Toilet Humour

URINETOWN

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Saturday 30th July, 2016

 

The world is in the toilet.  Corporations profit from basic human functions and the law is on their side.  The premise for this  2001 musical by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis is at once ridiculous and pertinent – never more so than in this crazy day and age.  Politicians in the pockets of unscrupulous corporations – surely not!

In this piss-topia arises a hero and rabble-rouser Bobby Strong who encourages the poor to pee for free, inspired by his love for the naive daughter of the boss of the evil corporation.  Events unfold in a surprising way: our way of life is unsustainable, the show reminds us, and perhaps a socialist revolution is not an easy fix.

It’s a brilliant, hilarious show – one of my all-time favourites – and the funniest serious musical you could ever hope to enjoy.

As Bobby Strong,  Brad Walwyn is in superb voice.  In fact they all are, as soloists and in the hair-raising chorus numbers.  The Old Joint Stock Musical Theatre Company is a wealth of talent crammed into a tiny studio – the intimacy of the venue adds to the energy and immediacy of the show.  There is no attempt at maintaining a fourth wall here, no point when the show, with its Brechtian devices, celebrates the artifice and theatricality of the enterprise.  Chief of these frame-breakers, is Officer Lockstock, our narrator, played to the hilt by the charismatic Richard Haines who delivers a kind of easy menace and a knowing humour.  Karl Steele is excellent as villain of the piece, Caldwell B Cladwell while daughter Hope (Mairead Mallon) is a wide-eyed, eyelid-batting delight. Lizzie Robins hits the high notes as Miss Pennywise, and Laura Peters is a hoot as the ever-questioning innocent, Little Sally.  But really, ever chorus member deserves the highest praise.  Kudos, too,  to the unseen live band that delivers the rich and complex score.

The choreography, by Sarah Haines, is infectious – you feel like getting up and joining in.  Director Adam Carver (who also appears as slimy Senator Fipp) keeps things in-your-face and adorns the action with hilarious comic business.  There is a lot going on in this tiny space, and the audience is caught in the middle of it – which suits the show’s message absolutely.  Not that this is a preachy production.  It’s an engaging, exhilarating entertainment that tickles the mind as much as the funnybone.  And this version at the Old Joint Stock is practically flawless.  A contender for my Show Of The Year, this is everything theatre should be.

urinetown ojs

Piss-takers: Brad Walwyn, Mairead Mallon and Karl Steele

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With Flying Colours

PETER PAN IN SCARLET

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016

 

Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic.  The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery.  The world has changed.  It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too.  The First World War has changed and tainted things forever.  It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.

And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton.  1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments.  Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.

The plot is action-packed.  Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares.  The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair.  In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again.  A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it.  There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis.  Clothes make Pan.

Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy.  He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes.  Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality.  Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be.  Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell.  The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.

The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen.  There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic.  Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry.  The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection.  The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material.  We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it.  But then, Peter Pan was new once too.

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Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

 


Bloody Funny

MACBETH

mac, Birmingham, Sunday 17th July, 2016

 

This latest version of the Scottish play by Oddsocks (their third, I believe) has a steampunk aesthetic, making for their best-looking production to date.  The costumes (by Vanessa Anderson and the company) are exquisite: platform boots, long coats and goggles are the order of the day, on a set of riveted steel, cogs, gears and tubes.  It’s a dystopian world of leadership challenges, and therefore ripe for topical comedy along with the trademark Oddsocks silliness and delivery of Shakespeare’s text without too many alterations.

Director Andy Barrow is a northern Macbeth, sounding like Ned Stark – the accent leads to new gags at Shakespeare’s expense.  Barrow is a generous performer and allows the rest of his cast of six to shine in their own way.  Rebecca Little’s Lady Macbeth is powerful and funny, a tiny tyrant with a nice line in vocals and melodramatic posturing – her sleepwalking scene is an utter joy: she plays it relatively straight against the backdrop of general silliness and the interpolation of a Tears For Fears classic number.  Gavin Harrison gives us a toffee-nosed King Duncan and a bungling murderer, while Ben Locke’s Macduff is a cocky, heroic Scot.  Anna Westlake’s Fleance is a bit of a scene-stealer, an emo kid with a dark side, and Oddsocks stalwart Joseph Maudsley gives us the daftest Banquo’s ghost I’ve seen.

