Making Merry

ROBIN HOOD

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Baby steps.

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

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

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

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

merry men

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

 

 

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Finger-Prickin’ Good

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

BEAUTY 12 TT 07.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

Magic.


Double-edged War Puns

OVER THE TOP

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTT


Wonderful, Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Live Radio Play

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart-warming stuff indeed.

wonderful life old joint

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


Oh Brother

TRUE WEST

Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


Ebenezer Good

EBENEZER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebenezer Christmas Carol Portrait No Tex

 


Working Wonders

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

queen of hearts

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

 


Friends of Dorothy

THE WIZARD OF OZ

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 29th November, 2018

 

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

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

Chisara Agor as Dorothy_Wizard of Oz_c Graeme Braidwood

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

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

Jos Vantyler as Wicked Witch_c Graeme Braidwood

Wicked! Jos Vantyler (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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

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

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

Spell-binding.

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

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


Disney Heights

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – A Musical Parody

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

beau

Beau jest: Jamie Mawson

 

 

 

 


Warm and Fuzzy

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

toad

A car getting toad. Rob Witcomb, poop poop!


Woke!

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Boy Who Never Grew Up

HAMNET

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Sucks to be you

DRACULA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 20th November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Talent Management

FAME

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 19th November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Class acts: the students of FAME

 


Cosy fun totally

IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Crescent Theatre, Friday 16th November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Out of the Ashes

LA CENERENTOLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rock Your Socks Off

ROCK OF AGES

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hair today: Lucas Rush as Lonny


Tapping Into Joy

42nd STREET

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The wonderful Ashley Day and some of the boys


Troying Times

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hardly Connect

ORANGE POLAR BEAR

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Ah-ron Hong and Minju Kim make a connection


Grin and Bare It

THE FULL MONTY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 5th November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Tribute Band of Brothers

BLACKADDER GOES FORTH

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Strangers’ Things

A GUIDE FOR THE HOMESICK

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 1st November, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Remains to be seen

THE LOVELY BONES

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 31st October, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Lovely Bones  1.9.18Credit : Sheila Burnett

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


Whitewashing Won’t Wash

NOT TODAY’S YESTERDAY

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Going off the Handel

THE MESSIAH

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd October, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Boot Camp

KINKY BOOTS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 17th October, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bolly Good Show

DISHOOM!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nice Time

BARBARA NICE’S RAFFLE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful, wonderful night.

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Out for the Count

DRACULA

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dead on his feet: Nisaro Karim as Count Dracula

 


Work of Genius

BREAKING THE CODE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 6th October, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

breaking the code

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


Just Four Fun

THE IMPROLECTUALS

Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 4th October, 2018

 

Any improv show is reliant on good suggestions from the audience.  Tonight, our quartet of performers is faced with plenty of beans and chips related ideas – and they make a meal of it.  Yes, I’m at another improv gig and this time it’s The Improlectuals.  Hosting duties are shared by Richard Baldwin and Robert Lane, as they introduce the games, field audience suggestions, and stage-manage the action.

Baldwin is a good-allrounder, reaching particular heights of hilarity in a game which involves him divining from our reaction the action we have chosen for him to perform.  His contortions eventually lead him to peeling potatoes in a supermarket trolley, and we couldn’t be happier.

Lane, another good-allrounder, distinguishes himself with his guitar playing, accompanying impromptu musical numbers, sometimes supporting, sometimes steering the spontaneous songsters.

Also performing this time are Matthew Dibbens and Nathan Blyth, a versatile pair.  In fact, all four actors prove their talent, versatility and quick-wittedness but Blyth does all that while being rather good-looking, which is hardly fair.

Some of the games are familiar to those of us who recall TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? and others bring back memories of my drama teaching days.  Some have better legs than others, some take off straight away, and some meander a bit, but on the whole, the hit rate is pretty high.  We do a great deal of laughing out loud.  A game in which the actors switch accents at the honk of a horn is an absolute hoot.  A Chinese-whispers type game, done with action rather than words, works a treat, but for me the best games involve the creation of songs on the spot.

The magic of improv brings its own brand of tension, but when it clicks, as it does countless times tonight, it is truly marvellous to behold.

I would perhaps alter the running order a little, so the show has a stronger opening game, saving the Two-Headed Emails for later on, when we have warmed to the performers – which doesn’t take long at all!

A very funny and entertaining evening with no shortage of creative energy.  The Improlectuals deserve larger audiences than the select group that mustered to see them tonight.

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Singing with The Enemy

WE’LL LIVE AND DIE IN THESE TOWNS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 2nd October, 2018

 

Geoff Thompson’s new musical takes its score from the debut album of Coventry band, The Enemy.  Not being familiar with the group or their work, I am able to take the show at face-value, without the jolts of recognition that usually come with jukebox musicals.  Mamma Mia! this ain’t!   Telling the story of front man Argy’s struggle with a sudden, paralysing attack of stage fright on the day of his big homecoming gig, this turns out to be a thoughtful, poignant piece, as Argy embarks on an odyssey to face people from his past life in obscurity and come to terms with issues that have been plaguing him all along.

Thompson’s dialogue has a lyrical quality, which elevates the exchanges, adding to the mystical nature of Argy’s quest for enlightenment.  The show is structured mainly around two-handed scenes, with each person Argy encounters bringing up a different facet of our protagonist’s past.

