A Ripping Time

AN EVENING WITH JACK THE RIPPER

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 17th April, 2019

 

Having enjoyed the superlative Ebenezer’s Christmas Carol at this venue back in December, I am thrilled and honoured to be invited to be part of a select group at this try-out of a new event.  As with the Dickens show, the Tudor setting of this glorious old building lends itself surprisingly well to the nooks and crannies of Victorian Whitechapel – everywhere looks the same in the dark, I suppose! – and there is something undeniably creepy about the museum with the lights out, with the dark shapes of mannequins looming all around…

Based on an idea by Steve Mitchell, researched and devised by Janet Ford, with dramaturgy and script by Paul Norton, the scene is set for our investigation.  Our host is Inspector Aberline (Paul Norton) who gathers us in a briefing room.  We, the guests, are cast as fellow detectives and are equipped with clipboards and pencils with which to record our findings.  Aberline and his able assistant, Detective Swanson (Hannah Joyce) feed us a lot of information, placing the infamous murders within their social context.  It is immediately fascinating.

The briefing is interrupted by blasts from a police whistle, summoning us into the main house.  We troop in by lantern-light and are led up to the first floor, where we find the outline of a woman on the landing.  Aberline introduces us to the first victim, filling us in on her background before describing in forensic detail and with the help of a volunteer, the vicious murder itself.  (You may be called upon to lie on the floor!)  The inspector takes us through to another room – there’s the second victim…

We return to the briefing room to jot down our notes and discuss our thoughts.  Another whistle blast summons us back in for victims three and four…

There’s a break for tea and biscuits and more discussion, before we are taken to the fifth and final crime scene of the evening.  This is the most detailed, most shocking of the lot, with Hannah Joyce representing Mary Kelly on a bed.  Throughout the evening, Joyce has provided voices for the victims, making them people rather than props in a story, but here it really hits home as Mary Kelly addresses us directly.  Yes, the accounts are shocking, the details gruesome and in some cases, sickening, but the presentation is all the more effective because of its restraint.

We reconvene for a final sharing of thoughts and to posit our theories about the various suspects who were in the frame at the time.  It’s a thoroughly engaging experience but, inevitably, there can be no definite conclusion.  There is an enduring power to this real-life mystery; if Jack the Ripper were ever truly unmasked, the legend would lose some of its attraction.

Although proceedings need a tighter ending, this is an enjoyably intriguing evening that induces us to use our grey matter to tease out pieces of the puzzle.  Once again, it is an unadulterated pleasure to listen to the consummate story-telling skills of Paul Norton, and the splendid support he is given by Hannah Joyce and the unseen presence of Antony Hardy.

Out of necessity, numbers are restricted due to the nature of the site, but this is an excellent event for a group seeking something different, something that evokes both an intellectual and an emotional response.  Check out tudorworld.com for booking information.

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Soaping Up

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BOBBY (OFF EASTENDERS)

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 10th April, 2019

 

The titular Bobby is a young lad from the fictional London borough of Walford, famed for committing the murder of his elder sister and for braining his mum with a hockey stick before being caught bang to rights and carted off to a detention centre.  This play by George Attwell-Gerhards looks at the psychological effects of such storylines on the child actors who enact them.

Here, Annie (Laura Adebisi) is a twelve-year-old who, being no longer cute enough for yogurt adverts, lands a job in what seems to be a particularly sordid soap opera.  She puts a hockey stick to good use against her mother before getting locked in her father’s basement and fall victim to his sexual predations.  The action jumps from Annie’s audition, to shooting scenes from the soap, to her deteriorating home life… with Attwell-Gerhards’s script charting the blurring of lines between fiction and reality, the pressures of sudden fame on someone so young, the treatment of young stars by the media – there’s a lot packed into this hour-long piece and director Lucy Bird keeps things taut, as her cast of three flick between characters, like switching channels by remote control.

Tom Bulpett is Annie’s dad, thrust into a PR role for which he is unprepared and unsuited.  He is also a casting director, and Annie’s soap co-star.  Cara Mahooney is Annie’s mum, and a friendly make-up artist who takes Annie under her wing, and a TV director, feeling the pressure.  Both actors are top-notch and there is never any confusion about who they are at any particular moment, their characterisations are well-differentiated and clear.  The characters represent a range of abusive and exploitative experiences Annie faces – the play certainly exposes a kind of child abuse that is rarely considered: the effect on the young psyche of playing out extreme and disturbing situations.  We have all heard stories of grown-up child stars struggling to cope with life in the real world, and such stories invariably tell of crime and drugs and mental illness.

As the central figure, Laura Adebisi is credibly child-like, enthusiastic and eager to please.  Adebisi combines vulnerability with stroppiness, as Annie lashes out at her real dad, while chumming up with her onscreen, abusive dad.  We see her psychological decline in tandem with her onscreen character’s deprivations, culminating in a scene with an iron that must be a homage to Little Mo and Trevor, that iconic moment of a woman standing up to her abuser.

This is powerful stuff.  Darkly comic to begin with, satirising the industry, it develops into a gripping psychological drama.  The transitions are slick and effective, and there is dissonant sound underlining Annie’s distress.  I would suggest the TV screen that comes on at the end is too small to have the necessary impact, but the intimacy of the Old Joint Stock puts us right in the action, making us as viewers complicit in the exploitation of a child.

There are a couple of instances when they ask, “Annie, are you OK?” – and I can’t decide if this is unintentionally awkward or intentionally clever…

This is the second show from Birmingham’s Paperback Theatre that I have seen in a couple of months.  They’re two for two in terms of excellence, in my view.

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Tom Bulpett and Laura Adebisi

 

 


Homeless not Hopeless

STREETS APART

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 6th April 2019

 

First off, it’s very pleasing to see new work being created and produced in a town that thrives on centuries-old drama.   This brand-new piece by local playwright Jackie Lines depicts what life is like for an increasing number of vulnerable people who, through no choice of their own, wind up on the streets.  Passers-by give examples of the abuse faced by homeless people and illustrate the negative attitudes and common misconceptions about them.  It’s an effective start.

The play tells of the efforts of a group of volunteers in a centre as they strive, with limited resources, to make life better for the homeless.  We meet a range of characters from the streets, such as ex-army, PTSD sufferer Neil (a powerful Graham Tyrer) who declaims poetry and rants through mental illness, like a latter-day Vladimir or Estragon.  There’s Mick, a former plumber who lost everything after a life-changing injury that led to an addiction to opiates, played by Mark Spriggs with intensity, strength and vulnerability.  The inclusion of a couple of original poems by Spriggs enriches the show.

Largely, the story concerns the fate of young couple Tom (Tom Purchase-Rathbone) and Susan (Emma Beasley) who have found each other on the streets, having each come from horrendous childhood backgrounds.  At first, they are cautious about accepting help from the centre, but gradually, they blossom and thrive, although there are some setbacks along the way.  Mick, who, despite the intercession of bleeding heart Sandra (Rachel Alcock) declines help, does not end so happily: there is some kind of moral message here.  If you accept help, you’ll be fine; if you don’t, you won’t.

Among an effective cast, Zoe Rashwan’s forthright Carol stands out and the drama is leavened by comic relief from Gill Hines as doddering volunteer Edna.  Chris Musson (appearing as guitarist Barry) brings original music, along with Chris Callaghan’s Eddie, as volunteers running song-writing sessions to give the homeless a voice.

