other characters including boring Tony off the radio, is the rather protean Conor Nolan, whom I cannot fault.  Equally committed are Amy Anderson and Danny Milwain (who seems to be constantly snacking on something, whatever role he’s playing, including at one point an entire cucumber.  You don’t see that every day.)  Director Dominic Thompson gives them plenty of business which they pull off with precision and skill.  The presentation is sharp, slick and sassy, reminding me of early work by Godber with the added four-letter words of Berkoff, and while there is some lovely writing here, the form tends to overshadow the content at times.

There is much to enjoy here: a slow-motion skittles event, for example, and some perfectly timed reactions.  The local accents (instant comedy!) and local references strike home, even if in my ignorance I don’t appreciate the whole non-league football theme.

As items are unpacked from the ever-present boxes, Sal learns and we learn that there is more to our parents than their role as our parents – they are people too, with ambitions, interests and histories we would do well to learn about while there’s time.

Funny, with its heart and its theatricality on the sleeves of its football strip, Hoppers is both simple and sophisticated, almost mythic in its storytelling, and entertainingly enacted by an energetic ensemble.

hoppers

Chorus to this history: Conor Nolan, Amy Anderson, and Danny Milwain


Life of the Party

ABIGAIL’S PARTY

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st January, 2019

 

Mike Leigh’s classic TV play gets a new lease of life in this new touring production directed by Sarah Esdaile.  The first thing that strikes you is Janet Bird’s impressive set, all suburban 1970s with the perspective raked just enough to engender a slight sense of claustrophobia.  The action takes place solely in the living room of Beverly and Laurence, and like the neighbours who gather there for a spot of social drinking, we can be forgiven if we feel like we’re caged in with wild animals.

Jodie Prenger absolutely rules the roost as the monstrous bully Beverly, in a splendidly performed characterisation of bad behaviour dressed up as good manners.  That’s what this piece is, a comedy of manners with some very black humour indeed.   Prenger is magnificent, eyes shooting daggers – mainly at her tightly wound, hard-working husband Laurence (Daniel Casey) – and she very much makes the part her own rather than trying to recreate Alison Steadman’s original incarnation.

Vicky Binns is great value as the tactless Angela, a kind of acolyte for Beverly, while Calum Callaghan’s monosyllabic Tony is brimming with pent-up aggression.  Completing the quintet is Rose Keegan as the meek and uncomfortable Sue, almost stealing the show, in my view.  By the way, the titular party and the eponymous Abigail are both off-stage in Sue’s house.  Sarah Esdaile gets the most out of this skilful ensemble and paces the exchanges to perfection while maintaining a kind of heightened naturalism.

It’s a very funny piece.  Originally, it was a comment on contemporary society; nowadays, it’s a period piece and there is the laughter of nostalgia as certain brand names crop up.  The attitudes, of course, are still very much with us.  What’s the betting Laurence and Beverly would vote Leave?  This is very much a character-driven piece, dealing with the dynamics and inherent tensions of relationships as well as the sheer awfulness of social niceties.

A high-quality production, where everything from performances to costumes to soundtrack is all spot on.  A real treat to see a classic presented so excellently, so hilariously.  It’s great fun to witness such carryings-on, but Leigh is also holding up a mirror: there is plenty for each of us to recognise in ourselves here, if we’d dare to admit it.

I dare: I’m very much a Sue.

jodie prenger as beverly -112

Jodie Prenger as Beverly

 


Wordplay and Swordplay

ROBIN HOOD AND THE REVOLTING PEASANTS

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 13th January, 2019

 

For their winter tour this year, the inestimable Oddsocks bring this new take on the legendary figure who has for centuries stood for the downtrodden and against the abuses of power.  As ever with this funniest of theatre companies, you can expect a lot of laughs, but there is something different about this offering.  In terms of form, there is a departure from the familiar style right from the off.  The introductions (a staple of Oddsocks’s shows, in which the actors adopt silly pseudonyms) is shared by all five, making for a more democratic presentation – there’s a clue there to how the content is going to play out.  Also, the cast members share narrating duties; the shows are always team efforts but there is an emphasis this time around…

Writer-director Andy Barrow appears as the villainous, sneering Sheriff, bleeding the peasantry dry so he can build his castles and mansions and duck houses.  Barrow is an old hand when it comes to dealing with the audience, doling out insults and putting down hecklers with good-natured wit.  He also gets to indulge his rock-star aspirations with his solo.  Not only can he somersault he can also belt out a good tune.

The satire is laid on with an industrial trowel as Barrow tackles issues and concerns that bedevil the country to this day.  One of the Sheriff’s nefarious plans involves a rudimentary form of fracking beneath Sherwood Forest, with the outlaws doing their utmost to stop it – through asking politely and singing protest songs.  Meanwhile, the peasants are being cleared out of town, their hovels levelled to make way for the gentrification of the area rather than building affordable housing for all…

It takes plucky Marion (a delightful Joanna Brown, new to the team) a crusader (not that sort) and pro-active member of the community to enlist the famous Robin to the cause.  Robin and the outlaws have been victim of fake news reports and are vilified by the peasantry they are seeking to assist.  Robin is played by Oddsocks veteran Dominic Gee-Burch as a funny, down-to-earth sort, most definitely not aristocratic.  Gee-Burch is immediately likeable, and impresses with his vocal skills in a rousing rendition of You’re The Voice.

The talented Ben Locke makes a welcome return to the troupe appearing (among other roles) as Little John, who is something of an eco-warrior.  Ellen Chivers, in her Oddsocks debut, brings a lot of humour to her characterisations, Patricia the peasant, Robin’s sister Scarlet, and a hapless Norman soldier.  As ever, Andy Barrow has gathered an excellent ensemble, and he works them hard, but the show is almost stolen out from under them by the antics of Twitchy the squirrel.

Fight direction by Ian Stapleton adds slapstick violence to the fun.  There is fisticuffs and swordplay with the women giving as good as the men.  Costumes by Sigrid Mularczyk and Vanessa Anderson are marvellously medieval, while being functional to allow for quick changes and action sequences.  As ever, the set is an intricate thing of flaps and moving parts, reminiscent of the company’s early years on a pageant wagon.

It’s enormous fun while being their most overtly political show to date.  It’s great to see an original story incorporating what works best about the Oddsocks approach: silliness, physical comedy, puppetry, modern musical numbers, and audience participation.  The action might be a little muddied at times but the message is perfectly clear.  If there is one thing this country needs, it’s a prick to the social conscience.  This show is a salutary (and hilarious) reminder of things that ought to be important to us all.

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Sheriff Andy Barrow having a night on the boos


Timely in Athens

TIMON OF ATHENS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 2nd January, 2019

 

Simon Godwin’s new production of the rarely-presented ‘problem play’ is an accessible fable, due to some judicious cutting and reframing of scenes, and simple staging.  It’s a game of two halves: the first is all gold and opulence, as though Timon’s interior designer was King Midas – even the flower arrangement is gold – with the stage dominated by a long banqueting table around which Timon entertains her guests, lavishing gift upon gift upon them, as suits her whim; the second half is dirt and darkness, with Timon now living rough in the woods, spurning all comers and railing against the world, like a mini King Lear.

In the title role, the formidable Kathryn Hunter gives a compelling performance.  Her Lady Timon is a silent-movie diva, every expression writ large on her face, every gesture stylised and mannered – although she is far from silent.  She spouts some of Shakespeare’s most acidic, misanthropic lines with relish.  Hunter’s performance style sets her character apart from the others, as befits the action of the play.  She is supported by a strong ensemble who breathe life and credibility into shallow, one-note characters.  (The blame for any shortcomings in the text is usually laid at the door of Shakespeare’s collaborator, Thomas Middleton!)

Chief among the supporting roles is Patrick Drury’s Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward.  In one of the piece’s most touching scenes, he shares the contents of his purse with his fellow, newly-unemployed servants.  It is the servants who display the best aspects of humanity: Salman Akhtar’s Lucilius, Rosy McEwen’s Flaminia, and Riad Richie’s Servilius.

Lady Timon’s guests, moochers and hangers-on display the worst aspects, leaching away at the good lady’s generosity until the well runs dry.  We see through them at once. Ralph Davis’s poet and Sagar I M Arya’s painter, might be excused for seeking the patronage of a wealthy woman, but Lucia (Imogen Slaughter), Lucullus (David Sturzaner) and Sempronius (James Clyde) soon prove themselves to be fair-weather friends.  These moments, with Godwin cross-cutting between scenes of refusal, are handled with humour – there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout, as we are invited to examine the scenario from a distance rather than empathise with the personas.

A dissonant voice comes from the mighty Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic philosopher, Apemantus, and not just because of the Welsh accent.  Gwynne and Hunter share the finest scene of the piece in which Apemantus and Timon trade eloquently vicious insults, descend into name-calling and end up displaying the play’s strongest instance of fellow-feeling.  It is powerful stuff.

With its up-to-date references (Alcibiades’s mob are sporting the latest Paris fashion, the ubiquitous yellow vest) and a strongly Grecian feel (Michael Bruce’s jaunty, stirring score), there are parallels being drawn with certain countries in the European Union, but I am tempted to consider the production is a more direct meditation on our own situation.  The first half is a Leaver’s vision of the EU, with all and sundry happy to bleed us (Timon) dry, while the second act is a Remainer’s nightmare of the UK post-Brexit: alone, hateful and bitter, scrabbling in the dirt for sustenance!

What I can’t help thinking is that Will must have had his father in mind during the writing of this play.  John Shakespeare spent his latter years as a recluse, hiding from his creditors; perhaps there is something of his nature in Timon’s bitter barbs.

An amusing, provocative production, rich with ideas and excellently presented, this is a timely Timon that reminds us that human nature is immutable and inequality is still very much with us.

Timon of Athens production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Simon Annand _c_ RSC_269096

Lady Bountiful: Kathryn Hunter as Timon, with Patrick Drury as Flavius and Nia Gwynne as Apemantus (Photo: Simon Annand)

 

 

 

 


Telling Tales

GRIMMS FAERY TALES

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd December, 2018

 

The festive offering at the Blue Orange this year is a trilogy of tales, familiar stories with a twist.  Performed by a talented ensemble of five, the stories comprise an entertaining anthology, suitable for all the family.

First up is Rapunzel, directed by Oliver Hume, setting the tone and the style.  The actors share narration and adopt a larger-than-life style that’s not quite panto, but not far off.  For the most part, they play it straight, even though the script is witty.  Hume’s staging is deceptively simple; there’s some sophisticated storytelling going on here.

Simon Ravenhill’s Little Red Riding Hood (directed by Marcus Fernando) is a more overtly comic, almost cartoonish affair, with heightened physicality and even some chasing around with Yaketty Sax blaring out!

Finally, we have Mark Webster’s Rumpelstiltskin, a return to the style of the opener but with added atmosphere: cast members remain onstage, supporting the main action – like the spinning of the straw, for example.

The stories are performed by a fine quintet.  James Nicholas is wonderful as a high-camp Witch, a rather butch Granny, and a splendidly creepy Rumpelstiltskin.  Adam Simmons is appealing as Rapunzel’s Prince, perfectly arrogant as the avaricious, gold-hungry Prince, and charming as a Narrator.  Alan Nikitas delivers long-suffering peasants and fathers, but really shines as an exasperated Big Bad Wolf that is a real treat to see.  Rebecca Ross supports as mothers, guards, and is especially good fun as a felonious Goldilocks, menacing all who cross her path.  Playing the heroines in all three stories, Stephanie Grey delights as the imprisoned princess, the put-upon Gretchen, and especially as a garrulous Little Red Riding Hood.

The action is slick, engaging and funny.  The adaptations are clever enough to amuse the adults, and the lure of the original stories still has the power to enchant and enthral the children.

Perfectly charming and thoroughly enjoyable, this is a production that will hold you in its spell, and it’s all rounded off with a sweetly sung rendition of Auld Lang Syne.  Glorious rather than grim.

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Alex Nikitas and James Nicholas squaring up as the Wolf and Granny

 


The Princess and the Proon

SNOW WHITE

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 21st December, 2018

 

For their first pantomime since taking over the venue, Proon Productions present the fairy-tale favourite, combining a small cast of professionals with a cast of small amateurs: children from the Drama Club, taking on the roles of Snow White’s seven companions.

Steve Kray’s script reunites adult members of the audience with some very old, groan-worthy jokes.   Of course, for children, there are no old jokes; the delivery here is well-paced and the performance style is definitely old-school to match.  Small-scale this may be, but the energy of the performers keeps the panto spirit alive.