Quinn Patrick is excellent as Argy’s ailing brother, a lapsed poet, in a bittersweet scene – Patrick later doubles as a comedy vicar for the show’s most spiritual scene.  Julie Mullins (formerly of Neighbours) provides strong support in a couple of roles, making me think how well suited she’d be for the role of Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers… while Steven Serlin makes a strong impression as Argy’s manager and later as former friend, Owl, complete with a creditable Brummie accent.  Mark Turnbull shines as a bearded busker, with the look of the late Chas Hodges and a voice similar to Tom Jones, and Molly-Grace Cutler is suitably bitter and resentful as Argy’s alcoholic sister.  Meg Forgan also steps out of the backing band to portray Megan, thrilled to be namechecked in one of Argy’s songs.

But it is the central performance from Tom Milner as the troubled troubadour that keeps us hooked, in a sensitive, rounded and powerful portrayal, with searing vocals and a charismatic presence.  We sort of know all along Argy’s going to get his act together, but Milner takes us with him on Argy’s journey so that when the gig finally comes it’s a moment of exhilarating release.

It’s all played out on the stylised urban landscape of Patrick Connellan’s concrete block set, backed by projections of local streets and buildings.  Director Hamish Glen balances the humour and the poignancy of each scene; the show is bittersweet but never maudlin.

There are a couple of scenes that could do with trimming in terms of getting their point across but on the whole, this is an intelligent, grown-up piece with a strong, melodic score that proves irresistible by the end.  The onstage band is tight, the cast members uniformly brilliant, making for a thought-provoking and ultimately moving experience.  Argy’s journey seems deeply personal but Thompson’s writing speaks to the artist he believes to reside in each of us.

Electrifying.

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The Enemy within: Argy (Tom Milner) battles his demons (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Nasty and Niece

AWFUL AUNTIE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 26th September, 2018

 

Birmingham Stage Company is back, following up the success of Gangsta Granny with a second alliterative title from comic actor-turned-children’s-author, David Walliams.  Walliams appears to have appointed himself the successor to Roald Dahl and his work bears many similarities to Dahl’s classic novels for children.  Chiefly, Walliams doesn’t sugar coat any aspect of his stories, populates the tales with grotesques, and places a wise child at the heart of them.  Adaptor-director Neal Foster captures the Walliams spirit superbly well, rendering the action in imaginative, theatrical ways.

This one is a grim (Grimm) melodrama that is positively Victorian in its sensationalism.  The titular aunt – Agatha Saxby – is monstrously cruel to her recently orphaned niece.  The title deeds of rambling manor Saxby Hall are at stake.  Richard James is enormous fun as this squawking villain, stomping around in plus fours and a ginger wig.  His sidekick, Wagner, is an imposing owl – and a beautiful piece of puppetry performed by Roberta Bellekom.

Georgina Leonidas instantly gains our sympathy as plucky, long-suffering heroine, 12-year-old Stella, who finds an ally in the form of friendly ghost, Soot (the likeable Ashley Cousins) a chimney sweep’s boy who came to a sticky end on the job.  The pair uncover the true extent of Auntie’s abominable activities as they clamber up and over Jacqueline Trousdale’s revolving set pieces.  The gothic events are offset by the humorous appearances of dotty retainer, Gibbon, in a hilarious turn by Harry Sutherland.

Jak Poore’s original score adds to the urgency of the action and the melodramatic atmosphere of the whole.  It may lack the warmth of Gangsta Granny, but there is plenty here to enjoy as Stella endures tribulation and trials, and Auntie gets her comeuppance in a satisfactory turn of events.

Darkly delicious with a generous helping of toilet humour and gross-out moments, Awful Auntie is awesome entertainment for the whole family.

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Georgina Leonidas and Ashley Cousins try to twoc their way out of trouble (Photo: Mark Douet)


Uptown Top Rankin

REBUS: LONG SHADOWS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 25th September, 2018

 

The character of John Rebus is familiar to many from the novels of Ian Rankin and their television adaptations.  Here, he is brought to life by Charles Lawson (formerly Jim Macdonald off of Coronation Street) in this first-ever stage version, adapted by Rona Munro. Lawson is a compelling, dishevelled presence, a sleeping lion of a man whose exterior belies the power he retains.  In retirement, he has lost none of the faculties that made him a good detective, and is still able to resort to, shall we call it ‘active persuasion’ to get the information he seeks.

The arrival of the daughter of a long-ago murder victim brings Rebus out of his Edinburgh flat and on the hunt for a resolution to the cold case.  Meanwhile, his mentee Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke (the mighty Cathy Tyson) is keen to get a serial rapist/murderer banged up.  Suddenly, Rebus is juggling two investigations, and the involvement of nasty piece of work crime lord ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty brings to light a dark secret from the former detective’s past…

It’s an intriguing if wordy tale, heavy on the exposition but played with conviction so it never falls short of gripping – and there are more laughs in it than you might expect.  Director Robin Lefevre maintains a naturalistic if intense style from his small but excellent cast, played against Ti Green’s stylised set – a sweeping staircase and foreboding walls that would not be out of place in an opera house.  Garth McConaghie’s original music is moody and urgent, befitting the thriller aspects of the story, and his sound design is disquieting.  The crimes are kept off-stage but are evoked by the dramatic device of having a couple of victims (Dani Heron and Eleanor House) appearing to haunt and taunt Rebus with his failure to secure a conviction and get them the justice they deserve.

Lawson and Tyson make an abrasive double act – we sense the mutual respect beneath the barbs and the jibes – but it is the scenes between Lawson and Big Ger (John Stahl) that make all the backstory worthwhile.  Stahl is menacingly charismatic, contrasting with Lawson’s comparatively passive presence, as Rebus apparently effortlessly manages the situation…  There is strong support from Neil McKinven in a couple of roles, and Eleanor House as Heather, the young femme fatale of the piece.

The waters are muddied.  This is no black-and-white crime story.  The morality is as murky as an Edinburgh fog.  One thing is unequivocal: Tyson yearns for a world in which men never attack women.  Looking at the current state of American politics, that world seems a long way off.