As the volunteers, we have Stacey Warner as Anna, Barry Purchase-Rathbone as Greg, and Karen Welsh as Diane – whose elegant exterior masks a tale of injustice and loss that put her on the streets for a time.  The play shows that there are ways out of homelessness, and not all of them are tragic!

In terms of drama, I would like to see more direct conflict, perhaps involving the kind of authority figures whose policies exacerbate the problem.  Certainly, these people need to be in the audience of a show like this.  Director Greg Cole handles the slice-of-life tone, with scenes coming over as credible and authentic, although there are some staging issues.  In-the-round is more intimate, yes, and democratic, which is fitting, but cast members need to ‘share their backs’ so everyone gets a fair look at them!

By and large, the production is an awareness-raising, thought-provoking, conscience-pricking success, depicting the precariousness of life in society today and emphasising the humanity we all share with the homeless.

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Cobblers

TIMPSON The Musical

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 4th April, 2019

 

This isn’t the first musical to mine Romeo & Juliet for material, but it’s certainly the funniest.  The setting, such as it is, is Victorian London.  Two rival businesses both alike in indignity, one mending shoes, the other making keys, give rise to a pair of young lovers.  You know the rest – or you might think you do.  The plot takes a few swerves along the way to its resolution: the union of the two families and the formation of the High Street business we all know, the shop where you can get your shoes mended and your keys cut.  Yes, this is the world of the Montashoes and the Keypulets.

Writer-director-performer Sam Cochrane, the driving force behind the project, comes and goes as a range of characters, from a talking portrait to a winsome maid.  He is aided and abetted by versatile maniac Alex Prescot, who seems indefatigably energetic in his quickly-changing portrayals, in an irresistible performance.  I fell for him at once.

James Stirling is bluffly bombastic as Master Keypulet, the Machiavellian patriarch, contrasting with Susan Harrison’s diminutive dipsomaniac Lady Montashoe.  Madeleine Gray is hilariously histrionic as Monty, the Romeo figure, while Sabrina Messer’s Keeleigh (the Juliet) is simply sublime.  Messer can belt out heartfelt numbers and then within the space of a semiquaver, drop into a deadpan aside, forever undermining any emotive content the show might have.  She is delightful, to put it mildly.

It’s a good job there is no scenery to speak of, because this lot would be chewing it.  The acting style is over-the-top-and-a-half, the jokes come thick and fast.  Even the songs are laced with daftness with the onstage trio of musicians (Sophie Walker, Dan Hester and MD Lewis Bell) joining in proceedings.  Those songs, with lyrics by Sam Cochrane and Chris Baker, and music by Tom Slade and Theo Caplan, cover a range of styles and are all fabulously entertaining.  They are performed with gusto by the cast – even the choreography, by Ellie Fitz-Gerald is bloody silly. And they all keep instep!

This tale of cobbler meets key-maker is cutting edge (heh) and performed with sole (heh heh) and is a shoe-in to get tongues wagging.  This show has the power to heel… I’ll stop now.

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Alex Prescot and Madeleine Gray

 


Double Double

WISE CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019

 

On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.

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Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

 

 


Nazi Piece of Work

COLLABORATION

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th March, 2019

 

Ronald Harwood’s 2008 play has, sadly, gained in relevance since its original appearance.  Set mainly in the 1930s, the play charts the working relationship and friendship between top composer Richard Strauss and writer Stefan Zweig whom Strauss enlists as a librettist.  All goes well.  The men establish a rapport but, in the background, the rise of overt animosity toward the Jews eventually encroaches on proceedings.

The first act is a rather gentle comedy, offering insights into the creative process, but things take a much darker turn after the interval, with the interference of the Nazis, represented here by Herr Hinkel.

Bill Barry is positively avuncular as Strauss, with Simon King’s Zweig as a more neurotic contrast.  Both are at their strongest when speaking with passion, about music, about principles, and Barry’s greatest moment (and the play’s sucker punch) comes right at the end when Strauss gives testimony to a denazification board (Spoiler: The Nazis lost the war).  Skye Witney comes into her own as Strauss’s spouse, putting the arrogant Hinkel in his place, while Emilia Harrild as Zweig’s secretary/main squeeze Lotte impresses as she recounts a violent assault.   At other times, the action is a little stiff.  When pleasantries are exchanged, the characters aren’t quite as convincing, and there are times when the blocking seems off with actors in entirely the wrong place for optimal staging.  I’m guessing this is because it’s opening night and points still need tightening up.

There is an effective cameo from Alan Bull as hotel intendant Paul Adolph.  As the arrogant, coldly efficient Herr Hinkel, the excellent Jack Hobbis is utterly chilling, exuding an air of evil through a thin veneer of civility, and we are reminded how this pernicious ideology insinuates itself into the world, before imposing its will and causing all sorts of problems – to make an understatement.

Harwood’s writing is always enjoyable and this is no exception.  Alan K Marshall’s production hits all the high notes, with the dramatic moments powerfully presented, but like Zweig’s struggles with recitative, it’s the linking bits, the casual conversations, that require more consideration.

The play is a stark reminder to nip the Far Right in the bud before it can take hold.  It never ends well.

A worthwhile production that will make you smile, laugh, think and, ultimately, feel.

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Simon King and Bill Barry (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


War Wounds

GLORY DAZED

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 28th March, 2019

 

It’s closing time in a backstreet pub in Doncaster, and mild-mannered barman Simon and his staff are tidying up.  The peace is shattered by pounding at the door.  It’s Simon’s best mate, former squaddie Ray, ex-husband of Simon’s lady friend Carla, demanding to be let in for a lock-in.  Against their better judgment, they let him in, and what should be an after-hours drinking session turns into more of a hostage situation.

Ray is a bully and boor, a walking war zone with an extremely short fuse and a nasty sense of humour.  We laugh, uncomfortably – in case he turns on us, it feels like!  The humour is very dark and comes a distant second to the tension in this intimate, intimidating piece.  Director Tracey Street makes us feel as though we are in the pub with them, pitching the sudden changes of mood perfectly to keep us on edge.  It’s a gruelling experience and an irresistible one.

Dominic Thompson is in great form as barman Simon, nervous and timid upon Ray’s arrival, before dredging up some inner strength along with some unsavoury details about Ray’s wartime experiences in Afghanistan.  Karendip Phull is suitably dim as teenage barmaid Leanne in a well-observed portrayal, and Sophie Handy is heartbreaking as the ex-wife, embittered and standing her ground while still having feelings for her troubled ex.  She storms it, in fact.

Inevitably, perhaps, the show belongs to Ray.  In a towering performance, Paul Findlay brings this psychotic, damaged individual to scary life, dominating the scene, oozing menace and lashing out.  And yet, such is the power of Cat Jones’s writing, Tracey Street’s direction and Findlay’s rounded performance, we actually feel for the man, as we learn about his harrowing past.  The play highlights the damage, the PTSD, inflicted on soldiers.  As Carla wryly observes, if he’d come back with his legs off, everyone could see it.  Mental trauma is invisible.

