Mediums at Large

THE HAUNTING OF BLAINE MANOR

Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford, Friday 28th January 2022

This chiller from writer-director Joe O’Byrne covers a lot of familiar territory.  A motley assortment of characters assembles in a remote country house.  There’s a storm.  There’s a séance in the offing – until events get in the way, as debunker of the paranormal Dr Roy Earle pours scorn and bourbon on the outlandish claims made by the likes of Adolphus Scarabus (medium) and the Great Cairo (extra large).  Also present is journalist Vivian Rutledge, and Vincent De Lambre, to provide other points of view and to enliven the evening with stories…It has the feel of an old movie.  You can quite easily imagine Bob Hope playing the sardonic, wise-cracking American Dr Earle.  Tonight with Bob Hope presumably unavailable, we get Peter Slater, who does a bang-up job.  It’s through his eyes that we view the other characters.  Like him, we don’t take them seriously.

As Vivien, Jo Haydock brings femininity and elegance to an otherwise all-male cast.  No shrinking violet, her Vivien asserts her views and adds considerably to the overall atmosphere.  Andrew Yates’s Cairo is a larger-than-life, comic characterisation; as Act One goes on, you think there’s more ham and cheese here than in your average toasted sandwich – but, as with all the great ghost stories, things are not necessarily as they seem…  

Joe O’Byrne himself appears as Grady, the butler, bringing a gentle humour to proceedings.  And there’s more to Grady than meets the eye…  James Allen’s wild-haired, theatrical psychic Scarabus is effective, but perhaps a little underused.  And as for Vincent De Lambre, well, I could listen to Ed Barry’s velvet voice reading a telephone directory.

Much use is made of silences broken by sudden loud noises.  A lot of information is presented, about the house, about the characters’ pasts, but O’Grady, directing, prevents things from becoming too static or bogged down by exposition.  One of the most difficult things to achieve on stage is to frighten the audience.  This piece has some highly atmospheric moments and a few good jumps.

What begins as a pastiche of creaky old movies really takes off in Act Two.  The characters up the hokey talk, banging on about demons and ‘alternative parallel dimensions’ (whatever they are) and the lighting and sound effects, used sparingly in Act One, are really brought on board… But again, things aren’t necessarily as they seem.  It all culminates in a clever denouement I don’t see coming, even though all the clues are laid out for us throughout.  Clever stuff.

★★★★

May be an image of 6 scallywags an' Ye' yabberin'

Neverland Side Story

BAT OUT OF HELL

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th January, 2022

The mighty Jim Steinman’s contribution to the jukebox musical genre strings together songs made famous by Meat Loaf, Steinman himself, and even Celine Dion.  Each number is a mini rock opera in itself, but Steinman’s plot borrows heavily from Romeo & Juliet and also Peter Pan & Wendy, I kid you not.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where chemical warfare has mutated some of the population into eternal 18-year-olds, (The ‘Lost’) who are very much the have-nots in this society, and the haves, represented by bigwig Falco and his family, their building towering over the landscape.  Lost boy Strat falls for Falco’s daughter, Raven, and their relationship gives rise to conflict.  There’s a nurse character too – Joelle Moses’s Zahara – and there’s also a Tink(erbell) whose jealousy of Strat/Peter and Raven/Wendy’s relationship leads to a betrayal, with Falco/Capulet/Captain Hook bent on destruction of the Lost (Boys).  Curiously, Steinman’s song, Lost Boys and Golden Girls is absent from the score…

As leading man Strat, Glenn Adamson is a firecracker of energy with a powerful rock voice.  He has a tendency to take his top off, Iggy Pop-style (something which Meat Loaf never did).  Also strong is Martha Kirby’s Raven.  Her rendition of Heaven Can Wait is superb.  Unfortunately, the staging dilutes its impact.  Much of the action is performed to camera and projected onto screens built into the set, and so, rather than having Kirby singing directly to the audience, she stands in an interior portion of the set facing away; yes, we can see her clearly on the screen, but the device serves to keep us at a remove from the emotional power of the song.

The live camera feed sometimes lends a rock video aspect to proceedings.  At others, it’s a bit like reality TV.  Mostly though, it’s intrusive and distracting, an example of the production getting in its own way, which happens now and then.

That apart, there is a lot to enjoy.  The singing is top notch from everyone in this exuberant ensemble.  Highlights for me include Joelle Moses and James Chisholm’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  Later, their Dead Ringer For Love generates a party atmosphere.  Martha Kirby’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now is impressively emotive.  This power ballad becomes a delicate quartet when Adamson joins in, along with Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as Raven’s parents. Fowler and Sexton deliver the disillusionment and bitterness of the failing marriage of Falco and Sloane.  Fowler is hugely enjoyable as the villainous patriarch, and he too is prone to getting his top off.  Iggy Pop has a lot to answer for.  Sexton’s Sloane starts off amusingly sloshed, but the characterisation is not without vulnerabilities and depths.

The absolute pinnacle of the show is the title track, which brings the first act to a stunning climax.  Staged and sung to perfection, this is quintessential Steinman, big and brash, and heartfelt and overblown, and just sensational.

The dialogue is melodramatic and is declaimed in a heightened style.  It could do with more laughs, but Steinman’s anthemic tunes and the gothic poetry of his lyrics prove irresistible and more than compensate for the shortcomings of the script.  It’s rousing stuff and the cast sing their heads off, with energy that’s more infectious than a covid variant.  Steinman was a genius as a songwriter and this searing, soaring show reminds us unequivocally of that.

☆☆☆☆

Glenn Adamson as Strat and Martha Kirby as Raven (Photo: Chris Davis)

Snow White’s All Right

SNOW WHITE

Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, Thursday 30th December, 2021

As the pantomime season draws to a close, I am pleased to be able to fit one more in before the end of its run.  And what a cracker it turns out to be!

Headlining the cast as the Wicked Queen, Maureen Nolan is a striking, commanding figure, darkly glamourous, oozing evil and delivering some wicked one-liners.  Her big number, Alice Cooper’s Poison, as she cooks up the apple and her old woman disguise, is a definite highlight.  Nolan is still in great voice and the dancers, choreographed by Phillip Joel, add vigour and atmosphere to proceedings.

In the title role, Rebecca Keatley from Children’s television, makes for a vivacious, instantly likeable and upbeat leading lady, exuding friendliness.  She also reveals herself to be an excellent singer—this panto is riddled with well-known songs, from the charts and from West End shows.  Keatley’s vocals go extremely well with those of the mighty Keith Jack, in the role of the Prince.  Their duet is stunning.

Keith Jack is an ideal Prince, with his rugged good looks, soft Scottish burr and powerful singing voice.  As an extra treat, he gets his kit off (for plot reasons) and, in chains, belts out Close Every Door, because it would be a waste of one of the best Josephs in the business not to! 

Much of the comedy comes from Sean McKenzie’s naughty Dame Nellie Furlough, and Mike Newman as everybody’s friend, Muddles.  Together and separately, these two are easy to laugh at, and they work the crowd expertly.

The good fairy (Wendy Abrahams) gets plenty to do.  Being a stickler where panto is concerned, I am pleased to report she speaks in rhyming couplets.  Not only is she our narrator and the story’s supernatural influence, Fairy Wendy also forms a double act with Theo The Mouse, an incorrigible puppet who gets the younger members of the audience squealing with delight.

Appearing as Igor, the Queen’s henchman, is Wink Taylor, clearly enjoying himself in this larger-than-life character.  It turns out that Taylor also wrote the script.  Clearly he is someone who loves the traditional elements of pantomime as much as I do.  He gets the tone and balance exactly right.  The story is strong and every element exists to serve the plot.  Even the mischievous mouse puppet!  I suspect Taylor has a hand in that as well…

The show delivers enjoyment from curtain up to finale.  Act One closes with a rousing rendition of You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hanson!  And it works superbly.  Moments of drama (e.g. Igor meeting Snow White in the forest to kill her!) are offset with silliness, and it all fits together wonderfully well.  Director Richard Cheshire ensures the pace never flags while giving scenes room to breathe.

Absent from the title are the seven dwarfs.  In the show they are referred to as ‘kind little men’ and they’re played by children in oversized cartoon heads, performing dumb-show to pre-recorded voices with a Dad’s Army theme, which is a clever idea but probably over the normal-sized heads of the kids in the audience.  Also, I think sometimes the kids in the big heads can’t see where they’re going, as the blocking of these scenes can suffer.  Given their limitations, it’s no wonder they are not given any fun stuff to do.

A traditional, well-made panto with most of the elements you could hope for (what, no slosh scene?). The Gatehouse has a hit on its hands, and its great to see this newly refurbished regional venue so well supported.  I’ll definitely be back next year to see if they can top this one.

☆☆☆☆

Sean McKenzie, Rebecca Keatley and Mike Newman

Return of the Slack

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 21st December, 2021

After two years, pantomime is back in Birmingham, with the Hippodrome pulling out all the stops as usual to provide the glitteriest, spangliest, sparkliest show imaginable.  The story of Goldilocks is well-known but too slight to fill a full-length show—the events of the tale are covered here in the time it takes to perform the Donna Summer classic, Hot Stuff!  The rest of the time is largely padding, hung loosely around a scrap of plot about rival circuses.  It is a variety show, when all’s said and done, yet the circus theme allows the inclusion of magicians, tightrope walkers, even stunt motorcycles in the ‘Globe of Speed’, performing feats even more death-defying than the audience members who are not wearing masks.

The show is packed with entertainment, but it takes a while to get going with not one, two, or three but FOUR opening numbers in a row.  Two of these should be cut.  The villain gets a song, setting out his stall, and that’s fair enough, but when the dame’s first appearance is a po-faced ballad about dreams and believing, you long for something funny to happen.

King of Birmingham panto, Matt Slack makes a welcome and overdue return, giving us exactly what we’ve come to expect and what he’s so good at.  He’s Ringo the Ringmaster (although it’s left to Goldilocks to introduce most of the acts!) but really he’s the clown.  His audience-handling is second-to-none, and his physical comedy is hilarious.  There is a sequence of impressions that impresses, and you can see why the Hippodrome gets him back year after year after year, because of the fun and the level of skill he brings.  Bring on next Christmas, when he’ll be giving us his Dick (Whittington, that is).

Top of the bill is superstar and heartthrob, Jason Donovan, making his panto debut as the villainous Count Ramsay of Erinsborough.  Donovan is deliciously evil in the role, dressed like the Child-Catcher, and he’s in great voice.  He proves himself a great sport and clearly has a strong rapport with Slack on and off-stage.  I can’t bring myself to boo him.

Also back is Doreen Tipton, appearing this time as a lazy lion tamer.  Doreen’s deadpan delivery is a hoot, and she has fun in spite of herself.  One of the best dames in the business, Andrew Ryan is Betty Barnum, in a range of outfits of increasing extravagance.  Ryan shines brightest in the comedy moments, displaying perfect timing.  It’s the earnest musical numbers that don’t seem to fit.  Even Be A Clown is a bit dour.

In the title role, Samantha Dorrance is a knockout as a sweet and perky Goldilocks.  The Three Bears I find a little disturbing, with their full-body costumes and human faces.  Considering the quality of the rest of the animals in the show (a marvellous gorilla, and an astonishing elephant…) and the sky-high production values of the rest of it, the Three Bears seem a little short-changed, but they’re performed with verve by Ewan Goddard, Georgia Anderson, and Jessica Daugirda, as Daddy, Mummy, and Baby Bear respectively.  There is also a star turn from Alexia McIntosh as Candy Floss, whose rich vocal stylings lift the musical numbers into something special.

The story, such as it is, is broken-up by circus acts.  Pierre Marchand amazes with his diabolo; The Gemini Sisters on their tightrope; and Phil Hitchcock as the Magical Mysterioso — all are gobsmackingly good, although in a piece that touches on cruelty to animals, I’m dismayed to see live birds used as props.

On the whole, the show provides welcome respite from the grimness of life in Britain at the moment.  There is much to marvel at and more to laugh at.  It’s a crowd-pleasing piece of fun brimming with sauciness and silliness.  You don’t need ten good reasons to see it—Jason Donovan is reason enough for me, and yes, it’s great to have Matt Slack back and at the top of his game.

★★★★

Matt Slack and Jason Donovan (Photo; Birmingham Hippodrome)

Seasoned Performers

JERSEY BOYS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th December, 2021

There are lots of biographical shows charting the rise of music stars, rags-to-riches tales of incredible talents and the subsequent ravages of fame.  What sets Jersey Boys a cut above is the handling of the material.  Telling the story of Frankie Valli and the group that was to become The Four Seasons, the show is divided into four acts, each narrated by a member of the group.  The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice doesn’t gloss over the murkier aspects of the boys’ lives—the criminal activity, the womanising, the links to organised crime—nor does it shy away from gritty language.  Tough guys talking tough.  The group could just as easily be called The Four-Letter Words.

We begin in Spring, narrated by Dalton Wood as Tommy DeVito, the character who brings the group together (and will ultimately pull them apart).  Wood is great in the part, with a likeable quality that offsets Tommy’s questionable behaviour.  We meet young Frankie Valli, an innocent in a den of thieves, played by the exceptional Michael Pickering, who really hits the high notes.  My Eyes Adored You is just lovely.

Summer shows the band achieving chart success.  The guys recreate the distinctive sounds and the hits keep coming.  Sherry Baby, Big Girls Don’t Cry…and we’re reminded of just how great these songs are, and how they have become part of the fabric of popular culture.  This act is narrated by Blair Gibson as songwriter Bob Gaudio, an innocent misfit among the hard-nosed boys from Jersey, whose presence gives rise to friction.  Gaudio’s talent is undeniable and Gibson gets his social awkwardness across as well as his genius.

Unfortunately, we return after the interval to hear that Michael Pickering is unable to continue; the role of Frankie will be played by Luke Suri, with whom Pickering shares the part.  And while it’s a shame not to get to see Pickering’s Frankie mature and complete his arc (Get well soon, Mike!) it means we get to see both actors’ versions.  Curiously, it works.  Like in The Crown when they swap actors to play the Queen getting older! 

Autumn shows Frankie as older and more careworn.  Played by someone else, it’s more striking how the music business has changed him!!  This act is narrated by Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths), deep-voiced and laconic with a fixation on hotel towels—There is a rich vein of humour amid the drama and Griffiths is the funniest.  The cracks are starting to appear, with Tommy’s exorbitant debts putting everyone in jeopardy.

Finally, Winter, narrated by Frankie, depicting Valli’s greatest personal tragedy.  The hits never stop coming.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You brings the house down.  Luke Suri is phenomenal.

At the very end, the original group members reunite to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a kind of rebirth to follow Winter.  And of course, we’re all up on our feet and loving it.

An uplifting show with a dark underbelly, this is a proper grown-up musical, intelligently structured, superbly written, and executed to perfection by a top-notch cast. 

☆☆☆☆☆

Blair Gibson, Dalton Wood, Michael Pickering, and Lewis Griffiths (Photo: Birgit & Ralf Brinkoff)

Prance Charming

CINDERELLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th November, 2021

It’s great to be back at the beautiful Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, after a year with no pantomime.  This year’s offering hits all the right notes, living up to our expectations of the famous story while delivering a few surprises along the way.

Writer-director Will Brenton tinkers with the conventional approach in a number of ways.  First up, the Wicked Sisters aren’t dames!  Gasp!  They’re two young ladies played by female actors!  Gasp!  While initially I feel cheated out of a couple of drag queens, this spoilt rotten pair soon win me over.  As Tess and Claudia (there’s a Strictly theme here) Ella Biddlecombe and Britt Lenting make a strong impression.  Their nastiness is purely on the inside.