The witches are gothic automatons, glitchy and eerie but it’s the scene in which they show Macbeth the apparitions that is when the steampunk theme comes to fruition, with puppet babies suspended in a vacuum tube.  This is Oddsocks creativity and inventiveness at its best.

As tragedies go, this one is relentlessly laugh-out-loud funny.  No detail is overlooked to wring as many laughs out of the audience as possible.  Visual gags supplement the verbal.  Slapstick and silliness underscore some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.  The violence is cartoony rather than horrific.  The whole thing is absolutely daft but in the cleverest way.  It’s knockabout stuff but it ticks along like clockwork.

Yet again, Andy Barrow delivers a marvel, an evening’s entertainment using an ancient text, even older theatrical traditions and conventions, and yet the result is something that feels absolutely fresh and new.

Oddsocks have been touring such high quality shows for 27 years.  If this latest gem is anything to go by, these punks are showing no signs of running out of steam.

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Riveting: Ben Locke and Andy Barrow cross swords as Macduff and Macbeth.


Dancing up a Storm

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 5th July, 2016

 

Sometimes, human beings get it right and create a piece of perfection that stands in contrast to the countless ways we have screwed up on this planet.  Such a piece is the flawless 1952 film, Singin’ in the Rain.  You only have to watch it to have your faith in our species renewed.

I’ve seen stage adaptations before and while the quality of the performers has been unquestionable, I always come away with a ‘Why bother?’ look on my face.

Not so the case with this new production, on which the New Vic has collaborated with Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and the Salisbury Playhouse.  This is feel-good theatre to the max.  There is the added bonus of the New Vic’s in-the-round setting; we are in the rain along with the cast – some of us more than others (bright yellow ponchos are provided!).  There is an intimacy here the proscenium arch cannot deliver.  Ciaran Bagnall’s stylised set is basically a circle, above which art deco screens play the movies the characters make.  Around the circle, cast members play instruments, providing the score and the accompaniment to whomever is singing at the time.  They’re a versatile bunch and under Richard Reeday’s musical direction, form a tight ensemble with an authentic Roaring Twenties sound.

Matthew Croke absolutely dazzles as movie idol Don Lockwood – the Gene Kelly role.  He has the dreamboat good looks, the rich crooning voice and, of course, the moves.  I could watch him all night.  When the iconic title song comes at the end of the first act, it’s perfect.  Croke glides and splashes around and the front few rows get a soaking – it’s equally elegant, beautiful and uproariously funny.  What we lose in scenic devices, we gain in good old slapstick!

Christian Edwards makes Cosmo, the wacky friend (the Donald O’Connor role) his own, with an energised performance that keeps on the right side of charming.  Eleanor Brown is a striking Kathy (the Debbie Reynolds role), with clarity and purity in her vocals, and a sober contrast to Sarah Vezmar’s deliciously monstrous Lina Lamont, the egotistic villain of the piece with a voice like fingernails down a Brooklyn blackboard.  Vezmar almost steals the show but for the stellar quality of handsome hoofer Croke, whose performance is truly phenomenal.

There is not a weak link in the whole shebang.  Philip Starnier amuses as movie producer R. F. Simpson; Helen Power sparkles as professional gossip Dora Bailey; cast members come and go in a range of roles, adding to the fun, the atmosphere and, above all, the music.  The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, some of which predate even the film by decades, sound fresh – Reeday’s arrangements bring out the romance as well as the fun.  Within a tight performance space, Sian Williams’s choreography emulates Gene Kelly’s, managing to be scaled down without being cramped.  The auditorium fills with talent and its genuinely thrilling to be present, to be so close to such an accomplished company.  Stardust sprinkles on us all, even more than the water.