Tautly presented, this discomfiting piece packs quite a wallop.  A superlative cast and a director who can orchestrate mood swings like a symphony deliver this sordid and powerful story in a production it is difficult to fault.  I emerge feeling punch-drunk and exhausted from the tension – just like a proper night out!

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Sophie Handy, Paul Findlay and Dominic Thompson


Off the Grid

NOUGHTS & CROSSES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 27th March, 2019

 

Malorie Blackman’s seminal YA novel puts a spin on Romeo and Juliet, setting the love story in a parallel world that is rife with segregation and discrimination.  Now it comes to the stage in this pacey new adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz.  Simon Kenny’s set has movable flats that bear the 3×3 grid of the time-honoured game, and incorporates elements of Joshua Drualus Pharo’s lighting design, to create a stylish, non-naturalistic backing for the action.  For all its stylisation, this is a world we recognise all too well…

Society is split into Noughts and Crosses, the former being the underclass, the oppressed white race, with the latter holding all the power, the wealth, and even the orange juice.  Young Callum (from Nought family the Macgregors) and Persephone (Sephy) Hadley grow up together, but theirs is an unconventional friendship, going against cultural prejudices on both sides of the divide.  Sephy’s dad is Home Secretary, striving to placate an increasingly unruly and pro-active population, while of course maintaining the status quo.  The measures he takes are far from enough to appease the militant Noughts, and it’s not long before a terrorist act takes place.

As the central young couple, Heather Agyepong is a spirited and principled Sephy, with an equally appealing Billy Harris as Callum.  They are supported by a strong cast of half a dozen, including Lisa Howard – heartrending as Callum’s mum, Doreene Blackstock as Sephy’s frazzled and alcoholic mum, Daniel Copeland as Callum’s dad, who becomes radicalised by his other son Jude (a strong Jack Condon).  Kimisha Lewis impresses as Sephy’s prejudiced older sister Minerva, while Chris Jack’s Kamal, Sephy’s politician dad, convinces totally.

Director Esther Richardson keeps a naturalistic tone among the spots of narration, and uses expressionistic movements to reveal the characters’ inner lives as well as to stage difficult-to-stage moments (like a bomb going off).  The music and sound design of Arun Ghosh and Xana add to the disquiet and sense of impending doom.  It all adds up to a thoroughly gripping piece of theatre, excellently and compellingly staged.

It’s a provocative piece.  By flipping the races, Malorie Blackman makes us face the dystopian society in which we continue to live.  Even minor details are telling, like when a Nought complains that sticking plasters are not available in their skin tone.

This thought-provoking, tragic drama covers a lot of ground, bringing to the fore issues that have woefully become more urgent in recent times.

Highly recommended.

Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum - Noughts and Crosses - Photo by Robert Day - ASC_3791

Heather Agyepong (Sephy) and Billy Harris (Callum) Photo: Robert Day

 


Having a Nose Around

EDMOND DE BERGERAC

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2019

 

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the greatest historical romance dramas ever written.  Most people will be familiar with the title character and his big nose and perhaps also with the idea of him providing words of love for another man to woo the woman they both love.  This play by Alexis Michalik (in an ebullient translation by Jeremy Sams) tells the story of that play’s making.  We follow the early career of poet Edmond Rostand, his flops and his writer’s block, until he finds inspiration in the form of Jeanne, who happens to be the girlfriend of Rostand’s mate Leo.  To add to the triangle, Rostand is married…

Michalik builds in elements that directly influence Rostand in the creation of his masterpiece, so the action closely mirrors the great work that is to come.  Which is fun – we’re not here for historical accuracy!

As the writer-under-pressure, the delicately-featured Freddie Fox is excellent.  Caught up in a whirl of romantic intrigue and theatrical creativity, Fox dashes around, getting more and more frazzled and then, when inspiration strikes, he bubbles over with enthusiasm.  Of course, there is more to the writing process than this, but we’re not here for verisimilitude!

Fox is supported by a fine ensemble, with featured roles from Robin Morrissey as fit but dim Leo (the model for Cyrano’s Christian) and Gina Bramhill as Rostand’s muse Jeanne (the model for Cyrano’s Roxanne).   Jodie Lawrence is a lot of fun as a fruity-voiced Sarah Bernhardt, among other roles, while Henry Goodman is magnificent as celebrated actor Coquelin (the first to play the role of Cyrano).  Harry Kershaw is hilarious as Coquelin’s son – it takes skill to act badly! And Chizzy Akudolu swans around like a true diva as Maria, slated to be the first Roxanne.  Delroy Atkinson’s Monsieur Honore is immensely appealing – it is he who is the model for Cyrano – and I enjoy Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor as a pair of unsavoury backers.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set is a theatre within the theatre, a stage upon the stage.  This is a theatrical piece about a piece of theatre.  Director Roxana Silbert heightens the farcical aspects of the situation as well as the more dramatic moments, delivering a highly effective piece of storytelling, and that is what we’re here for!  While this is a lot of fun and is excellently presented, it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Rostand’s great work, but then, it doesn’t have to.

We might leave knowing more about Rostand than when we came in, but above all this amusing night at the theatre makes us want to see Cyrano again.

Freddie Fox (Edmond) in Edmond de Bergerac_credit Graeme Braidwood

Fantastic Mr Freddie Fox and Delroy Atkinson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Wise Cracks

VULVARINE: A New Musical 

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 21st March, 2019

 

They’re back!  Fat Rascal Theatre, who gave us Beauty & The Beast – a Musical Parody, the funniest show of last year, bring their new comedy musical to town, and it’s a cracker!

It’s an origin story: we witness the transformation of humble tax-office worker Bryony Buckle into a superhero for our time.  With High Wycombe serving as Metropolis or Gotham City, the fast-paced fun involves an evil plan to rid the town (and then, the world!) of gender equality.  Bryony, like other women, is injected by the local doctor, but on her way home, a well-timed bolt of lightning endows her with supernatural powers: strength, flight, the ability to talk with her cat… Dubbed ‘Vulvarine’ Bryony and her workmate Poppy, uncover the plot of the evil Mansplainer and many comic-book capers ensue.

In the title role, Allie Munro is an absolute hoot as the bespectacled and gauche Bryony learns to have confidence in her newfound abilities.  Katie Wells lends enthusiastic, nerdy support as sidekick Poppy, while Robyn Grant’s mad scientist Mansplainer is a grotesque super-villain, all but chewing the scenery.  Jamie Mawson is great as Lois Lane-figure Orson Bloom, awkwardly trying to establish a relationship with Bryony and distracted by the more assertive Vulvarine; and there is a hilarious turn from Steffan Rizzi as Sonya, wife to the villain.  Where Grant goes gloriously over the top in her gender-swapped role, Rizzi is more subtle in his, creating an amusing portrayal without caricature or parody and yet is still very funny.

Grant also wrote the book, giving it a satirical edge and plenty of good old British smut and double entendres.  The songs, composed by James Ringer-Beck with witty lyrics by Daniel Foxx and Grant, are tuneful, adhering to musical theatre convention with a lightness of touch and some fun choreography by Jed Berry.  This is a show that makes a virtue of its small scale production: the special effects are hilariously low-budget (like the hairdryer that enhances Vulvarine’s flying) and there is a lot of humour to be derived from the knockabout staging and the relentless energy of the five talented performers.