Don’t worry, the show still has a dame, in the form of seasoned old pro Ian Adams, making a welcome return to the Grand as Penny Pockets, something of an extraneous character in terms of the plot, but a safe pair of hands if you’re looking for fun.

Brenton adds an evil stepmother to the mix, Baroness Hardup, played with relish by Julie Stark, who makes Cruella look like a pussycat.   She is an excellent contrast to Evie Pickerill’s appealing Cinderella, who is sweet and lively, but can also sing like an angel.  Every female performer in this show has a superb singing voice, it appears, none more so than the mighty Denise Pearson (of 5-Star fame) as the Fairy Godmother, sending shivers spinewards.  Pearson gets a few good numbers – a wise move!

Among the fellas, Tam Ryan’s Buttons has real star quality.  Despite the pangs of his unrequited love, Buttons brings the funny, and Ryan never flags for a second.

Topping the bill are the Pritchard brothers, AJ and Curtis.  Formerly a pro-dancer on Strictly, AJ is, of course, Prince Charming, twirling, prancing and sparkling around, as handsome as a Disney Prince action figure.  The choreography by Racky Plews plays to AJ’s strengths, affording him plenty of opportunities to show what he can do, and he is, it has to be said, a lovely little mover.  Curtis, as Dandini, perhaps has more to prove, and he does it, and then some!  He is an accomplished dancer too, can sing well and even juggle, in a winning performance that cements his reputation as a star in his own right.

On the whole, Brenton’s changes work.  Importantly, he preserves the key moments and executes them very well: The breaking of Buttons’s heart, for example, and arguably the cruellest scene in all panto, the tearing up of Cinderella’s invitation to the ball.  Mark Walters’s set comprises video images as a changing backdrop, which are all very well, but I miss the old-school gauzes and cloths flying in and out.  The videos are too slick, robbing the show of some of its traditional theatricality.

There is much to enjoy here, well-worn routines, groanworthy gags, and plenty of audience participation—from a COVID-safe distance, of course.  It all adds up to a grand night out with something for all the family.  AJ dancing and Denise Pearson singing?  There’s your money’s worth right there.

☆☆☆☆

AJ Pritchard as Prince Charming, with Curtis Pritchard as Dandini (Photo: Tim Thursfield)

Wise Guys

THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 6th December, 2021

In years gone by, the Morecambe & Wise special was a staple and indeed highlight of Christmas telly, replete with sketches, songs, dressing-up, attempts at high drama, and surprise celebrity guests.  Therefore, the 20th anniversary production of this play is an excellent choice for the Rep’s seasonal show this year.

All the elements you expect are in play.  Our hosts are a double act, with one taller than the other, but Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck aren’t impersonating Morecambe & Wise, although they inhabit a very Morecambe & Wise world.  Herdman is loose and lanky, born for physical comedy, while Tuck’s pompous outbursts make him an ideal straight man—well, they’re both really funny in their own right.  They are supported by a hardworking Mitesh Soni, as Arthur (yes, he of the harmonica) who plays most of the other parts, including a hilarious turn as Scarlett Johannsen.   So, it’s more of a triple than a double act.  The first half is full of quickfire sketches, silliness and tearing around.  There is some excuse of a plot, with Tuck refusing to do a Morecambe & Wise show, preferring instead to stage a play what he wrote.  Of course, by the interval, he capitulates, and the second half is pure M&W.

The show is famous for having a secret surprise celebrity guest every night.  I remember yonks ago being tickled to see Dennis Waterman join in the fun, but tonight we are treated to none other than the God of Mischief himself, Tom Hiddleston!  It’s a genuine thrill to see him walk on, in his French aristocrat costume ready for the high drama, and to take Herdman’s Eric-like abuse on the chin.  Hiddleston goes on to further prove what a good sport he is, throwing himself whole-heartedly into Tuck’s Scarlet Pimpernel play, bringing gravitas to the execrable dialogue and joining in the singing and dancing and dressing-up with gusto.  Hiddleston brings pure delight to the proceedings, playing it exactly right, and I think just about everyone in the auditorium fell in love with him.  I know I did.

Director Sean Foley is clearly an aficionado of the source material, putting the cast through all the comic business with an expert eye for timing and silliness.  Nothing feels strained or overwrought, even though the performances are big and daft.  The evening is tinged with nostalgia as we are reminded about the genius of the great pair, and of course it’s all rounded off with a rendition of Bring Me Sunshine and the signature skipping off into the wings.

A proper laugh-out-loud evening of unadulterated joy.

Exhilarating and not ‘ruggish’ at all.

☆☆☆☆☆

Dennis Herdman, Tom Hiddleston, and Thom Tuck (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

Horribly Hysterical

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: BARMY BRITAIN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st December, 2021

Terry Deary’s bestselling books have spawned a hit television series, a film or two, and this, the latest in a succession of stage shows based on his work.

A cast of two, namely Jack Ballard and Morgan Philpott, take us on a whistle-stop tour of two thousand years of British history, from the Roman invasion to the Victorian age.  On-stage costumes enable very quick changes, so the pair can play all the parts without stopping the flow of the action.

Ballard and Philpott work very well together, and they work very hard to keep energy levels high and the audience engaged.  There are songs to singalong with, complete with simple actions, but above all there is plenty to laugh at.  The action is augmented by a video backdrop, which becomes 3-D in the second act (glasses are provided) and the dialogue is punctuated throughout by comical sound effects (courtesy of Nick Sagar’s sound design) but it’s the efforts of the seemingly tireless actors that have the most impact.

Highlights include Richard the Lionheart, with an hilarious running joke about roaring after his name is spoken, a scene about the Black Death (which has Pythonesque overtones) and in particular, an extended sequence about Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn.  There are strokes of genius: Elizabeth the First in an episode of Undercover Boss, Guy Fawkes on a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Pastiche; and the most horrible story, that of body-snatchers Burke and Hare.  This sequence is presented in the most stylised way, so we get the horrible history without the graphic violence. The Postman Pat theme song will never be the same.  Finally, a rap duet between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is delightfully irreverent.

The script is packed with information, but the delivery is so entertaining, you’re learning as a side effect.  Neal Foster’s direction keeps the actors busy with comic business, and there are at least as many laugh-out-loud moments as a pantomime.  So, if you’re looking for an alternative Christmas entertainment for the family, you won’t go horribly wrong with this little cracker.

★★★★


Beautifully Beastly

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 26th November 2021

Forget the Coca-Cola trucks!  You know when Christmas is definitely coming when the Belgrade opens its pantomime.

Back again for the umpteenth year are writer-director-dame Iain Lauchlan and his partner in crime, Craig Hollingsworth.  Separately and as a double act, these two embody the spirit of panto in Coventry, and it’s an absolute treat to see them back live on stage.

Appearing as Dame Dolly Mixture, Lauchlan is tirelessly funny, sporting a range of outfits based on sweets and chocolates, each one a delightful confection.  Lauchlan’s dame always has a twinkle in her eye and something saucy to say.  Paired with Hollingsworth’s Silly Billy, this is a dream team, bringing all the well-worn, well-loved and well funny panto elements to the stage, including a mandatory slosh scene involving mops, and the traditional word play, audience engagement…Lauclan’s script fizzles with jokes old and new.  Clearly, Hollingsworth is in his element, getting annoyed with the audience and complaining about being made to look silly.  A fast-paced song about alternative career paths for the cast is an hilarious highlight.

Another joy to watch is Peter Watts as bombastic narcissist Maurice, in a larger-than-life performance that comes close to stealing the show.  He is teamed with sidekick Grub, played by the excellent Miriam Grace Edwards—it’s great to see her return to the Belgrade stage.

Katy Anna Southgate’s Enchantress is a striking figure in a beautiful purple gown; it’s a pity we don’t get to hear her sing until the finale.

The panto fun is interspersed with the darker plot line of the fairy tale.  It begins with a Prince (Samuel Lake) being beastly to a peasant (Louie Wood).  As punishment for his lack of compassion, the Enchantress turns the Prince into a hideous beast for five hundred years.  The Beast is played with gusto by Sion Lloyd, whose scary speaking voice is offset by his beautiful, powerful singing.  Ruby Eva’s Beauty is as pretty and sweet as you’d expect, while David Gilbrook as her bewildered father Harold dodders around endearingly.  But, let’s face it, you don’t go to the panto for the plot!  The tonal gear change between anarchic silliness and emotional drama is sometimes too sharp.  It’s almost as though we’re switching between two different shows. 

Somehow, Lauchlan manages to marry all the elements to bring the story to its happy ending, complete with a rousing rendition of S Club 7’s Reach For The Stars, which you’ll be singing all the way home.

On the whole, it’s a joyous experience and production values are high, courtesy of the Belgrade’s in-house workshop, from the glow-in-the-dark dancing skeletons to the lavish costumes and fairytale scenery.

A feast of festive family fun.

☆☆☆☆

Caning it: Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth (Photo: Nicola Young)

Slay Belles

DEATH DROP

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd November, 2021

This raucous whodunit bears the hallmarks of a classic country house murder mystery.  It’s 1991, and a group of strangers assembles in the remote Shantay Manor on a stormy night.  The bodies start piling up, the fingers get pointing and accusations fly… But it’s almost as though the plot is unimportant in Holly Stars’s anarchic script.  Part-parody, part showcase, the show provides opportunities for its cast of drag queens and kings to shine. 

Lady of the house, Rosebud von Fistenburg (Vinegar Strokes) opens the show with a Bassey-esque number, before her guests start to arrive.  Vinegar Strokes impresses throughout, never falling short of absolutely hilarious, in a high camp portrayal of the upper-class hostess.  The performance is the backbone of the show, setting the tone (albeit a low one!).

Drag Race legend, Willam dazzles as pretty pop starlet ‘Shazza’, knowing when to turn up the melodrama and when to throw lines away for maximum comic impact. Willam has star quality oozing out of him—I think that’s what it is, anyway. Ra’Jah O’Hara combines stunning beauty with comedic skills in a hugely enjoyable turn as weather girl, Summer Rains.  Karen From Finance brings an antipodean twang to proceedings, power-dressed to the nines as gutter journalist Morgan Pierce, of The World of the News—subtlety is not on the menu tonight.

The Queens are more than ably supported by Georgia Frost as sexist film-maker, Phil Maker, and by Richard Energy, as Tory MP Rich Whiteman.  Male stereotypes are sent up mercilessly—and quite right, too!

Holly Stars herself appears as the Bottomley Triplets, who are catering the do, in a sublime display of camp comedy.  All the cast are served well by Stars’s script, and she is not shy of writing some juicy parts for herself.  One scene in particular has dialogue consisting almost entirely of tongue-twisters!  The rest is just daft, laced with pantomime fun and nostalgia for crispy pancakes and arctic rolls.

Director Jesse Jones fills every moment with comic business, heightened reactions, stylised movement and silliness.  The result is once you start laughing out loud, you don’t stop.  This is far and away the funniest show I have seen in a long time.

Camp, salacious, silly, and ludicrous, Death Drop is a real joy-bringer, proving what I’ve always suspected to be true: drag artists really do make the world a better place.

★★★★★

Pointing fingers at Vinegar Strokes are Willam, Holly Stars and Karen From Finance (Photo: Matt Crockett)

Piece of Work

9 To 5

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th November, 2021

Colin Higgins’s 1980 film came out when the world of work was very different.  The story of three secretaries who take on their sexist boss and change working conditions within a corporation now plays out like a period piece.  One of the film’s stars, Dolly Parton, provides the songs for this stage musical adaptation, introduces the action and gives a bit of narration via video.  Video Dolly even sings the opening number, the famous title song, with the entire company joining in.  It’s a rousing start and the best song in it.

Things soon slow down as characters are introduced.  And they each must get their solo, slowing down the action.  The women’s revenge fantasies about their sleazy boss become reality and what should be fast-paced farce is hampered by more songs and soul-searching.

Leading the cast is Louise Redknapp, flexing her comedy chops as Violet, the most straight-laced of the trio.  Redknapp is in good voice and gives an assured performance while Stephanie Chandos’s Doralee Rhodes inevitably channels Dolly P, to amusing effect.  Funniest of the three is Vivian Panka as new girl Judy, whose sweetness and naivete are swept aside when events get out of control.  When all three sing together, the harmonies are wonderful.  It sounds like Redknapp has found herself another girl band!

As the sleazeball Mr Hart for this performance, Richard Taylor Woods is deliciously abhorrent, although perhaps he’s too fit for the role. Give Hart a beer belly and a combover to make him thoroughly repugnant, I say! This would certainly heighten the contrast between Hart and Violet’s handsome love interest, Joe (Russell Dickson).

Julia J Nagle is in excellent form in a show-stealing portrayal of the sexually frustrated office snitch Roz, with a hilarious song about her lust for the boss.  It’s a pity Roz is exiled for most of the second act. 

But no matter how expertly the musical numbers are staged and how energetically they are performed by the hugely talented cast, what we get is a stop-start farce with some very funny scenes, interrupted by introspective songs that are tonally at odds with the comedy.  What it has to say about sexual equality and harassment in the workplace has been, largely, overtaken by the real world, so the piece is no longer a clarion call.  The women resort to kidnap to get their way, reminding us that many of our rights have been fought for by direct, often criminal, action.  Think of the Suffragettes.  And Stonewall.

Not every film has to be adapted into a musical.  This one would work just as well, if not better, as a play.

★★★

On the job: Sean Needham and Stephanie Chandos (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)

Magic with Knobs On

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th November, 2021

Fifty years after its release, the Disney film gets a stage adaptation, and I approach it curious to see how certain key scenes will be performed (the underwater scene, the football match, the flying bed…)  From the off, you can see we are in safe and creative hands.  The show opens with an extended dumbshow sequence, detailing the wartime experience of the Rawlins children and their evacuation to the countryside… Hold on a minute: orphans evacuated to go and live with an eccentric, and end up having magical adventures….  Isn’t that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

In this case, the eccentric who takes in the children is apprentice witch, Eglantine Price, who has learned her spells from a correspondence course.  Price is played by a superb Dianne Pilkington, who makes the role her own — there’s not a trace of Angela Lansbury to her portrayal.  An early scene when she attempts to fly on her mail-order broomstick while singing is especially funny.  Pilkington is excellent throughout.

Members of the chorus bring on and take off pieces of scenery, items of furniture and props.  The action is constantly flowing, with physical theatre helping to create effects like the bobbing along under the beautiful briny.  Cinematic effects are translated to stage magic, with illusions and puppetry coming to the fore, so that characters can be turned into rabbits and so on.  Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison really flex their creative muscles to deliver the magic, in this inventive and delightful piece of storytelling.

Most of the songs from the film are here; ‘The Age of Not Believing’ remains one of the Sherman Brothers’ loveliest songs, and there are new songs by Neil Bartram which have a strong Sherman Brothers feel to them.  Brian Hill’s book gives us the key plot points, with only a few alterations.  On the whole, it works brilliantly, but I find it begins to sag in the second act.  An example is Professor Browne (a splendid Charles Brunton) singing new number, ‘It’s Now’ in which he steels himself to take action, but only succeeds in slowing the action down!   Hill also gives the story a different ending.  I won’t say what it is but if you’ve seen the film version of another Sherman Brothers musical (the one about the flying car) you’ll know how this one pans out.