A stylish, involving piece, slickly presented and expertly played.  I would not be averse to seeing further Rebus stories staged in this way.

Rebus_Cathy Tyson as Siobhan Clarke & Charles Lawson as Rebus_c Robert Day (2)

Cathy Tyson and Charles Lawson (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 


Book of Reevelation

AN AUDIENCE WITH SIMON REEVE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

 

Simon Reeve has been making documentary series for the telly for 15 years, during which time his travels have taken him to some pretty (and ugly) extreme and dangerous places.  Tonight he’s in Birmingham, promoting his autobiographical new book – a brave man indeed.

He seems extra-pleased that we have come out on the evening the BBC is broadcasting the final episode of its gripping drama, Bodyguard, and consoles us with a reminder that catch-up TV exists.

He begins with talk of his pre-telly existence and it’s quite a revelation.  He hails from Acton, West London, a far cry from the Oxbridge stomping ground of many of his TV predecessors and peers.  He speaks frankly of troubled teenage years, of underage lunchtime drinking, gangs, riding in stolen cars, and of a period of mental illness that brought him to the brink of suicide.  Who would have thunk it of the good-natured, affable chappy from the telly?  Goes to show you never know the battles someone may be fighting.

Within a couple of years, Reeve’s life had changed unrecognisably and he worked his way up from a job in a newspaper post-room to investigative journalism, before writing the first-ever book about Osama bin Laden.  9/11 happened and Reeve was called upon to speak onscreen as a pundit.  His own career in television was soon to ignite.  It’s not my aim to recount all the details of Reeve’s story – he does it so much better.

His is an infinitely likeable personality and his anecdotes (whether they be of getting lost in a minefield or of precarious toilets in faraway places) are gripping, informative and entertaining.  The man seems to embody what the BBC is all about.  Much of what he relates is funny; some of it is moving, and all of it is thought-provoking.  Reeve is visibly moved telling the story of a young boy his team rescued from a beggar’s shackles.  That boy went on to become a leading light in tiger conservation.  How many are denied their potential?  It is incalculable.

There is a clear message for everyone: the best time to do something, to go somewhere, is and always will be now.  And (here is where things turn a little bit school assembly) he recites his rules of How To Travel (responsibly, respectfully, sustainably, adventurously…)

The show runs over and there’s still a brief Q&A to come, but no one seems to mind.  I am so inspired by the spirit of adventure, I am happy to risk missing the last bus.

I queue to get my copy of his book signed and suddenly there he is, bright-eyed before me, alive with the adrenalin of having just come off stage.  I burble inanely, absurdly awestruck, as we shake hands and he signs the frontispiece.  I hand over my phone so we can pose for a selfie together.  We smile at the lens and it’s not bad.  It looks like Simon Reeve grinning next to a mortified bust of Shakespeare.  He thanks me for coming and I intone “Goodbye” like a weirdo and bumble my way to the exit.

When I look at the phone, the picture is gone.  I must have fumbled and deleted it.  Damn.

But I have the memory of the taking of that photo and the words we exchanged (mainly about the couple next to me who had a sotto voce barney just before showtime) and that is kind of the point.  Reeve is all about living the moment rather than experiencing it through a phone.  And I am inspired to do more, to go farther, and to crusade against single-use plastic – but first, there’s that final episode of Bodyguard on iPlayer…

simon r

 


Boss Play

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

 

Richard Bean’s hit comedy is served up with gusto by director Mark Payne and his energetic ensemble.  Set in Brighton in 1963, this is a world of gangsters, scrap metal merchants and lawyers, where the height of sophistication is ‘a pub that does food’.

Leading the cast as the hapless Francis Henshall is Damien Dickens, who puts his own stamp on the role, making it less James Corden and more Adrian Chiles.  Dickens has the unenviable task of beating himself up, which he manages with aplomb, and I warm to him as the performance progresses.  He could do with some padding to make more sense of the references to the character’s bulk.

Naomi Jacobs is absolutely perfect as Rachel Crabbe in disguise as her late twin brother Roscoe, and she is matched in brilliance by Shaun Hartman as her love interest, Stanley Stubbins.  This pair are Henshall’s two guvnors and it is from the contrivances of the plot that keep the bosses separate that most of the farce arises.

Graeme Braidwood convinces as patriarch Charlie ‘the Duck’; Hannah Bollard is pitch perfect as Henshall’s love interest Dolly in an arch and assured performance, while Jason Timmington’s declamatory actor Alan Dingle is also enormous value.  Lara Sprosen’s Pauline is winningly dim.  There is strong support from John O’Neill as Lloyd Boateng, Jordan Bird as Gareth, and Brian Wilson as Harry, but the show is almost stolen from the leads by a brutally slapstick performance from Jacob Williams as doddering octogenarian Alfie who bears the brunt of the comic violence.

The set, by Megan Kirwin and Keith Harris, is stylish and functional without being fussy so the cast has plenty of room to run around in.  Vera Dean’s costumes evoke the era effectively – although Harry Dangle’s sleeves could do with turning up!

Payne paces the action to maximise comic effect.  The asides are delivered with pinpoint timing and Bean’s hilarious script, brimming with brilliant lines, is given the energy and punch it needs to make it work.

A splendid production that is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, proving there is still plenty of mileage in long-established comic tropes (the play is based on an 18th century Italian piece) and demonstrating yet again the wealth of talent on and off the stage at the Crescent.  I had a boss time.