The show makes its points without being preachy.  Feminism can be funny and also self-deprecating, it turns out.  The whole thing is infused with irresistible charm and silliness with an undercurrent of being very clever indeed.  Robyn Grant is some kind of genius, I think, and not the evil kind.

Having a female superhero is no less effective, no less daft, than having male ones.  Given the recent outcry from man-babies over the gender-swapping of Captain Marvel, this show could not be timelier.

Super!

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Allie Munro as Bryony Buckle with Elton the cat (Robyn Grant has a hand in him too!)

 


Fare Play

APPROACHING EMPTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th March, 2019

 

Ishy Din’s new play is set in a small taxi firm in the North East, run by brothers Raf and Mansha.  The death of Thatcher has just been announced but, as we see from the way the action pans out, her legacy did not die with her.  Hard-nosed businessman Raf, obviously ailing from something, offers to let his brother buy him out.  Mansha seizes what seems to be a great opportunity, finding financial support to seal the deal from son-in-law Sully, and cab-driver Sameena.  The trio have big plans for the business except it quickly transpires they have been sold a pig in a poke…

It’s a conventional piece in terms of structure and presentation, but what sets it apart is how it brings the British-Asian experience to the fore.  Din’s writing is well-observed, naturalistic yet emotionally charged, and the characters are imbued with authenticity, thanks to the strong script and the excellent cast.

Kammy Darweish is superb as the downtrodden but optimistic Mansha, a man sold a dream that turns out to be a dud.  He could have wandered in from an Arthur Miller (All My Cabbies, perhaps, or Death Of A Taxi Operator) while Nicholas Khan is in perfect contrast as the smartly clad, tough-talking Raj.  Rina Fatania’s embattled and determined Sameena, working hard to get her kids back, is marvellous: we see how the attractiveness of the dream, the enticement of greed, can offer hope, and how devastating an effect it can have.  Nicholas Prasad is excellent as son-in-law Sully in a nuanced and credible portrayal, and there are powerful moments from Karan Gill as Shazad, Raf’s son, endangered by his father’s business practices.  Maanuv Thiara brings a touch of dark comedy and plenty of menace as Sameena’s thug brother, the true face of Thatcher’s legacy.

Director Pooja Ghal uses the close confines of Rosa Maggiore’s set to add to the tension.  The characters have little room for manoeuvre figuratively and literally, and when violence erupts it is all the more effective.

As TV commentary from Thatcher’s funeral drones on in the background, the play speaks to us today.  You can’t put money before people, is what it boils down to.  Making a living is important but making a killing makes you a c*nt.

A thoroughly absorbing drama, powerfully presented.  I’m tempted to say Ishy Din is the Asian David Mamet (and mean it as a compliment) but that would be a disservice to Din’s own distinctive voice.

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Nicholas Prasad, Rina Fatania and Kammy Darweish (Photo: Helen Murray)

 

 


Buchan the Trend

THE 39 STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019

 

I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.

Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go.  On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’.   The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.

One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music.  Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action.  Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.

As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character.  Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.

But then, so is everyone else.  Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters.  Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.

Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight.  Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility.  The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.

There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting.  For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.

This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it.  The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.

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In a rare moment of stillness, Isaac Stanmore and Rebecca Brewer take in a show (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Ideas Above Her Station

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 18th March, 2019

 

Paula Hawkins’s smash hit novel comes to the stage in this effective adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel.  Our protagonist is Rachel, a woman whose life has gone off the rails since her divorce from Tom.  She hits the bottle and commutes to London, her journey taking her past her former house.  She makes up lives for the people she sees, especially a young couple she calls Jess and Jason.  Except Jess is really Megan and Megan has gone missing… and Rachel has drink-induced gaps in her memory…

As ramshackle Rachel, Samantha Womack is superb, stumbling through the mystery like a drunken (and much younger) Miss Marple, conducting her own investigation just as the cops are investigating her.  Rachel is on stage throughout, so we only get to find out what she finds out.  Womack manages to arouse our sympathy for this broken woman and she is also rather funny.

Oliver Farnworth is also strong as Megan’s buff and bluff husband Scott, whose fits of rage make him a suspect.  John Dougall is highly enjoyable as Detective Inspector Gaskill, and there is a good supporting cast: namely, Naeem Hayat’s shady therapist Kamal, Adam Jackson-Smith as Rachel’s smarmy ex-husband Tom, and especially Lowenna Melrose as Tom’s second wife, Anna – her exchanges with Womack are bitter fun.  Kirsty Oswald comes and goes as missing Megan; she gets her moment in the spotlight, recounting the harrowing history of her baby in a particularly affecting scene.

Director Anthony Banks keeps the action fluid; the scene transitions run more smoothly than any rail service, with James Cotterill’s pieces of scenery sliding in and out and across, their motion bringing to mind railway carriages – or perhaps I’ve just been commuting too long myself.  Jack Knowles’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s projections suggest the passing trains as well as heightening moments of tension.  Banks brings all of these elements together to give us a taut, twisty thriller that retains the flavour of the book and improves on the film adaptation.

As well as a whodunnit, it’s a play about the abuse of women by men – but don’t let that put you off.  Compelling and intriguing, this touring production is well worth getting on board for.

TGOTT 11 Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack Photo by Manuel Harlan

Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Art Full

FAGIN’S TWIST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th March, 2019

 

Avant Garde Dance Company’s take on the Dickens classic offers a few surprises among an impressive display of contemporary dance, informed by an urban aesthetic.  It certainly is a sight to see: the precision, the skill, the energy, but I have a problem with the first act.  Apart from an introduction from the Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) there is little in the way of exposition.  The scenes that link the dance sequences are therefore not as clear as they could be, and so while I appreciate the mechanised, repetitive dehumanised routines in the workhouse, I’m not entirely sure who the characters are who plot their escape.

At the top of the second act, Dodger gives us a recap and mentions the others by name at last.  It seems a clumsy way to do things, rather than simply amending the dialogue in the earlier scenes, but at least it leads to better storytelling.  There is some clever rhyming and word play in Maxwell Golding’s writing thought, and some cheeky references to song titles from the Lionel Bart musical.

Arran Green’s Fagin is tall and slender, towering over the action in his big coat and top hat.  Green moves with elegance and humour – spoken scenes are also accompanied by choreographed moves and gestures – and there is a lovely, sinuous quality here.

There is a striking duo (or pas de deux, I suppose) between Bill (Stefano A Addae) and Nancy (Ellis Saul) and a surprising twist (as in plot rather than Chubby Checker) from Sia Gbamoi as Oliver.

Yann Seabra’s costumes reference the story’s Victorian origins, while the score (by various) is relentlessly of the now.  Seabra’s set, before it becomes other things, starts off as a big fence.  Which is what Fagin is, if you think about it!  Jackie Shemish’s lighting is as taut and evocative as the performances; it’s as though the lighting is another dancer!

Tony Adigun’s choreography is expressive, mixing fluidity of forms with sharper, jerkier, inorganic moves but I think as much attention needs to be given to characterisation in the spoken scenes as is devoted to the dance sequences.  Rather than being a moving story, I find myself marvelling at the performance of this amazing ensemble rather than engaging with what the characters experience.