The underwater scene is there, tick box.  Obviously, the football match doesn’t happen, but I would like more animals populating the island.  And the bed is a marvel.  There are many moments when you think ‘That’s clever’ and ask, ‘How are they doing that?’ — the show is as much about the magic of theatre as anything else (like turning to your imagination to get you through the tough times).

A hard-working chorus keeps things moving, including the wonderful puppets, And there is also some amusing character work from Susannah Van Den Berg as Mrs Mason and Jacqui Dubois as Mrs Hobday.  Conor O’Hara, as eldest child Charlie, has a gorblimey accent but it’s not as strong as the one in the film so don’t worry.  O’Hara has a powerful singing voice and delivers the emotional punch Brian Hill gives him.  Charlie’s siblings (played, I think, by Isabella Bucknell and Haydn Court at this performance.  Correct me if I’m incorrect!) also give assured performances.

It’s a magical night out for the family even if it does run a bit long, past younger ones’ bedtimes.   It’s high-quality fun that will engage your imagination and touch your heartstrings, but not pluck them out!

★★★★

Giving it some stick: Dianne Pilkington as Eglantine Price. Photo Credit: Johan Persson/


Elephant in the Room

THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th November, 2021

It’s fantastic to be back in the RST, as it reopens with this year’s big family show, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. Young Peter Duchene visits a fortune teller who intrigues him with a reading involving his presumed-dead sister and an elephant. Next thing you know, an elephant is dropping through the roof of the opera house in a conjuring trick gone wrong—don’t you just hate it when that happens? Peter sees this event as a sign that his entire life has been a lie and sets out to face the elephant and learn the truth…

Holding things together is Amy Booth-Steel as an affable Narrator, breaking the fourth wall with such charm we don’t want to sue her for the damage.  A strong ensemble includes delightful turns from Forbes Masson as a tightly wound, paranoid Police Chief, his underlings tumbling around him like Keystone Kops; Marc Antolin and Melissa James evoke empathy as childless couple Leo and Gloria; Sam Harrison’s fruity Count; Alastair Parker’s bumbling magician; Miriam Nyarko’s energetic orphan Adele; and Mark Meadows as Peter’s guardian, former soldier Vilna Lutz whose PTSD is startling, to say the least.

Villain of the piece is the mighty Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet, who gets the most outlandish costumes.  Strallen channels Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II and Cruella de Vil, with shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in her decorative vocal work.  It’s a stonking characterisation.

The Elephant itself is from the War Horse school of puppetry, with three operators bringing life to the pachyderm.  The scale of the beast is impressive but more so is the way it ‘lives’; there is grace to this animal and sorrow.  There is undeniably an elephant in the room with us.  It’s a captivating creation, skilfully performed by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi, and Suzanne Nixon.

Giving a phenomenal performance as protagonist Peter is the elfin-featured Jack Wolfe, giving the role a quirky youthful energy, who is nothing short of perfection.  Instantly endearing, Wolfe is a true knockout when he sings, demonstrating beautiful vocal control and an impressive range.  You get the feeling you’re watching someone who is going to become a massive star.

With book and lyrics by Nancy Harris, and music and lyrics by Marc Teller, the show captures the tone of DiCamillo’s wonderful book. Colin Richmond’s design work delivers the grim, grey city of Baltese, with atmospheric lighting by Oliver Fenwick. It’s Sarah Tipple’s direction that makes us identify with, laugh at, and feel for the cast of offbeat characters, playing the humorous notes broadly and the emotional points deftly. The score is reminiscent of Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan and is performed by a tight band under the musical direction of Tom Brady.

It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece, that speaks to us of people in strange times looking for answers (and not always in the right places), of hope, of the things that unite us rather than those that divide.

Beautiful.

★★★★★

Trunk Call: Peter (Jack Wolfe) visits the Elephant. Photo: Manuel Harlan © RSC

Sound as a Hound

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 30th October, 2021

This is my second production of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story in two weeks.  From what I understand, there’s at least a third one doing the rounds.  There’s definitely something in the air, given the current popularity of this tale.  And what’s not to like?  An intriguing mystery, Holmes and Watson in great form, and the prospect of a supernatural beast!  Bring it on.

Heading the cast as the world’s most famous consulting detective is Robert Moore, who is quite possibly the best-looking Holmes I’ve ever seen.  Moore’s Holmes is a little imperious and condescending, but there’s humour there too, and the portrayal is nuanced so at times you can see the cogs working, and at others know when Holmes is withholding something.  This Holmes brims with pent-up energy, mental and physical and there’s never any indication of him not being in charge.

Adapter-director John-Robert Partridge appears as Doctor Watson — this case elevates Watson from the role of mere sidekick to the great man; he is permitted to investigate on his own.  Partridge’s Watson is no fool.  Somewhat lugubrious and implacable, he has a rich speaking voice and an understated authority, as though he is Holmes’s star pupil rather than just a sounding board for Holmes’s thoughts.

This excellent pairing is supported by a fine quartet of actors in all the other parts.  Ben Armitage’s Sir Henry Baskerville is laidback and easy-going, a fine contrast to the clipped tones and reserved demeanour of the detective duo.  Armitage’s Henry breezes through the action until the potential consequences dawn on him and he becomes sober and stunned.

Andrew Woolley’s Barrymore the butler is imposing and sinister —more so than his naturist Stapleton, a man prone to terrifying outbursts.  I think something more could be done to emphasise his position as a naturist; an undersized butterfly net alone doesn’t cut it.  Kate Gee Finch doubles as an underused, long-suffering Mrs Hudson, and as the tightly wound Beryl Stapleton in an effectively emotional performance.  Sarah Feltham proves invaluable as a tearful Mrs Barrymore, a guarded Laura Lyons, and a coolly professional Doctor Mortimer.

The intimate performance space of the Attic puts us right in the Baker Street apartment, with other locations suggested by dust sheets on the furniture, or through the use of lighting and sound effects.  The music and sound design by Elliott Wallis go a long way to creating an unsettling atmosphere, underscoring the action and cranking up the tension during the transitions, not least for the climactic confrontation between hound and man.  Onyx Redwood’s lighting adds to the chilling aspects of the story, with director John-Robert Partridge making superb use of complete darkness to put us on edge, as unseen figures weep, laugh, and startle us.  There’s even a kind of Woman In Black gliding around.

An atmospheric and engaging staging of a solid adaptation.  Now, with all this interest in the Hound, perhaps I should dig out the musical comedy version I wrote twenty years ago and see if anyone’s interested…

****

Robert Moore on the case as Sherlock Holmes


Feline Groovy

WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT?

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 29th October, 2021

A jukebox musical?  A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones?  A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones with a plot inspired by Henry Fielding’s novel of 1749?

Oh, go on then.

It turns out to be a consummate example of the jukebox musical genre.  Writer Joe DiPietro takes the bare bones of Fielding’s book, transposing the action to 1960s London — the show’s aesthetic blends elements from both periods, and it works beautifully, to create a vibrant, post-modern experience that is a whole lot of fun.

In the lead as Tom Jones (the hero from the book, not the singer) is the snake-hipped, angel-voiced Dominic Andersen, who is absolutely perfect. Those rich vocals soar and his charisma never wanes. At one point, due to plot reasons, he is stripped down to his underwear (but he keeps his hat on) and I am reminded of his turn as Rocky Horror a few years back. Kudos to the casting director! Andersen seems born for this role. His ‘It’s Not Unusual’ gets the heart racing, and ‘I Who Have Nothing’ is stunning.

Dominic Andersen (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Tom’s love interest, Mary Western, is played by Bronté Barbé — don’t let her diminutive frame fool you; she possesses a belter of a voice, ideally suited to the melodramatic ballads of Tom Jones (the singer not the hero of the book).   Mary is an independent young woman,

There’s a comic subplot (even though the main plot is comic enough) involving Tom’s former teacher, Mr Partridge (Ashley Campbell) and ‘The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress’ (Rebekah Hinds), both of whom are delightful.  There is a touch of conflict stirred up by Tom’s rival for Mary, William Blifil (a supremely snobby Harry Kershaw), while Melanie Walters’s Mrs Western is good value as the acquisitive matchmaker.  These characters epitomise the clash of cultures in the world of this show: marriage as a transaction/sex as a pastime. Julius D’Silva’s kindly Lord Allworthy speaks up for love as the guiding factor. D’Silva imbues his two-dimensional part with warmth, and is not without his surprises.

Bringing the glamour is the fabulous Kelly Price as Lady Bellaston, a kind of Kim Cattrall cougar figure with designs on Tom.  Price gets to wear all the best outfits, including a plastic wedding dress that has to be seen to be believed.  Janet Bird’s costumes go all out to evoke the period settings, and her budget must have been generous.  The iconic fashions keep coming!

Special mention of Lemuel Knights as Big Mickey.  His ‘Delilah’ brings the house down in a show-stopping moment when the song is staged as a psychotic prison ballet.  Which seems like an appropriate time to mention the choreography by Arlene Phillips, no less.  She works the cast hard — the dancing hardly seems to stop, and its slick, of the period, and a delight.  The energy pours off the stage throughout this incredible production.

Luke Sheppard directs with brio, emphasising the staginess of the enterprise.  At one point, he has a couple of ‘stagehands’ come on to help create special effects for a train journey — I would have liked to see more of this kind of thing throughout.  Similarly, the chorus of three girls (think Little Shop of Horrors) come and go, fading from the forefront (but always fabulously dressed!)  The proposal scene is a riot of overblown kitsch; I can barely drink it all in.

It all builds to Fielding’s resolution of laughably convenient revelations, and while some might accuse the show of being a victory of style over substance, I think the meatiness of the songs adds depth to the stock characters, and the sexual politics are handled in a fun way.

An uplifting, energising piece of feelgood fun, this show deserves a long run in the West End.  The songs don’t feel shoehorned in, the design is gorgeous, and the exuberant, talented ensemble impresses. The nine-piece band, under the musical direction of Josh Sood, is absolutely phenomenal.

The next jukebox musical to come down the pike has a tough act to follow.

*****

Dominic Andersen and Rebekah Hinds, with Ashley Campbell (centre) Photo: Pamela Raith


Tricks and Treats

DERREN BROWN: SHOWMAN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th October, 2021

I am presented with the almost impossible task of reviewing a show about which I may reveal no details.  Yes, Derren Brown is back on the road with this latest production of mind-boggling tricks.  I will say he gives us plenty to think about.

You can expect commonplace elements of a magician’s art: playing cards, coins, dice, but Brown uses them in original ways…

Written by Brown, Andrew O’Connor and the mastermind that is Andy Nyman, the show has a through-line on which everything else hangs — but I can’t say what that is. 

If you’ve been to a Derren Brown show before, you’ll know the pains he goes to in order to select participants from the audience at random, or by whittling us down to the willing and most susceptible.  You’ll know a camera operator will stalk the stage, so that close magic is thrown large, projected onto the backdrop so we can all see (and marvel).

You can’t help trying to suss out what he’s doing, how he reads people, their body language, their ‘tells’… But you won’t see what’s coming, no matter how clever you think you are.  Brown is always the cleverest person in the room (unless the aforementioned Mr Nyman is present!).

All in all, the show is intriguing, puzzling, amusing, amazing, surprising, and surprisingly moving.  I well up at one point, even though what’s going on is nothing to do with me.

Brown and his team aim to unite us in a shared experience, and remind us of our common humanity, and yet the man himself comes off as something ‘other’, something apart from the rest of ‘us’, largely because of his special skill set, and that’s rather sad.

But you come away, marvelling at his brilliance, revelling in the thrill of his manipulations, and perhaps just a little more appreciative of what you have and whom you love.

Genius.

*****

The Showman himself, Derren Brown (Photo: Lawrence Hyne)

Heir of the Dog

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 22nd October, 2021

This stage adaptation by ‘Mark W’ of the most famous case of the Baker Street detective is doggedly faithful to the Arthur Conan Doyle original, down to the chapter titles that separate the action into sections.  As in the book, our narrator is Doctor Watson (Alex Nikitas), recounting the tale while the rest of the cast of four play multiple roles to populate the stage.  James Nicholas’s Holmes is spirited and arrogant, brimming with verve.  He has the barefaced boldness to portray Barrymore the butler without the beard for which he is noted, but I find this doesn’t irk me as much as it might—the characterisations are so different, so vivid. 

Becoming a fixture at the Blue Orange, Richard Buck returns again to portray Sir Henry, heir to the Baskerville fortune and the cursed hound, along with others like a coach driver and old Mr Franklin.  Buck makes a tall and handsome Henry.  Indeed, this production is a chance for this trio of actors to showcase their versatility – none more so than its only female member, Emma Cooper, who along with all the female parts, gives us a Doctor Mortimer that is probably the strongest characterisation of the lot.  Nikitas’s Watson remains a constant throughout, our touchstone amid the comings and goings; his Watson is a man of intelligence, a true apprentice to Holmes, and not the bumbling sidekick he is sometimes portrayed to be. 

The character changes are handled swiftly and economically, with the addition of a hat and a coat and a change of stance.  I know if it were me, I’d put the wrong voice to the wrong hat, my accents all blending into one.  Director Oliver Hume demands a lot of his cast, never letting them leave the stage for a second.  He also works hard to keep the piece from becoming static; it is rather wordy as no detail from the Doyle is omitted.

The action is supported by Michael Harris and Nathan Bower’s work on lighting and sound, with well-placed effects to add to the atmosphere. I think the show could withstand more of this, more music and atmospheric sound effects. The set, by Mark Webster, strongly suggests Holmes’s Baker Street residence, with the props and furnishings utilised to represent the other locations; we never lose sight of this being a story Watson is telling in Holmes’s flat. Like all good pieces of narrative theatre, it engages the audience’s imagination to fill in what cannot be staged.

There are a couple of moments when the energy and pace flag a little during this first night performance, but on the whole this is an engaging piece of storytelling, servicing the mystery well.  The titular Hound is left to our imaginations, which is probably the best way to handle it on this occasion.  To use any other method, they’d be barking.

****

Caning it: Doctor Watson (Alex Nikitas) and Sherlock Holmes (James Nicholas)

Still Holding Up

HAIRSPRAY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 19th October, 2021

Based on the 1988 film by self-proclaimed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this exuberant musical is doing the rounds again.  Admittedly, the source material is Waters’s most mainstream movie, but writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan retain much of the flavour of the original, especially the outlandish cast of characters.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the show now but each time I’m struck by how brilliant it all is.

It’s 1962 and teenager Tracy Turnblad, whose heart is even bigger than her dress size, auditions to be on the local hip TV show.  She witnesses the injustice of segregation in her hometown of Baltimore and unlike most people, goes all out to do something about it.  Making her professional debut in the role is Katie Brace and she’s absolutely phenomenal.  An irresistible stage presence, Brace brims with talent and humanity.  Tracy is the closest John Waters gets to a Disney heroine.

Continuing the tradition of casting a man in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna (in honour of Divine who originated the character) we are treated to the comedic stylings of Alex Bourne, a big fella whose Edna is full of sass and vulnerability.  The show is not only about the fight for civil rights.  With the Turnblad girls, it has a lot to say about self-acceptance and body positivity.  Bourne is marvellous and he’s partnered with Norman Pace as Tracy’s dad Wilbur.  Pace’s comic business befits joke-shop proprietor Wilbur.  His duet with Edna brings the house down.