Director Elizabeth Newman gives us another look at the charm of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay, wisely keeping her cast from aping the stars of the film.  The show both meets and exceeds expectations, due to its focus on theatricality rather than the fool’s errand of trying to reproduce cinematic perfection.

As refreshing as a summer shower, this production brings undiluted joy.  My only regret is that it wasn’t raining when I left the theatre; I really wanted to splash about in puddles for myself.  In these dark and uncertain times, we must seize our pleasures where we may, however simple, and life-affirming shows like this have never been more welcome.

 

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Raining supreme: Matthew Croke splashes out

 

 

 


Dirty rotten scoundrels

THE ALCHEMIST

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th June, 2016

 

Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy owes much to the works of Roman comic playwright, Plautus: the scheming servant using his master’s house for illicit purposes, the characters typified by flaws, fast action and comeuppances – all are here in breath-taking form.

Face (Ken Nwosu) takes advantage of Lovewit’s absence to house a couple of partners-in-crime, namely Subtle (Mark Lockyer) and Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney).  The former is the titular ‘alchemist’, conjuring jargon and nonsense with which to con their victims into believing that, for the right price, he can supply them with the philosopher’s stone, which Harry Potter fans will know has the power to turn base metals into gold.  The latter is called upon to playact a range of parts to support the cons, including a hilarious sequence involving a fairy queen spinning above the stage.  All three are excellent, displaying the energy and versatility of the hustlers as well as the underlying tensions between them.  Their ‘venture tripartite’ is as volatile as any of Subtle’s concoctions.

They are strongly supported by a range of victims, including a swaggering Joshua McCord as Dapper who wants supernatural assistance for his gambling, a dopy Richard Leeming as tobacconist Abel Drugger who wants the Jacobean equivalent of feng shui to ensure success for his business, and a bombastic Ian Redford as the hedonistic Sir Epicure Mammon who desires nothing less than the mythical stone – and to get his leg over where he may.  John Cummins makes a zealous Ananias, and there is plenty of ridiculous posturing from Tom McCall’s Castril and Tim Samuels’s Surly, in disguise as a Spanish popinjay.

The action is fast, furious and farcical, aided and abetted by some judicious cuts to the text (courtesy of Stephen Jeffreys) and the whole enterprise is pervaded by a sense of fun.  Polly Findlay directs her company assuredly, keeping them on the right side of exaggeration and timing the surprises to perfection.  Long before the time Lovewit (a charming Hywel Morgan) returns and commandeers the proceeds of his butler’s schemes, we are won over by Face, thanks to an agreeable performance by Ken Nwosu, and are glad he (spoiler alert) gets away with it.

At the end, Nwosu strips off his period livery to reveal a Ramones T-shirt and jeans.  He tots up the takings of the evening’s full house and is pleased.  We have all been ‘gulled’ by yet another disguise, or Face, and we thank him for it.  Human nature has no changed a   bit.  Fools and their money are still parted, but tonight we have got the better end of the deal.

The Alchemist

Cheeky Face (Ken Nwosu) – Photo: Helen Maybanks.

 

 


Costa del LOLs

SWAP!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 28th June, 2016

 

Farce is an art from a bygone age and requires the skills of a sonneteer or a watchmaker to make it work as it should.  Actor Ian Ogilvy turns playwright and director for this production of his new piece and, indeed, all the ingredients are there.  People coming together in the same place for different reasons, misunderstandings, reversals, absurd events – Andy Newell’s set has the requisite number of exits and entrances to facilitate the action…

We are in a villa in Marbella.  Middle-class couple Brian and Susan Flowers are taking a break from their funeral direction business and have ‘swapped’ their Wimbledon home for something more exotic.  Brother-in-law Jeremy is also along for the ride.  Not long after their arrival they find themselves plunged into a nightmare of corpses and confusion.   The owner, now in their house in South London, is a Costa del Sol mobster and his rivals from Torremolinos are out to get him…

It’s not long before a dead body is falling out of a cupboard and we’re off!  A well-worn device of a telephone call for exposition dominates the opening scene, cranking the comic tension right up.  The cast maintain a high level of hysterical sarcasm throughout – Ogilvy directs with an assured hand – there is just the odd moment when the action or pacing needs sharpening.