In the title role, Phoebe Cresswell is a sweet princess, high-pitched like Betty Boop or Disney’s version; her singing voice is less shrill, it’s very pleasant indeed.  As Snow White’s love interest, Prince Boris, the thigh-slapping Ellen Hastings certainly looks the part; she could do with more conviction in her princely swagger.  Joanna Gay’s cackling evil Queen is a major draw, stalking around melodramatically.  She is a fine singer too, although in some of the solo numbers, cast members can look a bit stranded on stage, with no backing dancers or special lighting to heighten the moment.  In perfect contrast with Gay’s histrionics, a pre-recorded Rebecca Hallworth appears as the even-tempered Magic Mirror, dispassionately doling out the truth.  There is even an appearance by company mascot, Mr Proon, himself.  Imagine Mr Blobby with class.

Steve Kray, not only writing and directing, appears as Silly Billy, whose downbeat Brummie intonations augment the comedic energy of the character.  Silly Billy is at his finest (daftest) working in tandem with Ellis Creez’s dame, ‘Nursie’ – a characterisation worthy of the admission fee alone!  Creez has immaculate comic timing and it’s as though he has travelled in time from a music hall.  He delivers quite lengthy patter with archness and charm and just the right amount of sauce.  There are times when his magnificent sculpted wigs cast his face in shadow; it’s a pity to lose those expressions!

The commitment from the youngsters is a delight to behold, each one of them doing their utmost to add to the fun.  They’re a strong team but I am particularly impressed by Alfie Lee as Watt and Sophia Lucas as Him.  Well-trained and enthusiastic, these dwarves could do a few comedy beards to help differentiate them.

There is much to enjoy here, it just needs a bit of tightening.  A more consistent use of musical cues, for example, like a few crashing chords to herald the entrance of the villain every time she comes on, would help sustain the atmosphere, rather than having the Queen arrive in cold silence.  And the baking scene makes absolutely no mess whatsoever – a missed opportunity for a bit of slapstick!

There is something for everyone, with the likeability of the performers and the corniness of the jokes carrying us through the familiar fairy-tale.  The show needs and deserves a large and responsive audience, that crucial pantomime ingredient that binds everything together.

Running until December 31st, with matinee and evening shows, Snow White is a refreshing alternative to CGI-laden blockbuster movies, tired Christmas telly, and violent videogames.  Book a family treat now on 01789 333990 or www.stratfordplay.co.uk

snow white proon

 

 


What a Croc!

PETER PAN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 20th December, 2018

 

Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre can be counted on to stage the biggest, brightest pantomime year after year and this year is no exception.  Peter Pan is a bit of a weird one, as pantos go, because we expect to see certain key plot points from the J M Barrie play along with traditional panto elements as befit the format.  There is no wedding celebration at the end, for example, because there is no couple of lovers; in fact, Peter and Wendy’s story ends with separation.  Bit of a downer, there, Mr Barrie.

Other than that, it is quite a good fit in this adaptation for the pantomime stage by Alan McHugh and director Michael Harrison.  Big, bold and extravagant, the Hippodrome panto is the jewel in the Qdos crown, but it doesn’t matter how much money you chuck at the stage, it doesn’t matter how big the Wow factor is, if the show doesn’t have any heart.

Rest assured, heart is not in short supply either, thanks to a superlative cast.

Back for his sixth year on the trot, funnyman Matt Slack almost dominates proceedings as Mr Smee.  With Slack, you know exactly what you’re getting, and you’re delighted to get it.  There is nothing slack about his comedic skills: a bit rude, a lot daft, and with exquisite timing.  His impressions are always impressive too.

Union J’s Jaymi Hensley is practically perfect as Peter, with his boyish good looks and angelic pop vocals.  I could listen to him all night.

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Pan-tastic: Jaymi Hensley

Cassie Compton makes an earnest Wendy, while Kellie Gnauck is an appealingly bratty Tinker Bell.  Meera Syal brings local colour to the show in her pantomime debut as the Magical Mermaid and is clearly enjoying herself immensely.  There are old-school variety acts courtesy of the remarkable Timbuktu Tumblers and a gravity-defying balancing act called the Drunken Pirates (Sascha Williams and his assistant Stephanie Nock).

The flying effects are as you’d expect but there are also some surprises.  Most impressive of all is the Crocodile, whose terrifying appearance brings the first act to a close.  Truly, the best I have seen.

The coup though is the casting of not-so little Jimmy Osmond in the role of Captain Hook.  Osmond is the embodiment of entertainment and one of those rare creatures, an American who gets pantomime.  He establishes an excellent rapport with Slack, the straight guy to the latter’s buffoonery, and he treats us with several songs from his brothers’ repertoire, for a rousing finale.

This spectacular affair is a lot of fun.  The comic song, If I Were Not in Neverland, brings the house down, and Slack’s handling of the four youngsters who come up on stage for the sing-along is always a highlight.

One thing I will say: the show could do with a wider range of costumes.  Captain Hook especially deserves an extensive wardrobe, and in the absence of a dame, the Magical Mermaid could do with some more outlandish outfits.

But never mind that.  This is a top-drawer production, an awfully big adventure that is hilarious and magical, demonstrating that what matters most of all is casting.  Get that right and everything else is a bonus.

jimmy osmond

Hooked on a feeling: Jimmy Osmond

 

 


Getting into the Spirit

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th December, 2018

 

Tall Stories bring Oscar Wilde’s novella to the stage in this breezy adaptation devised by the cast.  A quartet of music hall performers (a magician, a comic, a psychic, and the Chairman) enact the story, interspersing their acts between the scenes.  The Wilde and the music hall acts are given equal weight; it’s like we’re getting two shows in one – and there’s a reason for this, a reason for the outmoded music hall motif…But I’ll get to that.

Tom Jude amazes as Tom Artaud, the stage musician.  There’s a lot of stage magic in this production from sleight of hand to making things disappear, and it’s refreshing to behold first hand in this jaded, CGI world we live in.  Jude is also delightful as the disgruntled Sir Simon de Canterville, the eponymous ghost, and hilarious as the housekeeper almost collapsing under the weight of her own baggage.

Matt Jopling is young William Otis, and also a very physical comedian.  His act includes a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, demonstrating Jopling’s well-honed skills, and a wicked sense of humour.  Like the stage magic, it’s a treat to see old-school ventriloquism performed so well and with an edge.

Lauren Silver is William’s twin, Olivia, and also an hilariously hammy stage psychic, retching when the spirits enter her, with her charlatanism on her sleeve – until her tricks work out, that is, and you can’t work out how she does it!

Steve McCourt, the Chairman, is mainly at the piano, but he also appears as the twins’ father, a crass salesman of household goods.  McCourt has a beautiful singing voice, especially when backed by gorgeous harmonies, provided by the other three.  The songs by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw have a jaunty music-hall feel with clever lyrics, but also a melancholy touch.  The entire show has intimations of mortality running through it like lettering in seaside rock.  We are urged to enjoy the moment, to tell our stories well, so that we will be remembered…

Running in parallel to the Wilde story of the spectre with unfinished business, trying to clear his name for a murder he didn’t commit, is the story of the four music hall performers who have their own reasons for setting a record straight.  It ties the production up neatly and cleverly.

This is an utterly charming show, performed by appealing actors.  Using only a simple set of doors and curtains, they conjure up both the music hall stage and Canterville Hall.  The direction (by Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell) keeps things slick and fluid, capitalising on the actors’ physicality and a host of sound effects to add to the humour of the presentation.

A well-crafted, beautiful bauble of a show, it’s not for the little ones, but families with older kids will be tickled and enchanted.  I loved it.

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Stubborn stain! Matt Jopling, Tom Jude, Steve McCourt, and Lauren Silver

 

 


Making Merry

ROBIN HOOD

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Friday 14th December, 2018

 

Panto’s cheekiest duo, Jonathan Wilkes and Christian Patterson, are back – of course, they’re back – with another hilarious madcap extravaganza.  The Robin Hood legend is merely a framework on which to hang the customary pantomime shenanigans, although there is some semblance of a plot with the archery contest for the golden arrow, and King Richard returning from the Crusades.

In the title role, Jonathan Wilkes with his schoolboy impertinence and his pleasant pop-star vocals is an irresistible lead.  The home crowd that turn out in their droves to support him know what to expect, and we lap it up.  Long-time confederate (ten years and counting) Christian Patterson starts off as a cheery, ruddy-cheeked Friar Tuck, getting up to monk-y business.  The funniest moments of the show are whenever these two are on together, and the script contrives to keep them on together for as much as possible.  Tuck, to distract the Sheriff, becomes a pantomime dame and opts to stay in drag for the rest of the show.  Tuck by name…

As the Sheriff of Stokingham, the mighty Kai Owen is enjoyably sneering, spouting insults at the audience, looking like a cross between Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III and Claudia Winkelman.  Finley Guy is an appealing, perky Maid Marian, who can give better than she gets in a sword fight with the baddie.  This is just one of the production’s progressive elements, showing that female characters can be pro-active too.

Another welcome step is the inclusion of an openly gay character in the handsome form of Delme Thomas’s Will Scarlett.  He could not be more camp, but the character is never ridiculed or belittled; he is accepted, included and valued, and that is very pleasing to see.  Thomas commits to his high-camp characterisation and can ad lib with the best of them and sing like a dream.

Peter Bonner’s Little John lives up to his name.  He’s a charming stage presence and a great sport.  There are plenty of jokes at the expense of his diminutive stature, good-natured ribbing this may be but perhaps we will see a move away from this kind of humour too…

Baby steps.

The good fairy role is played by Rebecca Lisewski as the Spirit of Sherwood, combining fairy-tale glamour with a down-to-earth manner.  Her singing voice is the best of the bunch and she gets to really let rip in the finale with a rousing rendition of This Is Me.

As ever, the choreography, by Nikki Wilkes and James Bennett, is superlative, performed by an attractive ensemble that contains some acrobatic men.  The crowd is augmented by kids from the Wilkes Academy of Performing Arts.   The songs are well-known and sing-along-able and some of the jokes are tell-along-able.  Inclusion really is the watchword here!

There’s an impressive 3D sequence (the graphics in these things have definitely improved) along with traditional moments (a song-sheet, kids on stage, a stalking ghost…)  The almost-obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas rapidly descends into chaos, and you might think the whole enterprise is just silly, knockabout fun, and indeed Wilkes and Patterson give the impression that it’s all slapdash.  Well, slick it certainly isn’t – on the surface, at any rate.  Patterson’s direction masks the professionalism beneath the giggles.  There is a gobsmacking Play-That-Goes-Wrong moment, which I won’t give away, but it makes you realise these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

The laughs keep coming in this warm-hearted, who-farted, romp.  It’s like catching up with old friends and having a cracker of a night out.  A feast of fun, I advise you to Tuck in.

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Merry men: Delme Thomas, Christian Patterson, Jonathan Wilkes and Peter Bonner

 

 


Finger-Prickin’ Good

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2018

 

Second panto of the season for me and my second Sleeping Beauty.  This extravaganza in Wolverhampton’s beautiful Grand Theatre hits all the high notes, with their most consistently excellent pantomime production in years.

Debbie McGee kicks things off with a Grand entrance as the Lovely Fairy Crystal.  It’s not long before she’s demonstrating her hoofing skills.  Strictly between us, she’s still a fantastic mover, even if she is prone to a spot of corpsing in her dialogue scenes – actually, this adds to the fun.  As her evil counterpart, the wicked fairy Carabosse, Julie Paton is hugely enjoyable; it’s not until the second act that we get her finest moment, a lyrically-adapted rendition of  I Will Survive.  Paton also choreographs the show, the customary blend of fairy-tale costumes and contemporary dance.

Ian Adams returns to Wolverhampton on double duty, as director and as a deliciously camp dame, Queen Wilhelmina (Call me Willy!)  Adams is clearly in his element here, bringing drag queen elegance.  The innuendo levels sky-rocket whenever he is on.  Also back is Doreen Tipton, as hilariously dreary Nurse Doreen, bringing a very local flavour to proceedings and also some of the rudest remarks.

Bethan-Wyn Davies is an appealing Princess Beauty, looking like she’s dropped out of a Disney movie, and singing like a pop princess.  Her love interest is Prince Harry, played by the delightful Oliver Ormson, handsome, funny and with the voice of an angel, he is the perfect panto prince.