The emotional core of the show belongs to Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle.  The song I Know Where I’ve Been is a searing civil rights anthem, lifting the show beyond its comedic shenanigans.  It’s a blistering moment in a score that is bursting with great songs, from the opening number to the rousing, joyous finale, You Can’t Stop The Beat.  Marc Shaiman’s melodies are infectious, and his lyrics (co-written with Scott Whittman) are witty and knowing. Excellent as the villains of the piece are Rebecca Thornhill as the bigoted Velma Von Tussle and Jessica Croll as her shrill daughter, Amber.

Making strong impressions among a hugely talented cast are Charlotte St Croix as Little Ines, Akeem Ellis-Hyman as the sinuous Seaweed, Richard Meek as the cheesy TV host Corny Collins, and Rebecca Jayne-Davis as Tracy’s eccentric best friend Penny Pingleton.  Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin, Tracy’s love interest, is suitably swoonsome, and there is strong support from Paul Hutton and Ceris Hine as a range of authority figures (teachers, prison guards etc).  But truly, the entire cast is magnificent, in great voice and expending vast amounts of energy executing Drew McOnie’s period-inspired choreography.

Of all the musicals currently doing the rounds, this is the one to see.  It’s a perfect show, funny and relevant, with an important message about inclusivity that it delivers with wit and style.

This is powerful, life-affirming stuff and no matter how many times I see it, Hairspray still holds up.

*****

Brenda Edwards sings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle (Photo: Mark Senior)

A Squat You Can Do For Your Country

THE RUFF TUFF CREAM PUFF ESTATE AGENCY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th October, 2021

It begins with a disclaimer.  What we are about to see bears little or no resemblance to real events, people or anything.  We take this with a pinch of salt.

It’s 1977 and two young women arrive in London from Coventry for a new start.  They find their way to the eponymous agency, an underground organisation that finds squats for anyone who needs one.  I say ‘organisation’, it’s more of a free-for-all, a post-hippy ‘take what you need, the rest is greed’ collective. It’s the optimistic, can-do attitude socialism missing from politics today.

The trouble is the play is a bit of a mess, sprawling across the stage like its set, a conglomeration of furniture and throw pillows.  Brechtian techniques abound, in a bid to get us thinking about the issues raised rather than engaging with the characters: projections and playback of contemporary news reports set the scene, but only sometimes.  As characters rattle off facts and figures about the people they have homed, it is left to us to wonder if things have improved since then.  (They haven’t).  A missed opportunity to complement the action with facts and figures from today.

It’s not just homelessness.  Domestic violence also features.  The dangers women face by walking out at night… All of which are maddeningly relevant today.  The play touches on them but doesn’t develop them.

One of its problems is there are too many characters, and these are mainly mouthpieces.  The ensemble is lead by Joseph Tweedale as John, whose endeavours lead him to hit the bottle in a big way.  John is a flamboyant character, defiant in the face of authority, and Tweedale certainly has charisma.  An anti-hero.  Antagonistic characters are presented in two-dimensional, satirical ways: a couple of plain clothes coppers provide their own comedy sound effects; a landlord sports a silly bald wig and a huge belly, in true agit-prop style, while those to whom we are supposed to relate speak in arguments, in unconvincing dialogue.

Escaping her abusive boyfriend is Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher); what lifts her storyline above soap opera cliché is the belter of a song she knocks out—the music in this show is rather splendid, courtesy of composer Boff Whalley, with the versatile cast playing live.  The score is infused with reggae and ska beats and its irresistible.  The cast is augmented by “The Choir With No Name” in the auditorium’s boxes, adding depth and harmonies to the vocals.

The second act is tighter than the first, beginning with projected photographs of the real residents of the new nation the squatters establish, the short-lived ‘Frestonia’.  We only hear about it by report.  It might have been interesting to hear from characters living there, what their experience was like, how it all worked, or didn’t…

What we get is agit-prop that doesn’t agitate us.  What gets under our skin is not the inequalities built into our society but the music, performed by this hard-working and talented cast.  The play needs to pick one of its battles and focus on that in order to have a clearer vision and a greater impact.

***

Daisy Ann Fletcher (Lu) and Hannah Azuonye (Ally) Photo: Robert Day


Well Wicked

THE WICKED LADY

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th October, 2021

“Fear and laughter sit right next to each other,” observes one of the characters in this two-hander.  He’s not wrong.  It is notoriously difficult to frighten people in the theatre.  What is intended to scare can come across as risible but pitch the elements right and you can really put your audience through the mill.

Writer-director James Williams gets just about everything spot on in this taut chiller, loosely based on historical figure, Katherine Ferrers, who has already inspired films and plays: the noblewoman turned highway robber, defying conventions and morality.  Williams sets his piece very firmly in the present day, so the eponymous Wicked Lady is long dead, although maybe not gone.  Assisting the police in their investigation into a missing child, ghostbuster Alice Beaumont winds up in the Wicked Lady’s decaying mansion and the scene is set for a series of shocks and surprises.

As Alice, Nicki Davy is superb and utterly convincing as her “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts” mindset is besieged by the unexplained and the downright terrifying.  She is matched by Saul Bache as persistent Detective Sergeant Sean Fenton, who has his own reasons to be invested in the outcome of the investigation.

The Blue Orange may be short on space, but it is definitely not short on atmosphere.  The team pull out all the stops to engender a suspenseful atmosphere.  Alex Johnson lights the impressive set he has designed to highlight key moments and to pull our focus away with a bit of misdirection.  Dan Clarkson’s excellent sound design surrounds and chases around us, with eerie breathing, childlike singsong, and sudden loud noises that keep us on edge.  There are also original music compositions by Tomas Wolstenholme to augment the tension and underscore the action.  Production values are sky high; this is easily the most lavish production I’ve seen here.

Well-written and superbly executed, this is a gripping piece of theatre, a sublime example of what smaller, independent venues can do and why they deserve your support.

Woman in Black – who?

*****


Where There’s A Will…

THE CAT AND THE CANARY

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th October, 2021

The Classic Thriller Company is back on the road with this new version of the creaky old play by John Willard from 1922, with an adapted script by Kneehigh’s Carl Grose.  Grose moves the action forward to post-WW2, post-independence of India.  The language has been juiced up to include words like ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’—while I suppose people used such vocabulary back in the day in the real world, it seems at odds in the cosy period piece milieu of the stage thriller.

The premise is delicious.  A lonely mansion on a moor on a stormy night, a group of people gathering for the reading of a will, an escaped lunatic on the prowl…

Leading the troupe is international star Britt Ekland, playing against type as dowdy housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant.  Ekland is marvellous, at times creepy, at others funny—much like the play as a whole, in fact.  She is joined by a strong cast, including Marti Webb as a strait-laced matronly type who loosens up when she gives up being teetotal; Gary Webster as the brash jack-the-lad boxer Harry; Ben Nealon as Charlie, an overbearing actor sporting the highest-waisted trousers this side of Simon Cowell; Eric Carte credibly authoritative as Crosby the lawyer; Tracy Shaw as Annabelle, the heroine, combining strength and vulnerability; and Priyasasha Kumari as an appealing Indian princess.  They’re a pretty tight ensemble, breathing life into what could be little more than stock characters, and I’m particularly impressed by Antony Costa as the bumbling Paul Jones.  Costa warms to his role; in fact, the play takes a while to bed in, but once all the elements are in place, suspense and humour vie for dominance in this effective, old-school thriller.

Roy Marsden’s direction teases us with suspense, gives us a couple of good jump scares, contrasting the play’s lighter moments with its darker aspects and tensions.  Themes emerge of the past affecting the present: the old man’s will from twenty years ago is the catalyst for the action; a trauma in Annabelle’s childhood threatens to unsettle her; the desire to restore what was plundered from a previously colonised country; and most strongly, the PTSD suffered by those who fought in the War.  Only the escaped lunatic, it seems, has no back story to explain his excessive behaviour!

The substantial set (designed by takis) adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and I especially like the framed pictures of single eyes that cover the walls of Annabelle’s bedroom.  Chris Davey’s lighting design adds to the tension, while Dan Sansom’s sound design can be a little intrusive, it does provide a couple of startling moments.  And they need to go easy on the dry ice at curtain up!

On the whole, this is a gripping, old-fashioned evening at the theatre, proving that a play originally produced almost a century ago still has the power to thrill and entertain, and it makes a refreshing change from the back-to-back musicals on offer at the moment!

****

Mrs Not-so Pleasant (Britt Ekland) Photo: Paul Koltas


“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure”

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 27th September, 2021

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this show over the decades, but each time I go back I am reminded why I love it and why it’s a complete and utter cult.  Audience participation has calmed down considerably, as venues frown upon people hurling slices of toast and other missiles to punctuate lines of dialogue, but there is still plenty to keep the fans occupied, and we have some expert hecklers in the auditorium tonight.

Richard O’Brien’s show has become highly ritualised.  Some of us chant responses like a litany, gleefully denouncing the hero Brad as an arsehole, and his girlfriend Janet as a slut, every time their names are mentioned—to the bemusement of those who’ve never seen the show before.  The taking part is a massive part of the experience, and you can feel free to shout as much or as little as you like, and indeed to dress up to whatever extent you like.

The show opens with a belter, Science Fiction Double Feature, beautifully sung by Suzie McAdam’s usherette, full of references to very old sci-fi movies and names of bygone actors.  It occurs to me that perhaps some of the younger audience members will only know Michael Rennie and Fay Wray et al from this libretto.  O’Brien’s show is a homage to those creaky old flicks of yesteryear.

Ore Oduba, TV presenter turned Strictly star, plays the nerdish Brad (arsehole!) and acquits himself rather well, with a strong singing voice, and the movement skills you’d expect.  He is supported by Haley Flaherty as Janet (slut!) who perfectly depicts Janet’s journey from wide-eyed virgin to wide-legged, experienced woman.  Her sexual awakening leads to actualisation; Brad’s leads only to confusion.

At this performance, Riff Raff is played by Danny Knott, lumbering around, encumbered by his hunchback, and singing some of the score’s most searing lines. Goosebump territory.  For all the fun and shouting out rude words, this is a beautiful show, musically and lyrically speaking.  There is something sophisticated underpinning everything, and this is just as crucial to the show’s longevity as the opportunity to dress up and shout things (but not throwing them!)

Lauren Ingram’s Columbia is spot on, with an extended moment in the spotlight, after she has been zapped by a device.  Columbia is the heart of the show, adding emotional depth to the glitzy, glamorous goings on. Ben Westhead is an appealing Rocky, and Joe Allens makes his mark doubling as the unfortunate Eddie and as Dr Scott.

Stephen Webb absolutely rules as evil scientist Frank N Furter, combining camp posturing with a macho demeanour.  The iconic Tim Curry is perhaps indelible, but Webb both delivers audience expectations and brings something new to his interpretation.  His Frank is masterful, and brittle, and predatory, and outrageous.  It’s a remarkable performance.

But for me, the evening belongs to Philip Franks’s narrator.  Often a role that is sidelined, sometimes drowned out by cries of ‘Boring!’ from the crowd, Franks handles the verbiage of the lines he has to get out, adding in bang up-to-date topical jokes—thereby keeping the material fresh.  He is also a skilful handler of the crowd, shooting down hecklers with savage wit, and clearly enjoying himself as much as we are.

Yes, it’s a load of fun, but I’m always struck by the rather downbeat resolution.  It’s one of the most poignant endings in musical theatre, all the shenanigans reduced to a couplet of nihilistic existentialism.  It’s a good job the cast is resurrected to get us to do the Time Warp again.  We need to go home on a high.

A fabulous night out with hidden depths.

*****

Sweet transvestite: Stephen Webb as Frank N Furter

A Taste of Hannay

THE 39 STEPS

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th September, 2021

John Buchan’s novel has been adapted several times, each incarnation having precious little in common with the source material.  Patrick Barlow’s joyful stage version borrows heavily from the Alfred Hitchcock film of the 1930s but delivers a purely theatrical rather than cinematic experience. The script is peppered with reference to Hitchcock’s films for those in the know.

The whole thing is enacted by a cast of four, led by Richard Buck, who does a great job of bringing the dashing Richard Hannay to life, dashing around the stage/Scottish Highlands, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and trying to break up a spy ring in order to clear his name.  Buck’s wide-eyed perplexity and skilful physical comedy make him a worthy focus for the action.

Richard Buck

Playing the female parts is Kimberley Bradshaw, mangling the English language as German agent Arabella Schmidt, looking winsome in a red wig as crofter’s wife, Margaret, and, best of all, as the romantic interest Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay and falling for him despite herself.  Bradshaw’s long-suffering looks to the audience as she negotiates the tortuous corridors of a Highland hotel are a delight.

Appearing as everyone else are two consummate comedic players, James Nicholas and Darren Haywood.  They both prove their versatility beyond question, often switching between characters at the drop, or the picking up, of a hat.  Nicholas is great value as the treacherous Professor and Scottish hotelier Willy, as well as a host of other roles, but it is Haywood who gives the virtuoso performance, depicting characters with an arch look here, a purse of the lips there in the most consistently hilarious display I’ve seen in a long time.  Together, they are a dream of a double act.

Director Simon Ravenhill doesn’t let the close confines of the Blue Orange stage get in the way of his chase scenes and his punch-ups.  The action is deftly handled.  This is a show that is so silly it’s actually very clever.

It does run a bit long though, due mainly to the time it can take to change scenes.  While the set is almost as versatile as the actors, it can take a while to reconfigure, presenting opportunities for energy levels to flag.  Luckily, the enthusiasm and brio of the players prove irresistible, and we revel in the fun of it all.

A real tonic.

****

Darren Haywood


High Hopes and High Heels

EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th September, 2021

Based on a true story, this musical by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom Macrae centres on 16-year-old Jamie New, on the cusp of leaving school and becoming who he wants to be (which is not a forklift driver, as the careers service suggests).  Jamie wants to be a drag queen, a noble profession indeed, but he faces resistance from—well, he doesn’t face all that much resistance to be honest.  His mum (Amy Ellen Richardson) couldn’t be more supportive (she buys him his first pair of high heels), nor could his best friend Pritti, and he soon finds an ally and mentor in Hugo the proprietor of the local drag shop (every town has one, right?).  There is some conflict when Jamie learns the birthday cards he’s been getting for years haven’t really come from his estranged dad, but Jamie seems more than capable of standing up for himself.  School bully George Sampson can barely get a word out, in the full glare of Jamie’s devastating wit.  Jamie plans to wear a dress to the prom (We didn’t have proms, we had school discos) and to prepare for this he performs his first drag show at the local drag club.  Which seems arse-backwards to me – surely the show requires more preparation, rehearsal, and guts to do.  Anyway…

There is much to like about this show, with its poptastic score, its energetic staging, funny script and talented cast, but for me there’s something not quite there.  Moments of excellence arise: Jamie’s mum belting out her big number about her boy; Shane Richie as the former drag queen regaining his glamour; an unrecognisable Shobna Gulati as Ray, a high-camp northern woman (almost a drag character in itself); a trio of drag queens bitching in the dressing room…For me, the best-written character is Pritti, in a show-stealing performance by Sharan Phull. 

In the title role, Layton Williams gives a star turn, taking to the high heels like a fish to water.  It’s a pity we don’t get to see Jamie do his drag act, but this is very much Jamie’s origin story.  He is still developing his drag superpowers.