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Damien Dickens and Jacob Williams fail the audition for Help The Aged (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Verily Player One

SUPER HAMLET 64

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Friday 21st September, 2018

 

I don’t know how many Hamlets I have seen, sat through, endured or enjoyed over the years, but this one appealed straight away: a mix-up of the play and computer games… It could work, and by golly, it does!

I’m more of a Shakespeare nerd than a games geek (if that’s the correct nomenclature) but even I get the references to famous figures such as the Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, Crash Bandicoot and so on – and I have a lot of fun identifying lines from the original Shakespeare (Hamlet and other plays) as the play throws new light on them.

The show is the brainchild of solo performer Edward Day.  Armed only with a ukulele against a backdrop on which are projected game menus, scenes, captions and characters.  Cleverly, we can monitor Hamlet’s grief levels… It all fits together beautifully and is held together by a charismatic performance from Day, who exudes a kind of affable intensity.  Day is highly skilled, displaying vocal dexterity in portraying a range of characters, a strong and pleasant singing voice (the songs borrow tunes from the games), and an impressive physicality, moving like a games avatar in a platform game, all exquisitely timed to interact with the animations (which are also by Day).

Hamlet’s father is represented by Mario – here, ‘Hario’ which naturally makes his brother Luigi the evil Claudius.  Gertrude is Princess Peach and Ophelia a sword-swinging Samurai… The acts are levels Hamlet works through; there is a dazzling sequence in which he levels up his language skills so that at last he is equipped to deliver a soliloquy.  This is intelligent stuff and I marvel at the inventiveness on display.  It is also very funny.

Day is so appealing that even when it comes to audience participation, we don’t feel the usual sense of dread.  Hamlet, faced by a horde of zombies (us) goes on a killing spree and it’s hilarious.  The crowd tonight is a select bunch of good sports.  An English teacher beside me declares the show would be an excellent tool to get boys into Shakespeare.  But there is more to the piece than even that.  Poetry abounds, both Shakespeare’s and Day’s, and along with the surprises that make us marvel and laugh, moments of profundity appear.  Life is a game, the play tells us, but we only get one shot at it.  Playing for survival isn’t enough.

A truly wonderful piece of theatre, entertaining, enlightening and enormously enjoyable.  Day is clearly a genius.  I cannot recommend it enough.

This review appears in association with theatrebloggers.co.uk

Hamlet 64 300dpi (photo by Andy Byrne)

“All the world’s a game…” Edward Day (Photo: Andy Byrne)


Peake Performance

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th September, 2018

 

This new play by Maxine Peake documents the true story of four members of Women Against Pit Closures and their occupation of Parkside Colliery in the 1990s.  Peake’s writing clearly shows the influence of the late, great Victoria Wood with whom Peake worked in dinnerladies:  the down-to-earth Northern humour, the bathetic domestic notes, and above all the warmth and humanity of people in adverse conditions.

Kate Anthony is Anne, determined and a bit scatty – it emerges she is the wife of a certain A. Scargill esq, and here the play offers insights into what life was like for his Mrs and their daughter.  Anthony is superb, balancing Anne’s drive with her more humorous moments.

Jane Hazlegrove, formerly of Casualty, is great fun as the brash, earthy Dot, who suffers from claustrophobia – but that doesn’t stop her from descending thousands of feet below the ground.  Joining Dot with the crasser remarks and brash observations is Danielle Henry as Lesley.  This is a very funny play.

Special mention goes to Lucy Tuck, recruited only a couple of days ago to take over the role of Elaine due to the indisposition of the originally cast actor.  Tuck comes on with a script but it’s mainly as a safety net; her performance is almost there as is the chemistry with the rest of the cast.  Quite an achievement – give her to the end of the week and you won’t see the join!

Male roles are played by Conor Glean as sympathetic and easy-on-the-eye miner Michael – a scene in which he and the women share imaginary ecstasy pills is hilarious – and John Elkington gives us villainy-embodied in the form of pit manager Ramsey and also Des the tour guide, and James, a miner who seems to be from another era…

Miners past and present, played by an ensemble of community volunteers, haunt the stage during scene transitions, evoking the industry that has come and gone.  Georgia Lowe’s design is a good fit for the arena set-up of the New Vic, where the darkness adds to the impression of being deep underground.  The pounding, industrial house music used to cover changes is a refreshing change from the colliery brass bands we might expect!

Director Bryony Shanahan paces the humour effectively and brings out the personal-is-political aspects of Peake’s fine script.  Peake raises issues, social and political, many of which have not been consigned to the past.

A highly entertaining and powerful piece that reminds us to stand up for what we believe, to protest those who ride roughshod over us, that it is the protest that matters, the being counted, rather than the result.  If we’re going down, it’s better to go down fighting.  A losing battle is still a battle although I’d like to think there is hope for success.

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Going underground: Jane Hazledine and Conor Glean (Photo: Keith Pattison)

 


Steps in the right direction

THE 39 STEPS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 8th September, 2018

 

Of all the incarnations of John Buchan’s novel of 1915, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation is my favourite – perhaps it’s because the world has moved on and the stiff-upper-lip hero is hard to take seriously anymore.  I have lost count of the number of productions I have seen yet it is still with excitement that I approach this one in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.

The space is dominated by Keith Harris’s set, which consists mainly of a mini proscenium arch with curtain and a rostrum.  This comes in useful for scenes set in the London Palladium and later in a Scottish hall, but most of the time it pushes the action downstage and so close to the audience it feels cramped.  The rest of the scenery is conjured from judicious use of some simple settle-type benches, which create an armchair, a box at the theatre, a bed and so on as the story demands.  There is a portable window, which is used for laughs, but no portable door – a missed opportunity, there.