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Oliver Ormson and Bethan-Wyn Davies as Harry and Meghan – sorry, Beauty (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

The big draw for me though is the casting of Sooty.  As himself.  There is so much love for the little golden bear with black ears, and I’m pleased to see it’s not just me.  The older members of the audience revel in the nostalgia while the younger ones are delighted by his mischievous antics perhaps for the first time.  Of course, you can’t have Sooty without Sweep, who treats us to a rendition of Nessun Dorma like no other.  It’s a surreal moment.  Part of you knows it’s a hand in a glove squeezing a squeaker, but another part of you overrules it and you find yourself urging him on.  Go on, Sweep, give it some welly!

Accompanying the puppets is Richard Cadell.  More than Sooty’s handler, he is a splendid comic performer in his own right and also a fine stage magician.  The show has some amazing set pieces, magic tricks on the small and the large scale.  Cadell is irrepressibly funny, a true showman.

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Richard Cadell as Muddles and Sooty as himself (Photo; Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

With musical director Kelvin Towse in charge of a tight ensemble, a troupe of talented dancers (who are perhaps a little underused) and a smattering of ‘babes’ from the Classic Academy of Dance, this is a high-quality show that really does have something for everyone.  Production values are impressive (apart from a naff helicopter) and while the kids revel in the slapstick, the grown-ups are tickled by the risqué jokes.  There are traditional routines, spectacular effects, and above all a whole lot of fun.

Magic.


Double-edged War Puns

OVER THE TOP

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018

 

It’s become quite a tradition at the Belgrade that while the panto is on in the main house, the B2 studio hosts an alternative, something for the grown-ups.  This year, writer Nick Walker chooses the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War and of the start of the women’s suffrage movement as the basis for this pun-riddled romp.

As ever, the script is jam-packed with groanworthy gags, delivered with the rapidity and subtlety of a machine gun, as it tells the story of four men enlisted to go to the Front to rescue a troupe of actresses.  The cast is entirely female – the reason for which becomes apparent by the end.

Laura Tipper sings sweetly as Bell, and harumphs horribly as Sidebottom, complete with period moustache.  Aimee Powell is dashing as Ashwell, dapper in black tie and tails.  Kimisha Lewis shows her versatility as Flowers, a German, and a balletic Red Baron.  Miriam Grace Edwards is magical as stage magician Mickey… The ladies have several roles each and are well-matched for talent and likeability.

Walker’s clever script has a repeating plot device, taking us back time and again to a music hall, interspersed with scenes of action and espionage reminiscent of a John Buchan.  Director Katy Stephens, a veteran of several of these shows, paces the delivery to perfection.  There is a silent-movie type sequence involving a bomb in a French restaurant that is superb, and a break from the otherwise relentless barrage of bad jokes.  (“Is it snails?” “No, this is a fast food restaurant.”)

It’s not all daftness and running around.  Walker, recognising the solemnity of the occasion, provides a sucker punch ending.  We’ve all seen how Blackadder turned out; here the impact is equally if not more powerful as it is revealed that the characters are all based on real women, and there really was a mission to rescue the actresses.  The final moments commemorate the contributions of women to the war effort and the sacrifices they made, something that many of the events we have seen over the past four years have overlooked.

Delightfully corny, rib-ticklingly daft, and ultimately sobering, this is a solid hour of entertainment with a powerful message.

OTT


Wonderful, Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Live Radio Play

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 7th December, 2018

 

Frank Capra’s beloved film, starring Jimmy Stewart, is a Christmas favourite in my house.  Here it is brought to the stage in this adaptation by Joe Landry, who re-sets it as a radio drama. We are in the studio of WBFR in Manhattan.  WWII is over and we settle in to watch a cast of five perform the script using only their voices and a few odds and ends for sound effects.

Hosting the show is Anton Tweedale, who also appears as the villain Mr Potter (among other roles).  He points out the APPLAUSE signs, which we must obey – as if we need prompting to show our appreciation of this slick and effective piece.

The actors address the microphones rather than each other, meaning they’re always facing front.  Director Anthony Shrubsall prevents things from becoming static by giving them plenty of business.  You could close your eyes and enjoy the piece as a radio show, but if you did, you’d miss out on the darting around, the creation of the sound effects; the moves are all choreographed to keep the story going.

Charles Lomas is an affable George Bailey, the big-hearted hero, whose life consists of sacrifice after sacrifice to help the people of his small-town home.  Lomas makes the part his own, and brings great passion to the role.  Hannah Fretwell is sweet as Mary, George’s wife, while Marisa Foley excels in a range of female roles, from the local goodtime girl to George’s mother and infant children.  Rowland Stirling is superb as second-class angel Clarence and many other parts, demonstrating versatility and skill as he switches between characters, often conversing with himself.

You might think that with all the mechanics of the production in full sight, we would be kept at a distance from the story.  There is some of that, and you can reflect, Brechtian-style, on the evils of capitalism, as embodied by the sneering Potter.   But the story, even as it is presented here, still packs an emotional wallop.  George Bailey is a kind of anti-Scrooge.  It takes an other-worldly spirit to show him that the world would be worse off without him, rather than better.

Technically perfect, totally charming, and excellently presented by a talented ensemble, this is a wonderful It’s A Wonderful Life.  Even this old grinch was moved to tears – or perhaps it was the complimentary gin and tonic I knocked back in the interval.

Heart-warming stuff indeed.

wonderful life old joint

Anton Tweedale, Marisa Foley, Charles Lomas, Hannah Fretwell, and Rowland Stirling


Oh Brother

TRUE WEST

Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018

 

I can’t be the first to not the similarities between the work of American playwright Sam Shepard and our own Harold Pinter.  This revival of Shepard’s 1980 piece is a case in point.  There is a sense of menace coursing through the comedy, the huge chunks of characters’ lives that are unexplained, the sudden outbreaks of violence…

Matthew Dunster’s production comes with stellar casting, with King of the North Kit Harington as screenwriter Austin, and Johnny Flynn as his lowlife brother Lee.  Austin is bookish and settled into a conventional lifestyle (wife, kids…) but his work has brought him to the seclusion of his mother’s house.  His writing is interrupted by the appearance of his brother, unseen for five years and fresh (if that’s the word) from a three-month stint in the desert.  Lee is a burglar, a wastrel with anger management issues – Flynn is powerful in the frequent outbursts, and also swaggering and overbearing in this domineering role.  But Harington is not overshadowed and when, through reasons of plot, the roles are reversed, his Austin comes out of his neurotic shell, rolls around drunk, and acquires an impressive collection of toasters from homes around the neighbourhood.

Donald Sage Mackay appears as Saul, Austin’s producer, an equable counterpoint to the volatility of the brothers’ relationship, while Madeleine Potter’s absentee mother makes a brief but telling appearance in the final scene.  She seems spaced-out, an ineffectual presence – the fate of women in the American mythos.  There is a sense of disconnect here, with what is unsaid looming large – Pinter again!

Jon Bausor’s set with its exaggerated perspective shows a world askew, the angles adding to the claustrophobia.  Director Matthew Dunster brings out the humour of Shepard’s script, balanced with the savagery of the brothers.  They are koi carp trapped in the same tank.  It is with a growing sense of irony that we realise what they do not: they are the idiots chasing each other around in Lee’s terrible idea for a screenplay.  Like Tom and Jerry (the domestic violence has a cartoonish feel) they can’t leave each other alone.

That they are screenwriters is hugely pertinent.  They are both seeking to perpetuate the myths that permeate American culture: Austin’s love story, Lee’s action-packed dumb chase movie.  But when it comes down to it, we find the prescribed modes of masculine behaviour make it impossible for the brothers to function in the real world.

The show is a hot property with hot actors and heated dialogue, with searingly hilarious moments, but when it’s all said and done, and the crickets have finally shut the hell up, the lack of resolution leaves us hanging.  And this is exactly why the star of the show is Sam Shepard’s script, reminding us that life, unlike stories, is unresolved and unexplained.  Meaning is not always apparent.  Perhaps we are all in the desert, chasing each other around.

brenner

The truth ain’t out there, bro. Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 

 

 


Ebenezer Good

EBENEZER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th December, 2018

 

The most famous ghost story of all time comes to the most haunted house in the country in this enchanting, one-man version of Charles Dickens’s perennial favourite.  It’s a promenade piece and an intimate one, with a cap on audience members to a dozen per performance; we are led through the building by our host and narrator, Ebenezer Crouch, who blends friendliness with otherworldliness.

“Marley was dead to begin with,” Crouch begins at the entrance to the museum, a kind of cold opener, before the more mundane advisories about the uneven floors and low ceilings within.  He shepherds us into the ticket office/gift shop, which serves as Scrooge’s office, where the story begins and ends.  Illuminated only by the dim light of the lantern he carries, Crouch is at once an engaging narrator, embodying Dickens’s characters and switching between them in the span of a breath.  Each one, the major players and the walk-ons, appears fully formed, vocally and physically.  We cannot help but be captivated from the get-go.

Crouch beckons us through the various sections of the Tudor barn, a surprisingly fitting backdrop to the Victorian tale, and never mind the anachronisms.  Cast into shadow, the mannequins and furnishings of the exhibits add to the overall spookiness of the event.

We traipse after Crouch from room to room, and these moments are the only instances when the pacing can flag, as we reassemble in each shady spot.  There is enough atmosphere in the building after dark to keep us in the mood.

Crouch is a consummate storyteller and actor, summoning out of Dickens’s prose a range of atmospheric scenes, running the gamut of human emotion.  Now matter how familiar you might be with the story and its countless incarnations, Crouch’s retelling renders it fresh, proving you don’t need special effects.  You don’t even need music or a change of costume, when all you’ve got it is the words of Dickens (a man who knew how to read aloud) and the spellbinding talents of a skilful storyteller.

Devised and performed by Paul Norton, this is a Christmas cracker.  Bone-chilling and heart-warming, this version reaffirms what Dickens knew: that Christmas is a time to remember the common humanity we share.  Sadly, in Tory Britain, the message is ever more pertinent.

This is the must-see show of the season, but you’ll have to be quick to grab your tickets.  The run is strictly limited and audience capacity is, by necessity, restricted.  Call Tudor World on 01789 298070 and give yourself a Christmas present.

Ebenezer Christmas Carol Portrait No Tex

 


Working Wonders

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December, 2018

 

Director James David Knapp brings his own adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic to the stage in this ponderous production.  This is an Alice who wonders about things rather than at them, as she is presented with riddles and cod philosophies from almost all the strange characters she encounters.

Ruth Waterson, making her Crescent debut, gives an assured performance as Alice, playing her as a serious, thoughtful child.  She comes to life when she joins in with the other characters: the caucus race, for example, and the Lobster Quadrille.  If Alice, our guide through this weird land, is so serious, the characters she encounters should be weirder, crazier, but they’re a bit po-faced too.

There is a lot to enjoy from the large cast.  Marcus Clarke’s Dodo shakes his tail-feathers and has a mad spark in his eye; later, his King of Hearts is delightfully dotty – he could do with a crown, though.  Erin Hooton’s twitchy White Rabbit, John Paul Conway’s snooty Knave, Niall Higgins’s Mock Turtle… Standing out is Molly Wood’s Duchess, a bedraggled eccentric, convincingly bonkers.  Jordan Bird’s Mad Hatter makes an arch, camp double act with Carl Foster’s March Hare, along with a fearsome French Dormouse (Ella-Louise McMullan) keeping them in check.  There is a delicious portrayal of the mad Queen of Hearts by Alice Macklin, capricious, volatile, tyrannical, truly psychopathic, and bringing a lot of oomph to the second act.  But I think I enjoy most of all the trio of gorblimey gardeners, played by Amelia Hall, William Stait and Ronnie Kelly.

James David Knapp provides a new twist in the tale.  It’s not easy bringing Carroll’s plotless novel to the stage to make a coherent piece, but Knapp provides a through-line – the material is on his side, with the disclaimer that not everything has to make sense.  He has clearly drilled his ensemble of children very well – every one of them is in step and focussed, which is no mean feat.

The costume department has excelled itself.  The designs of Dyjak Malgorzata combine what we expect of the characters with some innovative ideas, with the assistance of Vera Dean and Pat Brown to craft these wonderful creations.

The show works best during its absurd moments, rather than when Alice is being exhorted from all corners to ‘grow up’ – when she is clearly the most mature character on stage.   The production values, the talent, the ideas are all there.  All it needs, overall, is to lighten up, to – as Alice’s draconian mother is reminded to do – let its hair down.

queen of hearts

Off her head: Alice Macklin as the Queen of Hearts (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Friends of Dorothy

THE WIZARD OF OZ

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 29th November, 2018

 

Frank Baum’s classic tale comes to Birmingham in this vibrant new production from director Liam Steel. Updating the framing story of Dorothy and her aunt and uncle eking out a living on a farm to the 1950s, the early scenes of this production look like a John Steinbeck and sound like a Tennessee Williams – especially when Miss Gulch appears, drawling like a Southern belle, lording it over the po’ folk. The opening scenes serve to set up what is to come, when our plucky heroine finds herself transported to a magical land, just as elements from our everyday lives filter into our dreams.  It’s downbeat, dramatic stuff, until Dorothy (a superlative Chisara Agor) sits on her bed and sings Over The Rainbow, her face sweetly optimistic, her voice rich and soulful.  This is the first ‘wow’ moment of the evening.  There are more to come.