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The cast of Fagin’s Twist

 


Mac Duff

MACBETH

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th March, 2019

 

I have lost count of the number of productions of the Scottish Play I have seen over the years; I have yet to see one that gets everything absolutely right.  This touring version of the acclaimed National Theatre production doesn’t, I’m afraid, do it for me either.

Set ‘now’ but ‘after a civil war’, the action takes place in a dingy world of camouflage gear and the kind of clothing that gives the cast the appearance of an urban dance troupe that has fallen on hard times.  I’m all for diversity in casting, but I can do without Diversity as an aesthetic.  I half-expected Ashley Banquo to come on and flip Fleance over the heads of the group.  Said Fleance is gender-swapped and dressed like a young rapper.  Nuff said.

Rae Smith’s set includes a large ramp, like a broken footbridge, which is initially put to good use but is then side-lined in favour of plastic chairs and beat-up sofas.  There are also tall poles, like bedraggled palm trees, up and down which the Three Witches clamber and slide like post-apocalyptic circus performers – I could have done with more of this kind of thing, and a bit less of their booming, echoey voices, which go against their other ethereal qualities.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth is all right to listen to, but we don’t get the impression of a great warrior gone bad – especially not when he’s being duct-taped into his armour.  Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth’s first appearance, in khaki vest, has the look of a military physical trainer, which she trades up for some garish gowns, at odds with the rest of the design.  Besterman brings intensity though and her sleepwalking scene is rather good.

Instead of crowns, the ruling monarch sports a blood-red suit, and so Duncan (Tom Mannion – effortless in his nobility) looks like a lounge singer.  When Macbeth later dons the trousers, it brings to mind the “I am in blood stepped in so far” line, which makes sense of Moritz Junge’s costume choice at last.

I can’t take to Joseph Brown’s Malcolm in the slightest but I do like Deka Walmsley’s bawdy Geordie Porter, Patrick Robinson’s Banquo, and above all Rachel Sanders’s Ross – these three seem to get the most out of the language, while coping with director Rufus Norris’s decisions, some of which make Shakespeare sound ironic: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (it doesn’t; it looks like half a portacabin) and “Never shake thy gory locks at me” (Banquo’s pate is as bald as a Malteser)…

There is some effectively dissonant original music by Orlando Gough, and Paul Arditti’s sound design adds to the eeriness – until it becomes intrusive – while Paul Pyant’s lighting is suitably dramatic.  But the action doesn’t grip me, the tragedy of a great man brought low by his ambition and supernatural interference doesn’t’ come across.

Ditch the camouflage get-up and the urban combat gear.  Let’s have a Game of Thrones version.  That would be relatable to the Youth too.

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Ramping up the action: the cast of Macbeth

 

 

 


Yes, Queen!

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 8th March, 2019

 

Loosely inspired by English history, this story of one of the favourites of Queen Elizabeth begins with an overture that includes a sinewy rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’, quite anachronistically, before building up to a frenetic series of crashing chords; conductor Carlo Rizzo throws himself around energetically.  It’s an exhilarating opening.

Elizabeth loves Roberto, but Roberto loves Sara, wife to his best mate, the Duke of Nottingham.  Roberto stands accused of treason but Elizabeth offers him a get-out-of-jail-free card.  He can go free if he names her rival for his affections.  Roberto would rather die than put Sara in the frame.  There’s some business with love tokens (a ring from Elizabeth, a scarf from Sara) and the Duke of Nottingham rumbles what’s going on…

Director Alessandro Talevi eschews the grandeur of the Elizabethan court and sets this love quadrangle in a dark world of shadows and screens.  Elizabeth keeps a spider in a tank – perhaps this signifies her treatment of Roberto, keeping him as an exotic pet but one that can bite… Later, it emerges that it is she who is the spider, as she careers around in a chariot like a giant robotic arachnid.  Talevi brings surprises to the melodrama.  The bald queen stalking around on mechanical legs while her favourite languishes in prison, caught in scarlet strands – his entanglement in the web of Elizabeth’s emotions.

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Elisabetta (Joyce El-Khoury) Photo: Bill Cooper

Joyce El-Khoury is magnificent as the tyrannical queen, giving us the regal power of the monarch and the volatile emotions of the woman.  She commands the attention whenever she is on – not just because she is a splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise monochromatic setting.  Also strong is Justina Gringyte as the noble, distressed Sara, fighting her feelings for Barry Banks’s robust Roberto.  Roland Wood’s passionate Duke, pleading for the life of his friend is lovely stuff.

The marvellous WNO chorus have their moment in the spotlight with a solemn, hymn-like piece, while the orchestra play Donizetti’s stirring score with verve and beauty.  Madeleine Boyd’s design work owes more to the 19th than the 16th century, with a touch of Vivienne Westwood and Jules Verne thrown in.  It’s all very stylish, a world with its own rules rather than any attempt at historical reconstruction.

This is a striking, powerful production with a tour de force performance by El-Khoury at its heart.

Majestic.

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Roberto Devereux (Barry Banks) gets caught up in red tape (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 


Bells and Whistle

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2019

 

I jumped at the chance to see this production again, having first enjoyed it a couple of years ago.  Director Dominic Cooke sets the action in a box, with walls the colour of a Magritte sky and sets of doors that lend an almost-farcical aspect to proceedings.  The influence of Magritte does not stop with the sky; Sarastro’s cult members all sport bowler hats and coats very much akin to the famous surrealist painting – you know the one, where the man has an apple for a face.

In this box, Mozart’s divine music and Schikaneder’s amusing libretto (here presented in a superlative translation by Jeremy Sams, complete with rhyming couplets) combine to tell the story of a young Prince on a fairy-tale quest to save a Princess.  From the opening moments, with a giant lobster trying to grab him with its claws and the arrival of the Three Women, the stage is set for a lot of fun.  The Three Women (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, and Emma Carrington) are a collective hoot, and Cooke gives them plenty of comic business as they vie with each other over the unconscious Prince.  Ben Johnson’s Prince Tamino is dashing and forthright, singing beautifully, as when he falls in love at first sight of Pamina’s portrait.

Stealing the show in every scene he’s in is Mark Stone, hilarious as the bird-catcher Papageno.  In some productions, the dialogue scenes can be clunky and awkward, but in the hands of someone like Stone, they are a delight.

Soprano Anna Siminska is a powerful Queen of the Night.  Her second, most famous aria brings the house down.  Her oppo, high priest Sarastro, is her polar opposite.  While Siminska hits her Top Fs with piercing accuracy, Jihoon Kim gets to his Bottom Fs, but could do with a bit more power behind them.  Kim makes a striking figure as the cult leader; Sarastro’s rules for the way women ought to behave can seem problematic, but his solos are exceedingly beautiful.

Anita Watson makes a perfect fairy-tale princess as a heartfelt Pamina.  Her aria when she believes Tamino is shunning her remains one of the most heartrending moments in any opera, and Watson delivers the goods impeccably.

This is a production that doesn’t get bogged down by the pomp (and pomposity) of Sarastro’s order, with plenty of laughs throughout, both from the script and from the direction.  What happens when Tamino plays his flute or when Papageno plays his magic bells is charming and funny.

Inevitably, the star is Mozart.  His music adds humour, pathos, and, yes, holiness to the characters in this quest for love.  The opera is a plea for the end to hatred, for living in peace, a message that we need to hear in these nasty-minded times.