The cast of four is very strong.  Leading is a dapper David Baldwin as urbane twit and action figure, Richard Hannay.  He is pitch perfect and, in this intimate space, you can see Hannay’s cogs working behind his eyes.  As his three leading ladies, Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret, Molly Wood is also strong – her ‘Cherman’ accent is particularly good, but she needs to ensure that Pamela’s best line (I’m not surprised you’re an orphan) is not lost among her wracking sobs.

Everyone else is played by a couple of ‘Clowns’, both of whom prove their versatility.  Katie Goldhawk’s Scottish characters come across especially well, while Niall Higgins’s nefarious Professor and his wacky Scottish landlady are hilarious.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Mounga elicits wonderful characterisations across the board, and her staging gives rise to plenty of titters.  In her hands, Barlow’s script is consistently amusing but I get the feeling we are being short-changed when it comes to the play’s set pieces: the escape from the train, for example.  Much fun is had with the party behind the closed-door bit, but the wild wind outside Margaret’s cottage is another opportunity overlooked.  The sound effect is there, courtesy of Roger Cunningham, but it doesn’t affect the action.  More could be made of the actors’ physicality to get locations across.  Further steps could be taken.

There is plenty to enjoy here, but I come away thinking the creative envelope could be pushed a little further to give us moments of inventiveness to dazzle and delight and take our breath away.

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Strangers on a train: Katie Goldhawk, Niall Higgins and a bemused David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Quartet with strings

FOUR PLAY

The Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th September, 2018

 

Jake Brunger’s play from 2016 is a fresh and funny four-hander about relationships and commitment, particularly among gay men.  Rafe and Pete, seven years in, are itching to broaden their experience, only ever having been with each other.  They recruit Michael, a friend from Facebook, for an evening with each of them.  There are rules: Michael’s partner Andrew must not find out, being chief among them.  Of course, anyone who has seen Gremlins knows that as soon as rules are mentioned they are going to be broken…. Michael tells Andrew from the off…

This comedy of manners gets off to a hilarious start as the nervous Rafe and the taciturn Pete meet Michael to make the proposition.  Conor Nolan is superb as the adorably awkward, sweet but slightly twattish Rafe, with flawless timing and sensitivity.  He is utterly credible from the start.  Dominic Thompson’s Pete is initially a man of few words; it emerges that it is Pete who initiated the idea to spice up their sex lives, Rafe is going along with it for the sake of peace.  Thompson imbues Pete with an animalistic intensity.  Beyond the smart trousers and bottles of prosecco, Pete is a seething mass of passion.  Thompson is an actor of charismatic presence in all he does, and he brings out Pete’s softer, more romantic side too.

Tom Silverton retains a measure of detachment and elegant aloofness as Michael, the recruit, who is apparently able to separate sex from emotion.  It is only when the situation reaches breaking point that he expresses his true feelings – never mind can of worms, these are electric eels bursting out.  The archness and bitchiness of Andrew (Tye Harris) masks vulnerability and low self-esteem, as he clings to Michael despite the ‘rules’ of their open relationship.  Harris’s outbursts are powerful, revealing the true Andrew beneath the campness.

All four members of this quartet turn in a compelling, rounded performance.  The comedy of manners develops into searing emotional scenes.  Director Tracey Street manages the tonal changes splendidly.  The minimalist setting gives focus to the actors in this intimate space – which is all this piece requires.  In fact, as soon as props come in, we get wine sloshed around, glasses get broken… Street contrasts the overall naturalism of the performance with a stylised, contemporary-dance-like sequence to represent Pete and Michael having sex.  It’s a beautiful moment – for us, to appreciate the movement skills of Thompson and Silverton – but ugly in what it means for the characters we have come to care about.

Brunger’s writing is dazzlingly good.  The play suggests that open relationships may not necessarily be all that open, that monogamy might not be that monogamous, that there is indeed more than one way to have a relationship, but as long as those involved want different things, there will always be tension and the potential for breaking-up.  And perhaps sex cannot be entirely detached from emotion after all.

Entertainment of the highest quality, this production is thoroughly engaging, funny and touching.  I adored it.

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Awesome foursome: Tom Silverton, Tye Harris, Dominic Thompson, and Conor Nolan


Flash back

FLASHDANCE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th September, 2018

 

I have vague memories of the film from 1983, with its story of a lady welder who dances in a nightclub and dreams of attending a posh dance academy.  The theme song, of course (and the video that went with it) are burned into the popular consciousness.  Here, original screenplay writer Tom Hedley adapts the piece for the stage, with the addition of original songs by Robert Cary and Robbie Roth.  Also included are key songs from the film (I Love Rock and Roll, Maniac, Gloria…) which, if I’m honest, knock the new material into a cocked hat.

Strictly’s Joanne Clifton leads the energetic company as Alex, dancing up a storm and taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase her other talents, acting and singing – the latter being rather good indeed.  Love interest comes in the form of a1’s Ben Adams as the boss’s pretty-boy son, Nick.  While Clifton’s vocals lean more toward musical theatre, Adams’s sweet and strong pop stylings work well in their duets.

Among the hard-working cast, stand-outs include Sia Dauda as Kiki, with big hair and a voice to match (it’s a shame she’s not put to use more) and Carol Ball as Alex’s mentor and benefactor, Hannah.  Matt Concannon makes an impression as the ostensible villain of the piece, sleazy club proprietor, CC, while Hollie-Ann Lowe has her moments as feisty-but-tragic Gloria.

The cast is great, the staging of the musical numbers with choreography by Matt Cole is fine, but it’s the dramatic scenes that require attention.  In some places, the pace of the dialogue needs to be snappier and, on the whole, scenes lack dynamics; director Hannah Chissick ought to apply a musical ear to the spoken words so that moments of drama can build and flow and reach a crescendo.