And yet, I find the story lacks the punch of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  Here, the issues aren’t really issues, and acceptance seems easy to come by.  It’s a sanitised, almost facile version of growing-up gay.  Jamie has one supportive parent; many LGBTQ+ kids don’t have that, but what does come across is institutionalised homophobia, as represented by teacher Miss Hodge (Lara Denning), but even that is swiftly overcome and papered over with compliments about shoes.

Jamie is a snack, sweet and enjoyable while it lasts, but the subject matter could have made a more substantial and satisfying meal.

***

Layton Williams (Jamie) and Sharan Phull (Pritti) Photo: Matt Crockett

Nothin’ but a Good Time

ROCK OF AGES

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 10th September, 2021

There aren’t many jukebox musicals that can entice me back for a second viewing, but when I was invited to see this one, I jumped at the chance, remembering how much of a good time I’d had first time round.

Set in 1987-ish in a bar on LA’s famous Sunset Strip, the show tells the story of rock star-cross’d lovers, Sherrie and Drew.  She’s a small-town girl with dreams of making it as an actor; he’s a boy with a guitar and a voice to die for, with his sights set on playing the stadiums.  As Sherrie, Rhiannon Chesterman is in excellent form, with a strong, expressive voice and a likeable presence.  Returning to the role of Drew, Luke Walsh again impresses with his singing; his voice soaring above everything else.  It’s a treat to hear him once more.

Ross Dawes brings a gruff warmth and skilful comic business to his role as bar owner Dennis Dupree, while Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy make welcome returns as the scheming German property developers bent on demolishing the neighbourhood.  The characterisations are comic-book.  In fact, the entire production has more than a whiff of adult panto to it, and that’s a good thing, in this instance.  What I enjoy most is the silliness, the cheeky breaking of the fourth wall.  This is a show that doesn’t take itself seriously and it’s all the better for it.

Gabriella Williams makes her mark as Regina, protesting the redevelopment and falling for Andrew Carthy’s Franz, but it’s Jenny Fitzpatrick’s Justice who stops the show with her astonishing vocals.

Strictly’s Kevin Clifton gets a chance to display his singing and his talent for broad comedy as opposed to his dancing and gives a thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of the egotistic rock star Stacee Jaxx.  But for me, the show belongs to Joe Gash as the camptastic, charismatic and mischievous Lonny, the narrator of the piece, prancing around like the lovechild of Jack Sparrow and Russell Brand.  Gash is a delight, with a powerful voice and a quick wit he uses to handle any hecklers. 

There is stonking support from a chorus of superlative singers and dancers.  The ensemble arrangement of Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn is just lovely, among a set list of numbers that are mainly anthemic power ballads or hand-clapping standards, like Don’t Stop Believing and Keep On Loving You. Lonny and Dennis’s duet, I Can’t Fight The Feeling Anymore, is a highlight among many hilarious moments.

The onstage band, led by Liam Holmes, is flawless, making the old, familiar songs irresistible.  Of course, we’re all up on our feet before the end, rocking our socks off.  There is a party atmosphere from start to finish in a production brimming over with talent and loaded with laughs.

A funny, feelgood show that doesn’t wallow in nostalgia but reminds us there were so many great songs back then.  And it’s especially gratifying to hear a song by local band Slade!

Is it crass?  Yes!

Is it entertaining?  YES!

Would I see it a third time?

In a heartbeat!

*****

Kevin Clifton as Stacee Jaxx (Photo: Richard Davenport)


All binge, no cringe

BLACKADDER II

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th June, 2021

My heart sinks a little when I hear theatre companies are tackling this kind of thing, more so when it’s a well-beloved series like Blackadder II – Will the production be no more than a patchy impression of the show, where the cast, no matter how good they may be, cannot possibly hope to emulate the iconic performances of the television stars?  And why should I drag myself out when the show is easily watchable at home?  (I’m not a fan of tribute bands, either!)

That being said, director Kevin Middleton, aware of the pitfalls, tackles the material with aplomb, making full use of a range of projected backcloths (cod-Elizabethan etchings designed by Colin Judges) thereby enabling almost instantaneous scene-changes (with a giddying effect) allowing the action to flow much as it would on the telly.  Middleton also restricts the set to furniture that can be wheeled on and off in seconds, and so there is an old-school, Shakespearean aspect to the staging, married with modern-day technology.  It gives the production its own style, and it works extremely well.

The task for the actors is meeting audience expectations and imbuing the well-loved characters with something of themselves.  As Edmund Blackadder, the most sarcastic man in Elizabethan England, Shaun Hartman channels rather than impersonates Rowan Atkinson, in a role that was tailor-made for Atkinson, and is note-perfect in his sardonic intonation, skilfully managing the verbal fireworks and dazzling hyperbole of his lines.  Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s script shines through, reminding us this is their best work, collectively and as solo writers.

Hartman is supported by a talented cast, notably a lively Katie Goldhawk as the spoilt and girlish Queen Elizabeth whose cruelty is never far beneath the surface.  Mark Shaun Walsh is an undiluted delight as Sir Percy Percy, making the role his own with high-camp imbecility and physical comedy.  The greatest departure from the TV version comes in Brian Wilson’s Lord Melchett, dispensing with the bombast of Stephen Fry’s portrayal in favour of a more understated interpretation.  It works very well, providing contrast with the excesses of the others.  Karen Leadbetter is brain-dead fun as Nursie, also appearing as Edmond’s formidable puritanical aunt – an excellent opportunity to display her range!  Becky Johnson is appealing as Kate/Bob in the show’s best episode, where Shakespearean transvestism drives the plot; and I also enjoyed Simon King’s monstrous Bishop of Bath & Wells and his charade-playing Spanish torturer.  Daniel Parker brings a Brummie edge to his Baldrick, demonstrating flawless comic timing in his reactions, while Paul Forrest’s villainous Prince Ludwig mangles the English language to hilarious effect.  Joe Palmer’s Lord Flashheart starts big and keeps growing, assisted by a ludicrous fright wig—The wigs and beards are hilarious, too.  Coupled with the backdrops, they give the show a cartoonish aspect.  As ever at the Crescent, the costumes (by Rose Snape and Stewart Snape) are superb and production values are high.

Special mention goes to the irrepressible Nick Doran, singing the theme song between episodes, including a bespoke version that starts the show, reminding us to switch off our phones etc.

There are some gloriously funny moments, expertly handled, culminating in a raucous rendition of a bawdy song at the end of the third episode.  This is when you realise they’ve pulled it off.  They’ve paid homage to one of the greatest TV shows of all time and made it their own, and it’s wildly entertaining and extremely funny.

Because each of the four episodes recreated here is self-contained, there is nothing in the way of character development and no through storyline.  The sitcom format demands that everything is reset to the status quo.  And so, it’s exactly like binge-watching a series.  After three episodes on the trot, Netflix asks if you’re still watching.  By the time we get to the fourth one, I have had my fill.  Consistently enjoyable though this production is, you can have too much of a good thing.

****

Blackadder (Shaun Hartman), Percy (Mark Shaun Walsh), and Baldrick (Daniel Parker) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

Wonder-full

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Cox’s Yard, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 4th August, 2021

This year’s summer show from Stratford-based company, Tread The Boards is an exuberant adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense classic.  All the highlights you expect are here, and the cast of just six work hard to populate the stage with the well-known characters.  Being an outdoors show, technical elements are limited, but director John-Robert Partridge makes a virtue of this, relying on the physicality of the actors to get across the fantastical elements of the story.  Moments like Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole and an underwater sequence are superbly handled by the ensemble.  There is a dance-like quality to their movements, even if they’re just shifting scenery.  Also tackled extremely well are the changes in Alice’s size as she eats and drinks various things that shrink or extend her.  It’s clever stuff that engages our imagination to make the effect work.  Certainly the children in the audience are engaged and on board.  This is where the true ‘wonderland’ is to be found.

Each cast member plays several parts but they each get their stand-out moments.  Pete Meredith’s Playing Card Gardener, for example, and his Mad Hatter, aided and abetted by Julia Holland’s March Hare.  Holland teams up with Lucy Edwards as Tweedledee and Tweedledum to give a spirited rendition of The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Edwards also makes for a fun Cheshire Cat.  Danny Teitge is a likeable and quirky White Rabbit, establishing a rapport with the younger members of the audience, and is especially good as the speaking end of the Caterpillar.  Director John-Robert Partridge practices what he preaches in a couple of featured roles.  His Mock Turtle has a showstopping number about soup, and chiefly, his Queen of Hearts is deliciously camp and tyrannical—I trust this is not indicative of his directorial style!

As Alice, Hannah Whitehouse hardly leaves the stage, capturing the fun and earnestness of the role, Alice’s forthright, logical approach to a world that makes little sense, trying to reason her way through this cavalcade of crazy characters.  The focus of the action, Whitehouse is an appealing and expressive presence.

The sound design is by Elliott Wallis, and it includes some of his original compositions, adding to the charm of this enchanting and imaginative production.

The show is touring until September to a range of venues across the region.  You can book tickets by clicking HERE.

****


Half-Farced

DUPLICITY FOR BEGINNERS

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 23rd July 2021

This new one-act play begins as an old-school farce.  Set in a room of the Hotel Royale, two men are inadvertently there to meet the same woman.  Somehow they manage to avoid each other at first, with plenty of well-timed comings and goings through the various entrances and exits.  And, being a farce, the trousers soon come off.

Things take a darker turn when the woman fails to turn up.  Now we are in clever thriller territory—think Sleuth or Deathtrap and nothing is as it first appeared.  Writer Ben Mills-Wood has created a tight and funny script, but I’m afraid his direction can’t quite bring his ideas to the stage. He comes pretty close, though.

There is much to enjoy here, not least the writing.  There’s Jason Adam’s affable comedic stylings as the cheeky concierge; David Sims as Harvey the husband is at his strongest when he loses his temper; and Oliver Jones as the lover balances exaggeration and nuance to give an effective performance.  There are delightful moments of frame-breaking, drawing attention to the artifice and contrivance of the piece.  But this kind of thing needs consistent energy.  Unfortunately, commitment to the action tends to be patchy as the cast’s confidence ebbs and flows.

To be fair, this is the first night, so you can forgive a few stumbles, a few dropped lines, and you can expect things to shape up for subsequent performances.  The pacing needs sharpening so that every convolution of the plot hits the spot and doesn’t slip between the cracks.  It should run like clockwork, but a few cogs need tightening.  Or, to change metaphors, this diamond in the rough requires some targeted polishing to make it the gem it has the potential to be.

***


Comedy and no mistake

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 15th June, 2021

It is nothing short of wonderful to be back in a theatre and watching the country’s funniest theatre company, Oddsocks, back on stage, doing what they do so brilliantly, after an enforced hiatus.  Every time the company revisits a Shakespeare play they have toured once or twice before, they do something new with it, thereby keeping their work fresh and funny.  This new production of Errors benefits from a host of folk songs and sea shanties, where previous versions have been resplendent with pop songs.  Here the a capella singing lends atmosphere, and later, when accompanied by instruments, it’s still rousing stuff, keeping the energy levels high during transitions.  I suspect this shift in musical style, using tunes in the public domain, is a cost-cutting exercise in these straitened times, but whether it is or it isn’t, it works extremely well.

Director/adaptor Andy Barrow has cast his Mrs in a lead role.  Producer Elli Mackenzie appears as Antiphoni of Ephesus (and of course her identical twin from Syracuse) thereby cementing her position in my view that she is the funniest woman in the land.  She and Barrow (as the hapless servants Dromio) form an exquisite double act.  It’s a rare treat to see them performing together.   There’s an abundance of physical comedy in this show, including a sequence with a large trunk that reminds me of Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and the slapstick violence between the pair is like two stooges in search of a third.

Oddsocks veteran, the charming Joseph Maudsley makes a welcome return, appearing as Adrian (husband to Antiphoni – the gender swap doesn’t get in the way of the machinations of Shakespeare’s farcical plot).  I was expecting a Rocky moment with Antiphoni calling her hubby’s name – but then, what do I know?  Maudsley has an easy-going, immediately likeable stage presence.  As do new recruits Harrie Dobby and Jack Herauville who fit right in with the company’s madcap style, delivering a range of supporting roles.

Comic business is Oddsocks’s business, hearkening back to commedia dell’arte; it’s the kind of thing that has to be seen live, for the timing, the daftness, and the sheer skill required to pull it off.  And it’s all reasonably faithful to Shakespeare’s text, honed into two-hours traffic on the stage, with the occasional topical reference thrown in for good measure.  The good news is this is the start of their summer tour.  They will surely be visiting an indoor or outdoor venue near you soon.  It would be an error to miss them!

*****

Publicity image. You can check out TOUR DATES HERE.


Bear-Polar Disorder

MADEMOISELLE F

ShopFront Theatre, Theatre Absolute, Coventry, Thursday 10th June 2021

Mademoiselle F was the first person to be diagnosed with what is recognised today as OCD.  We join her in her room in a Parisian asylum in the 19th century, as she battles with and succumbs to her compulsions in a never-ending internal struggle.  In the title role, Miriam Edwards imbues the part with nervous energy and fragility.  She is accompanied by Tyrone Huggins in the role of Polar Bear, who acts as a visitor and a nurse, but mostly as a polar bear.  He regales F with stories of his life in a present-day zoo.  The stories fascinate F (and us) and his descriptions of the modern world have a strong ecological message.

Writer Vanessa Oakes draws parallels between F in her room and the bear in his enclosure, between the mental illnesses suffered by animals in captivity and the prevalence of smartphones in society and our compulsion to continually check them.  There is more to the play than a case study of an all-but forgotten Frenchwoman.

Miriam Edwards finds light and shade in the neuroses of F, and I could listen to Tyrone Huggins all day as he explains everything with warm authority.  Director Mark Evans keeps things tight in the empty but intimate setting, further limiting the space with a length of rope, symbolising the polar bears’ dwindling natural habitat.

It’s engaging, provocative stuff but it’s a case of the contemporary social commentary, with its direct relevance to the way we live, overshadowing the thin biography of the eponymous, practically anonymous, mademoiselle.

****

Bear with: Miriam Edwards and Tyrone Huggins


Stream Scream

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Online

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 1st-31st December 2020

The annual treat of the Belgrade pantomime is not cancelled, thank goodness, but is available to stream from the theatre’s website into the comfort (or otherwise) of your own home.  Panto without audience participation might seem like the odds are stacked against it, but such is the effectiveness of this specially filmed production, you barely miss the auditorium.

The mighty Iain Lauchlan has been the engine, the heart and the soul of the Belgrade’s panto for over a quarter of a century now, and the film begins with him strolling onto a bare stage and gazing out at the empty stalls.  Voices and laughter from previous productions can be heard.  It’s quite a downbeat start, reflecting the sadness the entire industry must be feeling this year, but the mood instantly picks up when he sits on the edge of the stage alongside his longtime comedy partner, Craig Hollingsworth, who has an idea of how the pantomime can still go ahead this year: stream it online.  At once, you can see the chemistry between these two; their partnership is the biggest draw for me to keep going to Coventry every year.  Their effortless banter and crosstalk is second-to-none.

And so the panto proper begins, with Lauchlan as the Fairy narrator, able to use her wand for digital effects you can’t get in the theatre.   The set and costumes are very much what you’d expect to find on stage but crucially the performance style has been altered to suit the screen.  The acting is still non-naturalistic, but its heightened just enough to maximise the comedy without going over the top.  Addressing the audience is replaced by direct-to-camera and this works brilliantly for Dame Trott’s monologues (Iain Lauchlan is the consummate dame) and also for quick asides and punchlines.  Craig Hollingsworth, usually called upon to be a master of crowd control, here demonstrates another impressive set of skills, those of acting for and to the lens.  I did not think these two could get any higher in my estimation, but they’ve done exactly that.