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Tamino (Ben Johnson) finds his lobster undercooked (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


Dance in the Dark

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th March, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera’s Spring season at the Hippodrome kicks off with this Verdi gem in which the maestro blends aspects of opera buffo with melodrama.   It’s an opera with a split personality, with moods changing seamlessly.  Raimund Bauer’s set, of huge, substantial flats with lots of small windows and red curtains tower over the action and are rotated into various positions to suggest the different locations.  They are impressive things to be sure but their imposing scale and the general blackness of the background do not serve the comical, more playful moments of the score.

Political intrigue, dire prophecies from a fortune-teller, a love triangle, betrayal – it’s all here, as Riccardo (Gwyn Hughes Jones) struggles with his love for his bff’s wife Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams) while she struggles with her love for him.  The bff, Renato (Roland Wood) finds out (of course he does!) and falls in league with a bunch of conspirators who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination.

As Riccardo, Jones is a mass of energy, which he channels into his powerful tenor.  No weedy hero he, Jones is a delight to hear, bringing power and playfulness to the role.  As Amelia, Williams is sublime, heart-breaking and nuanced in her delivery – most of the melodrama comes her way – and she is perfect.  Wood’s baritone is earnest and passionate; Renato feels things as deeply as he sings them!

As ever, the WNO chorus are excellent value, cavorting around in top hats, doing a conga, before turning up at the ball like skeletal extras from the movie Coco.

Sara Fulgoni is a lot of fun as the imperious fortune-teller, Ulrica, as is Harriet Eyley’s Oscar, a perky manservant bringing comic relief and a breath-taking mullet.

While the setting may be too dark for us to catch all the comic business going on, the big moments are superbly staged, with some striking, symbolic rather than literal, imagery.  Director David Pountney gives us masks and mystery, with a touch of the Gothic.

It’s a banquet for the ears.  The singing is thoroughly top notch and the WNO, under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, delivers Verdi’s sumptuous music exquisitely.  On the whole, the production leans toward the darkness rather than striking a balance with the light, yet for all that it is hugely enjoyable.  I had a ball!

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When your love-life ‘stalls’ – Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


TB or not TB

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st March, 2019

 

Martin McDonagh is one of the finest stage- and screenwriters currently working.  This production of his play from 1996 clearly demonstrates his use of Irish settings, idioms and characters, mining the same comedic vein as Father Ted and Stones in His Pockets.   On the craggy island of the title, news comes of a Hollywood film crew on a neighbouring island, seeking locals to appear on celluloid.  It’s big news for a community used to hearing word of geese and cats and sheep with no ears.  ‘Cripple Billy’ is especially keen, forging a letter from the doctor in order to cajole a boatman to take him across the sea…

As the action unfolds against the backdrop of a gorgeous set by Chris Jackson and Martin Tottle, we meet a host of colourful characters.  Seemingly hostile to each other, if the insults they hurl at each other and their coarse language is anything to go by, the community has been keeping a secret from Billy his entire life.  It seems the worse they say to each other, the more they care.

We meet Eileen (Niki Baldwin) and Kate Osbourne (Viv Tomlinson), Billy’s adoptive aunties, who run a ramshackle shop that appears to stock little else but tins of peas.  Baldwin and Tomlinson are a fine double act, gossiping about local affairs, but also as characters in their own right, each handling stress in their own way: the one stuffing herself with sweets, the other talking to stones.  Paul Tomlinson’s Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal is a superb piece of character acting among an excellent cast.  Sophie Mobberley’s Slippy Helen is fierce and feisty, oozing violence and sociopathy, while Thomas Hodge as Helen’s brother Bartley is convincingly simple, his one-track mind fixated on telescopes.  Graham Buckingham Underhill makes a strong impression as boatman Babbybobby Bennett.  Dorothy Barlow gives an hilarious turn as Mammy O’Dougal, and there is credible support from David Derrington as Doctor McSharry.

The accents ring true, never veering into ‘Oirish’ parody, diddle-de-dee, and director Vanessa Comer gets the overall tone and pacing just right.  It’s a genuine pleasure to see this consistently funny piece presented so excellently.  It’s a play about community and fake news, gossip, rumour and the truth.  While we enjoy the shenanigans of the community, our sympathies hinge on the central performance by Nathan Brown as Billy.  Today we would never address a person with disabilities so bluntly, and it’s not just a matter of political correctness making us mealy-mouthed.  McDonagh shows us that the disabled have hopes and dreams of their own and a desire to be loved just like anyone else, and they make mistakes just like everyone else.  Brown arouses our compassion for Billy’s predicament rather than his condition.  The truth emerges about Billy’s past and his current tuberculosis diagnosis, packing a poignant punch.  It’s superbly done.

Thoroughly entertaining, this black comedy is a joy from start to finish.  As one of the characters observes, we know we shouldn’t be laughing, but we do.  It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Bear Pit – and that’s saying something!

Bear Pit Theatre. THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN.Director: Vanessa Comer

Who is taking whom for a ride? Babbybobby Bennett (Graham Buckingham Underhill) and Cripple Billy Claven (Nathan Brown) Photo: Patrick Baldwin

 


Inflated Opinion

ME AND MY DOLL

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 28th February, 2019

 

This two-hander, written and directed by Lucy Bird, gets off to a bit of a Shirley Valentine start with twenty-something Kate speaking to herself and to the blow-up doll given to her by her ‘friends’ because of her apparent inability to land herself a real boyfriend.  The doll is a punchbag at first and then a sounding board as Kate vents her frustrations and then tries out a more ‘feminine’ and nurturing manner, as prescribed by the company she works for.  Kate finds she is rubbish at conforming to gender expectations, and why should she have to change at all, just to get along in a man’s world?

Miraculously, the doll comes to life, in an endearingly funny performance by Thomas Bulpett.  He unearths Kate’s secret stash of rom-com DVDs and learns all about life and love from them.  There’s a lot of fun to be had spotting all the references, but Kate, unlike the heroines of these movies, can tell the difference between reality and fiction.  In a reversal of Pygmalion, the Doll tries to teach manners and acceptable behaviour to the human, so Kate can go out with a ‘real man’ (whatever that is).  As their relationship develops in complexity, we wonder who needs whom, who is playing with whom, and can we ever tell if what someone says they feel about us is real.  Is the Doll genuine in his affections or does he, like everyone, have his own agenda?  Will he get what he wants or will the situation blow up (heh) in his face?

Rachel Baker is funny, volatile and tender as the feisty Kate, while Thomas Bulpett is simply excellent in this latter-day Toy Story.   Lucy Bird’s script is fresh, witty and rich, touching and clever, and as director, she ensures the actors explore the physicality of their roles to the full: the Doll’s movements, Kate’s terrible dancing…

Thoroughly enjoyable and engaging, this is a rom-com for our times.  Foul-mouthed and funny, this production by Birmingham’s own Paperback Theatre Company is a vibrant new work that is definitely not a let-down!