Apart from all that, the material is not to my taste.  A more interesting story might be of a classical ballerina trying to make it as a welder.  In the world of this piece, Alex is a skilled welder and nobody bats an eye (and why should they?) but the only other options for women seem to be working in clubs, performing suggestive routines, and parading around for the male gaze.  No wonder Alex wants to escape these dated sexual politics.

Despite Clifton’s sterling, tireless efforts, I’m not engaged by Alex’s tribulations.  I applaud the performance but I don’t enjoy the piece.  Oh well.

And I’m still wondering what became of her co-workers, like Rhodri Watkins’s Andy, facing redundancy and hardship.  The story seems to forget about them…

Flashdance, the musical. Kings Theatre, Glasgow. 5th August 2017

Joanne Clifton cools off after another blisteringly hot routine


Crowning Achievement

TAMBURLAINE

The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018

 

Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre.  Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after.  Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.

As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear.  Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand.  The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond.  Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements.  It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.

As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose!  McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.

The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about.  Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on.  David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant.  Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley.  I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).

For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference)  There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.

Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied.  This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature.  We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry.  I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns.  How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.

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Hey, Mr Tamburlaine man! The mighty Jude Owusu (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Crime Pays Off

THE COMEDY ABOUT A BANK ROBBERY

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 29th August, 2018

 

Mischief Theatre, the group behind the phenomenally successful The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, is back with this piece in which everything goes right.  Set in 1950s America, there is a B-movie aesthetic to this tale of a diamond heist from a bank in Minneapolis.  Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields cram their script with quickfire corny jokes – the opening scene in a prison cell sets the bar low (or high, depending on your point of view) from the start.  But such is the conviction of the cast, with their energised, larger-than-life delivery, they get away with even the most groan-worthy lines.

It’s a conventional farce in many respects.  Old-fashioned – and that fashion being the commedia dell’arte with stock characters and ludicrous situations, that develop and grow to the point of absurdity.  There is plenty of double-talk of which the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello would be proud.  A lengthy scene in an apartment with a fold-up bed is breath-taking in its complexity.  Later, a scene in the bank with the manager and two imposters outdoes everything that has come earlier for sheer silliness.  A scene in which the back wall becomes the floor, while the robbers crawl through air vents, is hilariously inventive – theatricality is used as another dimension to the sight gags.

Liam Jeavons brings a dangerous edge to the silliness as lead robber Mitch Ruscitti, his efforts forever punctured by David Coomber’s campily dramatic and incredibly thick Neil Cooper.  Damian Lynch is pitch perfect as the gruff bank manager, Robin Freeboys, and Killian Macardie gets more than sufficiently wound-up as stressed FBI officer Randal Shuck.  Jon Trenchard is on the receiving end of most of the slapstick violence, in his role as hapless perma-intern Warren Slax, while Ashley Tucker’s Ruth Monaghan (in this performance) delivers most of the sublime singing that covers the scene transitions.  At the heart of the piece is the love story between the bank manager’s grifter daughter, Caprice (a marvellously funny Julia Frith) and Seán Carey’s petty crook and con artist Sam.  Theirs is a romance of intensely silly situational comedy, but we end up rooting for them all the same.  Oh, and George Hannigan plays Everyone Else – including a solo scene in which he miraculously depicts a fight between three of Caprice’s suitors.

David Farley’s set is both stylish and functional, swiftly changing locations while being solid enough to allow extremes of physical comedy.  David Howe’s lighting heightens the heist-movie feel – there’s a scene underwater that is just beautiful to see.

An unadulterated joy, this is a comedy with plenty for everyone.  The pace never flags so we never lose interest (that’s a banking joke) and then, remarkably, the odd moment of actual drama breaks to the surface – and you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium.  The sillier it gets, the more we marvel at the cleverness of the show’s creators, and the seemingly tireless energy of this remarkable ensemble, who rise to the demands of each moment.

I urge you to get a ticket to one of the funniest shows you will ever see – whatever price you pay is a steal.  And it would be a crime to miss it, etc…

Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith, Seán Carey. Photo Robert Day

Making a withdrawal: Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith, and Seán Carey (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 


Party On!

Stage Experience: BOOGIE NIGHTS

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 23rd August, 2018

 

Every summer about a hundred young people flock to Birmingham and just a fortnight later, they’re performing to packed houses.  It’s the Alex’s annual Stage Experience project, a highlight of the theatre’s calendar.  Previous shows include 42nd Street, Footloose, and West Side Story.  This year the choice is Boogie Nights, a jukebox musical of 1970s hits with a plot so shallow it makes Dreamboats & Petticoats seem like The Cherry Orchard.   This is Saturday Night Fever lite, with characters living for their nights out at the local nightclub, and there’s a party atmosphere long before the performance begins with cast members in the aisles encouraging the audience to get up and dance.

The miracle worker, as ever, is the indefatigable Pollyann Tanner who directs and choreographs her huge cast of youngsters with an assured hand.  It can’t be easy managing such a troupe but the enthusiasm of every member shines through – this lot clearly don’t need cattle-prods to get them to cooperate!  I can’t list them all, so forgive me, chorus, for focussing on the main players.

Leading the cast is Elliot Gooch as Roddy, our narrator.  Gooch has presence and a twinkle in his eye, but Roddy is written in such a way, we can’t be charmed by his throwaway sexism and his selfishness.  Gooch works hard to sell the character to us, but ultimately Roddy is an obnoxious plonker.  As Roddy’s long-term girlfriend Debs, Isabella Kibble positively shines in a flawless performance.  She can handle the London-ish accent superbly and sings like a dream.  Furthermore, she brings credibility to the part and is the emotional centre of the piece.  Kibble is supported by Melissa Huband as best friend Trish, who also sings well and displays spot-on comic timing.