With Lauchlan and Hollingsworth playing most of the parts (due to the necessity of having limited numbers permitted in rehearsals) this is a real showcase for their talents.  They are joined by perky principal boy, Morna Macpherson as Jack Trott, with Arina Li as the feisty Princess.  Trish Adudu is somewhat underused as the Giant’s wife, appearing in a Zoom call with Hollingsworth’s Fleshcreep (who reminds me of Dave Hill from Slade!)   The troupe of young dancers is led by the dashing Ayden Morgan, adding to the vibrancy of this colourful and inventive production.

Lauchlan’s script is bang up-to-date, riddled with topical references, as befits any panto worth its salt.  He has always been an innovative panto creator and this year, more than ever, his ability to marry traditional tropes with technical advancements is crucial.  Everything is so well thought out.  Even Daisy the cow’s costume has been amended to include social distancing for her front and back legs!  There is plenty of slapstick and silliness, along with saucier jokes for the adults, and it’s all splendidly directed (by Paul Gibson) to suit the medium.

This is by no means a question of performing a panto and standing a camera in front of it.  This is a true marriage of form and content, of timeless tradition and contemporary communications.

It’s available to stream for the whole month of December from belgrade.co.uk so people far beyond the bounds of Coventry can get to see it, and it’s excellent value and an absolute scream.  Oh yes it is.

*****

Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth face off with a bake-off (Photo: Chloe Ely)


Improv with bells on

SHORT FORM SCRATCH NIGHT

Reflex Theatre, You Tube, Wednesday 29th July, 2020

 

With theatres still closed, canny theatre companies are putting new technologies to good use to get their work out there for audiences.  Norwich based Reflex Theatre put on these evenings on a monthly basis, I understand, and I was lucky enough to be invited to watch from the comfort (or otherwise) of my own home.  The premise is this: actors take the first and last page of a brand-new piece of writing, and they improvise the middle bit.  A bell signals to us viewers the transition from the written lines to the improv section, and the return to the written conclusion.

A varied programme kicks off with Collapsing by Thomas Heath, a two-hander father-and-daughter zoom call.  Zoom is not just for boring team meetings, you know.  It can be quite the medium for creativity.  As the scene unfolds, I find there’s something voyeuristic about watching this conversation, with its dual p.o.v.  The scene builds nicely, but I wonder if the actors could be given key points to include – or if they give themselves key points to include.  What I would say is they shouldn’t be afraid of silences, of pausing the dialogue so we get the opportunity to see things sink in.  Nevertheless, it’s a fine start.

Next up, is something more removed from reality.  Wednesday Evenings by Emma Dawson, involves a Princess at the mercy of a Narrator, who forces her to endure a catalogue of dastardly situations as part of her punishment for ‘bringing down the kingdom’.  Or something.  The set-up has strong potential for humour, and they do get more than a few laughs out of me.  The scene touches on the role of princesses in fairy tales and how they need to be liberated from perpetual victimhood.   This could really develop into a sharp satire.

Pals by Hannah Westall is a three-hander.  Bee is getting ready for a date, while her two pals, Anne and Debbie, like devils at her shoulder, try to persuade and even scare her out of going.  This one needs to be pacier, I feel.  And Anne looks so worried and upset throughout, I want to know her story; it seems like there is fertile ground there!

Trauma by Rogerio Correia is a monologue.  Mark (an excellent Leon Bedwell) is undergoing his weekly online therapy session.  He relives an incident from his youth, an example of the relentless homophobia of his father.  It’s just his face, filling the screen, talking directly to us, and it makes for the most powerful piece of the evening.  It’s actually very moving.  And, of the lot, it is the most successful in terms of the format.  If I didn’t hear the bells, I wouldn’t have known what was written and what was improv.  Splendid work.

The evening is rounded off with a return to comedy, and it’s the funniest piece of the lot.  A Date Worse Than Death by Catherine O’Hanlon, has gothic psychopath Heidi (a scarily funny Ellie Scanlon) meeting mummy’s boy and jigsaw puzzle fan Darren (Joseph Betts) on a blind date.  I don’t know about their romantic prospects, but this pair are perfectly matched when it comes to humour.  The characters are well-rounded, the wit is quick, and there’s plenty of good old improv back-and-forth that is a joy to behold.  All it needs is a little tightening to get where it goes a little quicker, but it’s a hugely enjoyable piece.

All in all, a worthwhile way to spend ninety minutes.  Artistic director Callan Durrant and his cast are to be applauded for getting new material and live performance out there.

You can check out the pieces via their Facebook page here.

four stars

reflex


Video (et gaudeo)

BARD FROM THE BARN – Shakespeare’s Greatest Characters in Lockdown

YouTube, Wednesday 1st July, 2020

 

With theatres closed, indefinitely it feels like, some companies are streaming live recordings of past productions to keep us entertained.  Others are seeking to produce new work, using whatever means they can.  Last week, I enjoyed a play performed live on Zoom.  This week, I’m looking at a collection of pre-recorded monologues, put together by the Barn Theatre.

There are almost three dozen to choose from.  You can dip in and out as little or as much as you like, or you can select PLAY ALL and work your way through, so there is flexibility there, and of course you can watch it on your laptop, your smartphone, or your big telly, making the viewing as formal or as informal as you like.  You choose the way you watch.

For review purposes, I’m sitting back with a cuppa in front of the big telly.

What plays out before me is an impressive range of ideas and variety of means of presentation, as actors in isolation perform speeches from the tragedies, histories and comedies (some better known that others).  In general, the dramatic speeches tend to come across better than the comic ones – that being said, the knockabout comedy of Tweedy the Clown as Dromio of Ephesus (Comedy of Errors) appearing on a sort of Jeremy Kyle show, is very funny!

They’re all worth a look.  Some feel like extracts, some feel like short films complete in themselves, like Daniella Piper’s Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona) tearing up a love letter from Proteus and trying to piece it together again.

I can’t mention them all but here are some of my favourites.  Aaron Sidwell (who also produces) appears as Marc Antony, a media-savvy politician giving an address on a rolling news channel – the medium is perfectly suited to his rhetoric; Adam Sopp’s Iago, exudes menace in a triptych of mirrors; Ryan Bennett’s Edgar, where the jerky smartphone filming represents his state of mind; Ben Boskovic’s Richard II, vlogging in his bedroom; Sarah Louise Hughes as Juliet, recording her final moments in a onesie in her bedroom, before she takes the fateful drug; and the pent-up passion of Jasper William Cartwright’s Romeo, who is homeo aloneo.

Some are simpler than others, with directors letting the actors’ talking heads do all the work. Dominic Brewer’s housebound Hamlet, bitter and depressed, for example.  Others use everyday technologies to do something flashier: Tricia Adele Turner’s Hermione (The Winter’s Tale) is an Essex girl in a clip that combines social media with reality TV – some kind of commentary here, that these ‘celebrities’ are awarded almost royal status, perhaps?  David Haydn’s Titus Andronicus is a deliciously horrific vignette of grisly, suburban revenge.

We get a Benedick taking his daily exercise in the park, Macbeth’s porter receiving a welcome delivery of toilet rolls, and there are a few facetime calls along the way.  All human life is here, certainly as experienced over the past few months in quarantine.  Taken as a whole, this collection is a chronicle of the present, seen through the prism of Shakespeare.

Producers Aaron Sidwell, Hal Chambers and the Barn Theatre are to be applauded for this inventive body of work.  I’m sure they’ll forgive me if I don’t stand on my doorstep to do it.

The-Cast-of-Bard-From-The-Barn

See for yourself by clicking HERE!


Cloud Pleasers

UP, UP, UP AND AWAY!

Zoom, My Place, Friday 26th June, 2020

 

During lockdown, we have not been starved of theatre, with plenty of National Theatre productions streaming for free on a weekly basis, and such.  This online production by Super Stories With City Actors (presented by Creation Theatre) takes a savvier approach by charging for access to their live show, performed on Zoom right before your very eyes.  But why pay when there is so much free stuff out there?

First up: it’s interactive.  Rather than plonking the kids down in front of a screen, and providing a passive experience, this play invites and encourages participation from its remote and divided audience.  In the safety of your own home, you can take part and do all the moves.  Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as arduous as a Joe Wicks workout.

Secondly, you get to influence the story.  This fast-moving adventure, loosely based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale, involves Captain Calamity (Rowland Stirling) and his young cadet (Ryan Duncan) as they travel the world in a hot air balloon.   In fact, we are all recruited as ‘cloud cadets’ to go along for the ride.  And you get the chance to volunteer suggestions for magic spells and special salutes, and lots of things the plot requires.  But only if you want to.  No one is picked on.  It’s all “Hand’s up if you’ve got an idea”, so you can be as shy as you want.

Ryan Duncan befriends us from the off, as the plucky Apprentice.  He is our guide into the Captain’s crazy world.  Duncan has the energy and heightened delivery of a kids’ TV presenter, without being annoying, and he is a splendid physical comedian.

The versatile Rowland Stirling is the embodiment of silliness as the camp Captain Calamity.  He also appears as a slightly villainous magician, who speaks in rhyme and stands behind a moustache on a stick, and perhaps most delightfully, voices the leader of a flea circus, revelling in the name of Timoflea Charlemagne.  Which gives you some idea of the humour we’re dealing with here in the script by George Rennie – who is also hard at work, video-mixing live, which is like stage managing, conducting, and scene shifting rolled into one.

The music, written and performed by Jessica Dives, adds to the action and the fun. There’s a home-made quality to the backgrounds, combining stock photographs with cut-outs, animation, and green-screen trickery.  That you can see the join from time to time merely adds to the charm.  The combination of high- and low-tech elements works like a dream.  And it’s as funny as it is inventive.

The show embraces the medium to the hilt, presenting the story elements in creative ways, and it’s perfectly pitched at its target audience of youngsters.  You can see the engagement on their little faces.  And you can see the enjoyment of the mums/dads/court-appointed guardians on their larger faces, as they join in with the moves.

There’s a lot going on, and not just in the knockabout plot.  It’s about sharing an imaginative experience, sharing ownership, taking part, and colluding with the artifice of it all to keep the balloon in the air.  It’s uplifting stuff and worth every penny.  People have got to get used to paying for theatre again.

Subsequent Zoom meetings I have to endure are never going to live up to this!

five stars

You can book your ticket to a performance HERE!

up up up ryan

The only way is up! Ryan Duncan as the Apprentice


Czech, please!

ONCE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th March, 2020

 

Continuing the fad of adapting films into musicals comes this staging of John Carney’s 2007 film, which at least had original songs.  These have been developed into a full score (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) and although the action takes place in Dublin it’s not all diddly diddly dee – although there is some of that to give local flavour.  Enda Walsh’s book is brimming with wit, warmth and charm.

An Irish pub forms the backdrop, the kind of place where everyone can sing and play a musical instrument; the ensemble remain onstage throughout, observing like a silent chorus, reacting with subtle choreography, and contributing physical theatre where necessary, as well as shifting furniture and pianos and so on to keep the story flowing.

The story is a little slight: girl meets boy, helps him reconnect with his musical ambitions, setting him up for a life-changing trip to New York City…

The boy, or ‘Guy’ as he is referred to in the programme, is a vacuum cleaner repairman, disillusioned with busking and his musical aspirations.  He is about to walk away from his guitar for good when up steps the ‘Girl’, a kooky Czech lass who imposes herself on him with unrelenting directness, in a resistance-is-futile kind of way.  The result is a sweet and gentle love story, infused with a vibrant, rich score of pop songs and ballads, informed by Irish and Czech traditions.  It is lovely stuff.

As the ‘Guy’ Daniel Healy is the least kooky of the lot, and it’s a treat to hear him sing and play.  His numbers smack of Damien Rice – and this is a good thing, as Healy’s voice builds in power and expression and the ensemble joins in.  Searing and emotive, the songs get you right in the feels.

The ‘Girl’ is winningly portrayed by Emma Lucia, getting lots of laughs from her character rather than from a comedy Czech accent.  She sings very sweetly and when she duets with Healy, it confirms our suspicions that the two are made for each other.

Among the ensemble there are notable turns from the likes of Dan Bottomley as music shop proprietor Billy, Samuel Martin as a bank manager who can’t sing (a hilarious number!), and Susannah van den Berg as the formidable Baruska, the Girl’s mother.  Lloyd Gorman makes a strong impression as Svec, ripping his trousers off to play the drums and learning English from a tawdry soap opera.  In this performance, the sultry role of Reza is played by Hanna Khogali, bringing an exotic touch to proceedings – the show demonstrates how music unites us, wherever we’re from.  It is part of what makes us human and something to which we can all relate.

A toe-tapping, hand-clapping, heart-warming production that celebrates differences between cultures while reinforcing the similarities between us all.

Grand!

Emma Lucia as Girl and Daniel Healy as Guy - Once UK Tour - Photo Mark Senior (3)

Dublin duo: Emma Lucia as Girl and Daniel Healy as Guy (Photo: Mark Senior)

 


Lashings of Drama

THE WHIP

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd March, 2020

 

This cracking new play by Juliet Gilkes Romero is set in the politically turbulent year of 1833, when the abolition of slavery is in the air but, as we learn from the politicking and the shenanigans on display, passing the Act through Parliament comes at an enormous financial cost (with the public purse compensating the supposedly hard-done-by slave owners for their loss of income!).  We also learn that abolition does not necessarily lead to emancipation; it is posited that liberated slaves will have to work a seven-year unpaid ‘apprenticeship’.  What price freedom, eh?

At the forefront of the wheeling and dealing is Lord Alexander Boyd, the Chief Whip (the play’s title has a double meaning, you see!) presented in a charismatic performance from silver fox Richard Clothier, the richness of whose voice is superbly suited to the corridors of power.  Boyd is a man trying to do his best for his fellow man, although it soon becomes apparent that his views of ‘our negro brothers’ are limited within the attitudes of the era.  Clothier is a commanding stage presence, giving us the strengths and frailties of the man in public and in private.

As Boyd’s assistant, the runaway slave Edmund, Corey Montague-Sholay is dignified and empathetic.  Beneath his ‘civilised’ veneer lies heartrending loss, having been torn away from his family and his culture.

As chirpy Northerner Horatia Poskitt, Katherine Pearce almost steals the show with some delightfully comedic moments as she tries to fit into her new role as Boyd’s housekeeper.  This renders her grief over a daughter, horrifically killed in a cotton mill, all the more effective.

As runaway slave and abolitionist Mercy Pryce, Debbie Korley holds her own in this white man’s world, detailing a harrowing account of the abuse she suffered in slavery (amping up the Jamaican accent to suit her Hyde Park Corner audience) while comporting herself with dignity and righteousness – making a fine contrast with John Cummins as despicable Tory Cornelius Hyde-Villiers; boorish and crass, he’s out for the biggest bail-out he can get.

David Birrell shows the arrogance of entitlement as conniving Home Secretary, Lord Maybourne, holding out offers of high office as inducements, while being riddled with hypocrisy: he purports to be an abolitionist but is a proud slave owner himself.  Politics still attracts the same kind of people today, alas!

What the play demonstrates is that the ruling elite haven’t changed a jot over the centuries and that decisions taken, ostensibly for economic reasons, are rooted in deep-seated racism: the freed slaves will be “too lazy” to earn a living, is just one example dredged up in support of the unjust apprentice scheme.