The tornado that drops the house on the Wicked Witch of the East, is stylistically presented, with swirling stagehands dismantling the farmhouse shack the Gale family calls home.  The frame of the house remains present throughout, a centrepiece of the set, just as home is ever at the forefront of Dorothy’s thoughts, which is where we are, in effect, in Dorothy’s noggin all along.  Sorry, if that’s a spoiler.

Chisara Agor as Dorothy_Wizard of Oz_c Graeme Braidwood

Gale force! Chisara Agor as Dorothy (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Chisara Agor is matched by an excellent ensemble, ranging from Dillon Scott-Lewis’s pop-and-locking, robotic Tin Man to Kelly Agbowu’s cowardly Lion, who brings the house down with her singing voice rather than her roar.  Shanay Holmes’s good witch Glinda channels the likes of Mariah and Whitney for her big numbers – the singing in this production is top notch, inducing shivers down your spine.   Jos Vantyler’s Wicked Witch of the West, with cheekbones for days and the kinkiest boots is a bitter and twisted delight, but I fell in love with Scarecrow, played by an apparently boneless Ed Wade, who brings an astonishing physicality to the role.

Jos Vantyler as Wicked Witch_c Graeme Braidwood

Wicked! Jos Vantyler (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

The great and powerful Lorna Laidlaw doubles as the charlatan Professor Marvel, gesticulating grandly over a crystal ball, and as the eponymous Wizard, playing both with humour and warmth.

The production elements are as impressive as the cast.  Liam Steel’s Oz seems to be heavily influenced by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with its diva-esque apple trees and flamboyant carnivorous plants, courtesy of some brilliant design work from Angela Davies and costumes by Samuel Wyer.  The drag queen aesthetic is strong in this one.  The Emerald City is a stylish, avant garde place, like the swishiest nightclub in the gay village.  The familiar and well-worn songs are given new, contemporary arrangements by musical director George Dyer, refreshing them like a new coat of paint, but retaining, thank goodness, the catchy tunes and witty lyrics of Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg.

With charming, sometimes scary, puppetry, and plenty of inventive scenic ideas, this production pulls off the magic trick of meeting audience expectations of the famous story while providing enough that is fresh and new and surprising to renew our acquaintance with Baum’s timeless brilliance.  The REP has gone that extra mile along the yellow brick road to produce this magical spectacle.  A wonderfully inclusive show for all the family, it will make you laugh and it will melt your heart like water on a wicked witch.

Spell-binding.

Lorna Laidlaw as The Wizard of Oz and Ed Wade as Scarecrow_c Graeme Braidwood

Wizard! Lorna Laidlaw as Oz and Ed Wade as the Scarecrow (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Disney Heights

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – A Musical Parody

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 28th November, 2018

 

Taking its cue (and just about everything else) from Disney’s animated feature, right from the whistling Mickey Mouse and the fairy-tale castle at the beginning, this parody from Fat Rascal is a scream from start to finish.  Shadow puppets enact the backstory: but this is no direct re-enactment.  The spirit of the age – gender-swapping – casts its spell over the production, to hilarious effect.  And so Belle becomes Beau, a handsome if bookish young man who lives with dotty artist Maureen (Lesbian ceramics, anyone?).  The Beast, an enchanted princess, is covered in fur (“As is her right”)… This daft romp through the classic has a political edge, holding up the traditional roles reserved for males and females in these stories to ridicule.

As Beau, Jamie Mawson is superbly melodramatic, to cartoon-character proportions.  Robyn Grant’s Northern Beast (imagine Victoria Wood dressed as the Gruffalo) is sweet and bumptious.  Katie Wells’s villainous Chevonne, an entitled man-eater straight out of a Jilly Cooper, has the most outrageous lines, delivered with relish, while Allie Munro rushes around alternating between sidekick La Fou Fou and dotty Maureen.  Playing the Enchanter and Mr Spout, the bewitched teapot, along with a host of other characters is Aaron Dart; in fact, the entire cast darts about in this fast-moving feast of fun.

The songs, with music by James Ringer-Beck and lyrics by Robyn Grant and Daniel Elliot, sound rather familiar indeed, with just enough differences to make them ‘new’.  The lyrics follow the patterns of the Ashman-Menken originals.  If you know the score, there is much to delight in from how near the mark they come.  If you don’t, if you’ve never seen the film, it doesn’t matter; you’ll still have a lot of fun.

The script combines wit and daftness with social satire, with pantomime’s acuity for a topical reference, poking fun at middle-class, first-world preoccupations.  The fast pace sweeps us along through low-tech representations of key scenes.  Beau’s trusty steed is a stationery bike, fondly named ‘Bicyclette’ and the enchanted servants are merely the objects (a teapot, a clock) held up by actors in masks.  But the low-tech approach is a big part of the show’s charm and a main source of its humour.  The show takes parody to dizzying (Disneying!) heights.

Despite all the gender-swaps, the rushing around, the swearing, the innuendos, despite everything, the storytelling retains some power, and there is a moment within all the laughter where we are touched by the relationship between the two leads.  And here, brilliantly, the show makes its main point: a happy ending doesn’t have to be traditional marriage.  We don’t have to follow the paths laid down by these tales or be restricted by cultural norms.  And yes, feminism can have a sense of humour!

Relentlessly funny, delivered with charm and boundless energy, this is a beauty of a show and one of the most hilarious things I have ever had the pleasure to see.  I adored it.

beau

Beau jest: Jamie Mawson

 

 

 

 


Warm and Fuzzy

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 24th November, 2018

 

This brand-new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel is written by the New Vic’s genius-in-residence, Theresa Heskins, and is directed by Peter Leslie Wild.  It bears all the hallmarks of a great New Vic Christmas show, with the Workshop and technical crew all flexing their creative muscles to translate fantastic worlds onto the stage.  And so, Laura Willstead’s set has painted branches, like illustrations, and sprigs of greenery draped all around.  Tree trunks made of cloth descend from above, like roots probing into soil, to create the Wild Woods… while Lis Evans’s Edwardian costumes give us the pre-WWI period while emphasising the anthropomorphism of Grahame’s characters; ears on hats and tails protruding from trouser seats are all that differentiate species.

With original music by Matt Baker, performed by the cast, the story unfolds, beginning with Alicia McKenzie’s inquisitive Mole setting off on adventure.  She encounters Richard Keightley’s dapper Ratty and their voyage in his boat is positively lovely, with Daniella Beattie’s lighting and projections creating a captivating illusion.  Emma Manton’s Badger, younger and more female than is traditional, is schoolma’am-ish and forthright, but it’s Matthew Burns’s long-suffering Horse who delights the most.  Burns later appears as a cheerfully macabre Jailer, when Rob Witcomb’s ebullient Toad falls foul of the Law.

This Toad is sweet-natured despite his manic obsessions.  Witcomb makes him more of an Ed Balls figure than a Boris Johnson, while Kieran Buckeridge’s villainous Fox is more exploitative and, yes, more than a bit scary.  Even scarier is Sophia Hatfield’s strident Mrs Otter; you would not like to tangle with her.

The whole enterprise is played with exuberance by the talented ensemble.  Their choral singing is enough to melt your heart.  Peter Leslie Wild’s direction keeps things moving, and very much in the New Vic in-house style, with cast members holding up shelves, car wheels and so on, to keep the scenery flowing.  The sequence involving the train is breath-takingly executed, a remarkable piece of physical theatre.

Heskins tweaks the ending a little to give us a timely nudge in these dark days of austerity and isolationism.  Wealth is better shared, Toad demonstrates, better when it’s put to use creating opportunities for the marginalised.  It’s subtly done, augmenting the heart-warming feelings the show has engendered from the start.

Cosy, charming and consistently amusing, this is a family show that makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as the woodland creatures it portrays.

toad

A car getting toad. Rob Witcomb, poop poop!


Woke!

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd November, 2018

 

No matter how beautiful you are, there’s no danger of dozing off during this year’s festive offering at the Belgrade.  As usual, it’s written and directed by the mighty Iain Lauchlan, who also appears as amiable dame, Nanny Fanny McWheeze, this is a cavalcade of fun, showing off Lauchlan’s mastery of the form, his skills as a performer, and crucially, his innovations.  For example, the traditional slosh scene (icing a cake) is set-up brilliantly, involving an Alexa-type device (a Scottish version named Morag!) who reels off the instructions of how to play the sport curling, which the cast mistake for cake-decorating tips.  Add to the mix, a hapless member of the audience who is game for a laugh, and this extended slapstick scene builds superbly.  Genius!

Also returning is Lauchlan’s regular stage partner, the hilarious Craig Hollingsworth.  This year he’s Muddles the Jester, and he’s as irritable as Nanny Fanny is amiable.  Hollingsworth’s short temper and long-suffering stance are the perfect foil for Lauchlan’s kindnesses, and also for the more saccharine elements of the story.  If this partnership ever splits, the Belgrade will probably crumble.

In the title role, Melissa Brown-Taylor is a plucky Princess Belle, while Joanna Thorne’s Prince Valiant is leggy and heroic as a principal boy should be; (it seems contemporary theatre is catching up with the gender-swapping that has been a staple of pantomime all along!).  Declan Wilson is a cuddly King Hugo, with Vicky Field making an impression as his ill-tempered, ill-fated Queen.  Field soon reappears as Grunge, sidekick to the evil fairy in an enjoyable portrayal.  Anna Mitcham’s good fairy Azurial is, in her own words, ‘perky’, assisted by a troupe of youngsters as her fairy assistants.  But it is Laura Judge’s villainous Carabosse who almost steals the show.  Bitterly melodramatic, Judge’s high-camp performance is a treat.

There is spectacle, of course: watch out for a dragon (it’d be hard to miss!) and a lively ensemble in beautiful story-book costumes by Terry Parsons.  Jenny Phillips’s choreography gets its big moment in the Act Two opener.  The original songs (by Lauchlan, Liz Kitchen and Steve Etherington) aren’t bad, each one serving its purpose and played by a tight combo under the able baton of Dan Griffin.  There are well-worn routines given a new spin, and up-to-date topical references.

The overall feel is trad meets new, and like the Prince and Princess, it’s a perfect match.

Iain Lauchlan & Craig Hollingsworth as Nanny McWheeze & Muddles - photo credit Robert Day

Something’s come between us! Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth perform a spot of high culture (Photo: Robert Day)


The Boy Who Never Grew Up

HAMNET

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 21st November, 2018

 

No, you read it correctly.  This is not Hamlet, the great tragedy, but it concerns another production of Shakespeare’s: his only son, the ill-fated Hamnet who died at the tender age of 11 while his father was working away from home.

11-year-old Aran Murphy commands the stage in a beguiling, captivating performance as Hamnet questions the nature of existence.  His refrain is “I haven’t done anything” – referring to the injustice of his untimely end, and the whole of his brief life’s experience.  West embodies innocence and schoolboy curiosity, charming an audience member out of his seat to join him in a scene in which Prince Hamlet is confronted by the ghost of his father.  Hamnet, the boy, is haunted by his absentee father.  “If I don’t talk to strangers, I’ll never meet my dad.”

A perky lad, he has his father’s aptitude for performance.  When his dad finally appears, manifesting on the huge screen that reflects the audience back at itself, the on-stage boy and the reflected boy interact with the figure in perfect unison.  Objects moved by the on-screen Shakespeare move as if by themselves on the stage.  It’s a dazzling piece of stage trickery: they have to pre-record these moments anew at each venue.  Or perhaps it’s some kind of Pepper’s Ghost set-up, brought into the 21st century…

It dawns on us that rather than the son being haunted by his father, the man is haunted by the child he left behind and then lost forever.  A quote from King John is like a punch in the feels.  “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…”

Written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, this is a moving meditation on the nature of life and death, a pint-sized Hamlet, I suppose.  Deceptively simple, this is a powerful production by Irish company, Dead Centre.  Funny, enchanting and poignant, it’s the kind of stuff that stays with you.  Very little is known about the actual boy in question, but I will be haunted for a long time by this breath-taking performance from Aran Murphy (pictured)

aran

 

 

 

 


Sucks to be you

DRACULA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 20th November, 2018

 

The Halloween spirit lingers at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre with a visit from this new touring production.  The first thing that strikes you is Sean Cavanagh’s set of towering Gothic arches that glide around and reconfigure the space, giving us the grandeur of Castle Dracula and the imposing claustrophobia of Dr Seward’s lunatic asylum, among other locations.  Paul Ewing’s sound design provides jump shocks and, in combination with Ben Cracknell’s lightning-like lighting, keeps us on edge: we don’t know when the next loud noise might come, or what might be glimpsed in the next eyeball-searing flash.  In fact, Cracknell’s lighting is effective for what it doesn’t show as well as what it illuminates.  Atmosphere is only part of it.  Add to this, special effects from illusionist Ben Hart and the stage is set for Bram Stoker’s classic and familiar tale.