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Hello, Dolly! Rebecca Baker and companion

 


As You Lump It

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 27th February, 2019

 

The plot of this rom-com from Shakespeare is bunched up at either end of the play.  A lot happens in the opening scenes – even a wrestling match – but when characters become exiled from the dukedom, the story line goes for a meander through the Forest of Arden, branching out into subplots about various pairs of lovers, until our protagonist Rosalind, seems to realise we’ve reached Act V and decides to pull all the threads together for a resolution.

The opening scenes are fine, with Anthony Byrne’s menacing, paranoid Duke Frederick ruling the roost.  David Ajao is an embittered and angry Orlando, disenfranchised by his weaselly brother Oliver (an excellent Leo Wan) but Orlando softens when the surprise of his victory (sorry if that’s a spoiler) against the Duke’s in-house wrestler Charles, is topped by his surprise falling in love with Rosalind at first sight.  Graeme Brookes’s Charles is more of a besuited bouncer – Frederick runs his realm like some kind of underworld boss, and Emily Johnstone is also good fun as Le Beau, tottering across the grass in her high heels and Krystle Carrington hairdo.

Lucy Phelps is a hugely appealing Rosalind, but I find Sophie Khan Levy even more so as her good-time gal cousin, Celia.  And so, I am liking this As You Like It

Then we get to the forest.

In a startling moment, director Kimberley Sykes flips the production on its head – much as the characters’ lives are turned upside down – and, taking the words of Jaques as a game plan, shows us that all the world is indeed a stage.  Sykes’s Arden is a bare stage with costume rails wheeled on, where lighting cues can be summoned by characters at the click of a finger.  It’s a bold move, and a valid one, except I am no longer with the characters on their journey.  I am, like Celia, Aliena-ted, and kept at a distance.  It’s a case of the concept working against the content.  With new characters coming and going as the subplot rattles along, I lack the attachment and investment one feels in say, a Much Ado, or a Twelfth Night.  Shakespeare gives us love in many facets in these scenes, but I find myself not caring.

Sandy Grierson is striking as Touchstone the fool, like a glam-rock Max Wall with a touch of Billy Connolly, but his love scenes are too aggressive.  He practically bullies lonely goatherd Audrey into a relationship (via the medium of British Sign Language, which adds another layer of humour to the scene).  Gender-swapped Jaques (Sophie Stanton) wanders about aimlessly, and I like the fluidity of Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy – very funny) who has set her sights on Rosalind as a boy, while being pursued by bright-eyed Silvia (Amelia Donkor) her earnest same-sex suitor…

At the moment when Rosalind effects a resolution, the scene is dominated by the arrival of a massive puppet, altogether too distracting I find.  In her epilogue, Rosalind invites us to ‘like as much of this play as please you’.  Unfortunately, the parts I do like are overshadowed by those I don’t.

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Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind before they are ‘turfed out’ (Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC)


The Cat’s Meow

THE CAT IN THE HAT

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th February, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s bestselling children’s book is brought to vibrant life in this new touring production from Leicester’s Curve theatre.  The story of two children, Sally and Boy (Conrad in the book) who, bored on a rainy day, get a visit from a fantastical cat and his troublesome brace of Things, is faithfully re-enacted using many of Seuss’s rhymes.

It begins with a prologue, a warm-up in which the children introduce themselves to us before bringing out the super-soaker water guns.  They get us on our feet and singing along, to get us in receptive mood before the main action begins.  Which it does – opening the story with a dumb-show sequence, brimming with physical comedy, as the children try to occupy themselves and annoy each other.  We meet their pet goldfish, here portrayed as an operatic diva in a bubble.  And then, at last, the Cat himself arrives…

As Sally and her brother, Melissa Lowe and Sam Angell are full of childlike energy, only outdone in this respect by Thing 1 (Celia Francis) and Thing 2 (Robert Penny) two wild-haired acrobats who hurl themselves around the set, with skill and exuberance.  As the Fish, Charley Magalit is glamorous to look at and beautiful to hear.  But it is Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the eponymous Cat who captivates and amazes the most.  He is urbane and smooth in his delivery, with slinky moves and a jazzy voice, all of which he demonstrates while balancing on a ball, holding an increasing variety of objects.  It’s an astonishing feat.

When the Things get out of control, Sally and the Boy despair at the mess being made and try to contain the tearaway creatures.  The Cat wheels in a weird contraption to tidy up before he takes his leave.  But what does it all mean?  The Cat is a trickster, an agent of chaos, and his antics are at first attractive to the children.  The Fish is the unheeded voice of reason, the conscience.  The wanton behaviour of the Things teaches the children there are boundaries, and the Cat takes responsibility by cleaning up the mess.  So, it’s a moral lesson after all: it’s OK to be a bit Dionysian, just don’t go the full Bacchae.

Suba Das directs this colourful, anarchic spectacle with gusto, showing a great eye for comic business and an understanding of what makes children laugh.  Isla Shaw’s remarkable set (part illustration, part practical) is put to extensive use to support the storytelling and the physicality of the shenanigans.  The costumes are delightful, capturing the spirit of Seuss’s original drawings, yet adapting them for human-shaped performers.  The Things are spot on, and I love the Cat’s furry tuxedo, complete with tail and his signature red-and-white striped stovepipe hat.

There is much to marvel at here in this show bursting with theatricality and brio.  It’s a thrilling live experience for the little ones, something they’ll never get from a screen or an app.  More senior members of the audience will be nostalgic for when they read the book, and will derive pleasure from seeing the much-loved classic staged so inventively.

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Purrfect: Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the Cat in the Hat on two chairs (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Sales and Fails

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 21st February, 2019

 

Having enjoyed this production during its London run, I am delighted to catch it again on tour with a new cast.  David Mamet’s sweary piece about the cutthroat world of real estate offers plenty of opportunity for fine character work and this new company does not disappoint.  The short first act is comprised of three separate duologues in a classy Chinese restaurant, and here we meet the main players.

Mark Benton (currently enjoying huge success in Shakespeare & Hathaway) is faded salesman Shelly Levene, desperate to claw his way back to the top of the Salesman of the Month board.  Benton is superb; we actually feel some measure of sympathy for the man as he struggles to regain his glory days in this very dirty game.

Top of the board is Ricky Roma, a very handsome Nigel Harman, of EastEnders fame.  He is top of this food chain, a predator, and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work – just as we might enjoy the shark in Jaws chomping its way through the cast.  Harman gives us Roma’s skill at manipulation, his charm and his arrogance, but the sparks really fly when he loses his rag.

These two are supported by a tight company.  Wil Johnson’s increasingly despairing George; Scott Sparrow’s distant Williamson; Zephryn Taitte’s rough and tough detective… James Staddon is almost understated as Lingk, Roma’s latest customer/victim, unable to stand up for himself against the barrage of Roma tricks.  Denis Conway makes a strong impression as the angry and aggressive Dave.  You want toxic masculinity?  Throw in some problematic remarks about race and you get the measure of how distasteful this milieu is.

Mamet makes great use of stichomythia – the timing is impeccable – to build up natural speech rhythms.  He punctuates the argot of the profession with the copious use of profanity.  The men throw words at each other like punches – when they’re not trying to dominate proceedings with some anecdote or philosophising.  The relentless effing and jeffing adds to the intensity and also the humour of the exchanges.  It all adds up to a compelling piece of theatre.  Definitely not an advertisement for capitalism, this play is a chance to see actors at the top of the game, delivering an electrifying script and reminding us, because apparently some people still need reminding, that greed is not good, and financial gain at the cost of one’s compassion is never a price worth paying.