Grace Williams also makes a strong impression as night-club singer Lorraine.  Her duet with Debs (No More Tears/Enough is Enough) is a definite highlight.

Among a colourful array of Seventies costumes, Gibsa Bah looks marvellous as Spencer, strutting on huge platforms with an afro like a black cloud over his head, whose chauvinistic attitudes remind us that the period was not just great pop music and big collars.  Thomas Parkinson adds humour as Roddy’s mate Terry, while handsome Jonah Sercombe has the best male singing voice of the lot – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more from him – but I would advise him not to rush his dialogue, and please, someone get him a wig to hide his on-fleek 2018 hairdo!  There is an excellent performance from Liam Huband as Roddy’s Elvis-worshipping father, Eamon – a strong characterisation, Eamon gets most of the best lines (even if Jon Conway’s script strings together as many old jokes as old songs).

The songs keep coming (and coming) along with gratuitous period references to crank up the nostalgia factor.  A tight ensemble led by Musical Director Chris Newton provides a great sound, and you can’t resist the energy coming off the stage.  More of a party than a play, this show’s delights come from seeing young people giving it their all, rather than getting their teeth into a meatier piece of musical theatre.

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Windsor Takes All

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 17th August, 2018

 

Fiona Laird’s joyous staging of Shakespeare’s farcical comedy turns out to be the funniest RSC production of the Bard in a long while.  Blending the Tudor with contemporary Essex (familiar from so-called reality television), the design manages to be both traditional and fresh (the skeletal Tudor buildings are everything!), yielding delightful costume choices, designed from scratch by Lez Brotherston.  Check out Mistress Ford’s high collar and skinny-fit trousers in the illustration below.  This aesthetic enables David Troughton’s Sir John Falstaff to sport a John Bull waistcoat over a pair of baggy slops – with an ever-present, priapic codpiece.  Later, his anyone-for-tennis garb highlights how old-fashioned his brand of lechery is; he is an interloper in this glamorous suburbia, and the women, complete with TOWIE accents and dress sense, are empowered totally.  The play is an antidote to the problematic sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew.

Troughton’s Falstaff is everything you could want in the Fat Knight, brought low by his appetites – which is a staple of comedy: to mock Man for his baser desires.  Ruling the roost, running rings around Falstaff and tying him in Windsor knots are Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page.  Their machinations belie the Essex stereotype of the dim-witted glamourpuss unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Their attire may be in dubious taste but their characters and antics are to be admired. Cordingly and Lacey are clearly having a great time – and this enjoyment transfers to the audience.

Indeed, the watchword of the production is Fun.  We know the plot is convoluted nonsense but we are able to take such delight in this retelling, thanks in no small part to the comedic skills of a talented ensemble.  Jonathan Cullen’s French doctor Caius would put Inspecteur Clouseau to shame with his mangling of the English language and his histrionic carryings-on; Vince Leigh’s Ford dons a ridiculous nose-and-glasses disguise, along with a compare-the-meerkat accent.  Subtle, it ain’t, but it works magnificently.  David Acton is also a hoot as Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, while Ishia Bennison’s Mistress Quickly and Katy Brittain’s Hostess of the Garter (all big hair and leopard print) are hilarious creations.  Tom Padley is spot on as thick-as-a-brick Slender, more than a little reminiscent of ‘celebrity’ Joey Essex in his delivery; Karen Fishwick’s Ann Page is all duck-face pouts into her smartphone and teenage surliness. Tim Samuels is nasally officious as Shallow, the Justice of the Peace, while Josh Finan makes an impression as Falstaff’s rugby-shirted follower, Nym.

The playing is as broad as the accents and Laird imbues the show with a knockabout style that suits the age-old comedic conventions of the piece, mixed with some present-day references to keep things fresh.  The traditional laundry basket is supplanted by a big pink wheelie bin, and it works brilliantly.  Surely, even the most stuck-in-the-mud purist would chuckle.  Similarly, an action sequence in which Falstaff, disguised as the Fat Witch of Brentwood, is roundly chased off the premises, is a moment of chaotic, cartoonish bliss.  His parting shot, a quote from Dick Emery, reminds us how out-of-synch he is with this world.

I would like more to be made of the spooking of Falstaff in the final act; the scene seems to be over too quickly but, for the rest of it, the pacing is impeccable, and Laird’s attention to detailed comic business is superb.  She has also graced the production with an original score of her own composition, blending period flavours with contemporary beats and sit-com stylings.  It is delicious.

A wildly entertaining romp, triumphantly hilarious, this is a Merry Wives to savour.

The Merry Wives of Windsor production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_258364

Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly in Lex Brotherston’s fabulous costumes (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Leaps of Faith

BOX OF FROGS

Glee Club, Birmingham, Sunday 29th July, 2018

 

Those who remember ground-breaking TV series, Whose Line Is It Anyway? will know what to expect at an evening like this: a succession of games and set-ups that allow the actors to flex their improvisational skills.  And so, the format is pretty familiar, but it is the content that remains unexpected.  Our host is the amiable Jon Trevor, who sketches in the ‘rules’ for each sketch before selecting which improvisers will play. With plenty of input from the audience (occupations, objects, delusions…) the team members are firing on all cylinders to keep the laughs coming.  The hit rate is pretty high and there’s a certain tension in the air, that things won’t work – and, on the rare occasions when they don’t quite come off, are usually as funny as the moments that do, thanks to the wit and easy-going nature of the troupe and especially the host.