As you can probably gauge, the technical aspects of this production are important and impressive.  They are matched by a strong ensemble, a cast that seems to be comprised entirely of handsome-looking actors!   Andrew Horton’s Jonathan Harker, for example; he goes through the mill a bit, suffers PTSD, before regaining his strength for some heroics.  Evan Milton’s Dr Seward is a man of action and convention, but the object of his affections, the feisty Lucy (Jessica Webber) is more open about sexuality.  Webber brings an amazing physicality to the role as she transforms into a bloodsucker.  Contrasting with Lucy is the staider and more dependable Mina, Jonathan’s fiancée, (an appealing Olivia Swann) who, in this version by Jenny King, finally becomes an assertive force in the action.

Cheryl Campbell is in fine form as a gender-swapped Renfield, masticating flies and rambling – whatever the gender, the zoophagous Renfield is a plum of a part.  Philip Bretherton is an affable Van Helsing, showing that foreign visitors to our shores are not all Eastern Europeans, coming over here, taking our blood…

Speaking of whom, it seems we’re waiting quite a while for the Count himself to make an appearance but, in the shape of Glen Fox, Dracula is worth waiting for.  Tall and aristocratic, Fox imbues the character with an ironic humour in the scenes in which he plays host to Jonathan Harker, and a cold menace in his attacks.  He can park his coffin in my cellar any time.

Full of loud noises, bright lights and deep shadows, and pounding, stirring music, this elegant production doesn’t lack bite.  The adaptation is fairly faithful to Stoker’s novel, but there are enough surprises along the way to infuse the familiar story with freshness, to give it new blood, you might say.  I’m going to stick my neck out as say I loved this piece of Victorian Gothic, which makes the most of modern-day tech to thrill and to excite.

©NOBBY CLARK+44(0)7941-515770
+44(0)20-7274-2105
nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

Evan Milton, Philip Bretherton, Glen Fox, Olivia Swann, and Andrew Horton battle in the rain (Photo: Nobby Clark)


Talent Management

FAME

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 19th November, 2018

 

It strikes me as odd that in a musical, where everyone sings and dances at the drop of a hat with impressive proficiency, the characters should see the need to go to a performing arts college.  But, putting this reservation aside, I settle in for an entertaining evening.

David De Silva’s stage show is inspired by Alan Parker’s hard-hitting film and the somewhat sentimental TV series that followed, and so the characters here are versions of the originals, adhering to types and situations familiar from the previous incarnations.

Ruling the roost as the strict-but-caring Miss Sherman, the mighty Mica Paris is in great form.  Her old-school rhythm and blues number in the second act brings the house down, a searing bit of soul-searching triggered by a run-in with illiterate, arrogant bad boy Tyrone (an intense Jamal Crawford).

Stephanie Rojas is appealing as fame-hungry Carmen whose road to the top is diverted by drug abuse; Simon Anthony gives a sensitive portrayal as her musician friend, Schlomo.  Hayley Johnson adds a touch of humour as Mabel (it’s not just fame she’s hungry for!); while Hollyoaks’s Jorgie Porter convinces as graceful dancer Iris.  Molly McGuire’s Serena is one of the more rounded characters.  She gets to sing one of the score’s stronger tunes about her unrequited love for Keith Jack’s Nick.  Jack is excellent and, unlike most of the others, doesn’t just belt out his numbers, but shows us how vocal dynamics can add character to and enhance the meaning of a song.

The trouble is there are just too many characters, too many subplots.  We only glimpse them throughout the course of their four-year studies.  Albey Brookes’s extrovert, very funny Joe has potential for a proper storyline, but he’s elbowed aside in favour of Serena and Nick’s story.  His resolution is tagged on in a throwaway line about working in a comedy club.  Similarly, Carmen’s descent into drug addiction is handled glibly.  There is simply not time enough in Jose Fernandez’s book to get beneath the surface of their experiences, and this is a shame given the calibre of this talented and energetic cast.  The score, with lyrics by Jacques Levy and music by Steve Margoshes, is also patchy, reaffirming my belief that the show shouldn’t be a musical at all but a play with music that allows us to see the progress the students make in their chosen field of acting, music or dance.

For all that, it’s still an enjoyable watch and it’s easy to be entertained by the performers.  It’s just that I would prefer something with a little more substance regarding the pursuit of fame and the effect of that on young lives.  In this celebrity-obsessed age where anyone can achieve notoriety without a shred of talent, the show could have had a stronger impact.

Fame The Musical-Tour-Manchester-2216

Class acts: the students of FAME

 


Cosy fun totally

IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Crescent Theatre, Friday 16th November, 2018

 

Based on the comic opera Cosi fan tutte by Mozart and Da Ponte, this fresh little farce from the Foppish Theatre Company is vibrant with wit.  The script by Dewi Johnson (who also directs) and Andrew Buzzeo (who also appears as ‘Alistair’) adheres to Da Ponte’s libretto after an establishing scene in which soldier buddies, William and Benjamin, accept a bet from their cynical, worldly chum Alistair, who claims that within a day he can make the soldiers’ girlfriends turn to infidelity…  This scene, performed between the three, on the apron with nothing more than a simple bench, shows how direction can keep things engaging by eliciting energetic performances from the actors.

As Alistair, Andrew Buzzeo is hugely enjoyable, a sardonic manipulator and social commentator.  Equally entertaining are Luke Grant’s Benjamin and Zach Powell’s William, posing and posturing in ridiculous disguises (oh, those moustaches!) and flailing around from the effects of poison; Powell provides a superb study in comic playing when Alistair’s scheming bites William in the backside.

As the unwitting participants, the girls, Zoe Birkbeck is a haughty and bookish Fiona, never less than elegant, while Tessa Bonham Jones’s Charlotte is delightfully dim and frivolous.  As Phoebe, the conniving maid, Georgina Morton gives an arch but down-to-earth performance; her appearance as a notary, with a beard as long as she is tall, is ludicrously funny.

Johnson and Buzzeo’s script crackles with witty lines, and the dialogue has an authentic sound, with only the occasionally anachronistic turn of phrase to remind us that this is a modern-day pastiche and not a long-existing text.  I even recognise some lines as direct translations from Da Ponte’s original; well, if it ain’t broke…

The set, by Ludwig Meslet Poppins, consists of white cloth, creating flats and wings, like the ghost of an 18th century stage.  It’s a blank backdrop against which the colourful characters play out the farce, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Rosemarie Johnson’s costumes are bright, evoking the period setting, and adding to the elegance of the enterprise.

It’s fast-moving and funny, and irresistible in its appeal.  Johnson’s direction is sharp, like a cut diamond  The sexual mores on display may remind us of the distance between the past and our present, but the machinations of the plot, played here to perfection, show that ‘old-fashioned’ conventions can come across as a refreshing and, above all, entertaining alternative to the pervasive naturalism of the modern-day stage and screen.

folly


Out of the Ashes

LA CENERENTOLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th November, 2018

 

The influence of Mozart, the king of comic opera, is easily apparent in this version of the Cinderella story by Rossini, a worthy successor to the crown.  Rossini’s characters, for all the delight they bring, lack the psychological complexity of Mozart’s but in this colourful, storybook production this matters not one jot.

Director Joan Font keeps the staging simple: a staircase, a huge fireplace that becomes a huge set of palatial doors.  On this grey background, vibrant figures act out the familiar drama (there are a couple of diversions from the norm: the glass slipper is a bracelet, presumably because back in 1817 when the opera premiered, showing bare feet on stage would bring about the apocalypse; the fairy godmother is the Prince’s wise old tutor, disguised as a beggar…)  Joan Guillen’s design dresses the characters in traditional storybook costumes, with exaggerations and some Fauvist colourings: the male chorus all sport blue wigs; the clownish make-up of the comic characters includes painted on blue beards… Font doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to the comedy, and if you spend too long peering up at the surtitles, you might not catch some bit of business that augments the situation, and supports the overall tone of Rossini’s effervescent score.

Tara Erraught is sweetly dowdy – if that’s possible – in the title role, petting her only friends: an infestation of man-sized mice, who serve as stagehands and silent commentators on the proceedings.  Fresh-faced tenor Matteo Macchioni is, well, Charming as the Prince, who for reasons of plot, spends most of the show in disguise as his own manservant, Dandini.  Speaking of whom, Giorgio Caoduro, amid a host of amusing performances, proves the funniest of the lot as the manservant in disguise, camping it up as the Prince.  Fabio Capitanucci all but chews the scenery as bombastic, ostensible villain-of-the-piece, the purple-wigged Don Magnifico.  He and Caoduro excel at the patter, barking out rapid staccato almost to the brink of frenzy.  Rossini, like Mozart before him, makes music sound funny.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Wojtech Gierlach brings gravitas to this bit of froth in the role of the wise and slightly wizardly Alidoro – a figure who owes more than a bit to Sarastro in The Magic Flute,  while Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe have and give and lot of fun as the preening, posturing, bitchy sisters Clorinda and Tisbe, beneath towering pompadours of pink and bright yellow.

The WNO male chorus are in splendid voice, whether singing on-stage or off, but it strikes me at curious that, at the ball, the Prince has only three female guests from whom to select his bride.  The orchestra, under the flawless aegis of Tomas Hanus, deliver every note of Rossini’s frantic music to perfection.  Sometimes it’s so fast it’s as though the characters are in a hurry as they try to express the thoughts and emotions that are pouring out of them like champagne from a newly-popped bottle.

A delight from start to finish, this is a breath-taking feast for the ears with plenty of visual humour to keep the funny-bone tickled.  For me, it serves as a curtain-raiser for the impending pantomime season, as yet again WNO provide world-class entertainment with a production that would make the perfect introduction to the genre for anyone.  It would be a cin-der miss it.

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Giorgio Caoduro and Fabio Capitanucci as Dandini and Don Magnifico (Photo: Jane Hobson)


Rock Your Socks Off

ROCK OF AGES

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th November, 2018

 

As ever, I approach this jukebox musical with trepidation.  Will it be the same sort of flimsy plot with old songs shoehorned in just for the sake of it?  Will I sit there for two hours asking myself what’s the point?

All my fears were allayed within minutes.  It turns out Rock of Ages is an absolute beaut of a show, hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  Set in mid-to-late 1980s on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, this is a world of big hair and ripped jeans, where ‘rock’ is a verb and middle fingers are firmly jabbed upwards.  At no point are we invited to take any of it seriously.  The fourth wall is well and truly demolished and the script is peppered with theatrical gags, celebrating the artifice of the enterprise.

Our narrator is Lonny, performed by an irresistibly likeable Lucas Rush, camp, crass and hilarious.  Lonny works as a ‘sound guy’ in the Bourbon Room, a club owned by ageing rocker Dennis (an unrecognisable Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy).  Rush and Kennedy make an excellent pairing: their rendition of I Can’t Fight This Feeling is a comic highlight of a show that has many such moments.

Leading man Drew, a wannabe rocker, is played by Luke Walsh, whose voice is absolutely searing.  The only thing missing is a good head of big hair for him to bang when the need arises.  Leading lady Sherrie, a wannabe actor who has a harder time of it than Drew (but this reflects the sexual politics of the era, I suppose) is played by Danielle Hope, combining strength and vulnerability.  Her voice has Pat Benatar qualities and her rendition of More Than Words gives shivers.

The course of Drew’s love doesn’t run smooth, of course, and he is disheartened when Sherrie, believing Drew isn’t interested, becomes entangled with rock superstar Stacee Jaxx – a toweringly funny portrayal from the mighty Sam Ferriday.  His Jaxx is all ego and charisma; Ferriday is lithe and sinuous and hilarious in his physicality.  His voice is superb.  I find myself falling for this long-haired, white-suited monster.

Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy bring broad comedy as a pair of German property developers, the villains of the piece who make ‘Allo Allo’ seem subtle.  Carthy also proves himself a nifty mover in some surprising dance moments.  Rhiannon Chesterman is consistently bonkers as activist Regina, while the phenomenal Zoe Birkett is a strong contender for the show’s vocal crown as stripclub-owner Justice.

The book, by Chris D’Arienzo, keeps the jokes flowing along with a plethora of 80s soft rock hits, and I am surprised whenever, among the knockabout fun, moments of beauty arise: Every Rose Has Its Thorn stirs the blood.  The music is provided by a brilliant onstage band under the aegis of musical director Barney Ashworth, and there is energetic pastiche choreography by Nick Wilson and Ryan-Lee Seager (who also direct) and of course we are all up on our feet by the end – how could you not be?  How could you not adore this crazy cavalcade?  You must be made of rock.

I leave the theatre exhilarated – and relieved they didn’t kill the mood with the title song!

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Hair today: Lucas Rush as Lonny


Tapping Into Joy

42nd STREET

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, Saturday 10th November, 2018

 

Originally a novel and then a movie to bring light to the darkness of the Great Depression, this triumphant stage adaptation is irresistible fun.  It takes the escapism of the American dream to Broadway, in this showbiz musical about the staging of a Broadway musical.  Talented but gauche chorine, Peggy Sawyer, gets her big break when the star of the show gets a little break – to her ankle – and so a star is born.  Because anyone can make it, if they are talented, work hard, and have a generous helping of luck.  So the American myth goes, anyway.

From the raising of the curtain, revealing a host of dancing feet, the show exhilarates and delights.  The production numbers are on the grand scale – this must be the largest chorus in town – the songs are standards and the script by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is wryly witty.  In short, the show is an unadulterated joy.

As the lucky, plucky chorine, Clare Halse is spectacularly good, tap-dancing like a machine gun and singing like an angel.  She is more than a match for her predecessor, the mighty Bonnie Langford, giving a masterclass in musical theatre as egotistical diva Dorothy Brock.  Langford is star quality personified, and this is a return to her roots after her dowdy and emotional stint in EastEndersEmmerdale’s Tom Lister barks and throws his weight around as producer Julian Marsh; he has a good singing voice on him too.  Yes, the roles are cliched, but these three bring credibility to the scantiness of their characters’ development.

It’s an absolute treat to see romantic lead Ashley Day (for whom I have a pure and boundless love), in his element here as the cheesy, cocky Billy Lawlor, moving with grace, acting with humour and crooning like a dreamboat.

Bruce Montague waddles on and off in a broadly played comic turn as the show’s financer, Abner Dillon.  Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell provide plenty of laughs as the show’s writers and comic duo.

The show would be nothing, though, without the impressive machine that is the chorus, a multitude of individuals who come together and move as one in breath-taking routines.  The timing is flawless, the choreography (by Randy Skinner) is both energising and exhausting to behold.  Tap-dancing always thrills me but this display goes above and beyond!

In these times of the prolonged agonies of the Austerity lie, and the uncertainties of impending Brexit, this production is a real tonic, sheer entertainment to make a song and dance about – if you can afford a ticket, of course!

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The wonderful Ashley Day and some of the boys


Troying Times

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2018

 

Gregory Doran sets his production of Shakespeare’s Trojan War story in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-type world – although we have to wait a considerable while for the action and excitement associated with the genre when we finally get to climactic scenes of armed combat.

Here, leather-and-denim-clad women are as likely to be butch warriors as the men, and so we get Suzanne Bertish’s shock-haired Agamemnon, Amanda Harris’s fiery Aeneas, and the mighty Adjoa Andoh’s wily Ulysses.  There is a humorous tone to the piece that Doran tends to emphasise, as Shakespeare satirises the supposedly heroic figures, but the production’s Achilles heel, if you will, is its lack of emotional attachment.  It looks great and sounds great but it does not grip or move.

Gavin Fowler makes an appealing Troilus, comical in his awkwardness and initially more of a lover than a fighter.  Amber James is fantastic as a stately Cressida, using a cool wit as a shield.  When she blurts out her love for Troilus, she immediately backpedals, unwilling to allow herself to experience or display her true emotions.  Even though the play is named for them, they are merely two characters among a host of many, and their story feels undeveloped.  As the go-between who, um, goes between them, Oliver Ford Davies is tremendously enjoyable as the doddering, overly attentive Pandarus.

Andy Apollo (yes, really) is an Adonis of an Achilles, striding and posing about the place with James Cooney’s sweet and boyish Patroclus at his side.  This pair of lovers is perhaps more tragic than the titular couple; when Patroclus is struck down, it provides a rare moment of empathy from us.

Andrew Langtree’s Menelaus would not be out of place in an Asterix book, while Sheila Reid’s grubby Thersites is like a dystopian Wee Jimmy Krankie (if that’s not a tautology).  Theo Ogundipe is a delight as thick-headed Ajax.

Original music by virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie evokes the clatter and clang of battles we don’t get to see.  There are many things to admire and enjoy but as a whole, these things don’t amount to a hill of beans.  Shakespeare’s genre-defying play is notoriously difficult to pin down.  Doran’s funny, orotund and noisy production lacks depth.  It’s Troy without weight.  By the end of this loud but empty spectacle, I yearn for Tina Turner to come on and belt out We Don’t Need Another Hero.  It would be apt at least.

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Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Hardly Connect

ORANGE POLAR BEAR

The Door, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 6th November, 2018

 

A collaboration between the Rep, Hanyong Theatre and the National Company of Korea, this new piece co-written by Sun-Duck Ko and Evan Placey deals with the isolation teenagers can feel in this modern world.  Teenage angst, as well as awkwardness and insecurity, is nothing new, of course, but this play gives a fresh look: teenage angst is global.  In this supposedly connected world of instant communication and 24-hour rolling news, people can feel cut off and pessimistic about the state of the world.  What the production shows quite clearly is this feeling is universal.  Regardless of culture, time zone or language, teenagers (and others) are going through the same thing.

Presented against a white back wall of doors, we visit the worlds of British teen William (Rasaq Kukoyi) and Korean girl Jiyoung (Minju Kim) – the staging has both locations present in tandem.  William and Jiyoung narrate their experiences in the third person; he in English, she in Korean.  This is an alienation effect, to an extent; we get the idea that they are each alienated from their own experiences, their own emotions.  Kukoyi delivers frustration and vulnerability, while Kim is irresistibly appealing and expressive – you hardly need look at the surtitles.

The protagonists are supported by a versatile quartet, playing multiple roles to populate the story.  Cheongim Kang is excellent as Jiyoung’s classmate Taehee, pressuring Jiyoung to conform to a K-pop standard of conventional ‘beauty’, which results in an obsession on Jiyoung’s part with getting her fringe to lie flat.  Kang is also marvellous as Grandmother, who keeps herself company by having the television on all day.  Ah-ron Hong is physically expressive as a schoolboy, an elderly teacher, and most touchingly as Jiyoung’s emotionally distant father.  Michael Kodwiw makes a strong impression as William’s friend Arthur, while Tahirah Sharif’s Sarah attracts and frustrates William in equal measure in funny scenes of their budding relationship.

Clever use of projections gives us scene changes and details, such as William’s dinner in a microwave.  Multi-purpose cubes serve as furniture and sometimes podiums on which the characters stand, aloof from the action.  The production design reminds me somewhat of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and this is no bad thing.

A charming, amusing piece that reminds us of the common humanity of people around the world.  In this high-tech world that keeps us separated, it takes theatre to provide a connection.

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Ah-ron Hong and Minju Kim make a connection


Grin and Bare It

THE FULL MONTY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 5th November, 2018

 

The stage adaptation of the hugely successful 1997 film has acquired something of a reputation of ‘a girls’ night out’ principally, I suppose, because the subject matter involves men stripping.  It is about that, but it’s also about much more.  Simon Beaufoy’s script tackles (if that’s the right word!) questions of masculinity in a post-employment economy.  The characters here feel redundant in more than the workplace.  With women bringing home the bacon, even learning to pee standing up, the men despair they no longer have a role in society.

Desperation leads Gaz (Hollyoaks dreamboat Gary Lucy) to swap stealing girders from his former employer for creating a troupe of male strippers for a one-off gig that will raise the dosh for his child support arrears… Lucy has the cockiness, to be sure, but the heart of the show is in his best mate Dave – an excellent Kai Owen.  Andrew Dunn is also great as former manager Gerald, lying to his wife about his employment status; Joe Gill is sweetly vulnerable as depressed, repressed Lomper; James Redmond is a real eye-opener as the cocksure Guy; but it is Louis Emerick’s arthritic Horse who proves the most endearing and the funniest.

There is an assured performance from Fraser Kelly as Gaz’s son Nathan, the child parenting the father, and strong support from Liz Carney as Dave’s wife, Jean.  These two help create some of the show’s most touching moments.

Director Rupert Hill keeps things cracking along at a fair lick.  The iconic moments we expect to see are here, notably the dole queue scene with Donna Summer, and the garden gnomes who trash Gerald’s job interview.  The climactic stripping scene does not disappoint.  It’s exhilarating to see the characters come together and pull it off, and it’s a moment of liberation, of asserting their masculinity.  Stripped of everything, the final image of them naked, backlit in silhouette, proclaims We are men, we are here, and we are dazzling.

The show’s social commentary is still pertinent – these days Gaz and the guys would gather at a food bank – the pathos still works, and it’s still very funny when played by an ensemble of this calibre.

More than a girls’ night out, this is a great night out for everybody.

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Letting it all hang out, James Redmond gives the cast an eyeful

 


Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst.  The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot.  Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace.  Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families.  A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.

The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well.  When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set.  The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…

Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline.  His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest.  Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices.  She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.

Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer.  It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part.  Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text.  It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle.  Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.

Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone.  Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.

Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.

The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design.  In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama.  The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!

Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience.  At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead.  Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger.  I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally.  This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.

Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.

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Tangled web! Romeo (Samuel Wilson) and Juliet (Charlotte Upton) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 


Tribute Band of Brothers

BLACKADDER GOES FORTH

The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd November, 2018

 

I don’t enjoy tribute bands.  I don’t see the point of them – especially when the original act is still alive and kicking.  Similarly, I am puzzled when episodes from situation comedies are brought to the stage; they never work as well on the boards as they do in the medium for which they were intended.  And when you haven’t got the original cast for whom the roles were tailored, I question the whole enterprise.  You can’t hope to match the brilliance of the original so why try to emulate it?  Why not just bung the DVD on?

But here we are: three episodes of the fourth and final Blackadder series by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis.  Half a box set.  The characters are fully formed – there is no scope for development in a sit-com – so with each half-hour piece, we hit the ground running with little in the way of exposition.  The sit of the com is self-contained and self-perpetuating.

Paul Tomlinson’s Captain Blackadder has the sneering, sardonic tones down pat as he dishes out sarcasm, hyperbole and absurdist similes, but he is disadvantaged by not having a funny face.  Rowan Atkinson’s facial expressions go a long way in selling the often-verbose lines; Tomlinson, sorry to say, is too good-looking!

Nathan Brown’s youthful Baldrick channels Tony Robinson rather well and his comic timing is excellent.  Roger Ganner’s bleating General Melchett is perfectly monstrous in his pigheadedness (bringing to mind the stubbornness of a Brexiteer, wilfully disregarding disaster), he’s an excellent foil for Richard Ball’s nervous wet lettuce Darling.  There are amusing turns from Justin Osborne, enjoying himself as the dastardly Baron von Richtofen, and from director David Mears who goes ‘over the top’ as the bombastic, bullying braggart Lord Flasheart.  How much are they imitating the original cast?  How much is advisable?  Audiences expect the familiar intonations and appearances, I suppose – which is why tribute acts have little to do with creativity and originality.  Tonight, the cast member who seems to make the part his own is Thomas Hodge as posh thicko Lieutenant George.

Mears does well to translate the action to the stage (although sit-coms are somewhat stagey in themselves) making efficient use of a changeable set, built by Martin Tottle and Chris Jackson.  The final images, when the series came to a definite and irrevocable end, made for one of the most powerful scenes of television ever, and Mears makes a good fist of emulating them.  It’s a wrenching change of tone, a sobering moment and a reminder that those who died in this stupid and futile war were more than statistics from a century ago; they were real people, with hopes and dreams, a sense of humour, fears and friendships…  And this is the point of this production and what makes it, in the end, a fine and fitting tribute.