David Callister is superbly annoying as the nasally verbose undertaker Brian, while Freya Copeland is suitably fed up and scathing as long-suffering wife Susan.  Patric Kearns has a hint of Matt Berry in his Jeremy, and Louisa Lytton’s Coral, the gangster’s moll, is delightfully dim.  David Janson makes a welcome appearance as mobster Paul and there are some enjoyable cameo performances from Michael Kirk, Davies Palmer and Alan Mehdizadeh as a range of characters. The latter’s Harry the Hammer is hilarious and menacing at the same time.  You don’t want villains to be too villainous in farce – just enough to motivate the others to taking action.

On the whole, it all ticks along very well.  Apart from a couple of references to the internet, it could have been written forty years ago – and that’s not a criticism.  Ogilvy has risen to the challenge and has pulled it off.  It’s a pleasure to see things being set up, pieces falling into place, and paying off.  The final absurdity is a masterstroke, both fitting and surprising, and among the machinations of the plot there are some genuinely funny, original jokes.

Performed with comic intensity by a committed company, Swap! is a satisfyingly silly, cleverly constructed and funny farce, with a body count higher than your average murder mystery!  It’s just the tonic in this period of economic and political uncertainty.

A right good, old-school laugh.

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Much Fun About Everything

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st June, 2016

 

The remarkable Oddsocks Productions brings its summer outdoors show indoors, to the Belgrade’s B2 space – a wise move given the vagaries of the weather, although I have fond memories of a rain-lashed production of The Tempest at the mac many years ago, my first encounter with this hilarious company and the geniuses Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie.  I’ve been a devotee ever since and I’m delighted to have the chance to see this production again.  Last year, it toured with Twelfth Night; this year its stablemate is a steampunk version of Macbeth (Watch this space for a review next month!)

Director and adaptor Andy Barrow reprises his Leonato, a proud father and dad-dancer.  It’s difficult to talk about the show without spoiling the surprises but I will say he is correct in his assertion that he has all the best moves.  The performance shows off Barrow’s skills at physical comedy; the production as a whole shows off his theatrical chutzpah and nous.  Riding tandem with Shakespeare, the hallmarks of an Oddsocks show: slapstick, silly wigs, cartoonish props, musicianship, clowning skills, somehow get the story told while preserving the integrity of the script.  It’s a remarkable feat of ingenuity – we’re laughing along throughout but you know it’s working, you know Barrow has us in the palm of his hands in the church scene, when the feelings between Beatrice and Benedick are at last given voice.  You can hear a pin drop; Barrow lets Shakespeare take the driving seat for this perfectly poignant moment.  We are touched, we are thrilled, and all this time we thought we’d been sitting back and having a laugh.  Wonderful.

Of course, kudos is due to Rebecca Little and Joseph Maudsley, the Beatrice and Benedick who pull off this electricity.  Little is not short on presence; her Beatrice is a mass of scornful energy.  Maudsley’s Benedick is endlessly appealing.  The playing is broad, as befits an outdoor show, but Maudsley imbues his performance with truth and credibility, even during the knockabout stuff.

Both actors reappear in other roles.  Little’s Dogberry is a neighbourhood watch busybody with a penchant for torture; Maudsley gives us a perfectly observed drunkard in his Borachio, working the audience and larger-than-life but still utterly credible.

Similarly, Ben Locke’s dashing Claudio brings out the soldier and the lover among all the silliness.  Anna Westlake’s Hero is charming, in contrast to her Verges of the watch.  All the actors play instruments too – you have to be versatile in an Oddsocks show.  Gavin Harrison’s Don John, villain of the piece, is perfect pantomime; his rendition of Radiohead’s Creep is just sublime.  But that’s the thing about Andy Barrow: all the ideas, from song choices to silly wigs, are all a propos and in context.  The ideas support and serve Shakespeare, all to give us one of the most entertaining evenings you can spend at a play.

Sheer brilliance.

 

 


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