L-R Mark Benton (Shelley Levene) & Nigel Harman (Ricky Roma) - Glengarry Glen Ross UK Tour - Photo By Marc Brenner (2289)

Sold! Mark Benton and Nigel Harman (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 


Funny Money

BILLIONAIRE BOY The Musical 

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th February, 2019

 

The children’s books of David Walliams have filled the gap left by Roald Dahl.  They are child-centred stories, with outlandish events and grotesque characters – usually the adults, save for one or two sympathetically presented ones.  Billionaire Boy the Musical  fits this mould exactly, telling the story of young Joe Spud, son of toilet-paper innovator Len, one of the richest men in the world.  For all his riches, Joe is unhappy.  He wants friends and so opts to go to the local comprehensive to make some.  It’s not long, of course, before his money gets in the way.

As Joe, Ryan Heenan is an appealing figure, boyish and with a superb singing voice that suits the rock and pop sensibilities of the score.  The songs (by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler, with lyrics by Jon Brittain) are without exception catchy, with witty lyrics and in a range of styles.  Dean Nolan is great as the crass nouveau riche Len but seems to have the most fun as a disgusting dinner lady (imagine Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull let loose in a school kitchen!) Bringing out Len’s paternal side is the mighty Sophia Nomvete as Gwen, the Mum of Joe’s new friend Bob.  Nomvete has remarkable presence, whether she’s narrating, playing Gwen, or a more exaggerated character like the school teacher.

Lem Knights is great fun as Bob, bringing physical humour and also sensitivity to the role, while Eleanor Kane’s Lauren is cute and energetic without being too girly.  Jared Leathwood and Natalie Morgan gurn and growl as school bullies, the Grubbs. (Cast members also play musical instruments, augmenting the upstage band)

Special mention to Avita Jay, doubling as Len’s gold-digging model girlfriend Sapphire Stone and as shopkeeper Raj (a staple of Walliams’s books) working the audience and doing a lot of the frame-breaking.  This is a show that establishes a rapport with the audience without going full-on panto.  We are included in everything and somehow the overt theatricality of the piece draws us in rather than alienating us in a Brechtian fashion.

It’s a funny and engaging production.  Director Luke Sheppard keeps everything lively so when the moments of pathos come, they are all the more touching.  There’s a wealth of talent at work here in a show rich with comedy, infectious tunes and a moral, which is perhaps obvious but is not hammered home.

Working with Nuffield Southampton Theatres, the Belgrade has struck it rich with this vibrant new musical.  I loved every minute.

Ryan Heenan & Lem Knights as Joe & Bob in Billionaire Boy the Musical - credit Manuel Harlan

Golden boys Ryan Heenan as Joe and Lem Knights as Bob (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Odd Couples

PINTER 7

Harold Pinter Theatre, Saturday 16th February, 2019

 

a slight ache

The double-bill of Pinter dialogues kicks off with this radio play, written in 1958.  Director Jamie Lloyd sets it in a radio studio, with his actors seated at microphones with scripts, while sound effects fashioned by unseen hands help to depict the scene of a couple having tea in the garden and having to deal with a wasp in the marmalade.  As their talk turns to the mysterious figure who stands at their back gate, a match-seller who does no trade, the characters break out of the radio space and move away from their scripts.  Now we are in the home of Edward and Flora.  They invite the match-seller in.  We don’t see him but he is there, conjured by Pinter’s words.

John Heffernan is powerful as Edward, taking sadistic pleasure in the killing of the wasp, before going through an emotional meltdown.  Gemma Whelan’s Flora is the epitome of the 1950s middle-class, with a clipped delivery that enhances both the period feel and the ‘otherness’ of the piece.  Domestic details and everyday events take an eerie and startling turn, building to a surprising climax.  This is Inside No 9 territory half a century beforehand!

Perfect.

slight ache

Radio gaga: John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan

 

the dumb waiter

More well-known than the previous piece, this two-hander is set in a basement room of a former café.  Two hitmen lounge on beds, awaiting instructions for their next job.  Suddenly, food orders begin to arrive via the dumb waiter, throwing the men off their stride and increasing their nervous tension as they try to understand what is happening.

Martin Freeman is in superb form as the antsy Gus, nervously and repeatedly asking questions, and the perfect foil for Danny Dyer’s irritable, snappy Ben.   Dyer is the more menacing of the pair, but Pinter’s use of bathos diminishes Ben’s power and status for some highly hilarious moments.  We witness these experienced professional killers lose their nerve as the situation throws them off-kilter.

Freeman and Dyer are hugely enjoyable; the play is a virtuoso piece of timing and tension.  I did not want it to end.  A dazzling display of brilliance from all concerned and a wonderful testament to the genius of Harold Pinter.

Knockout.

dumb waiter

Hit Men: Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 


Sweet Nothing

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

New Vic Theatre, Thursday 14th February, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

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

Isobel Middleton as Beatrice (Photo: Nobby Clark)

 


Lest We Forget…

VISITORS

The Bear Pit, Wednesday 13th February, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

SamAllard_TBP_Visitors_Dress_100219_0089-999x450

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

 

 


Street Life

AVENUE Q

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th February, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avenue Q (Dress)-098

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

 

 

 


Chilling at Home

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL

Belgrade Theatre,  Coventry

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cold hill

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

 


Bosom Buddies

DI AND VIV AND ROSE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th February, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

di and viv

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

 

 


Intoxicating

THE TOXIC AVENGER

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

toxic


A Question of Colour

BLUE/ORANGE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th February, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Squid Pro Quo

OCTOPUS SOUP!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 5th February, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

Like Terry the octopus, this show has legs…

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

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


A Tern for the Better

THE SEAGULL

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 2nd February, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

seagull

Dave Hill and Jacob Williams (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


If I Had a Hammer

MISTRESS TO THE MIDNIGHT

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Fabulous!

mistress midnight


Best Case Scenario

THE VERDICT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 30th January, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

galvin&moe_ian kelsey & denis lill

Dream team: Ian Kelsey and Denis Lill

 

 


Grounds for Fun

HOPPERS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Life of the Party

ABIGAIL’S PARTY

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I dare: I’m very much a Sue.

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Jodie Prenger as Beverly

 


Wordplay and Swordplay

ROBIN HOOD AND THE REVOLTING PEASANTS

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 13th January, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sheriff Andy Barrow having a night on the boos


Timely in Athens

TIMON OF ATHENS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 


Telling Tales

GRIMMS FAERY TALES

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Princess and the Proon

SNOW WHITE

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

snow white proon

 

 


What a Croc!

PETER PAN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 20th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Pan-tastic: Jaymi Hensley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hooked on a feeling: Jimmy Osmond

 

 


Getting into the Spirit

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Making Merry

ROBIN HOOD

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Baby steps.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Finger-Prickin’ Good

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic.


Double-edged War Puns

OVER THE TOP

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTT


Wonderful, Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Live Radio Play

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart-warming stuff indeed.

wonderful life old joint

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


Oh Brother

TRUE WEST

Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

brenner

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

 

 

 


Ebenezer Good

EBENEZER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebenezer Christmas Carol Portrait No Tex