It is one thing to have us shouting out suggestions or have us write them down on little postcards prior to the performance, but whenever audience members are ‘volunteered’ to appear, this is where things don’t work so well.  A sound effects game falls a little flat; as does a stunt involving audience members manipulating actors as giant puppets – proving that improv takes a lot of skill and a lot of practice to be able to maximise each moment.  Participants need trust in each other and faith in their skills.  Wisely, our host blows the whistle on these scenes pretty sharpish.

For the most part, though, the laughs keep coming thick and fast.  What the group does best are the musical games.  There is something extra magical about pulling tunes and lyrics out of the ether.  A scene involving Jen as a barmaid, dispensing advice along with the drinks, is a scream, as three other improvisers approach with problems gleaned from the audience.  Likewise, an improvised opera in gobbledegook and simultaneously translated, miraculously appears from nowhere.  A blues number is a scream. Best of all is the ‘charity single’ that closes the show – on this occasion it’s an appeal for Viagra for lovelorn lepidopterists, demonstrating how in tune with each other each frog in the box truly is.  It features a rap sequence by team member Rich that is dazzling in its wit and relevance.

Karen, Grant, Lee, Nick, Jen, Suzy, Rich and Jon,  I salute you all – and a very special mention to keyboard wizard Geddes.  The brilliant and bouncy Box of Frogs is definitely a group to see at least once before you croak.

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Gleeful: another Box of Frogs show gets under way

 

 

 


Madskillz

CIRQUE BERSERK

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 26th July, 2018

 

Circus has changed – evolved – since its inception by Philip Astley 250 years ago.  Exotic animals have come and gone (thank goodness) and what we have today relies solely on the skills of human performers.  Gone too is Astley’s innovative ring in this ‘made for theatre’ show.  And with no ring, there is no ringmaster; the acts follow each other unannounced, giving the show an organic feel.

The Timbuktu Tumblers from Africa get things off to a flying start.  Dressed as walk-ons from Hamilton they hurl themselves through a skipping rope then pile onto each other in a range of configurations.  In the second half, they set fire to a limbo stick, setting the bar high – or rather, lowering it at increments.  They’re an engaging bunch and I look forward to seeing them later in the year at the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime.

Luciana Gabriel and Carina treat us to a display of bolas spinning, to dazzling and percussive effect.  I can only think of the bruises they must have incurred during training!

Our clowns for the evening are a double-act from Brazil, the Mustache Brothers – imagine if Charlie Cairoli had sired the Super Mario Brothers and you get some idea.  Their make-up is subtle if their expressions are not. Their dumb-show antics are charming and, yes, funny, involving a ladder, a bucket of smoke, and a table.  The universal language of slapstick speaks to us all.

Other acts that impress are aerialists Rosey and Jackie, Odka, a contortionist who arrives on stage in a jar, unfolds herself and performs archery with her feet.  The Tropicana Troupe from Cuba use a platform, a seesaw and a crash mat to gobsmack us all, their deadpan expressions making them all the more camp.  Toni the Czech knife thrower is the most traditional act of the night; the brave woman who stands unflinchingly before him amazes me the most.  I also enjoy Laci Fossett and his aerial pole work, Germaine Delbosq who juggles on her back, using her feet to manipulate a cube, a cylinder and a ring while her hands deal with balls, Zula with his tower of chairs…  I would have liked more to be made of the flame-throwing robot.

The big finale for both halves concerns the ‘Globe of Death’ a spherical cage into which a man on a motorbike enters and rides around.  He is followed by a second.  And then a girl goes and stands in there with them.  The heady smell of petrol fills the auditorium – I spend the second half in a kind of awe-inspired daze, so by the time the globe reappears for the big finish, topping the feats of the first act, I am well away.  Perhaps too, the interval wine had something to do with it.

The upshot is a spectacularly entertaining evening.  Creative director Julius Green keeps things seamless, with contrasting acts and moods so nothing feels tired or repetitive.  In these days of commonplace CGI effects in just about everything, it is refreshing and thrilling to see real people perform these skills before your very eyes.  Cirque Berserk is non-stop entertainment, lacking the pretentiousness of other troupes I could mention.  Costumes of a bygone age blend with costumes from faraway places in a thoroughly contemporary setting, showing that the circus is still alive and well.  It’s solid fun for all the family and you can’t help admiring the hell out of everyone involved.

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On target: Odka (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

 

 


Life in a Northern Town

HE’D MURDER ME

Blue Orange Theatre, Monday 23rd July, 2018

 

James Nicholas’s one-act one-hander tells the story of Jack, a young man who grew up in Huddersfield during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders.  Jack, it transpires, is gay, a fact he is compelled to keep secret because his world is steeped in violent homophobia.

Richard Buck is Jack in this challenging piece.  He is an affable narrator, dipping in and out of characters swiftly and with precision, using gesture, voice and stance to depict the host of people that form Jack’s story.  This economic style is so effective; we can picture each person so vividly.  Jack is haunted by the Yorkshire Ripper, who contributed to making his teen years so terrifying, and, as the tale unfolds, we come to understand exactly why.  Buck is superb and doesn’t miss a beat.

Director Ian Craddock keeps Buck moving – the stage is full of him.  Changes of location and mood are subtly signalled through lighting changes but Craddock allows the power of his actor to keep us engaged in this tale of coming-of-age without coming-out.  Nicholas’s beautifully detailed writing builds to a shattering revelation.  The enforced keeping of a secret – homosexuality, I mean – can have devastating effects on the secret-keeper, with long-lasting effects on mental health and wellbeing.  In Jack’s case, it is truly a matter of life and death.

Absorbing, gripping and emotional with a magnetic performance from Richard Buck, this is a fine piece of theatre that deserves a larger audience.

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