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Thomas Hodge, Paul Tomlinson and Nathan Brown (Photo: Sam Allard)


Strangers’ Things

A GUIDE FOR THE HOMESICK

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 1st November, 2018

 

Ken Urban’s two-hander is set in an Amsterdam hotel a couple of years pre-Trump (happy days!) and tells the story of Teddy (a very strong Clifford Samuel) who invites a young man he has met in the bar up to his room so they can continue drinking after closing time.  It appears that Teddy has misread signals somewhere along the line and the nerdish, slightly effeminate Jeremy (the excellent Douglas Booth) isn’t gay after all… Or is he?  Jeremy can hardly bring himself to say the word.

As the two men talk and drink, their stories emerge.  It’s true, sometimes, that it’s easier to tell things to a stranger than to one’s closest acquaintances.  Teddy is in Amsterdam with a friend, prior to the friend’s wedding back home in New York, but there is some mystery about the friend’s absence… Jeremy is newly returned from relief work in Kampala – and there is some mystery about his departure from the clinic…

The men winkle, sometimes bully, the truth from each other, piece by piece.  After a lengthy establishing scene, Urban flicks the action between the hotel room now, the hospital in Uganda, and the hotel room when Teddy’s friend was present, with Samuel playing gay Ugandan Nicholas who befriends Jeremy, and Booth becoming Teddy’s unstable chum – who is obsessed with a story of a lonely whale whose song is of a frequency no other whales can hear… The story is a symbol for these two strangers, obviously, and is repeated perhaps one too many times.  We get it.

The quick changes between locations are achieved via Nic Farman’s lighting; the application of a colour wash transports us to sultry Africa at the touch of a button.  Also, Samuel’s African accent both convinces and helps us distinguish the whos, wheres, and whens.

The writing is sharp and funny; the playing of both actors is intense yet nuanced.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps them moving around the intimate space, like caged animals, almost to the extent that I wish they’d keep still and just talk for pity’s sake.

The action covers, via Nicholas, the sickening rise of homophobic murders in Uganda, and how, even now, someone from a privileged background in the States can find it impossible to come out and be at peace with his sexuality.  Clifford’s Teddy is the more forceful presence, while Booth’s Jeremy is more subtly conflicted.  Sparks fly when tempers – and other things – are roused, and issues are thrashed out on a personal level.  With the way the world is going perhaps all we can do is cling to each other.

A thoroughly gripping, amusing yet provocative eighty minutes I strongly advise you to experience.

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Setting things straight: Douglas Booth and Clifford Samuel (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Remains to be seen

THE LOVELY BONES

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 31st October, 2018

 

Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel is brought to the stage in this compelling adaptation by Bryony Lavery.   Essentially, it’s a ghost story, but one that is told from the ghost’s point of view.  Our narrator is Susie Salmon, the 13-year-old victim of rape and murder at the hands of her neighbour Mr Harvey.  What keeps young Susie bound to the Earth is her determination to bring the identity of her killer to light, her need to have her body found, and her refusal to accept death before she has really lived

Charlotte Beaumont dominates as the energetic, indomitable Susie in a lively and irresistible portrayal.  Susie’s anger, confusion, frustration and especially her humour all shine through.  As the story develops, we feel the loss of this innocent, lovely girl.  Beaumont is supported by a strong ensemble to tell the story, several of them doubling up roles.

As Susie’s parents, Emily Bevan and Jack Sandle tackle the difficult emotions of losing a child, and the scenes in which Mom, but especially Dad, reminisce and ‘see’ Susie are particularly effective.  Ayoola Smart grows up before our eyes as Susie’s little sister, Lindsey.  Karan Gill is sweet as Susie’s would-be boyfriend Ray Singh and also very funny as Holiday, the family’s dog.  Bhawna Bhawsar contrasts the authoritative role of Franny, Susie’s after-life guide, with the blasé weariness of Ray’s mother, Ruana.  Pete Ashmore convinces as Detective Fenerman, and I particularly like Natasha Cottriall’s goth girl Ruth and Susan Bovell’s sardonic grandmother, Lynn.   But it’s Keith Dunphy’s creepy Mr Harvey, disturbing in his ordinariness, who is my man of the match.

Lavery’s script is infused with dark humour, alleviating the tension and the grimness of the subject matter.  Director Melly Still keeps the staging deceptively simple: the rape-murder is narrated by Susie while off-stage voices provide the soundtrack.  As ever, what is suggested is more powerful than what is shown.  The set, by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, is little more than a rectangle drawn on the floor, but the mirrored background affords us dual viewpoints of the action, as though we’re seeing two dimensions: Susie’s ghostly one, and the real world in which life goes on without her.  This mirror gives some striking imagery: Ray and Susie rolling around on the floor become figures in flight.  Emily Mytton’s eerie puppetry – the dresses of other victims – add to the ghostliness and horror, while Matt Haskins’s lighting and Helen Skiera’s sound frequently assault us, flaring up and blaring out, as though to remind us of the wrongness of Susie’s fate, as well as to jar Susie against the confines of her ghostly presence.

It all adds to up to a highly powerful piece of storytelling, funny, emotional, sickening, terrifying and moving.  The show manages to chill, break, and warm your heart.   An absolute must-see.

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Innocence and guilt: Charlotte Beaumont and Keith Dunphy (Photo: Sheila Burnett)


Whitewashing Won’t Wash

NOT TODAY’S YESTERDAY

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 23rd October, 2018

 

As usual when I’m reviewing a dance show, I’m somewhat out of my depth; I lack the technical knowledge to appreciate fully an edition of Strictly, let alone a contemporary piece.  But I decide, that’s not important.  The show should work on me without me being able to tell a pirouette from an arabesque.

This is a one-woman piece, combining traditional Eastern moves with modern, Western ones – I can at least tell the difference here – creating a fusion of the two.  It begins with our soloist (Seeta Patel) on a box in front of a reflective surface, moving with jerky, quirky grace; this is a prelude to the story.  A pre-recorded narrator speaks – sometimes the performer lip-syncs, sometimes she supports/illustrates the spoken words with gestures, abstract and concrete.  It’s the story of a land of faraway folk and has the air of a folk tale, and at first, it’s a bit twee.  Were it not for the ominous music, I’d tire of it quickly.  Having painted a picture of this idyllic, if other-worldly, place, the performer introduces a different land, pushing angular forms around to suggest a landscape? A ship? Accompanied by the music of Strauss.  This is the West, sending out explorers to the land of the faraway folk.  At first, gifts are exchanged but it soon turns sour.  As we know from history.

Then comes the show’s most potent image.  The performer pours a curtain of whitewash.  It runs and thickens in front of a suffering figure, obliterating the atrocities of the past. There are some disturbing contortions conveying the torment of the oppressed.  The more she tries to wipe away the whitewash, the more obscured she becomes from sight, until she is reduced to a shadowy figure, distorted, dehumanised, animalistic even.

Donning an elaborate frock made of colourless plastic, she dances to an operatic song that satirises the imperialistic, patriotic rhetoric of the oppressor.  These people should be grateful!  Like the dress, we can see right through it.  It’s comical but it’s also nasty and spot-on and bang up-to-date.    Compare with any of the hateful rantings of the ignoramus Trump.  Fake history is just as bad as fake news.

Seeta Patel is a charismatic presence, expressive and enigmatic in equal measure.  Director-choreographer Lina Limosani keeps the action clearly focussed, augmenting it with a sound design that incorporates sound effects to suggest location, and sound bytes to get the point across.

A provocative, politically pertinent and engaging piece.  I got a lot out of it after all.

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Me and my shadow: the human face behind the whitewash: Seeta Patel


Going off the Handel

THE MESSIAH

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd October, 2018

 

Writer Patrick Barlow is the genius behind the hilarious hit adaptation of The 39 Steps, a show that never fails to tickle the funny bone.   Here, his first play from 1983, gets a wash-and-brush-up in a perky revival – Barlow also directs, bringing in up-to-date topical references.  The nature of his early work as the driving force of the ‘National Theatre of Brent’ is very much in evidence, as a pair of inept but well-meaning actors attempt to stage the biggest of stories: the birth of Jesus, using little more than a chair or two to stand on and the odd bit of costume to run around in.

Hugh Dennis is Maurice Rose – the Barlow figure of the two – whose grandiose ideas outstrip his capabilities.  It’s not much of a stretch for Dennis, a widely recognised face from TV comedy, but this is the kind of thing at which he excels.  The delivery and timing are impeccable.  He is supported by John Marquez as Ronald Bream, an enthusiastic but clueless sidekick, who gets most of the laughs up against Dennis’s straight man.  The pair is augmented by the addition of a special guest, Mrs Leonara Fflyte, a snooty opera singer who punctuates the story with unaccompanied singing.  I would find it funnier if she were a Florence Foster Jenkins figure rather than the pitch-perfect Lesley Garrett – then, later, when the team actually achieves a moment of beauty, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ would come as a powerful surprise… But that’s just me.

Garrett proves herself a good sport, donning robes and headwear and a comedy beard and tearing around the stage as one of the Three Wise Men, pursuing the Star, and, of course, the singing is sublime – quite at odds with the ridiculousness of the action.

Barlow’s script is peppered with malapropisms, anachronisms and word play – it’s the kind of thing Radio Four churns out.  There is even a Morecambe & Wise moment, as Dennis and Marquez back up Garrett, in much the same way that Eric & Ernie would ‘support’ Shirley Bassey.  It’s funny stuff but there is nothing we haven’t seen before and in the genre of theatre-done-badly, the pinnacle has been attained by The Play That Goes Wrong.  This is a smaller-scale affair that lacks big surprises.

For all that, it’s an amusing piece, quintessentially English in its humour, that mocks the storytelling rather than the story (the religious will not be offended).  Your ribs will be tickled but you won’t split your sides.

Hugh Dennis as Maurice Rose & John Marquez as Ronald Bream_credit Robert Day (4)

Not the Messiah, they’re two very silly men. Hugh Dennis and John Marquez (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 


Boot Camp

KINKY BOOTS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 17th October, 2018

 

Based on the film of the same name, the hit musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and songs by Cyndi Lauper hits the road for its first national tour.  Having enjoyed the movie and being well aware of the show’s West End reputation, I take my seat with eager anticipation.

It’s the story of Charlie, a young man who feels trapped into taking over his father’s shoe factory after the old man pops his clogs.  Times are hard and it seems that lay-offs and a shutdown are inevitable.  Staff are facing the boot.  Unless, a new kind of product can be found…

At first, it seems a bit humdrum and run-of-the-mill.  Like a new pair of shoes, it takes a while to wear in.  By the time queen of the drag queens Lola appears, things lift and stay lifted.  Lola (played exquisitely in this performance by Kayi Ushe) gets all the best tunes and all the best lines.  Ushe is utterly captivating, dignified, strong and vulnerable, and sassy to perfection.

The factory shifts production to the manufacture of boots for drag queens, designed by Lola, and the plot shifts from saving the factory to include the growing friendship between the two leads, Charlie and Lola (most definitely NOT the Cbeebies pair!)

As Charlie, Joel Harper Jackson is not without intensity but tends to get a bit shouty in his big musical moments.  Other than that, though, he and Ushe are a great match, their voices blending beautifully in the searing ballad, Not My Father’s Son.  Among the factory workers, there is strong support from Paula Lane as the smitten Lauren, and Demitri Lampra as Don, the embodiment of outdated toxic attitudes – a crowd favourite here in Wolverhampton.  Adam Price is also a lot of fun as middle-aged George.

The chorus of ‘Angels’ – Lola’s drag queen friends – is stunningly glamorous and camp – and agile too.  Jerry Mitchell’s choreography shows off their assets in the best possible light.  Mitchell also directs, balancing a down-to-earth, East Midlands flavour with showbiz glitz.  There are plenty of laughs here and a lesson in acceptance to boot, a recognition of the humanity behind the falsies or indeed the attitudes the characters present to the world.  You can’t help leaving the theatre feeling six inches taller.

If you’re looking for the best musical set in Northampton, this one’s a shoe-in.  A real feelgood show which, dare I say it, has heeling properties.  And the music has sole… I’ll stop now.

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Bolly Good Show

DISHOOM!

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 16th October, 2018

 

Priding themselves on giving voices to British Asian theatre-makers, Rifco Theatre Company brings this new piece from playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (writer of the excellent Elephant) to Coventry.

Set in 1978, this is the story of Simon, a wheelchair-bound Indian boy, growing up in England.  His mother having died, Simon is brought up by his father and grandmother – the latter expressing her shame at having such a child in the family.  When Baljit comes to stay, ostensibly to ‘help out’, Simon finds an ally in his bid for independence.