In a range of minor roles, other actors from ‘The Furies’ an ever-present chorus, observing the action.  These include Riad Richie, marvellous as the Speaker of the House, and the ever-captivating Bridgitta Roy.  Nicky Shaw’s costumes make this an attractively clad period piece, while a superlative quartet of musicians performs Akintayo Akinbode’s stirring Beethoven-informed score to perfection.

Director Kimberley Sykes maintains quite a pace; the characters lay out their arguments, moral and otherwise, with clarity and passion. It all makes for an engaging and entertaining polemic.  We can be appalled by the attitudes of the past, but it doesn’t take another bankers’ bailout to remind us that such conduct is still prevalent today.  “The citizens with all the power are hurting those with none,” we are told.  Ain’t it the truth!

The Whip production photos_ 2020_2020_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_304233

Richard Clothier reading reviews (Photo: Steve Tanner c RSC )

 


Great Danes

HAMLET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st March, 2020

 

I’ve lost count of the number of Hamlets I’ve seen over the years, and a problem I have every time I go to see it again is its overfamiliarity.  It’s not just a question of knowing the plot; the entire script reads like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with almost every line or phrase well-known and, more often than not, part of our everyday speech.  But I’m always interested to see a fresh approach that may shed new light on this most-often produced of plays.

Here, director Michael Barry opts for what he calls a film noir approach – the costumes by Jennet Marshall certainly have a 1950s feel – but apart from the odd burst of slinky saxophone and the occasionally well-placed spotlight, film noir is barely apparent.  Not that it matters; the minimal staging puts the performers at the forefront.  Played in traverse, the action is within reach, and this works very well for the more intimate scenes.  Unfortunately, the stage can be a tad overcrowded with members of the Elsinore court and these scenes can lose focus.  A courtly dance is a case in point, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio is swallowed by the music.

That being said, this production has some moments of excellence.  Isabel Swift’s Horatio is a masterclass in how to deliver Shakespeare with clarity and emotion – Horatio’s grief at the end is almost palpable.  Robert Laird’s Claudius does a good job of becoming increasingly rattled as the action unfolds, and delivers a powerful moment alone, in torment and at prayer.  Graeme Braidwood’s Polonius is not so much the ‘foolish, prating knave’ Hamlet claims him to be but rather an austere father and efficient administrator.  Papa Yentumi makes for a righteous Laertes and Femke Witney’s Ophelia combines sweetness and ferocity in her mad scenes.  As Gertrude, Skye Witney needs to project more in her earlier scenes but in the emotionally charged scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, she really comes to life.  Bill Barry impresses as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, keeping things dispassionate and thereby otherworldly.

Inevitably, the production succeeds or fails with its Hamlet.  Here the Crescent is indeed fortunate to have the brilliant Jack Hobbis give his Prince of Denmark.  Hobbis is eminently watchable, and the show’s highlights are his soliloquies as he breathes new life into those well-worn words.  His Hamlet is mercurial yet for all his mood swings, he is never less than regal.

The play culminates in the rigged fencing match and this is staged very well, with an added frisson of excitement being so close to the front rows of the audience.  Michael Barry substitutes the last-minute arrival of Fortinbras with a reappearance of the Ghost and a repetition of the play’s opening line, which is an original and effective touch.

Yes, it’s a bit patchy but the stronger moments far outnumber the weak.  This is an accessible Hamlet, whittled down to a bum-friendly two-and-a-half hours, held together by a charismatic lead performance and strong support from the main players.

hamlet hobbis

Sweet Prince: Jack Hobbis as Hamlet (Photo: Jack Kirby)


Home Turf

The Norman Conquests: ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 29th February, 2020

 

Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit Theatre Company have taken it upon themselves to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy trilogy.  To this end, the theatre has been transformed so that the plays can be staged in the round, as Ayckbourn originally intended.   The action of the plays takes place in and around the same house over the course of a weekend and each play interlocks with the others like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle but the good news is, each piece stands alone in its own right to provide an entertaining couple of hours.

This one, as the title gives away, takes place in the garden.  Annie (Lily Skinner) is planning a dirty weekend with brother-in-law Norman (Roger Ganner) but their departure is delayed until the arrival of brother Reg and his wife Sarah, stepping in to look after the invalid mother.  Lily Skinner gives us all of Annie’s fretfulness and neuroses – a carer in desperate need of a break – while Roger Ganner shines as her unlikely paramour, the shabby, selfish Norman.  The least likely thing about him is his job as a library assistant but then everything about Norman is inappropriate, and yet Ganner imbues him with a particular kind of charm.

Andrew Lear is the monstrous Reg, the kind of man who communicates by advising which A-roads you should have taken.  Lear booms, dominating conversations, making empty vessel Reg a joy to behold.  Vicki Jameson is also great as the haughty and frazzled Sarah, Reg’s longsuffering wife.  Thomas Hodge is in superb form as Tom, a hanger-on who uses his status as local vet to keep coming around to tend to Annie’s cat.  Hodge’s Tom is an affable twit – we quickly get the feeling this is a play about women’s frustrations with men, who are all infuriating in their own way.

We have to wait until the second act to encounter Norman’s wife Ruth – an ice-cold Zoe Mortimer, whose searing condemnations of the male sex give the play its social commentary.  Ayckbourn writes women’s points of view exceptionally well, and Ruth is a prime example.  “Oh, I suppose those kinds of women must exist,” she snaps, ”in books.  Written by men.”

As you might expect from an Ayckbourn, these middle-class, middle-aged monsters are caught in a hell of their own making.  Each character has their own moment and director Nicky Cox does a bang-up job of getting her actors to shine, balancing the tensions with the inherent humour, the farcical action and the wonderfully funny lines.

The set, designed by Cox together with Ginny Oliver, keeps things simple: an oblong of turf framed by paving stones, with a couple of things to sit on, and an unruly clump of foliage in a corner, is all you need.  It’s a play about the people, not the garden, after all.  The transformed auditorium keeps things up close and personal and it all works like a treat.  A splendid ensemble giving a virtuoso performance of a fine piece of work.  I can’t wait to see the other two!

round and round the garden

The cast


Faust-Forward

FAUSTUS (THAT DAMNED WOMAN)

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Wednesday 26th February, 2020

 

There is more to gender-swapping in Chris Bush’s take on the Faust tale.  Her protagonist, Johanna Faustus, tries to use the diabolic powers granted her by her pact with Lucifer, to do good in the world.  At first, she is driven by her desire to know whether her executed mother had been, in fact, the witch men claimed her to be – this learned, she races through centuries trying to eradicate death so that notions of heaven and hell will become irrelevant.  At every step, her intentions are thwarted – the Devil is a slippery bastard, after all.

In the title role, Jodie McNee is cranked up to eleven, rarely dialling down to less than an eight.  This works well to show her passion and her drive as she almost bursts with energy.  She does a great deal of pacing around, as though her legs were generating her thoughts.  On the whole this is fine, but every once in a while I feel like crying out, Oh just stand still for a moment.  She is all energy without stillness, all sound but no silence.

Danny Lee Wynter’s laconically foppish Mephistopheles is a treat, understated in his campness, offhandedly confident in his infinite powers – in contrast with Faustus’s incessant hamster-on-a-wheel approach.  Barnaby Power doubles as Johanna’s Dad and as Lucifer, father of lies – there is a suggestion that Johanna’s adventures might be all delusion brought about by her insane obsession with her mother’s cruel demise…

There is strong support from Emmanuella Cole as the tortured mother and later as the cool and collected Dr Garrett, history’s first female physician.  Johanna later befriends Marie Curie (Alicia Charles) and it is these encounters that give the play a Doctor Who educate-and-entertain feel.  The action leaps ahead – there are no strong females in the 20th Century, apparently – and we are in the far future, and what’s left of humanity is still to be saved.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s stunning set evokes the belly of a shipwreck and the ribs of a beached whale.  It is also a time-tunnel, a vortex, an abyss…  Director Caroline Byrne conjures up many effective moments – the workings of supernatural forces are exquisitely done, enhanced by Richard Howell’s lighting and Giles Thomas’s sound and music.  But somehow, the play fails to capture the imagination.  Grand ideas are toyed with but seem undeveloped.  And so, as Johanna Faustus and Mephistopheles, hurtling through time like Bill & Ted, turn out not to have an Excellent Adventure, but something of a Bogus Journey instead.

faustus

Jodie McNee and Danny Lee Wynter (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Hole Lot of Fun

HOLES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020

 

Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.

It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day.  It’s character building, you see.  Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him.  But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.

James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids.  It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better.  Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.

Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace.  Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear.  There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation).  Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda.   Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that.  Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.

Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards.  Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.

The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.

HOLES. Leona Allen, James Backway and Rhona Coker. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Zero and Hero: Leona Allen and James Backway, holed up in a hole while Rhona Croker shines a light (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Many Wrongs Make a Right

PETER PAN GOES WRONG

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th February, 2020

 

Mischief Theatre followed up their mega-hit The Play That Goes Wrong with this adaptation of J M Barrie’s classic.  This one continues the traditions established by the earlier show by framing the performance within the context of an inept am-dram group with their internal dramas and shortcomings foreshadowed and impinging on proceedings.  What makes this one better than the first, to my mind, is that because we are familiar with the source material, our expectations are higher.  We know what should be happening and our expectations are both met and confounded in the same instant.  For example, we know Peter Pan is supposed to come flying in through the bedroom window and we expect something will go awry but when it happens/fails to happen, it’s funnier than we could have hoped.

I won’t give away the shocks and surprises but the show adheres to Sod’s Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong; and so we get collapsing set pieces, props going astray, lighting and sound cues botched, lines mangled, and so on, all while the inner conflicts and agendas of the cast play out in and around Barrie’s much-loved story.

It’s a breath-taking cavalcade of disaster.  Every nightmare every actor ever had is crammed into this catalogue of failures.  And that’s where the success lies.  For everything to go so ‘wrong’, everything must go absolutely right.  The timing is impeccable – I dread to think what the risk assessments are like for this production!

Katy Daghorn’s Wendy brings over-acting to a new low, with dance moves illustrating every phrase.  James Marlowe’s Pan manages to pursue his off-stage womanising despite his experiences on the wires.  Oliver Senton is a scream as long-suffering canine retainer, Nana – and later, he is hilariously unintelligible as pirate Starkey.  Romayne Andrews is suitably one-note as John, being fed his lines by radio feed, and Phoebe Ellabani has an exhausting series of quick changes, switching from Mrs Darling to the maid, often between lines.  Her Tinker Bell comes a cropper in line with Barrie’s narrative, adding another layer of brilliance to the script (by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields).  Patrick Warner carries on doggedly as the Narrator with a wayward chair, and George Haynes’s pain is palpable as he struggles on as Mr Darling and as a Captain Hook who decries audience participation.  Georgia Bradley’s Tootles, afflicted by crippling stagefright (among other things) is good fun, and watch out for Ethan Moorhouse as hapless stage hand ‘Trevor’.  But it is Tom Babbage who wins our hearts, playing ‘Max’ who is only in the show because of a financial contribution.  Yes, this is a version of Peter Pan that gets us rooting for the crocodile!

It’s quite simply one of the funniest nights you will ever have at the theatre and it leaves you marvelling at the skill of the cast who manage to fake all this catastrophe without apparent injury.  The show celebrates the human spirit, to keep going when all around you is collapsing.  The show must go on and so must life!

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' Play on Tour

You’ve been framed! James Marlowe wings it as Peter Pan

 

 


Thrilled to Pieces

REVENGE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 13th February, 2020

 

Robin Hawdon’s thriller from the early 1990s gets a new lease of life in this touring production from the newly-formed Crime and Comedy Theatre Company.  Smarmy MP Bill Crayshaw unwisely admits an unknown woman into his swanky London flat, only for her to reveal she is a journalist keen to expose both his dodgy business practices and his involvement in the death of his party agent just the day before.   To coerce him to answer, she threatens his collection of valuable knickknacks, even smashing a couple of them to pieces, and pretty soon he’s singing like a canary – but, it soon transpires, it’s to his own tune rather than hers.

After a slow start with lashings of exposition, the first act builds to a violent end with gunshots and one of this cat-and-mouse pair on the floor…

Nigel Fairs is effortlessly arrogant as the duplicitous MP (is there another kind?) while Kate Ashmead exhibits sadistic pleasure as ‘Mary’ toying and flirting with her quarry.

As with plays of this type, there is more to it, with twists and turns, shifts of power and reversals of fortune – necessitating further passages of wordy exposition, yet director Louis Jameson (formerly Leela off of Doctor Who, no less!) wisely never lets proceedings become static.  She also handles the big moments effectively, giving us a solid little thriller.  It’s not in the same league as Dial M For Murder or Gaslight, but it’s a taut and engaging couple of hours, well played and well presented, delivering everything you expect from this kind of thing. And of course, we know better to believe a single word that comes from the mouth of a Tory MP, and there is a certain pleasure to be had watching Crayshaw squirm and try to plot his way out of trouble.

Ground-breaking it ain’t, but intriguing it certainly is.

Kate Ashmead and Nigel Fairs in Revenge directed by Louise Jameson credit David Fawbert Photography

Kate Ashmead and Nigel Fairs (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)


Beat box and Bicycles

CRONGTON KNIGHTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020

 

Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain.  The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong.  Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her.  The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway.  As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head.  And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.

The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey.  The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange.  One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.

What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.

Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah.  Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.

As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall.  Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.

The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed.  The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect.  Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling.  It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.

Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told.  Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on.  There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live.  The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.

An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie - photo credit Robert Day

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie (Photo: Robert Day)


History Worth Repeating

THE HISTORY BOYS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, 12th February, 2020

 

Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre continues its recently established policy of producing at least one in-house show per year with this thoroughly excellent staging of Alan Bennett’s modern classic.

Charting the progress of a group of lads as they prepare for Oxbridge applications, this is a hilarious comedy with a serious backbone, as it questions the very nature and purpose of education.  Veteran English master, Hector (a splendid Ian Redford) believes that education should prepare us for what life throws at us, that it should round us out as human beings; fresh out of the box teacher Irwin (a pitch perfect Lee Comley) is of the widely held belief that education is preparation for exams, and he is full of pro-tips to make the boys’ essays stand out from the crowd.  Redmond’s florid outbursts contrast nicely with Comley’s more repressed approach.  Both are superb and infuse their respective roles with subtlety and therefore credibility.

Jeffrey Holland plays against type as the unlikeable Headmaster, all league tables and quantifiable results, in a hugely enjoyable turn, demonstrating once again he can tackle weightier roles and still be very funny.  Victoria Carling mediates as the pragmatic Mrs Lintott, in a wryly humorous portrayal.

And then there are the boys.  Frazer Hadfield’s Scripps is a wizard on the piano.  I enjoy Crowther (Adonis Jenieco) and Timms (Dominic Treacy) in their re-enactment of an old Bette Davis film.  Joe Wiltshire Smith is delightfully blunt as the taciturn Rudge, and there is strong support from Arun Bassi’s Akhtar and James Scofield as Lockwood.  Standouts are Jordan Scowen as the roguishly charming, cock-of-the-walk Dakin, and Thomas Grant, stealing the show as the sensitive, lovelorn Posner while treating us to some wonderful renditions of standards like Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered and the works of Gracie Fields and Edith Piaf.  This is lovely stuff.