It’s a very funny family drama, along the lines of Anita & Me and East is East, dealing with the clashing of cultures: traditional Indian values vs trying to fit in to a British way of life – but also, the rise of the National Front, a stain which spreads and spreads until the characters, chiefly Simon, have to confront it.  With the bookish Baljit at his side, Simon is bolstered by the fantasy world of Bollywood films – the play’s title is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of a bullet being fired.

In his professional debut, Bilal Khan impresses as the beleaguered Simon, while the excellent Gurkiran Kaur’s Baljit is both a figure of fun and a voice of reason.  Omar Ibrahim gives Simon’s Dad sensitivity – Ibrahim later appears as a quack swami figure, claiming to be able to get Simon on his feet and walking for the price of an iron and a toaster, in one of the play’s funniest scenes.  Georgia Burnell is strong as Donna, object of Simon’s affections; Elijah Baker demonstrates his skills at disco-dancing as mixed-race Mark, caught between communities; while James Mace’s rage-filled Keith is the ugly voice of racism, wrongly attributing the loss of a job opportunity to the arrival of That Lot.  The play acknowledges how white people can get caught up in this skewed way of looking at the world – Wouldn’t it be great to be able to state that such thinking has been thoroughly confined to the past?  Of course, the play is commenting on today as much as 1978.

Just like Simon’s household, the play is dominated by the matriarchal Bibi, in a commanding, hilarious performance from Seema Bowri, veering from the tyrannical to the desperate, but all done with love and the desire for the best for the family.

Neil Irish’s ingenious set gives us swift transitions between locations, along with Rory Beaton’s lighting, that accentuates the Bollywood fantasy moments.  Arun Ghosh’s original music heightens mood and flavour – together with extracts from Bollywood films, providing moments of nostalgia for many of the audience members tonight.  Andy Kumar’s choreography is joyous.  Director Pravesh Kumar balances the humour and drama of the domestic scenes, with the stylised action of the fantastical moments, and successfully evokes the menace of the largely off-stage racist rabble.

It all adds up to an enjoyable show with all-too strong parallels to today’s society.  What comes across most strongly is the shared humanity of the characters, in positive and negative lights.  This is thought-provoking entertainment of a very high quality.

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Gurkiran Kaur and Bilal Khan clash with more than the wallpaper (Photo: Richard Lakos)


Nice Time

BARBARA NICE’S RAFFLE

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Saturday 14th October, 2018

 

Appearing as part of the Birmingham Comedy Festival, ‘housewife, mother of five, and avid reader of Take A Break’, Mrs Barbara Nice brings with her a microphone, a manually-operated tombola and a bag-for-life full of prizes.  “We’ll do the raffle in the second half; the first half’s all admin.”

By admin, she means audience participation – two words guaranteed to send a chill down the spine of any British theatregoer.  But on this occasion, we need have no fear.  Such is Mrs Nice’s approach, we join in without worrying about it.  Her questions might call for a show of hands, a grunt, a nudge of our neighbour, and so on, as response.  At any moment, she might drop in the chorus of a popular song and we all engage in some impromptu community singing, whether it’s A Windmill in Old Amsterdam, or the jingles for Cadbury’s chocolate.  En masse, we mime that we are taking part in the Winter Olympics, going for gold in the curling.

It sounds daft.  It is daft.  But we don’t feel daft.  We’re having the time of our lives.

Mrs Nice has a way of bonding us all.  Her daftness democratises us.  Between self-deprecating remarks (the ravages of childbirth on her body, for example) she champions ‘ordinary’ and ‘working class’ people – and it’s about time somebody did, and thanks us repeatedly for coming out to see a live show, for breaking our routines.  We are all in it together – and this time, those words actually mean something.

The raffle fills the second half, a surprisingly thrilling ritual in which we are deeply invested – we’ve been issued a free ticket on admission to the show.  Mrs Nice parades half a dozen prizes that arouse our acquisitiveness instantly.  I have my heart set on a tin of marrowfat peas, and am gutted when someone else claims the bottle of Dettol…  Each winner comes down, Price is Right style, while music blares, and dances with our hostess.  There is no embarrassment here, and we’re all celebrating the good fortune of the chosen ones.  I come away empty-handed, alas, but my heart is full of joy.

This is what John McGrath, long ago, would call ‘A Good Night Out’, hearkening back to working-men’s clubs and variety shows.  It’s character comedy – Mrs Nice is the creation of actor Janice Connolly – a worthy successor to the likes of Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton.

The evening is rounded off with the entire audience coming onto the stage for a frankly terrifying game of What’s The Time Mister Wolf?  It’s a delicious moment and Mrs Nice has proved her point: it is better to get out and get involved with people.  This hilarious show does more for the audience’s mental health and well-being than any worthy self-help book.

Furthermore, it reminds us of the fun and power of a live show, something we can lose sight of as we crook our necks over our phones, barely interacting with the world around us.

A wonderful, wonderful night.

raffle


Out for the Count

DRACULA

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th October, 2018

 

Dracula is one of those characters that has become part of global culture; like Tarzan or Peter Pan, everyone has heard of him, thanks in no small part to the innumerable film versions of the story and its spin-offs.  The original Bram Stoker novel can come as a surprise to first-time readers due to its epistolary nature: the story is told through letters between the characters, so it has multi-first-person viewpoints.  Here Mark Webster’s faithful-ish adaptation makes great use of characters reading what they are writing, or from letters they have received, often as preludes to flashbacks or reconstructions of incidents.

It gets off to a strong start with Adrian Rosu capturing our attention as a Sea Captain making entries in his log.  Rosu’s authentic Romanian accent (he’s from that part of the world) immediately evokes the atmosphere as he recounts incidents in which a mysterious figure on board picks off his men.  Webster begins the play with the arrival of the Count in England – the book’s opening events (Jonathan Harker’s experiences at Castle Dracula) are saved for later in extended flashbacks.  Rosu also appears as Harker, giving his RP accent an airing, and clearly portraying the various stages of Harker’s health, pre- and post-Transylvania.

Taresh Solanki is a nervy, passionate Doctor Seward, while Chris Del Manso’s Professor Van Helsing is authoritative and eccentric without going over the top, in a commanding performance.  Nisaro Karim is a tall and burly Arthur – is the character American?  I can’t remember and I can’t tell.  Karim doubles as a tall and burly Count; in these scenes Karim’s stage presence is stronger.  His Dracula towers over proceedings.  You wouldn’t want to mess with him.

The female members of the cast are uniformly excellent.  Nichola Woolley’s perky Lucy really comes to life, ironically, when the character joins the ranks of the undead.  Danica Corns’s Mina has fortitude – this is no shrinking-violet, damsel in distress.  Kaz Luckins is compellingly wild-eyed and intense as a gender-swapped mental patient, the zoophagous Renfield, but it is Carys Jones who makes the strongest impression of all in a range of roles: asylum warder Hennessey, Sister Agatha, Lucy’s mum…

Director Simon Ravenhill’s set is multi-purpose, coming into its own when two or three scenes are staged concurrently, the action cross-cutting between them.  The intimate, even cosy, stage at the Blue Orange, means we can take it all in, without having to move our heads like spectators at a tennis match.  There is a lot going on but it is skilfully presented so that we never lose focus.  The action sequences, the outbursts of violence, are very well staged.

Dean Bowyer’s lighting makes shrewd use of red and green colour washes, and the occasional chilly blue.  Mark Webster’s sound design successfully evokes scenery: crowds etc, while also providing a great deal of the eeriness.  Renfield’s flies, for example, and the otherworldly voices of the vampire women, which are extremely well done.

Inevitably, I suppose, it’s a very wordy piece and it runs a bit long, but the sterling efforts of the strong cast keep us hooked – even if we are familiar with the tale.  There are a few instances when the energy drops a little but, this being the first night of the run, I am sure things will tighten up as the week progresses.

An atmospheric, tonally perfect piece with moments of menace and an unusual twist at the end I didn’t see coming, this production is definitely worth an evening of your time.

dracula

Dead on his feet: Nisaro Karim as Count Dracula

 


Work of Genius

BREAKING THE CODE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 6th October, 2018

 

Before Alan Turing became a household name some fifty years after his early death, Hugh Whitemore wrote this play which went a long way to establishing the computing pioneer as one of the most important figures of the Second World War.  Turing’s work in cracking the code of the Germans’ Enigma machine played a major part in our defeat of the Nazis – we have a lot to thank him for.

The timeline of the play is not in chronological order.  It is up to the audience to decode the order of events to build up a picture of Turing’s life story.  Director Liz Plumpton keeps the staging simple, allowing clues from the script to inform us which decade we’re in. She is blessed with a superlative cast, who keep us riveted throughout.  The intimacy of the in-the-round setting puts us right in the action as we eavesdrop on Turing and the people in encounters at work and at play.

Making his debut at the Crescent, Jack Hobbis is stunningly good in the lead role.  Hardly ever offstage, he is utterly convincing, inhabiting the character with nuance, animation and total conviction.  This Turing is eminently likeable, for all his eccentricities, quirks and directness.  I suggest the Crescent treat Hobbis the way Turing treated his tea mug: chain him to a radiator so he can never leave the building!  I have seen lesser performances win all sorts of awards.

The mighty Brendan Stanley is thoroughly credible as no-nonsense detective Mick Ross, and Phil Rea is also on excellent form as Turing’s Bletchley Park boss, Dilwyn Knox, a humorous cove, decidedly old-school.  Angela Daniels, as Turing’s mother, adds depth to her characterisation as the action unfolds, while Sanjeev Mistry makes a strong impression as Turing’s fateful bit of rough, Ron Miller.  Amy Thompson combines sweetness with efficiency as female boffin Pat Green, and Tony Daniels has a pleasing cameo as top-secret brass, John Smith.  Young actor Louis Clare appeals as Turing’s schooldays chum, Chris Morcom and later dazzles as Greek trick, Nikos, spouting the language like a native – an impressive feat on its own but Clare imbues Nikos with a remarkable presence as he listens to Turing’s babbling.

Jennet Marshall’s costumes do most of the period work for the production, evoking the era superbly, while Kristan Webb’s lighting design stylishly takes us from place to place and time to time.  The final moment, of Turing with his poisoned apple, will stay with me a long time.

A superlative production that is both humorous and gripping; another jewel in the Crescent’s sparkling crown.  We learn a good deal about the tragic genius, who has become a hero-martyr type, a figurehead for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.  I wonder if the Alan Turing Law, passed as recently as 2017, pardoning all those cautioned or convicted of homosexual acts, would bear his name if he hadn’t saved us all from fascism, or whether the long-overdue law would have been passed at all.

breaking the code

Genius! The brilliant Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Lest We Forget…

VISITORS

The Bear Pit, Wednesday 13th February, 2019

 

Barney Norris’s four-hander is ostensibly about dementia’s relentless campaign to rob us of our loved ones.  Farmer’s wife Edie drifts into memories, spending most of her time in Memory Lane, while her husband Arthur does his best to keep going and support her.  The couple take in young Kate, on some kind of house-share programme, to help around the place, while their middle-aged son Stephen faces marital difficulties of his own.  The play depicts Edie’s decline pretty accurately, but it’s also about communication problems between parents and children, drawing parallels between Edie’s disease and Stephen’s unease.

In the central role of Edie, Judith Grundy gives a powerful performance.  It tugs at the heartstrings to see her floundering in fear and bewilderment.  In an otherwise naturalistic piece, Edie’s reminiscences are curiously lyrical and feel over-written, but Grundy takes us with her every step of the way.

Kevin Hand depicts Arthur’s abiding affection for Edie with humour and a twinkle in his eye.  It’s an unsentimental piece and Hand is pitch perfect.  Barry Purchase-Rathbone delivers Stephen’s awkward joke-telling and selfishness, while Zoe Mortimer’s Kate is intelligent and assertive, although it does feel that Kate is largely included so Edie can have someone to forget.

Inevitably, perhaps, it’s a rather sedentary piece.  Getting out of chairs is problematic so there is a lot of sitting around and talking.  Director Tony Homer makes sure the conversations are animated, and the close confines of the Bear Pit space allow for detailed and expressive performances from this strong quartet.

Ultimately, for me, it’s a case of not liking the play but admiring the production.  For all its moments of humour, it’s a bit of a downer.  Those familiar with the ravages of dementia on loved ones will recognise Edie’s symptoms.  Others will be made more aware of how the disease throws lives into disarray.  Raising awareness is a good thing but more should be said – shouted! – about the devastating cuts to vital support services and the deliberate underfunding of the NHS by this cruel and vicious government.  With an ever-aging population, more and more people are going to need help; most won’t have a farm like Arthur and Edie they can sell to fund their care.

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Judith Grundy, Kevin Hand and a standard lamp (Photo: Sam Allard)