Director Jack Ryder gets the tone absolutely right.  The comic timing is impeccable (the French lesson set in a brothel is a hoot) but Ryder pays equal attention to the quietly dramatic moments of Bennett’s superlative script.  Scene transitions are covered by huge video projections, affording us glimpses of life around the school, while 1980s pop hits blare out, to remind us that this is a period piece – although given the state of education today and the obsession with testing and data-compiling, there is much that is relevant still.

With this production the Grand builds on and surpasses previous successes – how they’ll top this one next year remains to be seen.  A key part is the selection of the play.  Here, they get everything right and it’s a real pleasure to see work of such a high quality being produced at my local!

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Ian Redford and Thomas Grant (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

 

 


Bourne Again

THE RED SHOES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 11th February, 2020

 

Celebrated choreographer Matthew Bourne adapts the legendary Powell-Pressburger film of 1948 for his own purposes, crafting the narrative into a spectacular evening of dance and emotion.

This is the story of Victoria Page, aspiring dancer, who gets her big break when the prima ballerina breaks her foot – it’s all a bit 42nd Street in this respect, especially with all the on-stage/off-stage drama.  Victoria becomes an overnight sensation but finds her affections torn between Julian the composer and Boris, the impresario.  It is this love triangle that forms the focus of the tale, with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale taking a back seat.

I’m no dance expert but I recognise quality when I see it (and when someone hits the floor with a full shablam!).  What I can tell you this is a production of unadulterated beauty, brimming with romanticism and passion.  The dancing is flawless and enchanting; as we have come to expect from Matthew Bourne, the storytelling is clear and engaging, with well-defined characters/types and touches of humour.  The plot unfolds in episodic scenes, taking in a range of exotic locations: Paris, Monte Carlo, and, um, Covent Garden, with the set dominated by a false proscenium arch with majestic curtains, dividing the off-stage and the on-, swirling and twirling as part of the choreography, as part of the troupe!

At this performance, Victoria is played by Ashley Shaw, technically tight and powerfully expressive.  She is supported by Reece Causton’s suave but haughty Boris and Dominic North’s energised and passionate Julian.  The rest of the company is equally impressive but in a show in which no one speaks, it is difficult to identify characters; I can’t tell my Nadias from my Svetlanas.  Take it as read that everyone is at the top of their game.  Special mention goes to the two blokes who perform a sand dance in the style of music hall act Wilson and Keppel (what, no Betty?).

One of the biggest stars of the night is the score by film composer Bernard Herrmann (who later went on to score films like Psycho).  Herrmann’s music is stirring, sweeping and rich, with psychological undercurrents and disturbances.  It’s highly emotive and Bourne makes the most of it to support the action.

Totally accessible, Bourne’s blend of contemporary dance, classical ballet and period choreography, delivers an evening of enchantment that is performed with breath-taking skill by a talented company.  This is world-class stuff, powerful, entertaining and admirable.  By the time I finish clapping, my hands are as red as the shoes.

THE RED SHOES

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues. Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page (Photo: Johan Persson)


Happy Slappers

BAND OF GOLD

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2020

 

Kay Mellor’s hit series (which I must confess to never having watched) comes to the stage in this new adaptation.  Retaining its 1990s setting, the story puts sex workers at the forefront of the action, making them the protagonists rather than incidental characters.  We meet Carol (tart with a heart) on the game to provide for her daughter, who was sired by her copper of an ex-boyfriend; there’s Anita (hooker with a cooker) who rents out the flat her fancy man keeps her in for working girls to use); and then there’s Rose (slut with guts) who rules The Lane…

The plot kicks off when newly-separated Gina (Sacha Parkinson) finds selling cosmetics door-to-door is not bringing in enough dosh to pay off the evil loan shark (a menacing Joe Mallalieu) who keeps turning up.  So, with little in the way of soul-searching or agonising, she decides to go on the game – it’s preferable to getting back with her aggressive and abusive husband (a convincingly volatile Kieron Richardson – Ste off of Hollyoaks).  At first, things go well for Gina…

A murder mystery emerges, and with all the male characters being disagreeable, to put it mildly, there’s no shortage of suspects.  Enter Carol’s ex, Inspector Newall (Shayne Ward) back from exile in Wolverhampton, of all places.  Ward is underused – it’s the girls who get to the bottom of things, so to speak.  The show has quite a large cast but there’s not enough time to give them more than fleeting appearances.

As tough-talking Rose, Gaynor Faye (off of Emmerdale) is good value and she is matched by Emma Osman’s plain-speaking Carol and, at this performance, Virginia Byron’s increasingly desperate Anita.  There is strong support from Olwen May as Gina’s mother Joyce, along with Mark Sheals as George, and Andrew Dunn (you know, him from Dinnerladies) as Councillor Barraclough.

The play touches on subjects like women’s empowerment versus their exploitation, the corruption of businesses and local government, the dangers of working the streets… but there is not enough time to examine any of these things in depth.  The shortness of the scenes underlines the show’s origins as television drama.   Mellor packs a lot in at the expense of resonance.  Nevertheless, the show is instantly engaging and there is a rich vein of bluff Northern humour running through it along with some cracking lines (“He’s got a face like a fart in a trance”).  It may be a bit drama-by-numbers, but it’s effortlessly watchable, entertaining fare, although the significance of the title continues to elude me.

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Kieron Richardson and Gaynor Faye (Photo: Ant Robling)

 


Out of the Question

ASKING FOR IT

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 3rd February, 2020

 

Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre is hosting the UK premiere of this Irish production, based on a novel by Louise O’Neill.  At first, Meadhbh McHugh’s adaptation plays like Derry Girls meets Skins, with the school uniforms of the characters emphasising their youth and immaturity.  Like most young people, they’re looking forward to a party where drink and drugs and members of the opposite sex will be freely available.  They’re not an especially appealing bunch, with the lads bringing obnoxious to new levels – is their conduct exaggerated to make a point?  Probably, but not by much, I’d wager.

Emma (Lauren Coe) is our protagonist.  Having previously counselled a friend who was assaulted to say nothing, she finds herself in the same boat when the party takes a dark turn.  An ill-advised sexual encounter degenerates into a gang-rape and photos of the event are plastered all over social media.  Somehow, Emma is to blame.  For the event, for pressing charges, for causing upset to the boys’ poor mothers… Emma becomes increasingly isolated and withdrawn, her entire life a nightmare.

Lauren Coe is superb as the victim, bringing depth to her silences and pain to the voiceovers that work as asides.  As her parents, Dawn Bradfield and Simon O’Gorman give powerful performances, demonstrating clearly the attitudes Emma is up against.  It takes brother Bryan (Liam Heslin) a more-enlightened soul having been away to college, to stand up for his sister and lay the blame where it belongs, squarely at the boys’ feet.  Bryan is fighting a losing battle.

Paul O’Mahony’s changeable set design serves as a range of locations.  Under Sinead McKenna’s lighting and accompanied by Philip Stewart’s sound design, the staging is a nightmarish setting, an assault on our senses.  Loud, discordant music and loud, unsettling sounds contribute to the visceral experience, putting us in Emma’s mindspace.  For the second half, the set closes in, claustrophobically, for a more conventional kitchen-sink scene as the family lash out and thrash out, forcing Emma to make a decision.

Director Annabelle Comyn keeps us gripped throughout the play’s bum-numbing running time, eliciting powerful performances from her young ensemble, and enhancing the experience with stage technology.  Jack Phelan’s video raindrops fall like tears.  A tight spotlight pinpoints Emma and isolates her in darkness.  There is a lot of dark beauty to this production.

Rather than focussing on rape culture, I find the story is more about blame culture – victim-blaming and shaming, that is.  The real culprits are plain for all to see, and we see how they are dealt with.  The play is a clarion call to change all of this.

It’s a stark production that is to be experienced and admired rather than enjoyed.  Never less than engaging, it gets its message across and provokes discussion all the way home.

Lauren Coe as Emma in Asking For It_credit Patrick Redmond (5)

Lauren Coe as Emma (Photo: Patrick Redmond)

 

 


Puppet Masters

THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 12th January, 2020

 

For their tour this winter, the remarkable Oddsocks turn to Carlo Collodi’s classic for children about a sentient puppet who longs to be a real grown-up.  Written and directed by Andy Barrow, this adaptation is fairly faithful to the source material while remaining an undeniably Oddsocks production.  Puppets are a key ingredient of every Oddsocks show.  With this story, they take centre stage.  As ever, there is the comical inventiveness, the slapstick, the wit and overt theatricality – something for everyone.  Adults will revel in the meticulously ramshackle production values and the arch humour, while children become so engaged with the story-telling they shout out, almost involuntarily, advice to the protagonist.  I have seen many, many Oddsocks shows, and they’ve all been fun, but this is the one that has proved most absorbing for youngsters.  Perhaps they identify with Pinocchio’s struggle to become a moral being and a productive member of society.

In the title role, Freya Sharp gives a far from wooden performance.  Her Pinocchio is a naughty boy, bursting with energy and cheeky charm.  Sharp brings clownish physicality to the role, especially early on when Pinocchio is finding his feet.

Andy Barrow appears as Pinocchio’s maker, Geoff Petto (the ‘off’ has dropped off), looking like Einstein’s grandfather but able to match Sharp in terms of physicality.  With only four in his cast, Barrow has to appear in many other roles, including the con-artist Fox and a big-bellied impresario, gloriously named Andrew Floyd Mackintosh.

Jeannie Dickinson is excellent as the Fairy, the con-artist Cat, and I love her Harlequin’s rendition of Puppet On A String.  Danny Hetherington is equally great, appearing as the Cricket, the Policeman, and naughty boy Lampwick – among other roles.  The episodic nature of the plot demands quick changes and versatility from everyone involved.

There are many scene changes, with a set that opens up, revolves and transforms before our very eyes and while we wait – but these transitions are part of the deal, part of the fun.  We may have seen the old two-lengths-of-blue-fabric-form-a-seascape shtick before, but I guarantee you won’t have seen a giant white shark like this one this side of Steven Spielberg!  There are some hilariously gruesome (yet still suitable for kids) special effects, like when Pinocchio falls asleep too close to the fire; and the nose-growing effect made my ribs ache.

Vanessa Anderson’s costumes are another hugely enjoyable part of proceedings, instantly conveying character and encapsulating the Oddsocks spirit of silliness.

Barrow keeps the bonkers nature of Collodi’s story, while tempering the darker aspects and the moralising.  The result is a highly satisfying piece for all the family.  This is theatre at its most fun, in terms of form and content, which is what Oddsocks is all about.

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Toy story: Andy Barrow and Freya Sharp

 


Phantom Menace

GHOST STORIES

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2020

 

Scary shows are rarely done live, and even more rarely, done successfully.  You think of The Woman in Black which continues to put the willies up audiences in the West End decades after it opened – and that’s about it.  Until the advent of this production at the Lyric Hammersmith, which went on to have a decent run and is now embarking on its first national tour.  Written by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, this is an anthology of tales, curated by Professor Goodman (an excellent Joshua Higgott), who in a kind of lecture or TED talk, seeks to debunk the supernatural.  Because there’s a rational explanation for everything.  Isn’t there?

I am under strict instruction not to reveal any of the show’s secrets so I will skate over the subject matter by saying only this.  Each story is completely different and is narrated by a different character, ranging from Paul Hawkyard’s down-to-earth Tony Matthews, to Gus Gordon’s more agitated Simon Rifkind, and to Richard Sutton’s boorish, braggart, Mike Priddle.

What I will tell you is you are in for ninety minutes of suspense, shocks and scares.  I saw the original production at the Lyric; there are more laughs than I remember, some of them the nervous kind, but the script is richly laced with humour, calculated to relieve the tension.  It’s beautifully written; the stories unfold in such a way that they play on your imagination, and the staging of each one is exquisite.  Everyday activities take on an aspect of suspense.  The ordinary is a gateway to the extraordinary…

Technically the show is a marvel of darkness (James Farncombe’s lighting design excels in what it doesn’t reveal as much as what it illuminates) with an unsettling sound design by Nick Manning.  There are jump-scares, sudden loud noises, eerie silences… every trope you might expect, and an almost relentless sense of dread.  You spend a lot of the time dreading what might happen and when things happen, wondering how they do it.  Everything is achieved with impeccable timing and it works brilliantly.

Even on second viewing, the show loses none of its power to grip, to thrill and to entertain.  It’s a funfair ride, a visceral and intellectual experience, addressing dark aspects of the human psyche.  It’s a pleasure to be manipulated in this way. The show is a testament to the power and unique properties of live theatre.  You won’t get frissons like this by watching the movie version on your phone.

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Slick and Slack

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 23rd December 2019

 

If you like your pantomimes to come with lashings of glitz, glamour and spectacle, you come to the Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza – and you won’t be disappointed.   This production, originally staged at the London Palladium last Christmas, stints on nothing as it aims to impress.  The key ingredient for a pantomime to work is its cast and here too, we are not sold short.

The show opens with the Magnificent Seven, the dwarfs, who provide the customary exposition in rhyming couplets.  They handle the verse well and have a big impact – it’s a shame then that they disappear from proceedings for quite a while.  And I feel they could be featured more, in comedy routines – they don’t appear to be lacking in talent.

Joe McElderry is the Spirit of the Mirror, a kind of good fairy; he reminds us how great an entertainer he is and, wisely, director Michael Harrison makes good use of him for musical numbers.  McElderry is paired with handsome Prince Harry of Harborne, rising star Jac Yarrow – their voices fit well together, Yarrow’s musical theatre tones blending with McElderry’s pop star vocals.  They are a duo to be reckoned with.  Yarrow is suitably dashing in princely garb but, like many of the characters, has to play the straight man to comic turn ‘Muddles’ a kind of Buttons character, played by the Hippodrome’s resident panto star, Matt Slack.

Slack, returning for his 120th year – oh, wait, am I confusing it with the theatre’s birthday celebrations? –  has an appreciative fan base in Birmingham, and he has plenty of opportunity to showcase his skills: his impressions, his physicality, his daftness, all of which have an underlying wit and intelligence.  Slack is great at what he does, (although I can find him a little overbearing at times), and his shtick invariably goes down well.  There is nothing slack about his professionalism.

Slack’s brilliance comes at a price.  Consummate pantomime dame Andrew Ryan is underused.  Rather than a comic turn in her own right, his Nanny Annie is a sidekick for Muddles’s shenanigans.  Similarly, delightfully deadpan Doreen Tipton is restricted to being part of the troupe and is not given her moment to shine with a song or a monologue or recitation.

Faye Brooks exudes sweetness as the titular princess.  She sings sweetly too – there is a plot twist that works brilliantly, giving her character more oomph.

But for me the undisputed star of the show is the mighty Lesley Joseph as the wicked Queen Dragonella.  A seasoned pro, Joseph pitches the role perfectly, so we find her villainy delectable and her diva-esque ravings high camp.  She is not above making a laughing-stock of herself and she looks fabulous.  The best panto villain I’ve seen this year.

Everything about the show says quality.  The dancers, the costumes, the beautiful set… Britain’s Got Talent’s urban dance act, Flawless crop up as the palace guards, bringing slick moves and also a sense of humour.  Of course, Matt Slack gets in on the act – and it’s one of the show’s funniest and most impressive moments.

All in all, this slick production is as entertaining as you could wish.  All the right ingredients are there – it’s just that some of them are overpowered by the flavour of others.

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Yass, Queen! Lesley Joseph rules as Queen Dragonella (Photo: Paul Coltas)